Bonnie Bramlett Gets An Amen To That
Beautiful Is As Beautiful Does
By David McGee
Mavis Staples (left) and Bonnie Bramlett shake something loose
I had the phone upside down and I think he hung up!”
In interviewing artists since 1974, this reporter experienced a first when calling Bonnie Bramlett in early May to discuss her potent new Johnny Sandlin-produced album, aptly titled Beautiful. Ever beautiful but not exactly adept with technology, Miss Bonnie, working with a new landline phone, placed the receiver upside down against one ear when answering the call, and of course heard only dead silence, although her interlocutor could make out her reaction to discovering what she had done.
A second call was placed, and when she answered with the receiver in its proper position, all either party could hear of the other was hearty laughter.
“Well, that’s an ice breaker!” she exclaimed finally, in that distinctive, smoky voice, after gathering herself.
And speaking of breaking things, before talk even turns to her new record she laments being bogged down by, of all things, a broken ankle, suffered in a freak accident suffered when she was returning a friend’s escaped dog to his domicile, slipped and snapped the ankle “right in half.
“I was wearing cowboy boots and they bucked me!” she says, cackling loudly at her misfortune. “Had to have surgery on it and everything. I’m on the mend now, but I still can’t walk without that big Frankenstein boot. And it hurts! I have metal in my foot—I’m bionic Bonnie now!”
Sweet Bonnie, Bionic Bonnie—call her what you will, she can still sing up a storm of southern rock, gospel and blues like nobody’s business, exactly as she’s been doing to great acclaim since emerging in 1969 with husband Delaney Bramlett on their lone Stax album, Home, backed by Booker T. & the MG’s (previous to this she had been singing backup for the likes of Little Milton and Albert King, and she holds the distinction of being the only white Ikette in history), and then assembling one of the greatest traveling road shows in rock ‘n’ roll history as Delaney, Bonnie & Friends (a free-floating, incestuous assemblage boasting unofficial members of advanced pedigree, including Eric Clapton—who joined in after the disbanding of Blind Faith, for which D&B had opened—Duane Allman, George Harrison and Leon Russell, and was anchored by the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Keltner, in addition to keyboardist Bobby Whitlock; Radle and Whitlock later joined Clapton in Derek & the Dominoes). Before disbanding both musically and maritally in 1972, Delaney & Bonnie scored a couple of memorable hit singles (“Never Ending Song of Love” and a cover of Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know”) and left behind three terrific albums, with 1971’s Motel Shot, equal parts gospel and country classics and original blue-eyed soul gems penned by Delaney, ranking with any of the era’s timeless long players.
Since going solo après-Delaney, Bonnie has carved out respectable careers in music, film and TV (she was a supporting cast member, named Bonnie, on Roseanne, and has appeared in several films, including Oliver Stone’s The Doors), gave Elvis Costello a deserved punching out in Cleveland after he made drunken, racist comments about James Brown and Ray Charles, and in 2002 ended a 21-year recording sabbatical with the tellingly titled album, I’m Still the Same, which found her singing with undiminished authority on tunes ranging from the classic American pop of “You Belong to Me” and “Cry Me A River” to the contemporary pop of her popular co-write with Leon Russell, “Superstar,” recorded in Nashville with the backing of some of Music City’s finest session players. Even more impressive was 2006’s Roots, Blues & Jazz (also tellingly titled, to be consistent), on which she laid the groundwork for Beautiful with a stylistically diverse assaying of contemporary and classic material on the order of “That Lucky Old Sun,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “No Particular Place to Go.” It also contained a gospel-fueled rendition of Stephen Still’s “Love The One You’re With.” Which in a way brings us to Beautiful.
'Boldness sounds good, let's go with that.'
Besides Bonnie, Beautiful’s other key component is producer Johnny Sandlin, who was behind the board for two of the singer’s three criminally overlooked mid-‘70s albums for Capicorn. Their reunion began as something of a challenge, posed by Bonnie with a single question: “Do you wanna take a risk?” And Sandlin’s Socratic response: “Do you wanna take one?”
Turns out Sandlin had been harboring ideas about revitalizing the aforementioned Stephen Stills’s 1967 Buffalo Springfield classic, “For What’s Worth,” as a social commentary every bit, if not more, relevant now than it was when Stills wrote the song in the wake of the so-called Sunset Strip youth riots. And Bonnie had been waiting seven years to cut a Gary Cotton song about racial tolerance, “Some Of My Best Friends.” And so it was when she resumed what had been and would be again a fruitful creative partnership with her favorite producer, yielding the album released in April on the Rockin’ Camel label, which Sandlin is involved in as a partner.
“He’s really a producer,” she says of Sandlin, and in typically blunt Bramlett style adds this grace note: “He's not just a guy who sits next to the engineer and rolls a joint.
“There are those producers who already have a hit out before they even go into the studio, you know what I mean? We really work. We do pre-production, it's really enjoyable. And the big secret to Johnny and I, we've been friends throughout these years, I've worked background singing on many, many, many of the albums he's produced, and we've just been waitin' for the opportunity to do it, really. Now he's partners with the Rockin' Camel thing and so we didn’t have a record label saying, ‘Maybe you better not do that song,’ y'know. I've waited seven years to do ‘Some Of My Best Friends,’ and you know people are afraid of that because it tells the truth, God forbid, you look in the mirror, take a step forward; it's time to advance. My secret is to let him be the producer and he lets me be the singer. That's the producer’s job.”
There are narratives within narratives on Beautiful, but one is struck by its bold appeals for racial and religious tolerance at this particular moment in time. “For What It’s Worth” brings the social commentary into play, suggesting the looming tumult in the world, but “Some Of My Best Friends” and “Bless ‘em All” could hardly be more timely given the ever more prominent place race and religion now have in America's everyday discourse.
