Bonnie Bramlett



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Mitch Lopate
Interview with Bonnie Bramlett
, 2003

It took a trip via Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to coordinate this.  From this trip came a wonderful friendship with Ann Sandlin, wife of Johnny Sandlin. I owe her many thanks for inside stories like this.

Mitch LopateThe résumé’s credentials are impressive, but you have to read between the lines to understand the classroom that helped shape her character: singer-songwriter; wife of a famous musician; actress; fiercely loyal and dedicated mother to many, hers and others; and last, a new role: Mentor-Spokeswoman for an awareness of women’s lifestyles and transitional phases. Bonnie Bramlett, featured again in Gritz with her second interview, welcomes us now to share her memories and reflections as she approaches six decades of intensity, determination, and strength to do what she loves: meeting a challenge head-on and giving to it all the energy she has within her very existence, and taking from it, the wisdom and understanding that comes with time, The Great Teacher. 

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Bonnie in the Muscle Shoals Studio in June, watching her cut back-up vocal tracks with Scott Boyer, as Johnny Sandlin handled the mixing chores.  During a break in the session, we sat in the kitchen and talked about her life while enjoying a delicious meal of Ann Sandlin’s chicken and mushroom sauce. There isn’t anything that adds more flavor to good food than great company, and having both Scott and Bonnie there was a magic ingredient. Bonnie’s warm hug upon meeting me was a door-opening experience; we had been chasing each other via phone and email for months.  We finished this via phone the following month.  This is a story of reflection, contemplation, and thankfulness, for which I offer my gratitude to the people whom I meet.  There’s a picture of Bonnie on one of the walls in the studio; looking sultry and cool, she catches your eye. It’s time now for her to capture your heart and attention.

Mad Dogs & OakiesHello, Bonnie, what’s on the menu for you tonight?  I understand you’re working with some old friends?

I’m doing some vocal work for Jamie Oldaker. (Eric) Clapton is on this project, too.  I won’t know a lot about it until I get there tomorrow, so I’m sorry I can’t share more information at this time. I know it’s some Okie tunes, and Vince Gill’s doing “Magnolia”; Brooks and Dunn will be there, too.  They’re all doing Tulsa and Oklahoma stuff. It should be fun. Jamie played on Eric’s LP, 461 Ocean Blvd, and as I recall, Jamie is from Oklahoma.

Sounds very nice. Tell me: how does it feel to be one of the most well-known and on-demand backup vocalists in the industry?

(Laughs softly) I don’t feel like I’m that - isn’t that weird?  It doesn’t feel that way - but thank you! (Modestly) I do a lot of work, yes, but I can’t say that I’m the most demanded singer. Yes, I do appear on a lot of people’s stuff - if you really look at my resume, I’m everywhere. There’s a whole big long list on my website of everybody.

Dixie ChickenI think of you most often in that capacity when I listen to Little Feat. Two songs that are truly classic examples of your work are “Dixie Chicken” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” Do you remember recording those two?

(Enthusiastically) Yeah, sure!  Lowell (George) was a friend of mine - they were doing their Little Feat thing at that time, and they came to play with me after that.  Bonnie Raitt sang on that too, I think.  It was the first time we did anything together, her and I. It was cut in L.A. at A&M studios, but I’m not sure about that.  But it was a wonderful time: I just love Lowell - just so cool. I really miss him. He was one of the greatest guitar players that ever lived. As a man, he reminded me of Henry VIII. He was intellectual - do you know what I mean? He was from (Frank Zappa’s) Mothers of Invention. A phenomenal guitar player. The whole Little Feat group is incredible. That group consists of former members of The Mothers of Invention and Delaney and Bonnie & Friends. 

How about some of those people: (bass player) Kenny Gradney, for example? Marvelous syncopation on tunes like “All That You Dream.”

We had custody of him since he was about 18 years old. We had custody of Bobby Whitlock as well - we were taking minors over the state line, and Bobby was only 17 when he joined us, and so was Kenny. We were taking those kids to different states and out of the country, and needed legal papers for them. Sam Clayton was another great person - don’t you just love him? Well, all of them were great men. (Wistfully) Kenny… I watched that young man grow up, and Sam… he and I were such good buddies, whether he was with Little Feat or Delaney and Bonnie & Friends. We still are - still great friends! He’s a warm man.  (Imitates his deep husky voice) Yeah!

