Bonnie Bramlett’s soulful voice has graced an amazing number of recordings and concert stages over the years, making her a true American treasure. As a teenager, she was the first white Ikette to back Ike and Tina Turner. Later, with her then-husband Delaney Bramlett they formed the band Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, which struck a chord in the late-60’s and early-70’s with its mix of rock, Gospel, soul, and blues music. The “Friends” in this band included such notables as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Duane and Gregg Allman, and others.
Bramlett has also performed and/or recorded with the likes of John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Little Feat, Stephen Stills, The Allman Brother Band (earning her the title of “Allman Sister”), Emmylou Harris, and many others. She released several solo albums in the 1970’s, and then more in the 2000’s, with her latest release being the 2008 album Beautiful.
Plus, Bramlett is a noted songwriter, having co-written “Superstar” which was a mega-hit for The Carpenters, and Eric Clapton’s single “Let It Rain”. A recent composition, “Ain’t Gonna Let You Go”, appeared on Bonnie Raitt’s latest album Slipstream.
And if that’s not enough, Bramlett is also an actress, most notably in her recurring role on the TV show Roseanne.
The following interview was for a preview article for the Bonnie & Friends performance at the Lobero Theatre on 9/28/12, as part of a fundraiser for The Rhythmic Arts Project (TRAP) [http://www.traponline.org/], an educational program that integrates percussion as a medium to address reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as life skills for children and adults with intellectual and developmental differences. The interview was conducted by phone on 9/4/12.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming performance in Santa Barbara?
Bonnie Bramlett: It’s a surprise. I know that my part’s gonna be really good [laughs]. Let me tell you something, I can’t wait to sing with Tata Vega. Her and I are going to do a duet. I love it, she’s just so wonderful. And I’m gonna do a couple of Gospel songs. I’m gonna do one that my daughter Bekka wrote called “Strongest Weakness”. The great Etta James cut it as well, rest her soul.
JM: I gather that you and the TRAP [The Rhythmic Arts Project] Executive Director Eddie Tuduri have known each other for a long time.
BB: We all lived in the same neighborhood, not just Eddie Tuduri but Edward [James] Olmos, me and Delaney, and others. We all were neighbors, within two or three doors of each other, for years and years.
Then just recently, because I just got on Facebook recently, I saw Eddie Tuduri there. And he hollered at me, and I said, “What are you doing?” He was telling me all about his passion with the kids. And I happened to do a program called Kids On Stage here right out of Nashville, in Leipers Fork, for the last six years. A lot of us accomplished artists [laughs], let’s put it that way, senior artists are really involved in teaching our kids. Some of them are special needs. But they’re all weaved together, they work beautifully together. So when I saw that he was doing the same thing, but on a much bigger level, I immediately said, “Hey, what can I do to help you?” He said, “By the way, as a matter of fact, we’re doing this thing in Ojai. We’d like to build a program out of Ojai.” I said, “Whatever I can do.” So here I am coming. Here I come!
Everybody… Tata… We all go back to the old days. We’ve all been through the test of fire, metaphorically speaking, and we’ve been blessed enough to come out on the other end, alive and well. And I would go so far as to say we actually, quote-unquote, made it [laughs]. And most of us that, quote-unquote, made it are trying to give back. For what it’s worth, to quote Stephen Stills.
BB: I am the Dixie Hen! [laughs] I am in the bathtub with the fat man, moaning. That was me moaning [on the song “Fat Man in the Bathtub”]. Can you hear me moan? I can’t wait to see those guys again. I wonder if they need a girl singer? [laughs]
We have this great Gospel song called “Long as I Got King Jesus”. I can’t wait to see the boys on this one. And the greatest singer in the world to me is Vickie Winans, which is where I got this song from. I did it in a more traditional way. But boy, she can she sing this song “King Jesus”. Honey, you can’t touch that. Vickie Winans is just as good as it can get. And here come Tata and me traveling real close behind her [laughs]. We ain’t playing. We’re taking no prisoners.
It’s gonna be a monster show. I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I’m working out now, to get ready.
JM: Looking back at the time of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, what are some of the highlights that stand out to you?
BB: Oh, Bill Graham. You know what I mean? C’mon, The Fillmore East and the Fillmore West. That whole thing. We got to be there for all of that. I didn’t get to do Woodstock. I missed that. We were just after Woodstock, I guess. But we got to do The Fillmore, and got to play with The [Grateful] Dead.
