Eric Clapton: Blues Power
GW These days, the name that does seem to come up a lot, in terms of influences, is Buddy Guy’s. But at the time of, say, the Blues Breakers album, there was more of a Freddie King or Otis Rush element. Who were your influences prior to that?
CLAPTON Well, in the Yardbirds we were trying to stay away from the classical stuff, the betterknown stuff, as we knew it. So we were doing songs by Snooky Pryor or Eddie Taylor, who were more the Chicago kind of sidemen who were making records of their own but weren’t necessarily as well known, because we were trying to make them sound like our original material. If we did a classic Freddie King, B.B. King or Buddy Guy song, we would seem to be paying homage; when we did a Snooky Pryor song or one by the guy who did “Wish You Would”—Billy Boy Arnold—it sounded like the Yardbirds, because nobody knew who those guys were.
In fact, all of these songs came off one album that we ripped off. It was a compilation album called “Chicago Blues” or something [Bluesville Chicago, Vol. I, Top Rank (France)], and it had all those songs—“I Wish You Would,” “Judgment Day,” “Bad Boy.” That was our set—we just did that album. Even though I was aware of, and was learning to play from, Freddie’s records and Buddy’s records and Otis’s, we avoided that as material.
And not to put these other guys down, but they were easier to cover. The great songs like [Otis Rush’s] “Groaning the Blues” or “Double Trouble” would be so hard for, first off, a vocalist to cover. Not so bad for the band or a guitar player—they can somehow get by—but a vocalist is the man in the pole position, and he’s got to be able to do as well, if not better [than the original]. And not too many people in this country ever made it that far.
GW As you said, growing up in England, you were dependent on whatever blues records filtered over and whichever touring artists appeared. As a result, do you think your image of blues was more romantic?
CLAPTON Yes, absolutely. And the love affair, the obsession with the blues, was reinforced by the fact that it was so inaccessible. And having made a little inroad into it, I was one of the few who had not only the taste for it but the gift for it, too, and I belonged to this incredibly exclusive club whose members included Keith Richards and Mick [Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates] and [Fleetwood Mac founder] Peter Green and people like that, who had, like, a mission. We were crusaders in a way, and that was a great, secure feeling for a person of my type, who came from a very sort of nowhere place, to have somewhere really worthwhile to go.
GW Were you happy when someone finally unearthed photos of Robert Johnson?
CLAPTON Yeah. As much as they can find is not enough. I mean, the music still transcends it all, but it’s nice to have artifacts, too.
GW But as long as no one knew what he looked like, he was part man, part myth.
CLAPTON But you can preserve that. I think it’s possible to leave your fantasies there. My fantasy of Robert Johnson exists in my head no matter what the reality of what his picture looks like. I still see another person. But it’s close—that’s the great thing. It’s still a story that has to be properly told.
GW Not that it was a strict bio of Robert Johnson, but you must have been disappointed in the film Crossroads, for the trite way that it portrayed blues.
CLAPTON Yeah, and the concept of the guitar duel at the end was just appalling—so disappointing. I mean, the way the kid won was to revert to some kind of classical piece. What did that have to do with fucking anything?
GW One of the charms of the early British blues is that the bands were obviously so enthusiastic about the music that they went into it headlong; and that while some of the lesser bands were probably a bit too reverent, the really special ones used the records as launching pads rather than textbooks. Your version of “Hideaway” on the Blues Breakers album is a perfect example. Was it hard to find other players who had the facility to go beyond the originals?
CLAPTON I wasn’t looking for other players to play with. I had a very competitive mind. I didn’t want there to be any other players that had that facility. So it was enough for me to be in a band that could go with me in that direction. Pete Green and Jeff Beck were the only other players who could touch on material and then go way from it. Jeff particularly.
For instance, there’s a standing joke with him and me about this song “Wee Wee Baby,” off the Folk Festival of the Blues album. Buddy Guy kicks it off, and it’s such a random start, no one seems to know how it’s going to go. And Jeff’s got that down so that it sounds positive and rambling at the same time. But then he’d go off, you know? It’s funny, but musicians of that ilk often tend to stay away from one another—they keep their distance because they want to stay in that space where they’re untouchable.
GW Prior to joining the Yardbirds, what band did you sing in, and what was your material?
CLAPTON I had been singing with the Stones, and on one occasion I’d put together a band consisting of me and a drummer to play a local dance. I sang everything— Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley— just R&B mainly. In the Yardbirds, it was assumed that Keith [Relf] was the singer. It wasn’t up to me to actually decide anything at all. I had a very small voice in the band. It wasn’t until later, when I started getting a following of my own, that the rest of the band considered me to have any input at all. And then I would say, “Let’s do ‘Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,’ ” and I would get a chance to sing. I didn’t push myself, because I was still more interested in being the guitar player.
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