Speaking of “Dixie Chicken”, you just growled on that cut.

(Proudly) Yeah, that’s me, honey, I’m the Dixie Chicken! (Laughs) I’m a Dixie Hen. (Growls softly) Yeah! That group, the Dixie Chicks - it thrilled me when they said something in an interview that they named themselves after that song.  Those are my little chicks, ‘cause I’m the Dixie Hen (cackles)! 

I understand you’re doing some new material for yourself. I heard they’re ‘torch’ songs. 

Yeah, I’m constantly doing that because I’m writing all the time. Some of them are very romantic - they’re very deep. It’s a very self-absorbed album. I took a risk to make it because I got the opportunity because David Corlew’s asked me.  He said, “Bonnie, if you could make any album you wanted, what would you do?”  I wanted to do one that I would call a “pretty dress” album. I wanted to do one where you could hear me sing - where I’m the lead instrument. I wanted to do a “Bonnie-singing” album”. It doesn’t have monster-killer tracks; instead, it has monster-killer pickers. You’re not going to be looking at the great producer of this album; hopefully you’ll be hearing the great singer on it. 

I'm Still The SameYou wanted more of your ‘smooth’ side to come out, is that right?

Exactly! I want everyone to see my soul, and to hear my voice project that  I’ll explain it this way: if you ever go to an acting class, the very first emotion you’re going to get in touch with will be rage. It’s the easiest thing to do. Everybody has an abundance of it, and if somebody gives you the green light and you can blame this character for being that mad. Being silly is not easy because you don’t want to look stupid. Crying and being that vulnerable is not the easy thing to do as a beginning actor or actress. But rage - everybody can get mad and loud really easy. I can scream and yell - I can kick butt! - everybody knows I can do that who remembers me by now. But now I’m a 58-year-old woman and I really want somebody to hear me sing (earnestly). Then I want to rock some more. No one ever gave me the opportunity until David Corlew. He gave me the opportunity to put my songs on it: “No Man’s Land” is absolutely self-absorbed! That’s my innermost, improvisational feeling, and that was totally about entering and going through menopause, and the fear that you feel. It’s like, omigod, where am I? Everything is so strange and different; and leaving a divorce and being fearful. Remember, I come from a home where my dad was the boss in my household, and we liked it that way. 

Believe it or not, I’m a submissive woman. I don’t submit to a man because he has a penis - they have to deserve my submission, and I prefer it that way. I was so lost - I was betrayed and divorced, and going through menopause here (laughs), saying “What’s going on?” I’m an older woman, coming to face up to important life issues. I really got into all that artistic freedom to write - I mean, I wrote exactly what I was feeling. “Give it Time” - my friend and I are standing there, and he’s been through a horrible divorce, and me - I could tell you what every one of those songs are about because they’re so fresh in my mind  I never would have been able to do that without the support of David (Corlew) and him saying, “Bonnie, what do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to make a pretty-dress album where everybody can hear me sing”. And I don’t want to sing no lies  - I don’t want to sing any song that someone wrote for me because I’m gonna have some big comeback or whatever. These are my songs!  I want to sing songs that I mean, that have meaning and a special place for me to show to the world. 

They say women who are entering that phase are given an awareness of knowledge…

It’s wisdom—a connection to the meaning of life! It’s in the Book of Proverbs. They call wisdom “She” in a feminine sense of respect. I think I’m being blessed with knowledge because I don’t do the medication and the hormones and all that - I do a very natural process. I’m not on Prozac; I don’t have hormones as I once did, but I’m not turning into some little old man! (laughs) I’m not any more insane than I’ve always been - and I say that with self-assurance - all those female myths and everything about this time of passage. I’ve got hot sweats, but I call them ‘power surges.’ I’ve done deep contact with my inner self, and I look at the patience I now have. You grow into this ability to forgive, and it’s one of the most powerful times I’ve ever had in my whole life. I’m embracing it with everything I’ve got - (confidently) and sharing it with other men and women to help them share this time with each other and not be afraid of it. 

Your words and thoughts gave me the mental picture of another actress-singer who I feel you identify with: Cher.

