For a brief moment in December 1969, Eric Clapton and George Harrison were in the same band — as backup players. Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, fronted by singer-guitarist Delaney Bramlett and his wife, Bonnie, was a sort of white man's Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Between 1967 and 1972, Delaney & Bonnie whipped up a rousing blend of soul, gospel, blues, proto-Southern rock, and R&B — a sound so intoxicating that during a 1969 tour of England, both Clapton and Harrison sat in with their guitars. "The great thing about Delaney & Bonnie was that ability to get spontaneous," Bonnie Bramlett recalls. "If you liked it, come up and get yourself some — you can do that too!"
That tour resulted in the Bramletts' biggest-selling album, 1970's On Tour With Eric Clapton. On July 27th, Rhino Handmade will release a 40th-anniversary edition that expands the original album to four discs, much of it previously unreleased, from the band's shows in London, Bristol and Croydon. (The packaging, which resembles a touring road case, is deluxe as well.) Staples of the duo's repertoire — gospel-rock hellraisers like "Things Go Better" and "When There's a Will, There's a Way" — are augmented by "I Don't Know Why," a soul ballad featuring Clapton on lead vocals, and a version of "Gimme Some Lovin' " featuring Clapton and the D&B backup musicians (organist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, and drummer Jim Gordon) who'd later join Clapton in Derek and the Dominos. Harrison, an early D&B fan who turned Clapton on to them, can be heard on "Coming Home." "I said, 'Just ask George — what's he going to do, say no?' " Bramlett recalls with a laugh. "George hadn't played in three years and his fucking band [the Beatles] had broken up. Delaney was fearless."
Delaney, born in Mississippi, and Bonnie, from St. Louis, had met in Hollywood in 1967. Their fiery club shows led to albums for Stax and Elektra and an opening slot on Blind Faith's 1969 tour, where they met Clapton. "Those guys were worn out emotionally, mentally and physically," Bramlett recalls of Blind Faith. "We'd get up there and kick ass. Suddenly Eric wanted to play with us." After Blind Faith split, Clapton joined up with D&B for their European tour, as did Harrison for a few shows. D&B even picked the Beatle up at his house. "He said Pattie [Boyd] would never say no, so we should just pull the bus up there and knock on the door and say, 'Come go with us!' " Bramlett recalls. "And we did it that way, too."
For Bramlett, listening back to the unreleased U.K. tapes was bittersweet. A few months after the tour ended, most of D&B's musicians were hired away to be Joe Cocker's backup for his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. "There were bad feelings, of course," she says. "We got our band robbed right out from underneath us." The couple's own tumultuous marriage ended in 1972, and Delaney (who, like Bonnie, battled substance abuse for years) died of December 2008 after gall-bladder surgery. "It kinda hurts a little bit because that ain't gonna happen now — he's dead," he says. "I always hung out [hope]" — she breaks into sobs — "that maybe one day we'd do that again. And now we never could. It's Humpty Dumpty now. I sure miss him. I miss it. I miss music being that way, everyone feeling free and all of us playing together."
Bramlett, who at 65 teaches stage performance chops in Nashville and periodically releases solo albums, remains proud of D&B's legacy, as captured on the On Tour box: their ahead-of-its-time blend of styles and the way Delaney encouraged Clapton to be a singer, paving the way for the guitarist's solo career. "We were boot camp," she says. "The best came to us, picked us up and put us on their back. We saw the world from the shoulders of giants."