Delaney Bramlett: The Keystone

Originally posted December 30, 2008

Picture a stone wall with an arch in it. The stones that make up wall are smaller – and less important – than those that are actually part of the arch; without the arch stones, the wall would not exist. And in the arch, there’s the stone at the top, the keystone, the piece that holds the arch together. Without the keystone, the other stones in the arch fall and the wall falls.

The man who was the keystone for a huge swath of American music in the 1960s and 1970s died over the weekend. Delaney Bramlett, 69, died Saturday (December 27) in Los Angeles following gall bladder surgery. His wife, Susan Lanier-Bramlett, said he’d had “seven hard months” of ill health, according to Reuters.

Why do I call Delaney Bramlett the keystone for any portion of American music, much less a large one? Well, start with the fact that Bramlett, along with his then-wife, Bonnie, formed in the late 1960s Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, an amalgamation of musicians that blended rock, soul, blues and gospel into a potent brew.

The 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide said of the group: “In its toughest, 1969 incarnation – an 11-piece revue – this was southern soul-rock of a scorching expertise. Honing her R&B chops as history’s only white Ikette, powerhouse vocalist Bonnie Bramlett and husband Delaney, an ace picker and country-tinged singer, had the talent and charisma to attract breath-taking sidemen: Leon Russell, Bobby Keys, Carl Radle, Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner – and, at various times, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman.”

(I’d add to that list Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon.)

The records that Delaney & Bonnie – with or without their Friends – released in the late 1960s and early 1970s are vibrant, joyous, sometimes raucous celebrations of the music that Delaney Bramlett grew up listening to in Mississippi. From Home (released on Stax, with Booker T and the MG’s numbered among the Friends) and Accept No Substitute in 1969 through 1972’s D&B Together Delaney and Bonnie’s albums were dependably good and generally well-respected, though the albums were never top sellers. (The duo had one album hit the charts: 1970’s Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour With Eric Clapton, which went to No. 29.)

But it was beyond those records where Delaney Bramlett’s influence lies: It was he, according to the tales, who persuaded Eric Clapton that he could sing well enough to lead a group. Bramlett produced Clapton’s first, self-titled, solo album, released in 1970, with some of the Friends backing Clapton. I’ve read criticisms of the record that say that Clapton sometimes appears overwhelmed by the band. I don’t get that; I think that from the funk of the opening track, “Slunky,” to the extraordinary closer, “Let It Rain,” Eric Clapton is one of the great albums.

It was basically that same cast of musicians – recruited at short notice by Leon Russell – that provided the band for Joe Cocker on the tour documented on Mad Dogs & Englishmen, one of the great live albums. Many of those same players – with a few other Brits added – provided the backing later in 1970 for George Harrison and his sprawling solo album, All Things Must Pass. And the core of that group – Radle, Whitlock and Gordon – then became the Dominos to Clapton’s Derek for the recording of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, with Allman joining in.

The direct chain ends there. Bramlett released a series of solo albums in the 1970s and then again in the past eight years. From what I’ve read about the albums from the 1970s – I’ve heard only bits of them – there’s little to recommend them. But I’ve listened to two of the three recent albums, and they’re pretty good.

But for a listener – this listener – the chain of influences that Bramlett started with the Friends goes beyond the albums and musicians listed above. We all explore music in different ways. I wrote in one of the earlier posts on this blog about discovering in 1972 an anthology titled Clapton At His Best. The bulk of the two-record set was pulled from Eric Clapton and from Layla, and that music introduced me to the Friends of Delaney & Bonnie. From there, I connected the dots, finding Delaney & Bonnie, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album, the Allman Brothers Band, the studio geniuses at Muscle Shoals and more, moving on and on along a path of music that continues to this day to entertain, comfort, awe and inspire me. And at the beginning of that path – at the apex of the arch, to get back to the original metaphor – one finds Delaney Bramlett.

And in that conclusion lies one of the fascinating things I’ve learned about myself through writing for nearly two years about the role of music in my life. Had someone asked me in early 2007 to name the most influential pop/rock musicians in my life, I would have answered with utter assurance: the Beatles and Bob Dylan. After all, it was through the Beatles that I discovered rock and pop, and listening to Dylan and his use of language over the years has influenced my writing, both my prose and my lyrics.

But I have to make room on the mountaintop, I think, for Delaney Bramlett. The news of his death – I read it first at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – has touched me more deeply than I would have expected. It’s not entirely surprising when any of the men and women who made the music of my youth pass on. They are entering that age when tasks are finished and learning, for this time around, is accomplished. But losing Delaney Bramlett has affected me as much as did losing George Harrison in 2001. At first, that startled me.

Thinking about it overnight, I’ve come to realize that Delaney Bramlett – through his direct and indirect connections – led me during his life to as much good music as has anyone else. That’s a gift for which I’m very grateful.

A Six-Pack of Delaney Bramlett
“Soul Shake” by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends from To Bonnie From Delaney, 1970

“Sing My Way Home” by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends from Motel Shot, 1971

“You Got To Believe” by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends from the Vanishing Point soundtrack, 1971

“Comin’ Home” by Delaney & Bonnie from D&B Together, 1972

“Brown Paper Bag” by Delaney Bramlett from Sounds From Home, 2000

“Mighty, Mighty Mississippi” by Delaney Bramlett from A New Kind of Blues, 2007

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3 Responses to “Delaney Bramlett: The Keystone”

  1. Some Thoughts On Jim Horn « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] trumpet player Jim Price played on the recently mentioned stretch of albums influenced by the late Delaney Bramlett. Still, Horn’s name popped up often enough that when I began to seriously collect vinyl in the […]

  2. The Raw Bloke Says:

    I would like to say that Delaney’s solo work – Some Things Coming, 1972, Mobius Strip, 1973, Giving Birth To A Song, 1975, and Class Reunion, 1977, are ALL killer albums. I’m a Delaney fan, as you might guess. I missed him by three months – I had been trying to identify the singer at the beginning of Festival Express for 3 years before I clocked that it was Delaney and that was in April 2009, just after he passed.

    If there is one thing that perhaps makes these albums slightly uncomfortable listening, it is their blistering honesty. Delaney arranges like a true pro, and sings and plays his way through these sides like a true hero, but the life story you hear unfolding through these albums seems to be one of disillusionment and heartbreak. He was, as you say, the keystone, and it is nice to see that somebody else has realised it. The King is Dead, Long Live The King!

  3. ‘Dancin’ With You, Baby. . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] it once in a Baker’s Dozen in 2008, and later that year, I included it in a post remembering Delaney Bramlett. I also praised it when it popped up during a random search for a Saturday Single in early 2010, so […]

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