"I don't read no charts and I don't do no numbers": As Bobby Whitlock prepares to be honoured in Memphis, he looks back at Derek and the Dominos and his impact on UK music

Songwriter and guitarist Bobby Whitlock poses for a portrait in front of an old car next to a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne holding an acoustic guitar in circa 1975
(Image credit: Bobby Whitlock: Michael Ochs Archives | Beale Street: f11photo | Both via Getty Images)

Getting a prestigious musical note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis today (May 19) is no small concern for veteran keyboardist and Derek and the Dominos alumnus Bobby Whitlock.

"I'm from Memphis," he tells Classic Rock from his current home in west Texas. "I got my (musical) bones there. I was born there and Don Nix heard me in a band and brought Duck Dunn to hear me, and then everything started to unfold for me. I was turned on to the whole of Stax; I could go and come as I pleased, so I got to hear all the greats perform and did hand claps with Isaac Hayes and David Porter on Sam & Dave's I Thank You. That was my breaking in. 

"So I've been real fortunate, and I've seen those names on the Walk for a long time. But I never thought much about whether mine was gonna be on it or not, so it was quite a surprise when I found out about this."

For a Memphis cat, however, most of the 76-year-old Whitlock's most noteworthy achievements came in the U.K. He came there as part of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, playing on its legendary tours with Eric Clapton. That led to him backing Clapton on his self-titled solo debut album and also recording with Doris Troy for her George Harrison-produced Apple Records album. Whitlock also played on Harrison's All Things Must Pass, but he's best known as part of Derek and the Dominos, co-writing six songs for the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and penning the closing track, Thorn Tree in the Garden, himself. 

"There was a time in my life when the only rhythm & blues and gospel and real rock'n'roll in the whole of Great Britain was sitting in the TV room at Eric Clapton's house – and that was me, 'cause they didn't have nothing like me there," Whitlock says of his contribution to the British music scene at the time. "What I knew and what I did and what I brought to the table, they didn't have that kind of table there. The feast that I carried with me at all times was given to me by all those great players (in Memphis)."

Fifty-four years later Whitlock considers Derek and the Dominos "a great band that happened the way it was supposed to have happened, fell together without forcing it." And the keyboardist also takes credit for making sure it stayed that way as the quartet set out to record Layla...

"When we started, Eric and I were in the other part of this big sound stage room, standing in the back of it, and (executive producer) Tom Dowd, who I knew from Stax,  walked up and he had two papers; 'Here's your charts, fellas' -- he called us fellas," Whitlock recalls. "And then he went walking back into the studio. I told Eric, 'You're gonna have to go talk to this man. We don't have charts, y'know? I don't read no charts and I don't do no numbers.' He said, 'I don't know him; you go talk to him and tell him to stay back there in the control room.

"And I did. I said, 'Hey man, I gotta tell ya we won't be needing any charts. We don't do numbers and we want you to stay behind the control panel back there and we'll stay out here.' And it all worked out. He respected what we were doing. He knew we were a unit, so he just stayed there and punched 'record' the whole time and it was a rompin' rock'n'roll ride."

Whitlock says he keeps in loose touch with Clapton, still, but mostly through management and legal intermediaries. 

"Until we moved to this little town in west Texas we exchanged Christmas cards every year, so we have this pile of Christmas cards from Eric and all of his daughters," Whitlock notes. "We didn't pick it back up when we moved, but that's OK. I don't need anything from Eric and he certainly doesn't need anything from me. We've given each other the greatest gift you can give, and that's the music."

Whitlock will be joining more than 200 other Memphis luminaries who have received notes on the Beale Street Walk of Fame. He's composed a new song, Walking Down Beale Street, which will be released in conjunction with the ceremony, though during the past five years he's been doing painting rather than music and leaving the latter to his wife and performing partner, CoCo Carmel. 

Bobby Whitlock will be inducted into the Beale Street Walk of Fame on Sunday at 3pm local time.

Gary Graff

Gary Graff is an award-winning veteran music journalist based in metro Detroit, writing regularly for Billboard, Ultimate Classic Rock, Media News Group, Music Connection, United Stations Radio Networks and others. Graff’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Classic Rock, Revolver, the San Francisco Chronicle, AARP magazine, the Detroit Jewish News, The Forward and others. Graff has co-written and edited books about Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. A professional voter for the Grammy Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Graff co-founded the Detroit Music Awards in 1989 and continues as the organisation’s chief producer.