The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
Delaney & Bonnie
Widely regarded as the crowned jewel of soul in the Southern United States, Stax Records’ discography boasts entries from nearly any genre of note in the 1960s and ’70s.
In its heyday, the label that was home to countless marquee Black performers, prominent on regional, national, and in some cases, global entertainment circuits, would make no qualms about trying its fortunes in establishing white American music stars. One such act, Delaney & Bonnie, made their way to Stax’s main label in 1968 with a Southern rock-inspired take on Stax’s previous era of soul. The ambitious blend infused the duo’s distinct vocal stylings with wailing lead guitar, thumping percussive drums, and the signature horn elements that imprinted a definitive Memphis feel on their debut album. And, though their time in the Stax stable was short-lived, the group’s legacy on popular music has seen them remembered as a connecting force, ubiquitous among social circles wherein rock, soul, folk, and country weave into one pattern, sewn together by the psychedelia and sensuality of the period.
Delaney Bramlett began his life in Pontotoc, Mississippi, in July 1939, where his obsession with learning guitar started as a small child. Once of age, he joined the Navy, moving to Los Angeles. Still honing his musical talent, he joined the house band for the television variety show Shindig! While the band did a one-off gig at a local bowling alley, Bramlett encountered Bonnie Lynn O’Farrell, a singer bred along the border of Illinois and Missouri, who had cut her teeth in St. Louis’ historic jazz and blues scene. Born in November 1944, she developed her repertoire by following the lead of artists such as Albert King and Fontella Bass before landing a brief gig as the first shire female performer in the Ike Turner Revue.
The chance meeting between the two dedicated musicians led quickly to nuptials, with a marriage a mere week thereafter. Soon, they’d form a musician partnership, as well, booking gigs as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, inviting featured guests to sit in as a part of their stage show. Over time, the collective came to include an A-list assortment of rock’s most promising talents, such as Duane Allman, Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton.
Booker T. & The M.G.’s bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn urged Delaney & Bonnie to record a debut album for Stax Records, facilitating the duo’s signing to the label in 1968. Originally, influenced by her time as an Ikette, the label imagined Bonnie in a role similar to Tina Turner, insisting Delaney enlist in Ike’s dynamic by featuring his female co-star more prominently than himself during their stage show. The vision wouldn’t stick, and the husband-and-wife duo shared billing while working together to craft a record.
That year, they recorded Home, an LP that combined their songwriting talents with the existing staff of hitmakers at Stax.
Trying on Stax’s soul, the Bramletts worked through their versions of “My Baby Specializes,” written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and “Everybody Loves a Winner,” written by Bell with Booker T. Jones. Bonnie Bramlett teamed with Stax staff writer Homer Banks to compose two songs for the album, “Pour Your Love on Me” and “A Right Now Love.”
Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper contributed with “We Can Love.” Carl Radle, a member of the Delaney & Bonnie band was also a frequent Clapton collaborator via his tenure in Derek & The Dominos. Alongside Bonnie Bramlett, he also co-wrote two selections for the album.
Duck Dunn produced the album’s sessions with Don Nix.
Ultimately, it’d be the infusion of homegrown Memphis talent that created tension between Delaney Bramlett and the label. In his eyes, the sheen of soul mired his true prowess as an artist. Upon the group’s return to California, Bramlett courted Elektra Records for an opportunity to record a follow-up. Catching wind of the group’s defection, Stax in turn halted all post-production and promotion for Home, effectively shelving its release.
The label rerouted course, just as Elektra prepared for the release of Delaney & Bonnie’s debut for their label. In 1969, both Home and their follow-up the aptly-titled Accept No Substitute introduced the group to the record marketplace, enhancing the growing spectacle around the duo and their loose collective of moonlighting musicians. Despite their position as perpetual darlings within a social scene of music industry insiders, the group failed to find footing as a commercial success, perhaps at the hands of two competing debut albums. In the years that followed, the duo would repeat its routine of packing up and leaving labels and eventually would split, leaving their marriage for separate solo successes. Arguably, their defining statement as a creative and romantic partnership comes in the form of “Groupie (Superstar),” a song released as a B-Side to the group’s 1969 single “Comin’ Home.”
The song, written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, took on new life after The Carpenters covered the number and released it as “Superstar” in 1971. Their rendition reached No.2on the Billboard Hot 100, prompting Delaney & Bonnie to respond, reissuing their original version in 1972. The song continues as a pseudo-standard for pop audiences, vital to the careers of artists in R&B, such as Luther Vandross, Ruben Studdard, and Usher, as well as in the rock canon, via artists like Joe Cocker, Cher, Sonic Youth, and My Chemical Romance.
In the wake of the duo’s breakup, Bonnie Bramlett maintained her ascension within the entertainment industry. Notably, she fostered a solo career, launching head-first into the Southern rock movement of the 1970s, joining Georgia-based Capricorn Records. As a backing vocalist, she collaborated with Carly Simon, Jimmy Buffett, and Gregg Allman, eventually earning an honorary moniker as the first “Allman Sister,” for her work on tour with the latter. In the 1980s, she took up a career on-screen, appearing as a guest on the hit television show Fame before landing a recurring role on Roseanne. She continues to perform today.
by Jared Boyd
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