Don't You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me Baby? A Conversation with Bonnie Bramlett
by Jill McLane Smith
From her work with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, to her friendships with a who's-who of '60's and '70's rock and roll, to her role on TV's "Roseanne," Bonnie Bramlett has always managed to give 110-percent. Newly signed to Blue Hat Records under the caring eyes of Charlie Daniels and David Corlew, Bonnie is poised for a career resurgence beyond imagination. She still has what it takes. The beauty, the style, the voice...oh, the voice!
Bonnie took time out of her busy schedule to speak with GRITZ about everything from Ike & Tina Turner to The Allman Brothers Band, her children and her music.
Bonnie, thank you for allowing GRITZ to talk to you about your past, present and future in music.
If I had only known what I know now. Well, now I am here and know what I know.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Well I was born in Alton, Illinois, and I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River right there in between St. Louis and the tri-cities. I grew up right where the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition began. I live in Nashville now.
How did you first become interested in singing and who were your early singing influences?
I come from a family of singers. I do not remember not being a singer. I guess my very first influences were my family, my mom. Mahalia Jackson and Pearl Bailey were the first black singers I saw on TV, and I knew that I wanted to do that. This was the old, country church, gospel music. With shaped notes. It is not really bluegrass gospel, it was just old gospel music.
I read you worked with Ike and Tina early on, can you tell us about that?
I was the first white Ikette. Tina overwhelmed me. My relationship was at first with Ike. He was grooming guitar players at that time. He was grooming Herbie L. Summer in east St. Louis, a white dude, and grooming Jimi Hendrix in California. Jimi was like 14-15 then.
What was Ike like?
He was kind, but very stern. He was nothing compared to James Brown. He was the one that had the reputation for being hard on the band. James was always in competition with Ike and Tina. It was like James Brown and the Famous Flames and then it was Ike and Tina and the Ikettes. When James found out there was a white Ikette he went out and got a white bass player. They were really in competition on the circuit.
I always read that James Brown was a perfectionist.
Yes, he would fine your butt big time and open his hand up. That was five dollars. If you messed up a note , he would turn around and look at the drummer or whoever messed up and go bam, bam , bam, bam, bam with his hand and that meant $25. 00 in fines. That was $25.00 of fines dude. If you wore your dew-rag in the daytime you were in big trouble. Because in those days they had their hair processed and all of those finger waves and stuff. They walked around in shark skin suits in the daytime. You can't wear rags on the bus. You had to look good all the time. I would never wear bluejeans to rehearsal. I would not wear them ever. We had to dress up in satin outfits, dresses. We looked good.
Was that not an equal partnership between Tina and Ike?
I never saw that, I did not go there. They were a team. She was burgundy and Ike was just it and they were just a team. When people started putting them in competition Ike just backed off.
So he would give her her due?
Nobody ever gave her anything she hit the stage and did it. When its my turn to hit the stage I just get up there and whup butt. Nobody is giving me nothing, I just take it. That's what Tina did. Tina took it. Ike didn't give her nothing and he did not claim to. He didn't give her nothing but a whole lot of rein. You know what I mean. A whole lot of rein, she was a stallion. He let her roar. They fought, but I did not ever see them fight ever.
How long were you on that gig?
Four days that particular time. I knew all the parts and I was a little fan. When we went to dance, we got to dance to Little Milton, Ike and Tina , Albert King, Chuck Berry. Those were local groups for me. I did not do Robert Johnson and all of that. I did Laverne Baker, I was a city blues girl. I was 15 years old. I was safe in those streets at that time and because they were black I was safe. Yesterday in Nashville I was down in the woods walking at about 6:00 am in the morning . I started feeling vulnerable, I did not have my dog with me and I looked down and saw a condom laying on the ground. Then I heard some footsteps coming down the path and I felt my heart go into my throat. I looked up and saw this black man walking by and I felt very relieved and safe. Black men don't mass murder and stuff. This was a black man and he was running track and I have always felt safer around blacks. I was a young girl at the time and a white chick and if anything happened to me they'd all suffer. I walked around in the projects. People would look at me and say she must be somebody, because no white girls are going to walk around in the projects of St. Louis, are you crazy, by herself. But see I did not know I was white then. Somebody had to tell me I was white. I turned black once. I tried to do what I wanted to do. I was a method singer. At 20 I finally realized I was white.
