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Interview: Delaney & Bonnie

The soul duo’s rise from rural Mississippi to stardom on ‘Shindig’ to contracts with Elektra and Apple

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett circa 1969.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

Bonnie Bramlett is the female part of a new recording act, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and the wife of the Delaney part. She, like her husband, is from rural America and when she speaks, it is in an accent that used to be called hillbilly, but now it’s called soulful (as in soul-full).

Bonnie is a Scorpio, a Strong One and unlike most Scorpios, she likes to tell stories on herself, stories that make her seem somewhat the brunt of her own joke. One of these stories has to do with one of her first public appearances as a vocalist, five years old and singing “Beautiful Golden Harbor” at the family church in Granite City, Illinois (pop. 6,900 when she left), a steel town; she says her daddy worked in one of the mills from the day he was 15 years old.

“The Pope,” Bonnie says, “that’s my aunt; we call her the Pope, she’s sooooo religious, everything you do is sin, but she’s soooo puuuuuure! She played piano at this church and I sang. She worked me for two weeks to learn this song. I was only five years old an’ it’s the longest song. ‘Beautiful Golden Harbor … harbor of God’s love….'”

She was singing the words to the song now, still running the sentences together in one great enthusiastic paragraph.

“It was a lot for a little kid like me to remember. An’ boy, she stressed: ‘Don’t you do innything between words. Don’t you add words. Don’t you forgit inny either.'”

Now Bonnie was doing her aunt’s voice.

“Every night, boy,” Bonnie said, returning to her own voice, “she stood me at that piano for two weeks, learnin’ that darned song. By the time we got there, to the church, I was so petrified of messin’ up that song–’cause she’d-a killed me–I stood up there and sang that song and I didn’t miss a word. I didn’t miss a lick of it, but I was so scared of my aunt, the Pope, I pee’d a stream right down my leg all the way through the song, an’ it was at a revival, where everybody comes and sees you.”

End of story.

Beginning of Delaney. & Bonnie and Friends, a story that ranges from small country bars in southern Illiniois to Ike and Tina Turner’s early days in St. Louis to a house and two kids in suburbia; from rural Mississippi to stardom on Shindig to contracts with Elektra and Apple.

And beginning with Delaney, because that’s the way Bonnie says it should be, even if Bonnie & Delaney is more euphonious than putting Delaney first. “You don’t say Missus and Mister, do you?” Bonnie asks. “You always say the man’s name first. That’s the natural way.”

Delaney is from Mississippi, he said, where when his grandma died, his grandpa, Papa John, married again and now his grandpa has a little girl just nine years old–which means Delaney, who is in his twenties somewhere, now has an aunt less than half his age. Delaney also tells you his grandpa’s first wife, Ludie Mae, was the granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian chief–which makes Delaney one-fourth redskin.

The stories do not come splashing out as Bonnie’s do. Delaney recites his background slowly, quietly, modestly; almost shyly.

“I picked up a gi-tar when I was about eight,” he said, his voice a soft Mississippi voice. “Down there jus’ about ever’body can play at least three chords. At least there’s somebody in each house. My mother bought me a gi-tar and this guy R. C. Wetherall taught me the rest. I was 15 or 16 when I actually got interested in it, rilly got inta it. But I started earlier. I started singin’ in school things, whatever they’d let me sing in. I had a quartet when I was 12 years old. I really started fast.”

Delaney tells you about an uncle he has who can eat three whole chickens at one sitting, and the guy only weighs 160 pounds. He talks about how he didn’t have running water inside the house when he was a kid, so he had to pump water in the front yard and boil it on the stove for bathing.

He gives you his daddy’s and his new mommy’s and his nine-year-old aunt’s address: Route 3, Randolph, Mississippi. He laughs quietly. Randolph, he says, has only two stores and a post office, and his nine-year-old aunt rides a horse to school.

“I joined the Navy before I was 17,” he says. “I was two and a half, three years in the Navy. I spent half my tour at Great Lakes, Illinois, where I took boot camp. Land duty. Half my tour I was on land. You know the saying ‘Join the Navy and see the world,’ well, then they sent me out a ship that didn’t land anywhere; it just passed places. The only place it landed was Norfolk, Virginia.”

Delaney laughs at his own misfortune as he tells this minor story, then says he moved to California after his discharge, finding his first civilian job paid him eight dollars a night serving beer in a saddle bar, one of the country-western joints that dot the San Fernando Valley.

“It was a rough neighborhood,” he says. “I had to fight my way to my car every night.”

In time, of course, Delaney moved from behind the bar to in front of the crowd, working the country bars not as a barkeep but as part of the evening’s entertainment; it was in the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, in fact, that Delaney was asked if he’d like to appear on a pilot television show for the American Broadcasting Company.

