Monday, April 14, 2014

Man in the Shadows

Not all pop artists who make significant contributions to the work of others get the recognition they perhaps deserve when releasing their own work. Devin McKinney examines the work of one such artist in this review from Critics at Large.

When the Mystique Evaporates: Bobby Whitlock

"Derek and the Dominos", Oct 1970:  (from left) Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton

“Bobby Whitlock” is familiar as a name, if not quite an identity, to any fan of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, and Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ On Tour with Eric Clapton; Whitlock played and sang on all of those 1970 albums. Born in Memphis, whose clubs seasoned his soul vocals and guitar and keyboard skills, Whitlock was protégé to Booker T. Jones at Stax Studios before joining the band that developed around highly-touted husband-wife soul shouters Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. From there, he grew tight with Bramlett fans and sidemen George Harrison and Eric Clapton – whence his recruitment as a Domino and subsequent appearance on All Things Must Pass. For a few years, Bobby Whitlock soared with the eagles; and while the getting was good, he recorded two solo albums, Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet, both released on ABC Dunhill in 1972.

Those two records, sans any outtakes or bonus tracks, have been reissued by the Future Days imprint of Seattle’s Light In the Attic Records under the omnibus title The Bobby Whitlock Story: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way – The ABC Dunhill Recordings. The reissue is a natural, the expectations great. Two obscure vintage releases by a key figure in some of the best rock of a fertile period; who wouldn’t want to hear this? Clapton and Harrison make guest appearances, as do many minor stars from the firmament of that time and place – bassists Klaus Voormann and Carl Radle; drummers Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner; horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price; the Bramletts and the Edwin Hawkins Singers on backing vocals. Check the photos in the liner booklet: Whitlock looks like a rock star, with his flowing locks, oversize belt buckle, and flared trousers. From Memphis to LA to London to Miami and back again: The thing reeks of mystique.

But it’s a beautiful frame around a picture you probably wouldn’t hang. Two things strike a listener instantly. The first is the music, which is fantastic. I’m not talking about melodies and chords so much as a particular combination of production and musicianship – the sound of interaction and empathy between players, engineered for tape at just the right pitch of clarity and resonance. Think of the grandeur of All Things and Layla, the joyful soul-revue mechanics of the Delaney and Bonnie band. Both are present here, from the lush acoustic textures and raw guitar lines to the shimmer of piano and the restrained force of the drumming. Whitlock, his musicians and co-producers catch the same sound that still leaps off those classic albums – rich, loose, passionate, clean but never sterile, a controlled surge.

The second thing you notice right away – and here’s where the mystique begins to evaporate – is that Whitlock is not a good singer. That’s a flippant, unsatisfying way to put it. His badness is elusive, partly because he seems to have so much going for him, starting with confidence and commitment. Physically, he delivers from his center; he doesn’t stint; he gives his all. What he lacks is subtlety, intuition, and what might be termed emotional intelligence – the innate ability to modulate and enrich his exertions so that they resemble something other than empty showboating. His two modes of delivery are a full-chested holler for the rockers and a scratchy-boozy croon for the ballads; repeatedly, songs’ decisive moments are ground into aural mulch or hollowed out by boorish “sensitivity” moves. The first song on the first album, “Where There’s a Will” (featuring Harrison and Clapton), isn’t half over before you’ve begun to resist Whitlock’s bluster – every bit as hard as he resists the supportive setting of a great band.

To some extent, Whitlock is hampered by his mostly self-written material, which is riddled with rock clichés (from “A Game Called Life”: “Wand’rin’ ‘round the world alone … I got mah suitcase in mah hand”), although several numbers, particularly from the first album, are not bad and might have gone farther with a finer touch. But Whitlock sings against his music, not within, under, or around it. He can’t just deliver, or develop, a vocal; from the jump, he has to enslave it, thrash and labor it. His strenuous emoting is not exactly fake, it is simply too much – the sound of a singer unwilling to trust himself or his songs. Even on softer numbers, where he floats on helium to an upper register (“The Dream of a Hobo,” “Darling I Wonder”), Whitlock’s vocals are less about finding the heart of a performance or communicating without masks than about delivering the expected signifiers of familiar emotional attitudes. It’s a style that has been the stuff of parody at least since “We Are the World”: Remember the satires of bombastic all-star gut-heaves from The SimpsonsWag the Dog, and 30 Rock, leading to today’s ubiquitous and well-earned mockery of American Idol hot-dogging? Whitlock is part of the long lineage that made such postmodern parody not just inevitable but also necessary to a mainstream pop fan’s self-respect. I simply don’t believe a word he sings.

If we’re to judge from a number of his own retrospective comments, Whitlock is aware of the tendency of his younger self to push too hard in the wrong direction. He regrets what he did to “The Scenery Has Slowly Changed,” which is shaped by the fluid interplay of Whitlock’s 12-string, Clapton’s lead, and a flexible rhythm from Voormann and Gordon, but disfigured by a climactic run of convulsive yeahs and sweet-lovin’ womans that instead of taking the song to another level simply push it over the top. “I wish that I hadn’t rocked this at the end,” is Whitlock’s plaintive way of admitting that he lost faith and laid it on thick for the cheap seats. Except that he does that on nearly every song.

To the positive, Raw Velvet is somewhat more varied than Bobby Whitlock, with two ballads (“You Came Along” and “Start All Over”) that effectively isolate Whitlock’s voice against the strings of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. The second album also includes a version of Derek & The Dominoes’ “Tell the Truth” (co-written by Whitlock and Clapton); its band dynamic is smaller, more rocking, but with a touch more reverb. And something sticks with me about Bobby’s liner vignette of being in the studio with the quiet Beatle: “George is playing rhythm guitar and is standing three feet directly in front of me and is looking me in the eyes the whole time.” For that image, for their contextual interest, and for their reminder of how great those Harrison, Derek, and Bramlett albums remain, the Whitlock LPs are worth a listen. Just don’t be surprised if the mystique fades fast – like a memory of something that was never quite there to begin with.

- originally published on May 1, 2013 in Critics at Large.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard, 2003) and The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (St. Martin’s, 2012), and a contributor to the anthologies Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch(Cambridge, 1999) and Screening Violence (Rutgers, 2001). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect Online), blogger (Pop with a Shotgun), and TV writer (The Food Network), he now scribbles irregularly at Hey Dullblog, a Beatles blog he co-founded; the pop culture site Hi Lobrow; and a blog that bears his name. He works as an archivist in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats.

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