Rock and roll scholars depict the Bonnie Bramlett tale as an epic drama, and it most certainly is. But what the cognoscenti sometimes miss is the extent of this towering singer’s contribution and her current role as one of America’s greatest interpreters of the soul, R&B and jazz songbooks, bar none. In an era of safe singers, when massaging the public consciousness with smooth sounds is a sure way to commercial success, Bonnie Bramlett’s joyous and soulfully hard-won vocals reflect a real life fully lived − bruises, beauties, and all. What will surprise anyone who has followed Bonnie’s career is that not only does Roots, Blues & Jazz find her singing up a storm, but that her vocals are consistently stronger than most nu-soul stars half her age, and astonishingly, she is only getting better.
No shrinking violet, Bonnie Bramlett knows her powerful pipes are rock and roll legend. But for her, Roots, Blues & Jazz is simply a way to express her craft. “Roots, Blues & Jazz is not about me reinventing myself or anything like that, it really is about doing the work.” Currently calling Nashville home, Bramlett is typically gracious regarding her talent. “My job is to do the work and make a record to document my blessing. When the situation presents itself, and I am able to do it, I jump on it with everything I’ve got.”
Between 1969 and 1972, when Bonnie Bramlett was a stage-storming, soul-stirring powerhouse with Delaney & Bonnie, she co-wrote such chart topping hits as “Soul Shake,” “Only You Know & I Know,” and “Never Ending Song Of Love.” A member of rock’s conquering elite, Bonnie Bramlett performed with legendary figures Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, George Harrison, Dave Mason, Gram Parsons, and John Lennon. She would go on to pen “Let It Rain” with Clapton, and one of the greatest songs of all time with Russell, “Superstar.”
For decades, Bonnie has inspired respect, admiration and love from a wide range of stars. Even those who haven’t worked with her, quickly understand her particular talent. “If I wasn't already married,” says Keith Richards, “I would marry [her] voice. People have got to hear this, it is just beautiful.”
As a teenager, Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell performed in the dangerous dives of St. Louis with local legends Albert King and Little Milton. By 15, already a toughened musician with an amazing delivery, Bonnie became the first white girl to tour with Ike & Tina Turner as one of their Ikettes. Afterwards, she returned to St. Louis to continue her education vocalizing with jazz greats Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, King Curtis, Miles Davis, and Wes Montgomery.
Fate called when in 1967 Bonnie moved to Los Angeles where she met and married Delaney Bramlett. Soon the supercharged southern duo were signed to Stax Records, their gospel inspired rhythm and blues landing them an opening slot with seminal supergroup Blind Faith. The duo’s reputation rose like a comet when Eric Clapton left Blind Faith to join Delaney & Bonnie and their crack band on a European tour (heard on the classic Delaney & Bonnie & Friends On Tour). Bonnie had by then grown into a consummate songwriter, her songs eventually interpreted by The Staple Singers, The Everly Brothers, Lester Flatt, The Allman Brothers Band, and Hank Williams, Jr.
Going solo, Bonnie cut three albums for Capricorn Records in the 1970s, and also graced many important recordings as a backup or featured guest vocalist on classic albums by Little Feat, Delbert McClinton, Rita Coolidge, Carly Simon, Dave Mason, and Joe Cocker.
As the industry changed and the ‘70s became the ‘80s and the ‘90s, Bonnie turned her magnetic stage presence to acting, landing parts in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and a recurring role in the #1 rated television show, Roseanne. (Bonnie is currently in production for the Kevin Costner thriller, Guardian, playing “the blues singing mama who owns the bar,” Bonnie laughs).
After time off for reflection and repose, Bonnie made her way back to the music via Nashville. 2002’s I’m Still The Same found Bonnie’s trademark tenor howl rising from the grooves like a soaring bird. Blues, Jazz & Roots signals her full scale return to the soul sounds that forged her talent in the fires of St. Louis and Los Angeles, today wiser, smarter, and singing like a soul giant inspired.
So what was the goal for Blues, Roots & Jazz?
“I wanted to grow up into a jazz singer,” Bramlett replies. “But I didn’t know what that meant anymore. There is not really a Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday anymore is there? What happened to those soulful approaches to songs? That is the kind of singer I wanted to be when I grew up and if I ain’t grown up by now I never will be! We rock out on this album too, but I am trying to burn more towards the jazz description of my expression.”