Asking that question was an Englishman named Jack Good, who had an idea for a country-western show called Shindig. Delaney said he’d like to do the show and the program was alright but nothing special and somehow Jack Good got approval to do it again, this time as a rock and roll show, and this time it made it, and one of the things that came out of Shindig was a singing duo called the Shindogs. One of the Shindogs was Delaney Bramlett. (The other was Joey Cooper.)

Every week for nearly two years the Shindogs sang on Shindig, country-rocking their way into millions of Tuesday and Friday night living rooms, actually playing some fine music. (Besides the two musician-singers, there were a number of good men backing them, among them Don Preston, now of the Mothers of Invention.) The Shindogs travelled the country on the dozens of Shindig tours, got fan mail, were stars.

Then when the show was cancelled, the Shindogs between to drift, and one of the last gigs was at the Carolina Lanes bowling alley in Inglewood, near the L.A. International Airport. On the bill with Delaney and his Shindogs that night was another duo, Sam the Soul and Bonnie Lynn.

“I always wanted to be a singer,” she says. “I don’t remember wanting to be anything other than that.”

When Bonnie was young, her parents divorced, remarried, and on weekends, she says, her real daddy would pick her up and take her to Stallings Park, which was a tavern, because that’s where he went.

“Curley Lawson and his wife Addybelle and the Kissin’ Cousins worked there,” Bonnie says. “They called themselves the Pickers and Grinners. I was 12 and sang ‘Kansas City’ in my bare feet with them. I’d take my shoes off and they’d call me Barefoot Bonnie.”

Bonnie says her first real job came when she was 15, at the Gaslight Square in St. Louis, just a half dozen miles away, across the Mississippi River from Granite City. “I worked everywhere in St. Louis,” she recalls. “I sang alone, I sang with other people, I sang with partners.” Those she sang with included impressive blues figures old and new: Little Milton, Albert King, Fontella Bass, and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. The Ike and Tina story is the funniest.

“Jessie Mae Smith used to be one of the Ikettes, along with Roberta Montgomery and Vanetta Fields,” Bonnie says. “Jessie used to go with Sam Rhodes, who was the bass player. So Ike got mad at Sam and he fired him. Ike is so mean; he’s terrible.”

At this point, someone said that wasn’t a nice thing to say in front of a tape recorder. “Ike knows he mean and terrible,” Bonnie said; “I’ve told him he is.”

“So anyway,” she goes on, “Jessie left when Sam left and they needed an Ikette. I was there so I went  with them. For three days. I was 17 and I was white and my mother wouldn’t let me stay any longer than that. I could only help them out, she said. So I just put on a dark wig because I’m blonde and Man Tan because I’m white and helped them out.”

“I always wanted to come to California,” Bonnie said, “because everybody told me if I came to California I’d be a star. First chance I got, this is where I came.”

Some time after that, after working and trying to work as a single, she joined Sam and the Soul and went into the Carolina Lanes.

Bonnie: “We were both workin’ there separately. We coulda been workin’ together, though. Tell ‘im, Delaney, tell ‘im whatcha did, tell ‘im, go on.”

Delaney: “I don’t remember. What’d I do?”

Bonnie: “Delaaaaaaaaaaaaney …”

Delaney: “What’d I do baby?”

Bonnie (to the interviewer): “Boy, you’re not gonna believe this. This is the topper.”

Delaney: “Well … let me tell it then.” (Laughter) “We had to work five sets a night of our own and they said there was this other act and they wanted us to play with them too and we said no … boo!”

Bonnie: “You worked three and we did two. If you’da backed us, you’da had to do five. Lazy! Go ‘head, Delaney, tell ‘im what a awful trio we had to work with. Tell ‘im, Delaney.” (To interviewer again): “I wouldn’t even speak to that band. I hated Delaney, because they were so goooood and we had to work with that stinkin’ trio …”

Bonnie was doing then what she probably did when it happened: Being coy, looking as sexy as possible, coaxing.

Bonnie goes on: “The last night somebody asked me if I talked to Delaney and I said Delaney Who? I wasn’t talkin’ to him. This guy said it was somethin’ about recordin’ and so I tol’ Delaney to look my number up in information; I couldn’t remember it.”

She said this with a coy look at her husband. They’ve been married about two years, had a kid 14 months (and a four-year-old by somebody’s previous marriage), were settled into suburbia with a hooked rug on the floor and a color TV, and still they were coy. It wasn’t what might have been expected, but reassuring somehow.

