For well more than three decades, Eric Clapton has been bemused by his fans’ adulation of his solo on Cream’s radical reworking of bluesman Robert Johnson’s signature tune, “Crossroads.”
"It’s so funny, this,” Clapton says. “I’ve always had that held up as like, ‘This is one of the great landmarks of guitar playing.’ But most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I’m playing on the one and the three and thinking, ‘That’s the off beat.’ No wonder people think it’s so good—because it’s fucking wrong.” [laughs]
Perhaps one reason for Clapton’s difficulty finding the downbeat was that the concert at which the song was recorded, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, got a late start due to drummer Ginger Baker’s tardy, and rather dramatic, appearance.
Recalls Tom Dowd, who engineered the recording and ran the mobile recording unit that night: “The group was supposed to go on and we didn’t have Ginger and couldn’t figure out where the heck he was. We were worried, and Bill Graham and others said, ‘God, I hope he’s okay. Maybe we should call the police.’ Then I look out from our vantage point upstairs and see a Corvette speeding towards us, with a couple of police cars a block behind it. That was Ginger arriving. I have no idea what happened, but he pulled up to the stage entrance, abandoned the car, ran up on stage and the band started playing.”
And what they played is what you hear; contrary to a persistent, widely held rumor, the solo on “Crossroads” was not edited down.
“It’s not edited and I’ve got an audience tape from the same show which verifies that,” says Bill Levenson, who produced the Cream box set, Those Were the Days (Polydor). “That was a typical performance of the song. I’ve listened to a lot of tapes and all of the ‘Crossroads’ that I’ve heard come in at four minutes and change. They never seemed to expand it beyond that.”