In 2012 I had the great privilege of interviewing a hero of mine, Mr Bobby Whitlock. At the time I was doing my university dissertation and for a part of that I interviewed a number of blues musicians. The topic of conversation was the blues and it’s influence on Bobby as a person, writer and musician. I thank Bobby for taking the time to chat with me.
How influential has the blues been on your career?
Rhythm and blues is the category I am familiar with and what I grew up listening to and performing. Not just the blues. The blues on its own is the same old song sung by different voices. R&B is what STAX, Chess, Hi and Atlantic Records were all about. I was the first white artist to be signed to STAX’s HIP label. They wanted to get in on the British invasion and thought that I was their key to it. Of course they were wrong. I still draw on Sam & Dave and Otis Redding from time to time. As a matter of fact the way Eric and I sang together was a direct rip of the way Sam and Dave sang together. Eric and I sang our songs with the same call and response that Sam and Dave did. We were the white rock ‘n’ roll Sam and Dave.
What equipment do you use and was your decision to use it influenced by another artist or what you heard on a record?
I use a Hammond B3 organ and one Leslie cabinet. The organ that I learned to play on is sitting in my front room right now. My organ playing influences were Booker T Jones and the two Jimmys, Smith and McGriff.
When you write songs is there a certain way you go about it or does it change?
Every song that I write is always different in the way it comes forth. I try to stay out of the way and let the creative influence take over. It makes sense to me that if I am given an idea for a song that whatever gave me the idea in the first place will give the rest of the song to me if I am patient and wait for it to come to me.
Is there a blues player you haven’t played with that you’d really like to?
I have played with Eric Clapton and he is probably the finest blues player that’s still alive. Where do you go from there?
Is there a song or album that has been influential in the way you write and play?
With the exception of Sam and Dave, I never have listened to anyone or anything for the influence of it. I tend to not listen to anything or anybody because I don’t want to be influenced by them or their songs.
How influential do you think the blues has been on modern popular music?
The blues is the hidden root of it all.
In your eyes, how influential do you think Robert Johnson has been on the blues?
Robert Johnson and Elmore James were two key players in the blues movement. Excuse the puns.
If you could name one blues player who has influenced both the blues and other genres the most, who would it be and why?
Eric Clapton has been the biggest influence for the world of blues players because were it not for EC we probably would all still be in the dark about the blues. He really brought BB King and Robert Johnson to the forefront of the world’s eyes and ears. So much so that in the early eighties he took a bunch of barely heard of blues players on a blues tour of the world. BB King can thank EC for what he has done for his career. Nobody really cared about the blues until Eric played it for them.
What guitar/instrument techniques do you associate with the blues?
Flat-top and Dobro slide guitar.
Some people think the blues is basic and a lazy genre people just fall into when playing music. What do you say to that?
I say that those people do not know what they are talking about. It is very difficult to emulate those simple sounding guitar licks. If you play at all I challenge anyone to sit down and play any Robert Johnson song and do it right. Eric Clapton can to be sure!
Do you have a favourite blues period? If so, what?
I have no favorite time frame of the blues that I like because there is no time involved in it. It just is what it is every moment.
Albert King, Freddie King or B.B. King? And why?
Albert King is the King of Kings. Just listen to him play “As the Years Go Passing By”. He gave EC those seven famous notes.
Modern music’s evolution from the blues isn’t that widely known, how important do you think it is that people become aware of it?
People will become aware of the blues when they start living them.
How different do you think modern music would be today if there were never any blues to begin with?
There would be no root to it. It would be like having cars with no gas. They wouldn’t go anywhere. Modern music without the origin of it would be sterile and stale. It is anyway.
“The Blues? You’ve got to live them to play and sing them.” – Bobby Whitlock
Photograph by CoCo Carmel.