We got to do that big cattle drive in Canada, the Festival Express. That was a doozy. And the Atlanta Pop Festival [in 1969], when all the power went off [during Johnny Rivers performance]. We really had some cool moments. There are many, many to pick from.
JM: It seems you were at the center of the rock and roll universe. What were you thinking at the time?
BB: Well, I was a little bit of a blues prude, and I kept thinking, what am I doing with all of these white kids? [laughs] No man, I was from East St. Louis, you know. I was really strong in the R & B. I wasn’t a little country girl. I was urban, East St. Louis. We were into some dead blues, man. So it really blew my mind to meet, like, Eric Clapton. I didn’t know that he was the god of guitar, you see, because I had just left B.B. King. Get it? [laughs] I was a bit of a purist, and I must say I felt a bit of a snob. I kind of still do. What can I say?
So I’m a blues person, and they were doing rock ‘n’ roll. And that was all good. In the end, I think I was there to witness the white kids take a giant leap. And Jimi Hendrix led that leap, ’cause he flat out handed them the secret. A lot of the blacks weren’t happy with Jimi, saying “You’re trying to be white, man. You look like a hippie. What are you doing with all that feedback?” They were real mad at him. That musical history, I got to see that go down. And you know what, so did everybody. But I wonder if everybody knew that it was going down when it in fact was. I did. I did know it.
I was sitting amongst several campfires, you know what I mean? I got to hear it all. That’s what’s going to make my book [see below] just a little different than most people’s. I was able to be the girl that sat amongst the Tulsa guys, I’m the girl that sits amongst the Muscle Shoals boys, the Memphis guys. I get to sit amongst many, many, many campfires. The Austin, Texas bunch. I’m welcome in all of those campsites, musically speaking. It’s a blessing.
JM: When I look at the list of people you played with, it’s mindboggling.
BB: [laughs] It does me, too. I can’t believe it.
Nevertheless, you know what, I’m 67 now, and I jokingly say I “made it”. But I did. And it is difficult to see all your peers and everybody dying around you, or being not healthy and everything. And to be able to still walk on that stage with those of us that are left, praise God, however you believe in Her [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? We’re just gonna go rock the freakin’ house down! [laughs] How cool is that?
Take a bunch of steelworkers. If they made it ’til their retirement, they don’t get to go back and pound that steel one more time. So every gig is a blessing to me now. I get the top of the line, man, I really do. And that’s Eddie Tuduri, Eddie Olmos, and Paul Barrere, and Tata Vega. That’s the top of the line. And we’re gonna do it in Santa Barbara!
JM: It’s a nice place.
BB: Are you kidding me? The top of the line is Santa Barbara.
JM: Have you performed in Santa Barbara before?
BB: Oh yeah. Me and them [Fabulous] Thunderbirds. Me and Kim [Wilson], man. Yeah, I’ve rocked Santa Barbara a time or twelve. I love Santa Barbara, it’s beautiful.
JM: Are there any musicians that you’d love to have another shot to perform with?
I’m just talking about who’s still alive. I’d like to sing me and Janis [Joplin] again. Are you kidding? I want to sing with Delaney again. I’d love to be able to do one more, but we can’t do that. [Delaney Bramlett passed away in 2008.]
JM: One surprise in your discography, to me at least, is that you sang on a track by Public Image Ltd [“Good Things”, on their album That What Is Not]. How did that come about?
BB: I don’t know who you’re talking about!
JM: With Johnny Lydon. Johnny Rotten.
BB: Oh, I was gonna say, is that the Johnny Rotten thing? I guess he asked me to come in there and sing something. I thought it was just wonderful. I guess he wanted me to sing, so they just gave me the green light and played me the song, and said do whatever I wanted to do. I loved it. That’s one of the weird ones. I thought you were gonna ask me, like, “What would you tell me you did that was far-fetched?” I would’ve said the Johnny Rotten thing [laughs]. We haven’t heard much from him lately, have we?
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
BB: School! Education, education, education. Simply because this is no longer show business. It is an industry, and they’ll eat you alive out here. So if you don’t know how to count your money, you won’t ever see any.
You know, you are a product, and they are there to sell you. They can tell you they love you, and kiss you all day long. But they don’t. So get your education so you can count your own money.