“Well, we really need to take a step forward-and I don't mean just us, y'know, black people too,” Bramlett opines. “You can't go 10 verses—‘Some of my best friends are Armenians’—but nevertheless the point was really made when the last verse comes in and says, ‘Some of my best friends are gone/Don't you wish I hugged their neck one more time.’ That kind of thing. It's not to be real depressed; it's just to take another look.”
And three songs—Waylon Jennings' “I Do Believe” (which Shaver performed at Jennings’s funeral), Gary Nicholson’s “Bless ‘em All” and Dan Penn’s “He’ll Take Care of You”—speak to Bramlett’s spiritual orientation and spiritual journey, as she freely admits.
“Oh, absolutely! I make 'em my songs!”—and here is where you know, as someone who has followed this woman’s career from the beginning, that you are talking to a human hurricane, and she’s offering a glimpse of the intensity she brings to her vocalizing—“You know, when I started acting, that's when I really transposed and got the appreciation for my material. My acting coach just really made me understand how important the writer is, and how important it is for the writer to hear their words, don't change it. I took a giant step upward in my performances. I learned names for things I already did and got a lot of validation, so I went ahead on. Whereas before I might have been apprehensive as to how much of myself I would release. And it just took me to a whole other level. It's actually comfortable for me to be that vulnerable; it's important for me to touch the other person, to interpret the song, not just to sing it.”
To the suggestion that the sentiments expressed in the songs demand a pronounced boldness on her part in revealing so much of herself, Bonnie laughs and describes it as “either boldness or absolute selfish ignorance. Boldness sounds good, let's go with that. I mean, ‘It's Gonna Rain,’ Paul Hornsby wrote that and it's so torchy, and it's so what I would say—‘Please let it rain so I can feel sorry for myself and wallow in pity!’”
Again she laughs uproariously at herself. “So I thought I would do that. Well, I have done that. What do I mean would? And I love Paul Hornsby for understanding that woman feeling so strong. Maybe it's a man feeling, too. I've never been a man, so who knows?”
Though the musical support on Beautiful comes from some players steeped in southern rock, country and blues and well versed, from previous experience, in the world of Bonnie—including Clayton Ivey and Spooner Oldham on B3, bassist David Hood guitarist Kelvin Holly—and features memorable guest shots by multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/songwriter Randall Bramblett and Bonnie’s own massively talented daughter Bekka (who co-wrote, with Gary Nicholson, “Strongest Weakness”), it’s the sound mated to first-rate material that elicits Bonnie’s most intimate performances yet on record. She gives the nod to the songwriters right up front. “This CD really embraces songwriters,” she emphasizes. “And on stage I talk about who wrote the song, because I don't care how good a singer you are. You can sing like Peter can preach, but if you don't have anything to sing...,” her voice trails off, the point made.
Here, then, is an artist who will make fun of herself as being “maa-to-your” (mature, in plain English) when she explains why she can allow herself to channel Dinah Washington on “It’s Gonna Rain All Night,” but she also knows Beautiful is a high-water mark for her, an album that neatly balances fevered, blue-eyed southern soul with intimate, even seductive, revelations.
“You know what it is? I don't want to sound braggy or anything. I could tell the difference, and people are gettin' it, they really are gettin' it. I tell you, once you stop tryin' to make a hit record and you just make your own record—like it's a Bonnie Bramlett and Johnny Sandlin record. It just made sense. And I've been doing that; on the last three CDs I've been doing what I've always wanted to do. And I gotta tell you something: this has given me a validation, it really has.
“Isn't that good, that you could still be learning and still be not sure and need reinforcement? I just hope I never get to where I don't need it. Because it's really fun. I hope I have room to grow to my dying day and then I grow out of my casket.”
And the congregation says, Amen!
Rockin' Camel Music
Reunited with producer Johnny Sandlin, with whom she made, well, beautiful music in the mid-'70s, Bonnie Bramlett has really laid one on us this time. With a repertoire ranging from torchy, boudoir blues (the slow grinding lament "It's Gonna Rain All Night," with its cocktail piano, pulsing horns and seductive rhythm and Bonnie sounding for all the world like she’s channeling Dinah Washington with that pinched, cornet-like timbre), to southern soul struts of the sort she once owned and still does (the crunching, horn-powered "Shake Something Loose") and stops in between at country- and gospel-flavored destinations, Bramlett traverses a wide range of styles within a southern soul framework, aided along the way by some other legends from her part of the world, namely bassist David Hood, organists Clayton Ivey and Spooner Oldham, James Pennebaker on dobro and pedal steel (notable among many others), with her massively talented offspring Bekka making impressive cameo appearances. The album is richer for Bramlett's nerve in addressing hot button issues in song—probing the deepest shade of blue on the title track, the moment when the album takes a sudden, personal turn when she inhabits the soul of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship and baldly, unashamedly pleads for one kind word to come her way and make her feel good about herself again; retooling Stephen Stills's ever-relevant "For What It's Worth" as a deliberate warning signal about evil doings afoot in the world with a funky, slinky intro; addressing intolerance in its many guises—from indelicate, bigotry-enabling everyday discourse (the country inflected ruminations of "Some of My Best Friends") to the institutional variety found in organized religion ("I Do Believe," a Waylon Jennings ballad in which she admits to a disconnect with the church proper but not with spirituality, and warring within to square the two); and frankly praising God's mercy and comfort in Dan Penn's "He'll Take Care of You," a song in which Bonnie's throaty vocal and the arrangement's gospel-cum-tropicalia musical fusion could not be a more seductive framework for luring a listener into the message. In true Bonnie Bramlett fashion, though, whether the tune be introspective and gentle, or raucous and burning, it'll shake something loose, hit you where you live. That's a very good thing.—David McGee