Down an unpaved road deep in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, a sign announces "Delaney & Mamo's Rock 'N' Roll Ranch." Sundry form animals greet new arrivals, and Delaney Bramlett graciously invites visitors into the makeshift control room of his recording studio, a converted toolshed. Blasting from the small speakers are welcome reminders of rock's earthy foundations in country, gospel, R&B, and blues. A gifted songwriter, singer, producer, and bandleader--and a tasteful, Southern-flavored guitar picker--Delaney Bramlett has never wavered from the musical formula that helped this son of a Mississippi sharecropper vault from the seedy bars and honky tonks of Southern California to the upper echelons of rock during the late '60s and early '70s. At a time when British rock superstars were trying to connect directly with the American music that inspired them, Delaney Bramlett would welcome them to Los Angeles with open arms and one of die hottest bands around: Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, the gospel/R&B/rock revue centered around Delaney and his ex-wife, Bonnie.
"At that time Delaney & Bonnie were magical," says famed Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. The musicians in Bramlett's circle--including Jim Keltner, Leon Russell, J. J. Cale, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Rita Coolidge, Jim Price, and Bobby Keys--helped fuel Eric Clapton's Derek & The Dominos, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass assemblage, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, and the Rolling Stones' horn section, as well as Delaney & Bonnie's own exuberant Accept No Substitute and On Tour With Eric Clapton.
From a guitarist's perspective, however, Delaney's ultimate trick was persuading some of rock's greatest players--Clapton, Harrison, Duane Allman, and Jimi Hendrix--to take time off from their own careers to serve as his sidemen. Factor in James Burton, the Ventures Jerry McGee, singer/songwriter J. J. Cale, and country-pop session ace "Thumbs" Carllile, and the list of guitarists who worked alongside Bramlett starts to look like a Who's Who of the era's top players. Clapton in particular owes much to Bramlett--not just for providing an escape hatch from an increasingly confining guitarist-as-gunslinger role in Cream and Blind Faith, but for helping to give the then-ambivalent guitar legend the confidence to step forward as a lead vocalist and solo artist. "I was in total awe of Delaney," Clapton has acknowledged. "He was the first person to instill in me a sense of purpose."
Bramlett's records are filled with tasty, homegrown guitar work that echoes his Delta roots. "He's probably one of the best rhythm guitar players in the world," avers Delaney Bonnie/Derek & The Dominos cohort Bobby Whitlock. "He comes up with some of the hippest, coolest riffs and rhythm patterns of any guitar player except maybe Steve Cropper."
But Bramlett's playing on record is so intermingled with that of the great players who have served as "Friends" that it's sometimes difficult to know where Delaney's down-home picking ends and the more agile stylings of some of his stellar sidemen begin. Bramlett's acoustic playing comes from bottleneck Delta blues, while his electric work is often distinguished by twin-guitar harmonies. These characteristics also color the work of Clapton, Harrison, and Allman, especially after they collaborated with Bramlett. (While Allman played harmony-style with Dickey Betts in the Allman Brothers, he--and they--were clearly influenced by Bramlett's unapologetically rootsy approach. In fact, the version of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" that the Allmans still play bears a strong resemblance to the arrangement on Delaney & Bonnie's Motel Shot album, which features Duane.)
"Delaney's rhythm guitar playing was the foundation of his music," states Wexler. "Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Dave Mason--these were English blues buffs …