Because you don’t have to be an old black guy to get ripped off. I’m an old white woman, and I got hammered, OK? It’s just because if you don’t know how to do it, you have to give it to somebody that does. And people that know, they know that you don’t know, and they take your money. And if they’re honest people, you probably put them in a precarious situation anyway, and put them to be tempted when they shouldn’t have. So you really need to do it yourself.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? Are there any albums in the works?
BB: You know what, I gave myself this year as a retired year – I’m 67 – to figure out what I was gonna do. My birthday will be again in November. So after having luckily fell into this opportunity to get back, with Eddie, I’m going to do my own story musically. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I just invested in some Pro Tools and a studio here in my house, and I’m just going to start telling my story. I’m going to appreciate questions. What would you like to know? Because if you want to look everything up, if you’ve heard one story you’ve heard them all. We were there. We were all there, and it was all that period of time.
What I want to share is my point of view, which was from the stage out. Everybody has the facts and figures. I’m just gonna say how it looked to me. It may not be exact facts, but you can look them up anywhere. But this is how it was for me. And I’m gonna tell that story both musically and verbally. I’m an actor, and I’d like to be able to build my own character. And I don’t know who’s gonna play me someday, but someday somebody will. I’d like to leave them a nice little footprint.
JM: Sounds cool.
BB: Did you see what Billy Bob Thornton did? [Thornton’s memoir is based on tapes of him telling stories to friends.] You know, we just can’t bore our fans. So you write the book, again. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” Everything! Love has everything to do with it [laughs]. I don’t want to do that. I’m not into telling my fans that love us shitty stories. Because we weren’t shitty people. Some nasty things happened to good little kids. We were good little kids out there. We were 20, 22. How bad could we be, for crying out loud? Anyway, I’m not interested in that. So there’s a new way of going about it, and I’m gonna figure it out.
JM: So you’ll incorporate the music into it as well?
BB: We have to incorporate the historical music into it, of course. I’d like to be in charge of the music of the other portion as well. Because I do write songs, really good ones.
JM: She’s coming to Santa Barbara a few days before you’ll be here.
BB: She looks great. Have you seen her? She looks freakin’ great, doesn’t she? Wow, I didn’t know she was going to be there a few days before me. She invited me to the Greek, and I was gonna wait til she gets here [Nashville] at the end of October. I hope you got to see her show. It’s a doozy.
JM: Yeah, I already have my ticket.
BB: She did a long version of my tune on her album. I’m so thrilled with it. When she does it, think of me.
JM: Plus, the opener is Mavis Staples, who I’m also looking forward to.
BB: Yes. I love Mavis. The last time we did one together was in London. So that ought to be a phenomenal show.
JM: Say, a specific question. You co-wrote the song “Groupie”, which of course became better known as “Superstar”, done by The Carpenters. Some people think that they changed the original meaning of the song with the changed lyrics. What do you think of the version that they did?
BB: I don’t care what they do. They can change it all they want. Who cares?
I used to care. Back in the day I really cared. Man, when they changed it to “to be with you again”. I wrote “to sleep with you again”. That meant something. That meant a big deal to me. I was really bummed out. But you know what, I grew up. And when you grow up, it’s a business.
I mean, Bonnie Raitt changed the title of my song from “Gotcha” to “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Go”. I don’t care, she can change the title to “Dorothy” if she wants to. With “Superstar”, whatever you need to do with it to make it yours, go ahead. Just pay me, and I’m good with it.
JM: I asked you before if there was anyone you’d like to perform with again. What about The Allman Brothers?
BB: I do that all the time. I get to do that anytime I want to. I’m here, I’m right here in Nashville. I can drive to Gregg [Allman]’s house in a minute. If I left at the crack of dawn, I could be there for dinner.
I’m in the South. I feel like I belong here, and I mean something to Southern Rock music. And the Allman Brothers and I… I’m honored to be called the Allman Sister. I lovingly take them for granted, as well as I hope they lovingly take me for granted. All they have to do is say, “Bonnie come here”, and I’d be there in a heartbeat.
Like tomorrow night, Dr. John is gonna be here. I didn’t say Dr. John, because I’m probably gonna sing with him tomorrow night. So I’m blessed. I’m not only here in Nashville, but I have access to some of the most wonderful human beings in my business. And like I said, I’m welcome. I must’ve done something right along the way. I’m still loved. I could never be a blues singer who says “nobody loves me”. Everybody does, and it’s been proven to me. I’ve been a real lucky one.