Recently I read two biographies of Janis Joplin, one written by her sister and another was written by a feminist. She felt as if she was a "white blues singer" and able to cross those boundaries.
I did not know there were boundaries, I am so non-political, I wanted to freak everybody out. I wanted to do to those people what Tina was doing to me right then. Tina is doing to people now what she did to me at 14 years old. She absolutely overwhelmed me and I looked around me and she was doing it to everybody else. I looked around and knew that I could do that to people. When I sing I want to move people from every pore of my body. She sang from every cell in her freaking body. I vomited trying to growl and sound like Tina.
Did you know Janis Joplin and what was your impression of her?
I was jealous of her. I was so jealous of her I couldn't see straight.
Were you the same age at the time you knew her?
Yeah, close, I didn't walk up to her and say "how old are ya babe". We were about 23-24 years old at the time.
Why were you jealous of her?
I was so jealous because they said she was the best blues singer since Billie Holliday. I just went berserk and said why didn't they know me. I was 23 when I met her. I realized that I was her and she was me. It was not a contest. I understood her and I felt sorry for her. She was pathetic to me. She was in so much pain that I could not breathe the same air almost. Her toenail polish was chipped and she smelled bad. I would look at her closely and when she perspired her hair would wave. She had naturally curly hair. She had a body and was built like a brick-house and she looked at me one day and said, "mind if I sleep with your husband?" I just didn't know what to do with that. I had to get off the train. It was more than I could bear, you know, that kind of behavior.
When she died, I cried strongly and of course , Delaney called me a hypocrite because I had been jealous of her, but now at 55 years of age I will tell you my honest feelings. Those were feelings that I was not proud that I had. I had those human feelings and people do get jealous of each other. She was stealing my thunder, I thought at the time, and she was even prettier than me (I thought at the time) with all of that "poor little old me the blues singer" stuff. That is where I was at that time. I believe that because of the spiritual way I was raised that I was unable at that time to shoot heroin into my veins. I could do a lot of stuff, but was unable to do a lot of the stuff that was being done in those days. I was unable to do a massive amount of drugs at that time because I had very strong convictions. I wanted to do it and fit in like anybody else. She passed that bottle to me and I took it, didn't I. When Janis died everybody expected me to pick up that bottle. I thought they did and they acted like they did, so I did.
Do you think a lot of that was the times?
Of course, it was the times. The people that were in control of the industry encouraged that behavior. Deals were made with ounces of cocaine on the table and it was the suits who furnished it for us. There is an old joke in rock in roll that says you can tell who has the best record deal by who has the best cocaine. Nobody handed me a bag of cocaine but Delaney. Somebody handed it to him because he was raised in church and he didn't know about that behavior. Delaney didn't even do LSD. He drank and we may have done a couple of bennies in our background. We didn't do any of that until we got into rock and roll. But in our industry, amongst ourselves, people were very devastated that we got into the trouble, and that we did drugs, and that our marriage was ruined. Everybody knew what had gotten us, we got too many drugs given to us and we took em. That's what happens when there are limitless checks and no rules, and limitless bank accounts and we could afford it. We were bumping asses with the Beatles. The Beatles were taken away by us because we knew The Crickets. Grandiosity everywhere. We introduced Jerry Allison to George Harrison and he was thrilled. He turned into a stupid tongue swallowing idiot. He just couldn't believe that he was meeting a Cricket! (Laughs)
Who discovered you?
We were discovered by Gram Parsons in a club. He introduced us to our management and brought George Harrison to hear us and he turned us on to Eric Clapton. Gram was real country too. That was the Palomino thing. Delaney was the King of the Palomino Club, not Elvis. Not only did he look absolutely phenomenal, but he sang circles around Elvis.