Yeah! I totally do, and I have a lot of respect for her. I heard her sing - I don’t mean make hit records - she can do that great a job, too, let’s don’t doubt that - she can really sing, that girl! I think Cher was always willing to go further than I would, and she was willing not to be herself. For that, she gets to be a star. I’ve always said to myself, “Bonnie, you’re not a star,” and I’m not. I won’t let you (the industry) dress me up weird, and there’s lines that I won’t do for money. Artistically, I don’t know if that was the smartest move in my life. I compromise a lot, but now I don’t feel like I’m compromising my art at all. In my youth, I took the stand that I’m not gonna be dressed up and I’m not going to do this or that - I was very intent on just singing. I don’t know if that was the right thing - but it was how it was back then for us real purist blues men and women (laughs). 

Motal ShotOn the (now available only as an import) Delaney & Bonnie CD, “Motel Shot”, one song that stands out for me is your singing on “Don’t Deceive Me.” 

Oh, yeah. Is that killer or what? Thank you - I loved that song; for many years, I used to sing that song for my daddy. (Thoughtfully) Oh, yeah, that goes back… I was so drunk. And I listen to those performances, and I think, “That was really mediocrity.” Imagine if we were sober and in control and healthy - what great abilities we had. You know, you go through what you’ve gotta go through. I’d love to sing that song again, though, I’ll tell you that. If I could sing that song today, you’d hear it sung!

Would you consider re-recording it? It seemed you could make water boil by just singing that song - or playing it.

I’d consider re-recording everything I’ve ever done. I’m telling you, that was a killer song. I was drunk, coked out of my brain, hoarse, up for three days, hardly no chops - and everybody looks at that point in time and says, “Listen to her voice crack - how soulful!” (laughs). That wasn’t soulful, it was just getting the note out, man! That was a great album, I’ll tell you - it was honest. They were playing briefcases on that thing - Buddy Miles - we had Joe Cocker on “Talkin’ about Jesus.” We had Joe Cocker, talking about Jesus, honey! That was me, Leon Russell, and Delaney’s mother, Mamo, singing “Rock of Ages.” That was little ol’ Mamo. It’s so REAL, “Motel Shot”. A great piece of work.

It was worth every second to track it down - and I’m glad it’s available through and other distributors. “Accept No Substitute” and “Home” are a little harder to find, but I’ve been lucky.

So what do you think about Delaney and Bonnie putting it back together for this blues event?

Bekka, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett at 3rd & Linsley, Nashville

(Bekka, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett at 3rd & Linsley, Nashville, December 2002) 

I think it’s wonderful - so many of your fans (myself included) have been hoping for this. In the rock ‘n roll history books and the legacies of the bands that had real impact, you two are considered one of the purest rhythm and blues couple. I think it will be great to hear what you both have learned over time…

I think it’s going to be interesting - very, very interesting. I’ve been getting all kinds of phone calls from the guys, and they all sound so excited! 

Would you tell me the rest of the story about a train ride? We talked about this at the studio in Muscle Shoals, about the [Festival Express] Canadian tour via train in 1970 that had the Grateful Dead, Mountain, The Band, Janis Joplin, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, Buddy Guy and his band, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia, and of course, Delaney and Bonnie & Friends. (Author’s note:  this was detailed in an out-of-print book, “The Rolling Stone Rock ‘n’ Roll Reader”, edited by Ben Fong-Torres, available through

(Laughs gleefully) You mean when we dosed that poor girl?With the murine bottle? We dosed her with the Notorious, Infamous Murine Bottle - (mischievously) that carried the incredible, liquid, clear Owsley acid. You’ve gotta get the names right: she gave me the drink, and she gave it to Sylvia (Tyson), from Ian and Sylvia - but the other girl who was there with us was ‘Frankie’ Weir, who was Bobby Weir’s wife (of the Grateful Dead), who used to be George Harrison’s secretary before that. That’s how I met her, when she was working for George Harrison. So she and I were girl friends, (carefully) but because she wasn’t a singer, this girl didn’t want to give her (Frankie) that bottle. That was so rude, wasn’t it? 

