Some 20 years before Eric Clapton recorded his 1992 smash album Unplugged, his friends and musical influences Delaney & Bonnie (Bramlett) recorded a laidback, acoustic rock record called Motel Shot in 1971. The Real Gone Music label just released the out-of-print album for the first time ever on CD, except for a limited Japanese release from years ago. The album aims to give the sonic equivalent of a cinéma vérité “shot” of musicians’ life on the road, a lifestyle characterized by spontaneous jams with acoustic instruments when complex sound equipment like amps are not easily accessible. In so doing, Delaney & Bonnie bring down-home warmth to the cold, impersonal uniformity presented by motel rooms on the road.
Delaney & Bonnie were frequently promoted with the added suffix “and Friends”. The first time an album was credited to Delaney & Bonnie and Friends was on the 1970 live record On Tour with Eric Clapton. The follow up to On Tour was Motel Shot, for which the cast of friends did not include Clapton, but a number of other notables like Duane Allman, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Buddy Miles, Bobby Whitlock, and Gram Parsons. The contributions of those artists are heard on chorus vocals or improvised percussion for the most part, except for Russell’s piano and Allman’s slide guitar, which lead on a few tracks such as the cover of Robert Johnson’s blues standard, “Come On in My Kitchen.”
No, Motel Shot was not actually recorded in a motel room. The concept just happened to give the album its ethos. The original release of the album on the Atlantic label in 1971 featured sessions recorded live-in-the-studio, but how the album came into fruition was actually much more complicated than just those sessions. The concept for Motel Shot was developed before Delaney & Bonnie were on Atlantic when they were still signed to the Elektra label, the home of The Doors at the time. The Doors’ producer, Bruce Botnick, had Delaney & Bonnie and Friends over to his house and recorded what was to be an Elektra album in the intimate setting of his living room. Before the release on Elektra could come out, though, Delaney had a falling out with the label owner, Jac Holzman, when he called up Holzman on the phone and threatened him with physical violence because his record, Accept No Substitute (1969), was not available in his father’s small town. The original Botnick living room sessions were lost to history until the new Real Gone Music release, which features eight tracks from those original sessions in addition to the 1971 Atlantic album.
Delaney & Bonnie’s move to Atlantic was motivated out of more than Delaney’s friction with Holzman as it was also opportune stylistically for the duo. The label was home to some of their biggest influences including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke. By signing to Atlantic, the duo would get to work with producers who recorded their heroes, such as Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. Motel Shot might seem out of place among the brass and electric instrument based R&B/soul that typifies Atlantic’s catalogue since it is an acoustic album. However, anyone questioning Delaney & Bonnie’s soul credentials ought to consider that Bonnie was the first white Ikette to sing backup for Ike & Tina Turner, and the duo is backed on their debut album Home (1969) by the illustrious Booker T. & the M.G.’s on one of the very few recordings by white artists released on the iconic Stax soul label. With no ifs, ands, or buts, Motel Shot is a soul album, just in the form of soul’s roots as opposed to the complex production on efforts commonly associated with the genre.
But what are these roots from which sprang soul? In 1954, the Atlantic label released Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” considered by many to be the first soul song, since it put secular lyrics onto gospel styled singing and music. Motel Shot opens with “Where the Soul Never Dies,” a traditional gospel song whose title aptly sets the mood for an album of such unrelenting soulfulness. The first track kicks off the laid-back feel of the album by opening with a few seconds of chatter and tuning, before swooping into a gospel chorus styled vocal chant.
Being that Delaney & Bonnie are progenitors of what would come to be called “roots music”, Motel Shot is not just filled with gospel but also the closely related genres of country music, blues, and even some original songs that fit in astonishingly well with the much older traditional songs and standards. In fact, the duo’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 was the no. 13 hit “Never Ending Song of Love,” a Delaney & Bonnie original pulled from the album. The song has a campfire quality about it that makes for a catchy tune, but the recording is so non-commercial in its instrumentation that it seems just right that it would be the biggest hit of a decidedly non-commercial group (although Delaney & Bonnie certainly did not decide so) who never came close to the fame of friends like George Harrison.
The earlier sessions that Botnick recorded in his living room and the later Atlantic studio sessions will inevitably draw comparisons to one another and assertions that one or the other is better. The earlier sessions were undeniably recorded in a more relaxed setting and rudimentary manner in terms of microphone placement, but are still approximately the same in terms of sonic quality to the later sessions. The earlier recordings that Real Gone Music has uncovered are really the first time that Delaney & Bonnie put the idea of “motel shot” to tape and so they might be rawer in that sense, but that is not to diminish the rawness of the later sessions which produced the first release of Motel Shot. Frankly, the original 1971 Atlantic release composed of the later sessions is just about as raw as anything that has been released as an official studio album by any act ever. Rather than get into the superiority or authenticity of the two distinct sessions that are included on the new expanded edition of Motel Shot, it is probably best to commend the inclusion of newly discovered historically significant sessions alongside out of print previously released recordings from the immediate vicinity of time. Motel Shot in either distillation is a satisfying perusal of the soulful music of the American South.