Can you elaborate on Gram, his name keeps coming up?
He is probably here cheering me on to get this album done. He is my bud, buddy, buddy, buddy. I knew nothing about famous white people. When I came to California I knew who B.B. King was, and Eric Clapton did not impress me. I was raised by Albert King for crying out loud. I know Albert King, hello. Let me introduce you to the pear shaped genius. Eric did not think he was the god of guitar. That embarrassed him in those early days.
I have read Clapton is a triple Gemini, was he a real live wire?
No, he was a heroin addict when I knew him. He was dying and very depressed. That's how I left him but he got saved. Hallelujah, it's a miracle. He is now happy and he is a good man. He was always a good man. Although, he shared that private pain with us, it sure was enough to share with everybody else and he shared it in his book. Thank God we were with him at that time, we taught him how to pray. Hallelujah.
What's your best selling record?
I am not really sure about that but probably "Superstar," or somewhere close to "Superstar" or "Never Ending Song of Love for You." I am not sure.
What's your favorite record.
"Superstar." That's my baby. "Oncoming Traffic" is probably my favorite but I did not write that Gregg Allman did. I think my favorite performance as far as reality in the studio is "Oncoming Traffic." With Gregg Allman performing on the piano it is special. I think I might record that on this new project.
You have been called the first Allman Sister, tell us about your time with them.
That is probably the biggest feather in my cap. Some people get Grammy awards and all of those awards but to me, to get on the Allman Brothers stage, or The Charlie Daniels Band, or Toy and the Tucker boys, those are like real men, and they are really not interested in boobs and butt, well they are, but not when they are working. I would say that I was the first with The Allmans, I know I was the first with them. Then Grinderswitch, Ronnie Van Zant and Charlie. You know there are certain acceptance by these men in the Southern Rock business that I wear like a badge of merit. I said this at Joe Dan Petty's wake. They always treated me like a lady, whether I acted like one of not. They put me way up on a pedestal and make me feel more than an equal. I am not saying that they never made any mistakes, because some other women may have had other experiences with these men than I have.
Is Dickey Betts as complex as they say?
How would you describe him?
That is not fair to ask because he is like Michael Jordan to me. When he is an Indian, he is so spiritual, a great leader, he does not force opinions but he shares information. When he is a cowboy he's not . Let's just say that he is not anything like the Indian when he is a cowboy. I love him either way. I always have and I always will and his wife doesn't mind. It is okay for me to love him.
What about Duane Allman?
Duane is probably the bonding agent between all of us. And Joe Dan and Twigs and all the guys we lost, and it is a strong bonding agent to go to all these wakes and the older we get the more we will lose each other. When we go to these wakes I can see all the older guys looking at each other wondering who will be next. The great thing about this time is that people are not taking drugs and drinking, everybody is healthy.
Let's clear the rumors about the Elvis Costello news item from the '80's? Did you really punch him out at a press conference?
I slapped his face good. He was being disrespectful and out of line, stupid and drunk. It was my press conference and he was saying nigger all over the place. For the first time in twenty years, we had brought these Cubans here, who are now some of the best jazz musicians here. We took them to New York to be reunited with their family and the revolution had broken out in Cuba. Here's Elvis Costello going to call them a nigger. Please. Come on. Anyway we had a big confrontation and everybody in the press was there, Chet Flippo and his wife. If I had hired a press agent I couldn't have gotten more press out of it. You have not seen a lot of interviews on me talking about it, but just to get it out of the way. It would be a crying shame for someone as talented as Elvis Costello to go down in history as the one who got the crap slapped out him by Bonnie Bramlett. I would like to do a duet. I challenge him to come sing with me, you little butt-head, come live here in this country you said you hated. We can do a duet of "Peace, Love and Understanding." That's not a historical event. That was the event of someone being drunk and someone being fed up with it. That was my first year of sobriety. I was in the bar of the hotel and I took so much verbal abuse from him. If I had been drinking I would have slapped him a long time before that. I had taken it to the limit and I didn't care. If anyone thought I had been drinking I didn't care, but they knew I wasn't because they had been on the road with me and watching me like a hawk in my first year of sobriety.