Delaney says he went to the apartment-hotel where Bonnie lived, the next night started keeping house, five days later got married, and eight months after that, they were seven months pregnant and standing in front of the microphones in a Memphis studio, the first white act ever signed by Stax-Volt. A fine album of songs was cut, with Booker T. and the MG’s providing a standard (excellent) Stax-Volt sound, but the LP was never released.

Bonnie says, “They just didn’t know what to do with us,” and Delaney says, “They put us in the Stax bag, was what happened. It didn’t come off as personal as this one, the Elektra album, did. So we asked for a release.”

The Stax album is a fine one, in some ways more forceful than the Elektra LP, but Mr. and Mrs. Bramlett are correct in saying it isn’t as personal as it might be; in fact, it sounds quite like most of the product from Memphis-Muscle Shoals.

They say their manager, Alan Pariser bailed them out of the Stax-Volt contract and negotiated their present contracts with Elektra and Apple (who will distribute the LP in England).

Before meeting Pariser, though, Delaney and Bonnie paid dues. Delaney was pulling down a big $50 a month as a contract writer for Metric Music (Liberty publishing house) and evenings when they could get gigs, they both were singing their hearts out in creepy pseudo-Mafioso bars and Valley taverns. Sometimes they were even paid.

Don Williams was their manager at this time; Don is Andy’s brother and is part of the Bernard-Williams Agency. Delaney and Bonnie remember the year with mixed emotions. They resent not getting “so much as a microphone”; Bonnie even says “Delaney got a sweater from Don Williams and that’s all.” Yet, they also say they were given a release when they requested it. Delany said, “In their business, they’re about the best, but we’re not in their business.”

It was then that Gram Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers told Alan Pariser there was a swell group playing in this funky bar in the San Fernando Valley …

“Alan played the Stax-Volt tape for me a long time ago,” Elektra’s West Coast director David Anderle says. “I said I’d be interested if he were managing the group. Then later I heard he was managing. Some time after that I was at Paxton [Elektra’s nowdefunct recording retreat] and I got a call from my wife who said Alan had called and George Harrison was in town and he wanted to see me. So I flew down to Alan’s and I heard the live tape, the one they’d recorded on a Mickey Mouse system at that club in the Valley, just to see what they could get. I think Alan was talking to George even then about Apple representing the group in England. I said I was interested.”

By the time Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (“we never did have a band, just the few friends who’d play with us”) signed with Elektra, they were becoming one of the Los Angeles-based groups to (1) say you had seen and heard at Snoopy’s on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the Valley, or at one of the other tiny joints, or (2) sit in or jam with.

In the late Winter and early Spring weeks, before and after signing with Elektra, Dr. John the Night Tripper sat in with Delaney and Bonnie at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Buddy Miles, Steve Stills and Albert Collins jammed with them at the Whisky a Go Go, and Jimi Hendrix added his guitar to theirs at the Teen Age Fair. To name a few.

Slowly, the “Friends” part of the group began to settle into a semblance of permanence, rather than represent whoever happened by at the right moment. (Although the number still fluctuates.) Leon Russell, formerly of the Asylum Choir, became a Friend and played clear, bright guitar and piano on most of the album tracks and helped arrange the material. Carl Radle, formerly with Colors, has been with them longest, on bass. Jim Keltner, formerly with the MC-Squared and Gabor Szabo, plays drums; Jerry McGhee shares the guitar work with Delaney and Russell; Bobby Whitlock plays organ and sings harmony; Bob Keys plays saxophone; Jim Price plays trumpet and trombone; and Rita Coolidge adds another voice to the chorus.

David Anderle tells a story about Jimmy Haskell’s reaction to the LP and group. Haskell was called in to add strings to two of the songs after the album was complete, Anderle said, and it was not until after Haskell had finished his work and the LP was ready for release that Haskell learned Bonnie was white. Anderle said Haskell assumed, from her voice, she was black.

Delaney comes in, meantime, with a range that shoots from gentleness to a foot – stomping gospel shout. His writing–most of it accomplished in under two weeks’ time–accounts for nearly all the material on the LP. And all of his songs have been covered by others, from Glenn Yarbrough (“Gift of Love”) to the Staple Singers (“Ghetto” and “Get Ourselves Together”).

We got to get ourselves together
Take some time to talk it over
We got to get ourselves together
Try and understand each other

Delaney & Bonnie and Friends seem to have done just that. They’re family. They have two cats (named Alice and Ralph, for “The Honeymooners,” presumably) and a pregnant German Shepherd (named Velvet). When they argue, it is about whether it was brown gravy or milk gravy Delaney had on his grits when he was young. And outside the house, in the front yard, close by the front door and near trees, is a well. Just like back home on Route, 3 Randolph, Mississippi.

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