The resume of Bonnie Bramlett, nee O’Farrell, reads like that of a major star, but she’s barely known, despite her enormous talent and long history. Part of the reason may be due to the ephemeral nature of entertainment success. A superstar one year is soon forgotten. But it’s a goddamn shame, because she’s putting out some of the best music of her long career. She deserves your attention.
Bramlett’s a white singer from East St. Louis who began her career backing up black Rhythm and Blues acts, like Albert King, Little Milton, and Fontella Bass when Bramlett was a young teenager. She was the first white woman to back up Ike and Tina Turner as one of Ikettes. Bramlett moved to Los Angeles, where she met and married Delaney Bramlett. They became the first white group (Delaney & Bonnie) to sign with Memphis’s Stax label. Famous friends such as Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Rita Coolidge, Gram Parsons, John Lennon, and many others regularly joined them on stage and on record. During this time she and Leon Russell co-wrote the song “Superstar”, which became a Grammy Award winning tune for the Carpenters and has been recorded by everyone from Luther Vandross to Bette Midler.
Delany and Bonnie had one big hit single, “Never Ending Song of Love”, but broke up, both professionally and as a married couple, in 1972. Bonnie continued to perform as a solo act. She went on tour with Stephen Stills, became one of the Allman Brothers for a short stint (and was known as the original Allman Sister!), forayed into gospel, and backed up a wide diversity of artists, including Joe Cocker, Carly Simon, Gregg Allman, Little Feat, Jimmy Hall, Steve Cropper, Jimmy Buffett, Dwight Yoakam, and Delbert McClinton. Bramlett worked steadily as a singer, and also made a number of movie and television appearances, most famously in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and as a recurring character on “Roseanne” as fellow waitress Bonnie Watkins.
All the while Bramlett continued to record top-notch music that mixed R&B, gospel, soul, blues, and jazz styles. She’s not one of those shouting, wild women who conjure up the devils from the earth and make the ground rattle, although she can belt when the song calls for her to do so. She has a more nuanced approach that’s strong and sinewy. There’s an intelligence behind the deep feelings expressed that makes her passions earned.
That’s especially true on Bramlett’s latest disc, Beautful. Her version of the title song, written by Steve Conn, is the best female vocal performance recording I’ve heard all year. The formal feelings expressed after great pain reveal a dignity equal to the reserve of Emily Dickinson on the printed page. The singer knows of her own failings, and she knows much of the responsibility belongs to her, but that can’t stop her from looking forward. Bramlett sings of these mixed feelings that come out of anguished self-knowledge in a firm voice that seems right on the edge of cracking, but never does. There’s no need to scream or cry. Bramlett evokes deeper sensations.
There are other gems on the disc, including her daughter Bekka’s (formerly a member of Fleetwood Mac) bluesy composition “Strongest Weakness”, Dan Penn’s inspirational “He’ll Take Care of You”, and John Anderson’s upbeat love song, “Sure Got a Way With My Heart”. Bramlett also performs a Gothic version of Stephen Stills’ classic tune about paranoia, “For What It’s Worth”, and turns it into a more paranormal experience, with a snaky bass line and funky wah-wah guitar.
But it’s Bramlett’s rendition of the title song that makes this album so special. She articulates her need for real connection and hope in a voice so human and naked that it chills the listener. It’s truly beautiful.