Women are supposed to come into their own power and be more recognized in the world in the new age of Aquarius. How do you feel about it?
I get upset with that a little bit. They say women are powerful as soon as they get through their menopause. We have been lied to. Why do we have to wait on anything. Start flexing. We have that authority. Women are the life givers and men are the life takers and it is just as simple as that. It is up to us to genteel these dudes. We can't let them run the show, they'll kill everybody. That is the way I look at it and it's pretty simple.
What Sign are you?
I would say as a scorpio I am intuitive and passionate about life.
How many children do you have?
Two beautiful daughters. Suzanne Lynn and Rebecca Ruth. Suzanne is a make up artist and Bekka is a singer.
Have you ever had any other job besides singing?
Singing and acting.
What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?
My daughters and the friendship I have with my Mother. That is an accomplishment I think.
Can you sum the following people up in a few words? Eric Clapton.
When you say King Curtis I just think about "Small Paradise" and "Tippin' In."
What about them!?
At least she had the balls to say she didn't like our music. If you say "singer" with me she does not belong. I would call her a performance artist.
Oh, Bobby IT-lock, that's what the girls called him when they were little. We love him. He's a preacher's kid from Memphis.
She's the font... she's the font and everything that any body does, if it's with any balls at all, they are doing Tina.
Roseanne is my heart and I love this child. I see that sweet little girl in there. All the rest is just an artist who just takes risks. I love that soul and I love, love, love Roseanne. She is my little girlfriend and I love her. I don't see or hear from her very often, but when I do it's major hugs and she is just little bitty. She is either totally reinventing herself, kind of like Andy Kaufman in a way, but she is as serious as a heart attack. She has no boundaries in expression. She will just lay in the floor and scream and she is just crazy. I love her. She is either just reinventing herself and going to blow everybody's mind , or not. But that is the chance that everybody in this business takes when they do a project.
Did you meet Laurie Metcalf?
She was so good and should have won an Emmy award. I think she should have gotten a show of her own.
You were so funny and great on the Roseanne show. You and Roseanne and Martin Mull cracked me up.
That was a hard thing to do. I could not go anywhere, Laurie was all upset. I was getting in the way of her supporting actor award with the new character coming up. Maybe I was stealing her thunder, so that was why that didn't work.
I thought it was wonderful.
It was, and it was fun! I got to tell you something, that is the name of the game, life in the big city, in show business. That was Roseanne's show and it's not like I went there and read for a part. I didn't go read for a part , it was Roseanne's show and she wrote my part in because she wanted me to do it. Here was Laurie up for some award for television and I was trying to be friends with her and she would not embrace me. I would go home on hiatus and speak to her Mom at the Library and she would say, oh fine. Then I asked what was going on and someone said I was really getting in her way in life. She really loves you but she could not help it because she was up for some award and here is Roseanne bringing in nine new characters into the show because she wanted to bump ass in the rock and roll world. She was bringing in David Crosby , etc. etc.
How did you meet up with Roseanne?
We were in a play together , actually it was a play that had to do with recovery. Tom (Arnold) was in recovery and I had a little more sobriety than the average bear at the time. We all got together and were doing a play, a bunch of people that were in show business and she said that she had always been a fan of mine and would I do her show and I said yeah, in a heart beat.
You were precious on that show.
You would not believe how stupid I was. Roseanne was in awe of me, bless her heart. I am older than her.
I was thinking ya'll were the same age.
No I'm 55 and she's... not. Anyway, so I don't know, they kept saying, be busy. Well I thought I will waitress and the set was all chrome, stainless steel like a restaurant. Roseanne was doing her lines and I was polishing things up, we did three rehearsals and hell by the time that was over that whole set was spick-and-freaking-span. I didn't know that they had to go back and spray the set down because it glared into the cameras. Then I would come back onto the set and ask what has happened! No one would tell me because they didn't want to hurt my feelings.
