For a couple of years, in 1969 and 1970, Delaney & Bonnie, the gifted duo comprising the singer-songwriter and guitarist Delaney Bramlett and his vocalist wife Bonnie, were the names on the lips of the rock cognoscenti.
Eric Clapton enthused about the Bramletts' blue-eyed soul after hearing The Original Delaney And Bonnie – Accept No Substitute, their 1969 album, and asked them to open for Blind Faith, the supergroup he had formed in the United States with Steve Winwood of Traffic and the former Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
"For me going on after Delaney and Bonnie was really, really tough, because I thought they were miles better than us," Clapton recalled in his autobiography last year. "Their band was made up of all these great Southern musicians, who had such a strong sound and performed with absolute confidence ... Needless to say it wasn't long before I dropped all my responsibilities as being part of Blind Faith and started to hang out with them.
"There was something infectious about their approach to music. They would have their guitars on the bus and would play songs all day. I took to travelling and playing with them. The truth is I was the man in the hallway, who has come out one door, only to find it has closed behind him while another one is opening. Through that door were Delaney and Bonnie, and I was irresistibly drawn towards it."
In 1969, Clapton guested on "Comin' Home", Delaney & Bonnie and Friends' sole British Top 20 hit, and appeared on the On Tour live recording, which made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in June 1970. Delaney Bramlett also convinced the British guitarist to sing lead more – "I told him he had a pretty good voice, and if you don't use it, God will take it away from you!" said Bramlett, who was a soulful singer and an accomplished rhythm and slide guitar player.
He also acted as co-writer and producer on Clapton's eponymous solo album recorded in Los Angeles with Bonnie and the aforementioned Friends and issued in September 1970, most notably contributing to the track "Let It Rain".
"I was totally in awe of Delaney," Clapton wrote. "He was the first to instill in me a sense of purpose. Delaney brought out something in me that I didn't know I had. My solo career really began there. I'll never be able to repay Delaney for his belief in me. He saw something I had stopped looking for."
When the Friends broke up, Clapton formed Derek and the Dominos with the former Friends, bassist Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, and Jim Gordon on drums, as well as Duane Allman, another Bramlett associate. Delaney Bramlett's role as a catalyst in Clapton's career is paramount, since he also introduced the British guitarist to the music of J.J. Cale, who had been in his backing band.
A musician's musician, Bramlett worked with some of the biggest names in rock and pop, including George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Billy Preston, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Dr John. With Leon Russell he co-wrote the yearning ballad "Groupie (Superstar)", which became a standard following The Carpenters' hit in 1971 (under the title "Superstar"), and has been covered by Joe Cocker, Bette Midler, Luther Vandross and even Sonic Youth. Another of his compositions, "Never Ending Song Of Love", a US hit for Delaney & Bonnie in 1971, has been recorded by Ray Charles, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Patty Loveless and Dwight Yoakam.
Born in Pontotoc County, Mississipi, he was the son of a sharecropper who ran off leaving his mother, nicknamed Mamo, to raise him and his brother. She loved singing and playing and made the best of their reduced circumstances. "We lived in a log house," he recalled. "We didn't have no bathroom or electric lights. She worked for 30 cents a day, pickin' cotton, and me and my brother picked cotton right along with her. She taught me to play and sing from the time I was a little bitty boy. And there was a black guy that lived with us named R.C. Weatherall, and he taught me about the blues."
Bramlett was making up songs by the time he was eight, and later appeared on local TV after winning a talent contest. In the late 1950s he joined the Navy for three years then moved to Los Angeles, where he became a budding songwriter, collaborating with Jackie DeShannon among others, and writing "Searchin' For Somewhere" for Clint Eastwood in 1962. "It's the woooorst song," Bramlett said. "Sounds like a guy sittin' by a cactus bush, and it's terrible! But I tell you what, it's a classic, [on] the only album he ever put out! That song made me a grand total of $4.57!"
Bramlett also became a regular member of the house band on the TV show Shindig. In 1967, he met Bonnie Lynn O'Farrell while playing the Carolina Lanes Bowling Alley in Los Angeles. She had been a member of Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes and had also backed Fontella Bass and Albert King. Five days later they were married and began assembling their first group.
For two years, they played clubs in Los Angeles, and were the first white act to sign to the Stax label, though their first album, Home, only found an audience when it was repromoted after their early burst of fame. By 1969, Delaney & Bonnie had moved to Elektra Records and seemed on their way to becoming a major attraction thanks to their sterling musicianship and their friendship with Clapton.
In Europe, Harrison joined the touring party and offered to sign them to the Beatles' Apple label. Delaney & Bonnie and Friends attracted the cream of British musicians to their concerts, with the Rolling Stones also enthusing about their heady mix of blues and Southern soul. Following a hectic 18 months the Bramletts took a break, their former musicians becoming part of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, as well as Derek and the Dominoes. They released two more albums, on Atco, To Bonnie From Delaney (1970), recorded with Duane Allman, and Motel Shot (1971), and also appeared in Richard C. Sarafian's cult 1971 film Vanishing Point.
They scored another US hit with "Only You Know And I Know", before signing to Columbia in 1972. By then, though, their career had lost momentum and their marriage was on the rocks. They divorced, Bonnie becoming a born again Christian. She made several gospel albums, while Delaney went solo. In 1977, he teamed up with guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MGs and Stax fame for the Class Reunion album on Motown. Bramlett spent time on his ranch and in the late 1990s went back to his blues roots with the Sounds From Home album.
Bramlett, who died from complications following gall-bladder surgery, mentored many musicians and was always keen to share his talent and spur others on to greater heights. For instance, he was credited with showing Harrison how to play slide guitar and inspiring the former Beatle to write "My Sweet Lord". Bekka, his daughter with Bonnie, was a member of Fleetwood Mac in the mid-'90s and recorded the Time album with them in 1995, co-writing the track "Nothing Without You" with her father. His most recent album, A New Kind Of Blues, was released earlier this year.
Delaney Bramlett, singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer: born Pontotoc County, Mississipi, 1 July 1939; twice married (three daughters); died Los Angeles 27 December 2008.