Eric Clapton: The King and I
GWA When did you learn to play his music on the acoustic guitar?
CLAPTON To tell you the truth, I never really did; I have never actually sat down and played Robert Johnson unaccompanied. Even when I played “Malted Milk” on Unplugged, I did it as a duet with Andy Fairweather-Low. I can play pieces of Robert Johnson songs but not entire tunes note for note. I can play Big Bill Broonzy’s stuff, but there’s something very symmetrical about his music: once you learn the fingerpicking pattern, it’s easy. But Robert’s music is so asymmetrical, and there is always something new going on. I find it very difficult to play by myself.
GWA Johnson’s impact on you is well documented. I remember reading that as a young guitarist you often turned your back to your audiences when it came time to play a solo, and that this was associated with your obsession with Johnson.
CLAPTON I don’t know if this is true or not, but it was reported by Don Law, the man who recorded him, that prior to one of his sessions there were some Mexican musicians in the room with him. It seems he was unable to play in front of them; he had to turn and play to the corner of the room. When I read this I thought, That makes sense. How could he play in front of other people when he’s exposing his emotions so entirely?
GWA When you first discovered Robert Johnson, very little was known about him; he was a mysterious, romantic figure. Within the past three decades, however, two photos of Johnson were unearthed and blues scholars have learned much more about his life. Has that in some way diminished him in your eyes?
CLAPTON No, not at all. The music, which I digested and placed in a certain location a long, long time ago, is in a very safe place in my heart and mind. I could watch a documentary about his life with a great deal of interest, but it would have absolutely no effect on what I gathered from the music, then or now.
GWA Some revisionist blues historians have downplayed Johnson’s influence as a blues artist, maintaining that his importance was a creation of his later, white audience. Others point out that much of his material was actually derived from previous work by bluesmen like Son House, Lonnie Johnson and Kokomo Arnold. What’s your view?
CLAPTON I recently read Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and he made what I thought were some pretty rash statements. One was that Robert could have been removed from the picture and nothing much would’ve been affected. I thought that was an extraordinarily hasty thing to say, and I’ll explain why: Before I heard Robert Johnson, I had already been exposed to a lot of rhythm and blues artists like Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. As soon as I heard Johnson play boogie on things like “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Rambling on My Mind,” I immediately understood where a lot of R&B grooves originated. No one else from that period—not Son House, not Charlie Patton, not Blind Lemon Jefferson— played anything like that. I think that was Robert Johnson’s invention, which is a considerable contribution to the blues, and it enabled me to make a direct connection from Robert Johnson to Jimmy Reed.
GWA I once read of a guitarist who described Johnson as a “one-man power trio” because of his penchant for simultaneously playing a bass line, a rhythm part on the middle strings and a lead riff on the treble strings, all while singing the song.
CLAPTON Yes, it was a natural thing for him to do, and I think that’s also his invention. You mention that while playing a line on the low strings he would simultaneously pick little reference notes on the high strings, something he does on “When You Got a Good Friend,” which we recorded on Me and Mr. Johnson. Well, Freddie King used to do that all the time, and I’ve heard countless electric guitar players do that. It was like Johnson was playing electric guitar before there were electric guitars; that’s the bizarre thing. And while I accept that he was a product of influences like Lonnie Johnson and Kokomo Arnold, I don’t think anyone summed up the whole Delta blues experience in the way—or had the impact—that he did.
GWA What would you say distinguishes Robert’s playing from that of his Delta bluesman peers?
CLAPTON He had finesse! I heard Johnson before I heard Son House and Charley Patton, and people kept telling me I had to check them out. When I did, my first reaction was, Whoa, these guys are kind of noisy; they’re kind of clanky! “Clumsy” is probably too harsh a word. But then I’d go back to Robert and think, There’s no comparison, this guy’s got finesse. His touch was extraordinary; it was so refined, which is amazing in light of the fact that he was simultaneously singing with such intensity.
GWA It must have been thrilling for you when, as a member of the Yardbirds, you played with Sonny Boy Williamson II, who reputedly knew Johnson quite well. Did you ever ask him about Robert?
CLAPTON No, partly because we became enemies on the first day we met. I went up to him and asked, “Isn’t your name really Rice Miller?” Of course, his name really was Rice Miller. I must’ve come off like some naïve blues collector. And our relationship never recovered after that. I think he thought I was making fun of him. Sonny Boy was a very difficult and strange man.
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