My favorite part was the outfits.
Did you see the socks we wore had lace on the ends and fat, ugly, dirty, tennis shoes. I had more fun and would like to do TV. again.
Did you know John Goodman?
He is a South St. Louis dude from my hometown too. I knew him before and adore him. He is a musician too, in his heart he is one of us.
What about Martin Mull?
He's a musician, he plays guitar and is a great artist.
Do you have any other acting plans?
There is a show that I starred in called Cowboy Cafe and we had gotten blown away by the hurricane down on the Carolina Coast. I loved the theatre, and when I get this album finished for Blue Hat I want to get someone to help me put that up. Maybe go to England and do it there. It is a musical comedy and it is hilarious. Have you ever heard of Pebble Daniel? She is one of the finest background singers here and she did all the sessions and had a thick heavy voice, like I do, and I would be glad to say she is one of my protegees and she claims me first. She had a heart attack and died and then left me her part. When she was dying in the hospital she said that Bonnie Bramlett could play it and sent it to me. We had been doing it at Edisto Beach and it was a stellar performance and after this album I would like to put it back up.
Do you paint?
I paint and sculpt. Right now I am doing beads from roses, and it works like a charm.
Do you cook?
I can cook and I will send you my cream of artichoke soup recipe.
Do you remember a show in New York City in 1971 with Duane Allman and Dave Mason?
Yes, Herbie Mann was living in an apartment then, and heard us and came up onstage to jam. Mitch Mitchell, King Curtis, Duane Allman, Dave Mason was there and some unbelievable Afro-Cuban percussionist. But what I remember most about the show was Delaney. He is so Delaney! It started to rain a little bit. He gets up out there with his guitar on his shoulder and he started to invoke himself to the sky and throws his arms up and says, 'Oh Lord, take this rain away, we need to do a concert.' He stopped the rain. Then I thought I can never live with this man because he thinks he is Moses. He stopped the freakin rain!
Give us some of your thoughts on singing on the new Charlie Daniels "Road Dogs" album.
I want to be a Charlie's Angel. (laughs) What fun and good singers too. Did you hear me and Jimmy Hall? My good friend Carolyn Corlew was in on it too! Charlie is so sweet. My Mom set in the control room. It can be boring in there and Charlie sat there and told her the history and just couldn't do enough for her. Charlie calls me Sister Bonnie, and he has prayed for me when I was getting sober and dying of alcohol abuse. He would say, aren't you tired little Sister, aren't you ready to come home now? He knew that I had been raised in the church and knew I had done too much to get back righteously. I feel like it was Charlie, Hazel and Carolyn and them that prayed me back home. All of this is true and people need to start putting things where they are now and give people credit for what they have done spiritually, forget all the other stuff. We need to say thank you, man, I couldn't have done it without you. We need one another and must help one another now.
Do feel comfortable in the Blue Hat organization?
Charlie and David are two good Christian men. I don't cuss like I used to and I use other words now, but if I slip, my pastor, Charlie, and David are not going to rebuke me. Charlie is very Christ-like. He has a great time like anyone else. There is not a doubt that he is a spiritual man. He can not do enough. His whole career has been about giving it away. I want to be a Charlie's Angel.
I am sure you already are a Charlie's Angel! What have you been doing with Duane Eddy?
We did a show at the Ryman for Chet Atkins Days. I met John Fogerty for the first time and got a case of the screamin' dumbasses. I just had to walk away from him. Then here is Vince Gill sitting behind me!(Laughs)
Bonnie you are an incredible woman and I am such a fan. We appreciate your time and this interview.
Thank you, and this resurgence, if you will, I am very excited about. Everything is new and different. I had been sitting up in the Grand Tetons in Idaho, in paradise, thinking what did I do to deserve this life. I had been writing and living up there. Well, I came down to Nashville to do this record and I am famous. I had no idea I was famous! (Laughs)