Eric Clapton: Blues Power
GW These days a lot of people seem to dump on the Yardbirds because…
CLAPTON Is that so?
GW Well, in the South Bank special about you, for instance, Pete Townshend said that, apart from you, “they really were a shambles.”
CLAPTON Well, you know, Pete, for instance, had a different perspective on the whole thing. He was into Martha & the Vandellas and Tamla/Motown, and what we were doing didn’t really register. He only became aware of the great blues musicians much later in his career. He was a pop musician from the word “go,” and that’s not a slam on his character or way of thinking—he just came in from a different place.
And the Yardbirds liked to listen to “Five Long Years” by Eddie Boyd. That’s what we listened to, and in what we played even then there was a great chasm of difference. We thought something like “I’m a Man” was pretty commercial compared to what we were listening to, because we were all into Jesse Fuller or Furry Lewis. Those records were gold dust to us. We were country blues fanatics, but to play we had to have records to emulate that had drums and bass and guitars. So they had to be R&B records.
GW As for the blues records that managed to filter over to England, you managed to luck out a lot, in terms of getting really good stuff.
CLAPTON Well, that’s not true. No, there was a great deal of discrimination involved, too. There were a lot of other things. We had Josh White, who came to England almost once a year, and for most people, he was the blues. But I saw through that. I don’t know what gave me the insight, but to me Jesse Fuller on that one album [Jazz, Folk Songs, Spiritual & Blues (Good Time Jazz)] had far more real feeling than Josh White ever did. But that was what was available, and there was lot of that stuff being dished over here. So, yeah, there was a lot of discrimination involved, too. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee came here too, and they were great, but I remember thinking, There has to be something more. When they came to these shores, they were far heavier than anything we’d experienced before, but still I had an inkling that there was something more intense. I don’t know what gave me that insight—I thank God for it, to this day—but I just knew.
GW What was the first thing you uncovered that sort of struck that chord?
CLAPTON Without a doubt, it was Freddie King: “I Love the Woman,” on the B-side of “Hide Away.” That just sent me into a complete kind of ecstasy, and it scared the shit out of me. I’d never heard anything like it, and I thought I’d never ever get anywhere near it. And I know now that I never will, but it was what immediately made me want to carry on.
GW Freddie King’s solos and choruses on his instrumentals are about as perfect as anyone could ask for—like compositions unto themselves.
CLAPTON They are. His taste was like that. He never played anything that you could imagine him regretting.
GW In addition to the usual Cream reunion rumor, there’s a new one going around—that the Bluesbreakers will have a reunion.
CLAPTON That’s definite. The rumor about Cream was invented from the outside. It never occurred to me, and I’m actually not that keen to ever try it, to be honest, because there was such a great gulf of difference between me and Jack [Bruce] and Ginger [Baker], even when we were together. But there is a definite plan to do a tribute to John in November. I don’t know if we’re going to do an album, a show, a concert or what. [Fleetwood Mac’s] John McVie and Mick Fleetwood are doing it, and it would be great if Pete Green could come out of retirement, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I met him on the street not more than a year ago, and to me he’s a great guy, and he was just the same. He didn’t look particularly healthy, and he seemed like he was kind of pissed off in general, but that’s quite a healthy attitude to have, in some respects. It’s not as if he was indifferent. So I would never completely give up on the guy.
GW Didn’t he visit you at home a few years back?
CLAPTON Yeah, I took him in for about three weeks and listened to him whine and moan about the business and life in general, and I would kind of absorb it all, and I’d just keep playing music—which in the summertime I do anyway. In the morning I get up and I put music on—opera, classical music, guitar music, blues, jazz, all kinds—all day. After he was there about a week, I noticed him dancing in the garden one day—so he was changing. And he actually left with a very different, positive outlook. It just seemed to be a healing experience for him, because to have music played to you by someone else takes away your responsibility. You can just enjoy without having to choose or contribute anything. It was good for him. And I’d happily do it again; I love the guy very much.
GW Did he pick up a guitar while he was there?
CLAPTON No, we didn’t play, and I didn’t want to put him in that position. He may have played while I wasn’t looking or wasn’t around—that’s extremely likely. But the last time I saw him, he’d deliberately grown his fingernails so long that he couldn’t play. When you get that angry, it’s healthy, and I think he’ll probably come out sooner or later.
GW He sure was great.
CLAPTON One of the best—he really is. And I’m not gonna say, “was,” either. He is one of the best. It’s all there.
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