Festival jam, 1970

(Festival Express tour, Calgary, July, 1970. Bonnie is standing behind (left to right): Buddy Cage, Jerry Garcia, Ian Tyson, Sylvia Tyson, Jim Colegrove, Delaney Bramlett.)

Would you tell it from the beginning?

Well, it started with Janis, and now she’s drinking vodka, ‘cause she’s mad at Southern Comfort because they gave her this hair coat. They gave her a full-length mink coat, but she hated that - she said, (angrily) “All the ***** money I’ve for them, what do they give me? A ***** hair coat!  I’ll never drink it again!” So she was drinking vodka. And she always had her own bottle because she didn’t share it with anyone - she was afraid she’d get dosed! And she was a juicer - she didn’t do drugs - although she did die of heroin, she didn’t do acid, or speed, smoke pot - she didn’t do none of that. Then all of a sudden there was this little follow-cat girl - I used to call them band-aids, I don’t care what they say in this new movie; I call them these little chicks who were there for the aid of the band!  They don’t care who the band is - so this is a little band-aid who was following - as opposed to groupies, who love you and know every song you wrote, and know where you wrote it, when you cut it - those are groupies. They have certain groups that they follow around, not just any band. That’s what a band-aid does.

So this girl latched onto Janis, and she had her little bottle of vodka, too, so she came over to give us a drink out of her bottle. So she gave me a drink: “Oh, Bonnie Bramlett!” and she gave some to Sylvia, and she looked at Frankie and she said, “Are you a singer?” Frankie goes, “No.” The girl says, “Well, then you don’t get a drink.” And Frankie just looked at her - is that rude or what? So Frankie says, “Oh, Bonnie, let me give her a drink out of your bottle,” and goes wink-wink with her eye at me. Now, I know what she’s doing because she’s the holder of the Murine Bottle (chuckles). So I said, “Can I have me another drink out of that bottle,” and she said, (sweetly, drawing out the word) “S-u-u-r-r-e!” So I turned around, had me another big ol’ drink, and then passed the bottle to Frankie - and she just (deep voice) squirted it. Usually, you just put a drop on your hand and licked it, and you’ve taken a full dose, but she squirted it (blurts):  ‘Squirt!’  Boy, I’ll tell you, we saw that girl about three hours later and she was like, electric!

So Frankie dosed this gal for insulting her. I remember you gave me a look when you told me this: both eyes crossed and your tongue lolling out of your mouth - a truly funny sight, I have to admit.

(Laughs) She would have dosed her that night for being cute, too! It was a killer event, having all that talent there on a train. And quite an adventure!

Scene from Vanishing PointWould you share with me the story you told about Bekka falling asleep in your arms onstage as you sang?

Well, she must have been all of about three, and Dad was taking a solo, and she walked out there and held out her arms to him and said, “I want to go to sleep.” So he motioned for her to go to me. I was singing, and it’s a beautiful picture, it is… John Hartford was playing with us that night. She was originally off-stage in Mamo’s arms, but Suzanne would sit next to Bobby Whitlock on the organ and play tambourine when they came. I have to tell you that we didn’t bring our kids around a lot. First of all, there was pot smoking, and we didn’t want any of that around our children - none of that ever happened around our children.  We lived with Mamo, and we had no drugs in our home - ever. If we wanted to go smoke a joint, we had to go for a ride and then squirt our mouths with mouthwash and put Murine in our eyes and everything else (giggles). We didn’t feel comfortable smoking when we were home because our kids were there, and you know what? You don’t feel comfortable being high around your babies. So we didn’t get high while we were home at all. Our home was not a rock ‘n’ roll home. It was always a Christian home. Whatever bad behavior we had was not at our house. 

You told me that when you first went out with Ike and Tina Turner, that Ike promised your mom that he would keep you out of danger. 

(Matter-of-factly) Absolutely gave his word, and he did - absolutely. He was a gentleman in every shape of the word, and he always was - and still is. And Tina... when Delaney and I broke up, I went right to Ike and Tina, and they’re the ones who gave me some money. You know how it is: when you first break up, you don’t know where to go - where do I go, what do I do, how do I leave? Tina took me upstairs - this was before she started doing Buddhist chanting, and she prayed with me. She gave me some cash, and it was ironic that about four years after that, it was when she got up enough to leave Ike. And nobody was there to give her any money. It always killed me that nobody was there for her. 

