It's Elvis Costello V. Bonnie Bramlett in Rock's Vituperative Battle of Britain

updated 04/23/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/23/1979 01:00AM

The Battle of the Bands is a uniquely American phenomenon in which two rock groups try to blow each other off the stage. In Columbus, Ohio last month, there was a spirited battle of the bands—except this one occurred offstage in a hotel bar, hours after the last encore. On one side was English punk provocateur Elvis Costello, 24, currently touring behind his smash third LP, Armed Forces. On the other was Illinois-born, blue-eyed soul singer Bonnie Bramlett, 34, formerly of Delaney & Bonnie, now reviving her career as Stephen Stills' backup singer.

After playing in separate halls, the two entourages met in the lounge of the Columbus Holiday Inn. Stills retired early, but Bramlett stayed to chat up Costello, a volatile performer whose rising musical reputation has been accompanied by erratic behavior and hostility toward both fans and press. "Someone asked him what he thought of the old guys, like Buddy Holly," reports one eyewitness. Costello replied with an obscenity. "What about Elvis Presley?" Costello snapped another obscenity. "Then he said American people are second-class white people, compared to first-class English people."

Bramlett, a longtime paladin of rhythm-and-blues whose backup bands once included heavies like Leon Russell, Duane Allman and Rita Coolidge, kept cool until, she says, Costello "called James Brown a jive-ass nigger." Next, according to an onlooker, "Bonnie said, 'All right, you son of a bitch, what do you think of Ray Charles?' He said, 'Screw Ray Charles, he's nothing but a blind nigger.' That did it. Bonnie backhanded him, slapped him pretty hard, because she's a healthy chick."

The ensuing scene erupted like a bench-clearing but punchless hockey brawl. Stills' road manager, Jim Lindersmith, was grabbed by two of Costello's roadies but he threw them to the floor. The spindly Costello then brandished an empty beer bottle but was hurled into a wall. It took a bartender named Eddie to stop the fracas.

Afterward Bramlett, down from 180 pounds to a sleek 120 since winning her own battle of the bottle, felt ambivalent. "A lot of people may still remember me as a tough chick, which I was. I'm sober now, but I'm still from East St. Louis and he had rotten things to say. He was cursing my country and my mentor, Ray Charles. I wasn't trying to make a point to anyone but him. I'd like to think he got the message."

Bramlett's participation with Stills at Columbia Records' Havana Jam junket last month left her "feeling real proud of America after what we saw down there. A lot of my friends have died for this country and now we're trying to wade through the racism thing. Costello is destroying what we went through in the '60s. Blacks are the people I'm singing for."

Within days, Elvis had received upwards of 150 death threats and was directed to meet the press. Apologizing publicly to Brown and Charles, he proclaimed, "I am not a racist." Costello now contends that his deliberately "offensive and obnoxious" remarks were designed "just to bring the argument to a conclusion" and to get the Stills group out of the bar: "It worked pretty good." In his defense, his supporters note that Costello admires American rockers or he wouldn't have borrowed Buddy Holly's glasses or Presley's first name. Further, back in the U.K., he is a member of an anti-racist group and has spoken out against neo-Nazi factions.

Costello was born Declan Patrick McManus, the son of a jazz band trumpeter and singer. At 16 he quit school and worked as a computer programmer at a cosmetics factory in Liverpool. By 19 he was married and had a son, now 4, but lately he has been reported keeping company with one of Rod Stewart's old flames, Bebe Buell. Costello landed his CBS record contract by hanging around hotel lobbies with his guitar and bugging CBS executives at an industry convention until they finally signed him. Since then the New York Times has acclaimed him "the most important figure in British new-wave rock."

Bonnie, on the other hand, was once going down as fast as Elvis was going up. Born Bonnie O'Farrell, she followed her East St. Louis jazz pianist dad into the business, beginning singing at 13. She married Delaney Bramlett in 1967 and toured with Eric Clapton as Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. But after their marriage and act broke up in the early '70s, Bonnie's solo career fizzled. She wound up living on Allman Brother Dickie Betts' Georgia farm, "sitting around and drinking booze and getting fat," as her manager puts it. Then last spring, she completed an alcoholism cure and moved to an apartment in L.A.'s Studio City to be near daughters Michelle, 17, Suzanne, 14, and Rebecca, 11, who live with Delaney. (His latest credit is the theme music for Stockard Channing's TV show.)

If Bramlett and Costello never tangle again, it will suit both. She's currently singing backup on the Allman Brothers' new single, Crazy Love, and is dreaming of a career revival. Elvis has been on good behavior during the remainder of his SRO tour, despite picketing at his concerts. The name of a cut on his new LP makes an unintentionally ironic commentary on the whole incident. It's called (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.

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