Eric Clapton: The King and I
GWA Did you actually learn anything from this “difficult and strange” bluesman?
CLAPTON While we didn’t get along, he did make me realize how important it was to pay attention to detail in the blues. For example, the Yardbirds would be rehearsing with him, he would call out one of his songs—like “Nine Below Zero”—and we would start playing. Suddenly, he would stop and say, “That’s not how you play it.” And the other guys in the band would say, “What do you mean—it’s a blues, isn’t it?” But I had heard the record and knew that there was actually an intro, a motif, a balance of who played what, and that we weren’t playing those things correctly. I suddenly became aware through working with him that even though you had this general thing called “the blues,” each song had its own identity and had to be rehearsed and respected. We were very young and just didn’t know any better. The truth is he had every right to be upset. We were supposed to be playing his hit songs and we just didn’t learn them properly. I would not be very happy myself if I was playing with a bunch of musicians who didn’t bother to learn all the parts to my songs.
GWA Is there anything else about Robert or his music that you didn’t get in your youth but which you now understand?
CLAPTON God, you stumped me. I don’t think there’s anything I understand more about him now than I did then. I may be a little more comfortable playing his music now, because it’s very much part of who I am, but that’s about it. When I was a teenager, I could take the music only in very small measures because it was so intense. But do I grasp it any better? I’d have to say that I don’t: it’s as mysterious to me now as it ever was. I still don’t know how he did some of that stuff. Take “Kindhearted Woman Blues”: there’s an instance in one of the verses, on a IV chord, where he plays an odd single-note kind of accompaniment behind the vocal. I can’t do it—I can’t see how anybody could do it. [laughs]
GWA Once the greatest, always the greatest.
CLAPTON No question about it.
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