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John Wheatcroft examines one legendary blues player paying tribute to arguably the most influential bluesman there has ever been, as he looks inside Eric Clapton’s album, Me And Mr Johnson.
John Wheatcroft looks at Eric Clapton’s take on another blues legend, Robert Johnson.
considered by eric Clapton to be the most important musician in the history of modern music, the gravitas of this assertion hits home when you consider that Johnson only recorded 29 songs during two sessions in Texas in 1936 and 1937; only two photos exist and almost every aspect of his life is shrouded in mystery; even the cause of his death is uncertain - poisoned by a jealous husband of one of his many lovers? Who knows?
Clapton had always aspired to an album interpretating Johnson’s material. In 2004, while recording original material, he and the band hit a creative block, so they began to record a couple of Johnson’s just to get the creative juices flowing. Once they began this process, however, it became apparent that the music they were producing was rather special, and should be pursued further. Once Eric overcame his initial reluctance to take on a challenge of such personal significance, he dedicated himself to absorbing as much of the vibe and essence of his idol as possible.
And a damn fine job of it he does, too. Clapton’s playing has feel, tone, touch and flair. While his musical personality remains intact, his playing definitely takes on an air of refinement and stylistic authenticity - less blues-rock and more blues-blues, with excellent bottleneck, acoustic picking and expressive vocal delivery throughout. The idea was not to emulate the original recordings, so Clapton reinterprets this initially solo material in a band context, with Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall II on guitars, Nathan East on bass, Billy Preston on keys and Steve Gadd on drums.
The solo that follows is based on two choruses of a 12-bar blues. The sequence is a conventional I-IV-V 12-bar, although watch the quick shift between I to V and back again in bars 7 and 8. Most of the phrases are two bars in length but you’ll find thematic development as the solo progresses. What struck me here was all the expressive devices in Clapton’s playing. He never plays more
When I play lead, it doesn’t really relate directly, but the essence of what I do really hinges on what I originally felt about Robert Johnson. Eric Clapton
than a note or two without adding some kind of inflection - a bend, a grace-note hammeron, slide or curl. Has your playing the same kind of three-dimensional expression and delivery? Why not learn this solo as written, and record yourself along with the backing track? Be critical but kind to yourself, to see which areas of your expressive delivery you like and which facets need attention or development. And, as always, enjoy!
Clapton never plays more than a note or two without some added inflections