Bonnie Bramlett, with her daughter Bekka who also contributed background vocals to the recording.
Aiding in this expression is her band, Mr. Groove, a Nashville based ensemble who have worked together since the mid-1980s, and founded by the brothers Tim and Roddy Smith. Mr. Groove’s cohesion is the bedrock on which Bonnie Bramlett is set free. Mr. Groove’s contribution to Roots, Blues & Jazz is multi-faceted. They are expert interpreters of the soul-jazz and R&B idioms, and are also inspired arrangers who far from replicating cover versions can re-create familiar songs in a completely fresh and new light. The gospel-tinged “Love the One You’re With” and the swinging intro to “No Particular Place to Go” are especially powerful examples.
“You know how if you have a little bird in your hand and you throw it up in the air it just takes off?” Bonnie asks. “That is what this band does for me, it is a safety net one minute and it allows me to fly the next.”
Blues, Roots & Jazz runs the gamut of Bonnie’s history and fulfills her desire to “grow up into a jazz singer.” Her joyous spirit fills Steven Still’s “Love The One You’re With,” Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” and Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy.” Bonnie interprets classics like “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Work Song” with a gritty depth that only comes from a life fully lived, scars worn as badges as of honor. But the true soul of Blues, Roots & Jazz is in Bonnie’s original songs and select covers which reflect her soul-drenched heart.
Bonnie’s readings of “I’m Confessin’” and “That Lucky Old Sun” are sublime, slow burners where she channels the ghosts of jazz greats long gone. “The blessing is that the minute [pianist] Steve Willets started playing those songs we started singing them,” Bonnie recalls. “I was thinking of Louis Armstrong for both songs. I searched the archives of my heart and mind and soul.
“I was a child when I first heard those songs,” she continues. “I remember the cotton fields, it being hot at night, and there is still so much work to do. But that lucky old sun he’s got nothing to do. I like to slow down a song until it is almost like dialogue. Until I can tell the story and you know what I mean.”
The album also contains the first recorded collaboration between Bonnie and two original members of the Ikettes, Robbie Montgomery and Jessie Lucas, on August 30, 2005 in Nashville over 40 years after Bonnie’s stint with the Ike & Tina Turner Revue! As expected, this reunion was both emotional and great fun. Equally impressive, the album documents the first recording of Bonnie with her daughter, Bekka Bramlett, whose own career as a singer included a memorable stint with Fleetwood Mac in the 1990’s. Not surprisingly, Bekka has inspired Bonnie.
“Carefree,” which floats effortlessly over drummer Donnie Marshall’s simmering samba rhythm finds Bonnie expressing a simple love of life, and the loved ones in it. “That is me watching my daughter, Bekka, the butterfly. Where is she going? I don’t know, maybe in the wind. I remember being like that, I was that butterfly, and now I am watching another one go. It is about that carefree-ness, the freedom that youth and old age brings.”
From ‘70s superstardom to Hollywood glamour to Nashville skyline easy living, Bonnie Bramlett has done it all, seen it all, and lived to tell her tale. At the core of her experience is her incredible spirit-quickening voice, an instrument for the ages. “Every song is a story,” Bonnie says. “I am using myself as a vehicle and I surrender to that piece of work. That is why I don’t just sing any song. I won’t do it for money. I would be a billionaire if I did that, but I just can’t do that. I don’t know what I have done to deserve these pipes but I sure do appreciate them. I have such a strong thick voice now. It blows my mind away, and I am proud of my work.” Ken Micallef
Recorded at The Groovehouse, Nashville and GAT 3 Recording, Charlotte by Jimmy Dulin and Glenn Tabor, from January to September 2005. Additional recording at The Groovehouse, Nashville, Studioeast, Charlotte, and Saxworks, Charlotte by Tim Smith, Roddy Smith, Mark Stallings, Tim Gordon, and Jimmy Dulin. Mixed and mastered by Phil Magnotti at Silvermine Studio, Norwalk, CT, except “No Particular Place to Go” and “Gotcha” mixed by Kevin Ward at Kilowatt Productions, Murfreesboro, TN. Produced by Bonnie Bramlett and Tim Smith. Photography by Thom Bresh. Package design by 3 and Co., New York. Executive producers: Tim Smith, Roger Davidson & Joachim Becker.