While promoting his 1998 album Pilgrim, Eric Clapton appeared on Larry King Live, where, mid-interview, America’s toughest talk-show host asked Clapton the following question: “So, Eric, do you like the blues?”
Either Larry hadn’t done the slightest bit of research into who Clapton is, or it was just his awkward way of getting the legendary guitarist to talk about his musical roots, which, sadly, were only perfunctorily evident on the lackluster Pilgrim.
In fact, as with most British rockers of the 1960s, Clapton’s fascination with American blues music was what drove him to become a musician. He taught himself to play guitar by listening to scores of records from across the Atlantic, becoming particularly enchanted by the music and the legend of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, whose gothic tales of murder, sex, and infidelity mirrored what little is known of his own life.
When the Yardbirds–Clapton’s first successful band–drifted away from R&B and toward pop, he left them for a spot in Britain’s most hard-core blues outfit, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, recording 1966’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. He came into his own with Mayall, creating electric-guitar solos with remarkable virtuosity, concision, and force, inspiring London blues fans to begin the “Clapton is God” graffiti campaign.
The dedication to pure-blues roots soon waned, with Clapton spending time in bands like the psychedelia-blues-rock trio Cream and supergroup Blind Faith before launching a long and varied solo career in 1970. And though he won six Grammys for 1992’s easy-listening Unplugged, his most powerful work–like the 1970 blues-rock masterpiece Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and 1994’s all-blues From the Cradle–has come when he has returned to those roots.
One would think, then, that Me and Mr. Johnson, a 14-track tribute to Johnson, would be equally good. Instead, it narrowly misses the mark.
Though Clapton is singing as well as he ever has–the incandescent vocal on “Hell Hound on My Trail” is possibly Clapton’s best since the original version of “Layla”–he seldom uses the most potent emotional weapon he has: the extended guitar solo. Had he done so, as he did with Cream on Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Clapton would perhaps have been able to prevent these new takes from being almost completely overshadowed by the memory of Johnson’s original performances.
But if Me and Mr. Johnson prompts even a small percentage of the people who buy it to seek out Clapton’s source–either on the single-disc King of the Delta Blues or the two-disc The Complete Recordings, Clapton’s effort will have been worthwhile.
–Aaron Keith Harris writes for Country Music Today.