Eric Clapton: Amazing Grace
COLETTI “Running on Faith” was on Journeyman.
CLAPTON Yeah. Jerry Lynn Williams wrote that, and I’d heard him play it on piano and on acoustic and electric and a lot of different ways and arrangements, so I knew that the song was easily adaptable. So that made it an obvious song to do. I also wanted to include it because it’s a regular part of my stage repertoire and thus fairly well-known.
COLETTI It was good to see you play dobro.
CLAPTON Yeah. I played one on the record. I usually don’t play it onstage, so that was another opportunity— this program is great to give me these opportunities to do things that I’ve always done at home but don’t do onstage.
COLETTI Do you often play slide at home?
CLAPTON Not so much actually, but I would like to play more slide, and I think it’s something you have to be careful with on an electric. I mean it is ideally suited for acoustic guitar, and all of my original heroes played the slide and bottleneck, so maybe it’s something I’ll get into again.
COLETTI Speaking of original heroes, you played Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.”
CLAPTON It is, but I’ve turned it into a hybrid song, really. I borrowed the guitar part from one of the first Muddy Waters songs I ever heard, called “Feel Like Going Home,” then I superimposed Robert Johnson’s lyrics. It’s sort of my simultaneous tribute to both of them. It’s a piece I’ve played since I was 14, but I only recently decided to start singing it.
COLETTI Speaking of singing, the sound of your voice really penetrates in an acoustic setting. Are you feeling more comfortable vocally?
CLAPTON I often enjoy singing in an acoustic setting more than an amplified one. When you’re onstage with an electric band going through a massive P.A. system, it’s very artificial. You can’t really hear your own voice as it comes out of your mouth. You have to depend on the loudspeakers and monitors. So it’s such a joy to sing with a full band acoustically and be able to hear your voice; I find it so much easier to adjust the volume of my own voice. Here, I could sing quietly, which allows me to have more dynamic range.
COLETTI What are the origins of the song “Alberta”?
CLAPTON It’s an old Snooks Eaglin song, which is, again, something I heard when I was very young. Snooks Eaglin’s Street Singer album was an important part of my record collection. He was a great, great player and singer who recorded on the streets of New Orleans. The variety of his repertoire was absolutely amazing, but that song “Alberta” was accessible to me as a beginning guitar player, because it consists of three chords and just straight strumming. It just lodged in my head as a very sentimental song, and part of my early influences.
By the way, Snooks is still active, but he’s indoors now; he doesn’t work the streets anymore. He works in clubs and makes very good records. He’s a great artist.
COLETTI What inspired you to do “San Francisco Bay Blues”?
CLAPTON I don’t know. I’ve heard several versions of it, but the first one I heard was performed by Jesse Fuller—and it was Jesse Fuller as a one-man band. He had two bass drums, a foot bass, harmonica, kazoos and a great, big 12-string guitar. It was one of those songs he played in pubs to get free beer, so it’s very accessible on a sing-along level. I just wanted to do this song because it’s never gone away—just like “Hey Hey” and “Alberta.” These songs have never left my head; they’re always there in a part of my life.
COLETTI You concluded the MTV set with another Robert Johnson song, “Malted Milk.”
CLAPTON “Malted Milk” is a peculiar song. It’s very ironic, because it’s quite clear that it’s not malted milk he’s referring to throughout the song. It came from a period where Robert was changing his style, and it sounds to me like he came across Lonnie Johnson in his travels. There was a massive shift in his style of accompaniment and his style of singing.
I’ve never approached this song before—and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had this opportunity to try it out. It’s a very beautiful song and it’s very simple and I wanted to end the set with it because it sort of brings it back home for me.
COLETTI So is Robert the first influence?
CLAPTON He’s the most important influence I’ve had in my life and always will be, I think.
COLETTI Did you start out playing an acoustic?
CLAPTON The first guitar I ever had was a gut-string Spanish guitar, and I couldn’t really get the hang of it. I was only 13, and I talked my grandparents into buying it for me. I tried and tried and tried, but got nowhere with it. I finally gave up after a year and a half. I started getting interested in the guitar again after hearing Muddy Waters, because it sounded like it was easier—wrong! [laughs] I wanted an electric guitar and, again, I talked my grandparents into buying me one. And, actually, within a very short period of time I got somewhere with it.
So I had two starts, really. However, the second time around I bumped into people who had the same interests—who liked Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson. And those people I bumped into were the original Yardbirds; we used to play together a lot at parties and ended up forming an official band. That was really when I became a professional; it was within a very short amount of time.
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