What's Love Got To Do With It film posterHave you watched the movie about them with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett?

I can’t watch the movie - it’s too close to home. I’ve attempted to watch it twice while my mind’s not closed, but I couldn’t get through it. 

I understand from a personal viewpoint. Divorce is hard to face, especially when you still love the other person. 

It hurts. It’s the theme of star-crossed lovers. You don’t get the closure you need.  That’s what ‘torch’ singing is - ‘torch’ as in ‘tortured’ - as opposed to blues, as in down-funky. Torch singing is a whole other thing; it’s about pain, and expressing that. 

Speaking of singing, I wanted to ask you on behalf of a friend, Sunny Stephens in Nashville, about a lady named Gus Hardin. She said Gus sang a lot like you. 

Uh-huh, she used to be Delaney’s girlfriend. Gus was a very talented girl; she had that Janis Joplin sound. I couldn’t do someone else’s style. I couldn’t go to George Jones and do “D.i.v.o.r.c.e.” with him. 

Yes, you surely do sing with a sense of independent determination.

Thank you. I do love working with other people, but my best performances, no one could see or hear. They’re the ones I do in my car! The ones I do in front of only me. Some of the stuff that comes out - I go, “Wow!”  I can recreate it, but it’s a surrender process - when you surrender to your performance, then you don’t know what’s going to happen. 

When did you first know that you were going to be a singer?

I always knew it - it was an innate knowledge - there never was anything else.  I sang in front of people when I was about four years old in church, and I never wanted to be a nurse, or any of the other ‘traditional’ women’s roles of that time.  So was Bekka - she always knew she was going to be a singer - it’s something you always know. 

Bekka and Bonnie, Nashville, 2004

(The BB Queens - Bekka and Bonnie Bramlett - at BB Kings, Nashville, 2004) 

May I quote you here on that:  You’ve said that she’s a queen? As in a royal persona. 

Oh, yeah, like “I give birth to queens”? I don’t give birth to princesses, honey!  (laughs).

I see it as self-assurance. For example, Queen Elizabeth I - she took care of her country. You seem to be taking care of yourself and your career. 

Thank you. I don’t know if it’s self-assurance, but once you face the facts, you have to manage your own affairs now. I’ve already let it go into two other people’s hands - and mucked it up (laughs). It’s my fault because I didn’t pay attention. I do manage mine now, especially artistically, because I’m allowed to do so. My history has allowed me the respect that when I go into a performance, I’m allowed a lot of space. 

Is that the difference for you as an actress and a singer? Is acting less demanding than singing?

More demanding. Much harder for me to speak words than to sing ‘em. Acting gave me words and definitions for what I was already doing naturally on-stage  For instance, Stanislovski called it “The Circle of Light”. If I’m in performance and I don’t want to be there - I don’t like where I am - I can just be somewhere else within myself. If I don’t like who’s in the audience, I make in my mind whomever I want to be appear right there to support me. I can do that.  I’ve always been able to do that. It’s something I’ve always been able to do and they have a name for it. 

Any chance of returning back to the screen? Any particular role or situation that’s playing now that you’d like to do?

Oh, yeah, first chance I get! I love acting now - I just love it. I want to do television very much. I love the theater - so yeah, any of that! I’m up for that expression, anytime. There’s nothing special playing now that I’d like to do, but I’m always looking for new material. I want a sitcom that’s a variety show as well, and I think we need that, where it’s not just bashing music. It’ll be fun. I just like the work! 

I have to mention another actor-singer-musician whom I had the pleasure to meet: Mr. Levon Helm, who sends you lots of love and good thoughts.

Isn’t he a prince? I just love him - he’s an incredible person and I’m lucky to know him. I met him and the others just after Woodstock, I think. But I met them in the town itself - that’s where they were living. 

I think the world of him, too. A great man, and a great story-teller in his own right. Thank you, Bonnie, your thoughts are going to stay in my mind for a long time to come. I thank you for sharing so much and with such passion.

You’re welcome, dear, it’s always a pleasure. God bless you.

Rock 'n Blues Stew



Check out Mitch Lopate's book, "Rock 'N' Blues Stew",
which includes the above interview with Bonnie.






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