By: Barry Gilbert
For: St. Louis Today
Singer Bonnie Bramlett went to school in St. Louis. No, not high school, although the then Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell of Alton attended Granite City High.
Bramlett’s school was the streets and clubs of East St. Louis and Gaslight Square, where she sang as a teenager in the late ’50s with blues and R&B legends such as Albert King, Little Milton and Ike Turner, performers who “taught me everything I needed to know.”
“I learned how to be a lady,” she says. “I learned not to drink or smoke onstage, and I still don’t. I didn’t become streetwise, but I became showbiz-wise. Unlike a lot of other girl singers who were not looked on in favor in those days, especially the white ones, I knew what key I sang in.
“If you wanted to sit in with a band, you had to get up there and say: ‘Twelve-bar blues shuffle, gentlemen, in A. I’ll count it off – one, two, three, four.’ ”
Bramlett, 59, learned her lessons well, becoming briefly an Ikette behind Ike & Tina Turner, then moving to Los Angeles, where she met and married Delaney Bramlett and helped forge the Southern-rock and soul powerhouse Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, which was a springboard for Eric Clapton’s solo career and made stars of many other players.
After a divorce from Delaney, she put out a series of solo albums in the ’70s. Later, as Bonnie Sheridan, she sang and toured regularly with others and turned to acting, playing Roseanne Barr’s workplace pal Bonnie Watkins on “Roseanne” in the early ’90s.
She’s “Still the Same”
Today, Bramlett is back on the road behind her first album in almost 20 years, a gap she attributes to “a horrible (second) marriage” that she is reluctant to talk about. And on Thursday, she will perform in her musical hometown for the first time in about 25 years, at Generations nightclub.
“I am so excited,” Bramlett says by phone from her home in Nashville, Tenn. “There are school chums (coming) who I haven’t heard from in years,” as well as old music pals such as Bob Kuban.
When’s the last time she played here?
“Too long ago to remember,” she says, but probably when she was an “Allman Sister,” touring with the Allman Brothers Band behind their “Enlightened Rogues” album, on which she sang in 1979.
Her latest CD, the intense, smoky and jazzy “I’m Still the Same,” has earned rave reviews for the soul-soaked ’60s rocker who has matured into a stylist of uncommon power and expression.
Except for superb covers of Timi Yuro’s “Hurt” and the standards “You Belong to Me” and “Cry Me a River,” all of the songs were co-written by Bramlett. Included is the now-definitive version of her heartbreaking, often-covered ballad “Superstar,” written with Leon Russell and a hit for the Carpenters in 1971. Bramlett says she was “horrified” by their version, which was far from the torch song she had written.
“When I wrote that song, I was 23 years old, and I wrote it the way I sing it right now,” she says. “That song was so painful.” The powerful new version, she says, was recorded in one take.
She defends Ike
Bramlett learned her craft here, beginning at age 14, when teen sensation Brenda Lee won the right to work in nightclubs if properly registered and chaperoned.
“She opened the door for us kids,” says Bramlett, who charged on through.
Her parents – her dad was a steelworker in Granite City – took turns chaperoning the teen singer for a while, and then Jimmy O’Donnell, the operator of the Living Room club in Gaslight Square, became her legal guardian, setting up a separate area for Bramlett and watching over her.
“The music in St. Louis was way different than it is now,” Bramlett says of her days singing with Fontella Bass and Little Milton in the Manhattan Club “down under the bridge in East St. Louis.”
“I have a young one in my family coming up (singer Bekka Bramlett), but it’s like, ‘Whoever gets discovered in Granite City?'”
Bramlett became an Ikette, shakin’ and singin’ behind Ike and Tina Turner, after Ike Turner fired his bass player, who took his girlfriend, an Ikette, with him. But the gig didn’t last long.
“I was an underage white girl going across state lines in the South (with black musicians), and he had to send me back home,” Bramlett says.
In recent years, Ike Turner has been accused of being an abuser by ex-wife Tina, and others have told similar stories of violence. But Bramlett defends her mentor.
“I had the permission of my mother (to go on the road with Turner), and he was responsible for my well-being,” Bramlett says. “I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Ike Turner. I don’t care what they say about him. I’ve never seen him hit anybody or do anything but wonderful stuff. Sure he’s hard to work for, and he’s a taskmaster, but leading a band is not an easy job.”
Clapton joins the band
And she should know.
From 1969-72, Delaney & Bonnie put out five albums and hit the charts with, among other songs, “Only You Know and I Know.” Their first album, “Home,” was recorded in Memphis in 1967 at the legendary Stax Records, the home of Booker T. and the MG’s, Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas. It contained Bonnie Bramlett singing “Piece of My Heart” a full year before Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company took it to No. 12. Unfortunately, the Bramletts’ album wasn’t released until 1969.
By then, Delaney & Bonnie were opening for Blind Faith: guitar master Eric Clapton, a post-Traffic Steve Winwood on vocals and keyboards, bassist Rick Grech and Clapton’s Cream bandmate, drummer Ginger Baker.
“We just blew their butts off the stage,” Bramlett says. “They weren’t having any fun at all. (Clapton and Baker) had just been burned out with Cream, but they were put in this position by suits who wanted to make their last couple of million dollars off them. They weren’t excited about it at all.”
Clapton asked the Bramletts if he could join their band.
“Eric came out and played tambourine the first night,” Bramlett says, laughing at the memory.
Thus was born Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. And what friends: Clapton, Rita Coolidge, Dave Mason, Jim Price, Bobby Keys. Oh, and one Victor Mysterioso – aka George Harrison. Many would go on to be star performers or sidemen. The core of that band – Carl Radle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums and Bobby Whitlock on keyboards – would make even more history, backing Joe Cocker on the “Mad Dogs and Englishman” tour and then becoming the Dominos to Clapton’s Derek for “Layla and Other Love Songs.”
Bonnie Bramlett and Clapton would write together, including one of his signature tunes, “Let It Rain.”
Some rock historians contend that Eric Clapton would not have had the solo career he’s known for without Delaney & Bonnie. Bramlett just laughs and says, “There always would have been an Eric Clapton. There wouldn’t have been a Delaney & Bonnie without Eric Clapton.”
But it is also true that Clapton began writing country- and R&B-influenced music and, more important, began singing, after his exposure to the Bramletts.
Rave reviews, but few sales
Bramlett is disappointed with how “I’m Still the Same” has performed in the marketplace, especially considering the rave reviews it has earned, and she blames her record label, Audium, for not promoting it after she had spent so much time out of the spotlight.
Artistically, however, she was very happy. The label encouraged her “to cut the album I kind of always wanted to cut. I treated it as though I’d never cut another album again, and I’ve gotten more response from this one, which they never tried to promote ever.”
But she chalks it up to fate and a higher power.
“It’s a God shot on this one,” she says. “You know, it’s not my job to make hit records. It’s to do the best I can do, not to be famous or rich. It’s humbling to do your best work and not have it get heard. But it sure gives me the energy to go on.”