Eric Clapton: The King and I
In 2004, Eric Clapton paid tribute to Robert Johnson with an album of the Delta King’s classic blues.
Back when he was a blues-obsessed teenager in England, something happened to Eric Clapton that caused him to fall down on his knees and ask the Lord above for mercy: he heard, for the first time, the music of Delta blues king Robert Johnson. Throughout his long and brilliant career, Clapton has often revisited that early encounter, likening it to “a religious experience” that “called to me in my confusion.” The depth and brutal honesty of Johnson’s music, he has said, “seemed to echo something that I had always felt.”
Not surprisingly, the emotions triggered in him by Johnson’s music also frightened Clapton a bit. “I could take the music only in small measures because it was so intense,” he recalls. Clapton immersed himself in the music but was also seduced by the Johnson mystique: the claim that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical prowess, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death at the age of 27, and the lack, at the time, of even one photograph of the blues great. Clapton’s identification with Johnson was total, and not always benign: he admits, for instance, that he looked forward to dying in his late twenties.
Fortunately, as he battled and ultimately triumphed over his own well-publicized personal demons, Clapton came to focus more on the music than the mystique— on the Johnson who was “the best guitarist I ever heard,” the Johnson whose songs expressed “every angle of emotion.”
In 2004, Clapton at long last paid tribute to the great bluesman with the album Me and Mr. Johnson, an electric affair that featured brilliant guitar work by Clapton, his longtime collaborator Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall II. In the following interview, the Prince of the British Blues graciously consented to spin a verbal riff on the subject of his King.
GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC So you’ve finally taken the plunge and recorded an album of songs by Robert Johnson.
ERIC CLAPTON Yes. I realized that if I didn’t do it now I probably never would. What made it possible for me to do it in the first place was that I was no longer driven by any need to somehow match, or compete, with the originals. Also, the fact is that I’m very comfortable now in a way that I’d never been before. I think the primacy of my wife and children in my life had a lot to do with that.
GWA It occurred to me that the very fact that the recordings on Me and Mr. Johnson differ so completely from Johnson’s own arrangements indicate a certain comfort level you had about the entire project.
CLAPTON That’s very true.
GWA I understand that your comfort in doing the material made it possible for you to record the material with a band. But why did you choose to not record any of the songs on Me and Mr. Johnson solo acoustic, just you and your guitar?
CLAPTON I actually tried to do “Terraplane Blues” solo acoustic, and it just sounded weak. There was no point in doing a second-rate version of a Robert Johnson song.