Eric Clapton: Fit for Kings

At the dawn of the millennium, Eric Clapton and B.B. King pooled their legendary blues talents on Riding wih the King, an epic album 30 years in the making.

When Eric Clapton arrived in New York in 1967, he was the toast of the town. The rock community was buzzing about the British blues prodigy and his new band, Cream, whose slinky “I Feel Free” was fast becoming a staple on underground radio. Naturally, all eyes were on him and his wildly curly hair when he strolled into Manhattan’s Cafe Au Go Go to see his friend Al Kooper play with his new band, Blood, Sweat and Tears. For Clapton, it was a night to remember, but not for the reasons you’d think.

As fate would have it, in the club that evening was one of Clapton’s idols, B.B. King, whose shattering vocals and stinging guitar vibrato on songs like “Three O’Clock Blues” and “Ten Long Years” had made an indelible mark on the young virtuoso. When King introduced himself, the Englishman was beside himself. And when he invited Eric to join him in an after-hours jam session, Clapton later remarked, “It was like all my dreams were coming true.”

Over the next 30 years, the duo’s paths crossed many, many times. Each time, both vowed that someday they would get together in a studio and make one of their musical encounters official. However, with their hectic schedules it was easier said than done. Then, last year, Clapton decided to make good on their mutual vow. With King’s blessing, he booked time in a studio, hired a band and over a three-month period in Los Angeles the two blues legends ripped it up on a surprisingly varied set of contemporary and classic blues material, from King’s Fifties signature song, “Ten Long Years,” to John Hiatt’s hooky, pop rocker “Riding with the King.”

In the following 2000 interview, Clapton and King reminisce about the good old days and detail the events that led up to their historic, Platinum-bound pairing, Riding with the King.

GUITAR WORLD What do you remember about Cafe Au Go Go in 1967?

B.B. KING Good music, that’s what I remember. We was having big fun at the time. Musicians, in my opinion, were a little bit different from the way we are now. They used to get together and jam a lot and exchange ideas. I don’t see that much now, do you?

ERIC CLAPTON I don’t. And I don’t know where they would do it. Jam sessions happened a lot more in those days. People played together all the time in America.

KING Yeah, there were no “big I” and “little you” people at that time. Everybody was sort of liberal with their amplifiers, too. Everybody got a chance to hear the other one a bit. A lot of times now, you go in for a jam session, and, boy, if you ain’t got a powerful amp, you might as well go home.

CLAPTON Yeah, everyone played at reasonable volumes back then.

GW So is it fair to say this album was 30 years in the making?

CLAPTON Well, it only became a reality for me about three or four years ago because I started to feel like maybe I had become enough of a musician to share the same space on an album with B.B.

KING Oh, listen to that, will you?

CLAPTON No, I’m not kidding. I mean, I never would have even considered it before. [laughs]

KING [feels Clapton’s forehead] You don’t seem to have a fever. [laughs]

CLAPTON It wasn’t even worth considering four or five years ago. And then each time we would meet up, we would talk about recording with each other and say this is something that we really need to do. And then it was, like, Well, when are we gonna do it? Maybe we should actually put some plans into action.

KING Well, from the very first time that we talked about it, I had my fingers crossed, saying, “Please let it happen.” I’ve known this guy for quite a while, but until we started working on this project, I never realized the size of his talent and how sharp his mind is. He pulled out tunes that I had completely forgotten about. I was excited just to be reminded of all these tunes that had slipped my mind. I mean, I’m not talking about what we recorded, I’m talking about a lot of tunes that we did not do.

CLAPTON But, you know, both of us have always been busy guys. I know his schedule doesn’t leave much room for anything. We started planning this a year ago—it took us that long to find free time in our lives. I don’t work half as hard as this guy. When he’s on the road, I’ve got plans to go fishing, you know?

I’m much more casual than B.B. I couldn’t work the schedule he works. But nevertheless, we both had commitments, and finally it just meant that we had to say, “Well, next year we’ll do it.” And then once that commitment was made, we were off and running.

GW What was it like to be in the studio together?

KING For me, fantastic. Eric is never late. I don’t know how people do that. [laughs] He’s never late. He’s always on time, and he’s real business-like when you get started to work. He’s real business. Other than that, we just joked and had fun. But when you get down to the business of making music, he’s right there. Not only is he, in my opinion, number one as a guitarist but also in the way he thinks about music.

Another thing, Eric is a great person. But I don’t want to just sit here and throw compliments at him, ’cause he gets embarrassed. [laughs]

CLAPTON He’s right, it is embarrassing. See, the privilege of doing this, for me, was that I’ve known B.B. for a long, long time, and I knew that he would trust me, you know? And when we started to do this, he said, “Whatever you want to do, we’ll do it your way.” So, that was an incredible privilege.

At first I was thinking it would be interesting to try an unplugged thing, because no one’s ever heard B.B. play an acoustic. I also thought we could do something contemporary—get modern material and try a hip-hop–oriented thing. Another idea was just to amass a really great group of musicians and record live on the floor. And this studio, I felt, had a really good kind of atmosphere for live recording. In the end, we actually touched all those bases. But for me, it came alive when we were all live on the floor.

The sound of the album came primarily from the main microphone— the one that hung over all of us. Everything was miked close, too, but most of it was leaking, and all the instruments were bleeding into each other, so that overhead mic was the main mic. It was a sound we all immediately liked, so most of the tracks are live and done in two or three takes. And then it would be done. You couldn’t really punch in, or change parts later because all the parts were bleeding together.

But when you have all these great musicians together, that’s just the way they usually work. They need one take to kind of get the feel, then they get their focus on the second one, and then on the third pass it’s done.

GW Whose idea was it to revamp some of the older standard blues?

CLAPTON Well, it was my idea, and I just wanted to go back as far as we could go. But there was no big master plan. It was very spontaneous. Each time we’d finish a song, I would just think, Well, what could come after this? So, it was recorded almost chronologically, the whole process. When it came to sharing the singing duties, I mean, I knew there were some things I should just stay away from, but I just wanted to have some vocals on it. I consider myself to be just a journeyman singer.

KING Oh, come on!

CLAPTON An amateur.

KING This guy sings like he was born down below Mississippi. [laughs] Oh, gosh. But you’re right. It seems to me that when we started, everything just came together. As Eric said, we didn’t plan anything, but Eric’s mind was like a library. He would just bring up dozens of song ideas, and we would talk about them. When they were the right ideas, it seemed like you could hear them completed in your head.

GW Big stadium tour next?

CLAPTON I can’t keep up with him. I need to go and have a rest.

KING Well, my fingers are crossed again, hoping that maybe one day we can do a few cities together.

CLAPTON Yeah, that would be good. I think if there’s a will, there’s a way, and that will be the next thing to do. But B.B.’s schedule is so intense.

KING Well, I enjoy working, but if this guy was in Timbuktu and said, “B.B., come over,” I would go.

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