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Eric Clapton – Me & Mr. Johnson

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The next statement I make isn’t gonna win a lot of friends and influence in the rock music fan world but, well…here goes nothin’:

I’ve never liked British Blues all that much.

John Mayall, the Yardbirds & all that. Yea, they could play all right…but they just never hit the resonant frequency of my blues music receptor cells. I do have to give some of them credit though. I mean, the Rolling Stones knew who Howlin’ Wolf was. The real thing. They got him on Shindig playin’ “How Many More Years”. It was a great and respectful move. Our own danged music and we’ve gotta get ‘introduced’ to it by a bunch of skinny & pale English dudes. Oh well, it wasnt’ the last time that our culture would reject one of its own art forms (same danged thing happened with modern jazz).

Now don’t get me wrong. I owned my share of Cream records. But: I am sure that I didn’t know that “Crossroads” had anything to do with Robert Johnson. Maybe Lester Bangs did a little ranting about that name, but I probably ignored it. After all, what did it have to do with the new Ted Nugent album?

So over the years I pieced together all of the important bits of information. When I got my excited little hands on a Muddy Waters record (I forget which one…I’d love to say that it was Folk Singer but it was probably King Bee) though, I just knew that the pale, blue-jeaned ones were onto somethin’ good.

Oh yea…Clapton. Like most good children of the 70’s, I owned a copy of Slowhand. I’m sure I made the Clapton->Cream connection, but the blues? Not yet. The magic happened when I attended a Clapton show. The warmup act was Muddy Waters. Now that got my attention. I don’t know how old Muddy was at that point (I think this was when Clapton was touring on Backless) but he still had his mojo workin’. Clapton followed but was no match for the real thing. Not even close.

So after all these years Clapton decides to go way back to his roots. Maybe to the root of it all. Me and Mr. Johnson has Clapton (and cohorts Steve Gadd, Andy Fairweather Low,Doyle Bramhall II, Nathan East, Billy Preston and Jerry Portnoy) serving up some raw and tasty renditions of 14 (of twenty-nine) Robert Johnson classics (yea, pretty much everything Johnson is classic). My ears (and blues music receptors) were very happy to hear these fine roadhouse-worthy nuggets.

I thought I didn’t need to hear another version of “Come On In My Kitchen”. Yea, well…I was wrong. It just illustrates the universality and power of the blues: Johnson in particular

Do yourself a favor and check out Eric Clapton’s tribute to his main influence. Robert Johnson’s music managed to change Clapton’s life. It might not do the same for you but, hey, you never know.

(Me and Mr. Johnson will be released on March 30th, 2004).

(First posted on Mark Is Cranky)

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About Mark Saleski

  • Eric Olsen

    One of the things the Scorsese series accomplished was reminding me of how anemic most British blues was, but I do see British “blues-rock” as something else and something very worthy in its own right. I find the Blues Breakers and Fleetwood Mac hitting my “real blues receptors” but that’s about it. However I think the best of the British blues-rock of the era to be some of the greatest rock ever: Stones, Cream, Yandbirds, Derek and the Dominoes, Van Morrison, Pretty Things, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Jethro Tull, etc., all had some timeless stuff. But I agree it isn’t “the blues.”

    Great job, I look forward to hearing this.

  • there was a review of this in the boston globe yesterday. the reviewer (steve morse, maybe) said that this recording ‘lacks fire’…but he went on to make comparisons to the stuff clapton did in derek & the dominos, cream, etc.

    i don’t think the comparison is fair because the “rocked out” blues of that era just isn’t what we’re talking about here.

  • I haven’t heard it yet, but I have a difficult time imagining that anything with Nathan East and Steve Gadd could come across as “raw”.

  • i totally see what you’re saying dave. if i hadn’t heard it myself i wouldn’t have believed it either.

    somehow, clapton managed to avoid his tendency to slick things up.

  • True, the root of blues (or any music/cultural form) can only be obtained in its purest form in and around its birth/breeding grounds.

    The British caught the root of the music but when mixed with a different breeding ground a different flavor of the style evolved. Still great stuff (Rattlesnake Shake by Fleetwood Mac?)but it is speaking blues from a different breeding ground. Chicago blues vs. Delta blues is an example.

    One example that will seem a bit far fetched, but is not: the purest form of grunge only comes from Seattle and Portland. The wool lumberjack shirts? Hell, all us rockers could get them at yard sales for cheap since the lumber thing is a big industry up here. Got to dress in layers up here. It is sure a common thing for decades around here. To the rest of the world it became a fashion statement. We kinda just scratch our heads. The political process is so slow, no wonder the music has the social bend it does.

    Anyway. Great musicians are their own thing actually. All you can do is notice what primed their pump. Gotta admit, Pink Floyd is surely blues influenced.


  • David

    One of my problems with Brit Blues is they really narrowed definition of blues. Even as talented a musician as Clapton limited himself to the influence of musicians with little or no jazz influence (according to reviews I’ve read of Elijah Wald’s recent Johnson bio, Wald notes that White people have generally preferred the simpler blues forms, exemplified by Johnson, whereas Black people have generally preferred the more sophisticated and jazz-influenced forms), thereby deliberately arresting the development of his harmonic and melodic conception. Thereafter, the musical vocabulary that had accumulated through a half century of innovative improvisational music became alien to poplular music.

  • David, lumber is over, dear. That has a lot to do with our astounding jobless rate out here. But, so does the decline of high tech.

    I will beat a ‘local’ friend’s drum in regard to covering Johnson, Mark. Steve Miller does a great rendition of “Come On In My Kitchen.” (Lemme me know if you don’t have it and I will send you a copy.)

  • Mac Diva-
    Did you mean Douglas? If so, yeah the economy is sucking big time in the northwest corner of the USA….

  • Rubem Collor

    Much as I admire some of Clapton’s work, I disagree with the reviewer. Me and Mr J is a perverse tribute. It reveals that Clapton has lost most of the feeling he may have had for Robert Johnson’s music. EC’s readings deform the tunes’ moods. Slowhand doesn’t enrich or illuminate his master’s songs. He diminishes them in indolent renditons, soundtracks for television commercials.

  • well, here’s the problem with a tribute like this. does the artist try to make a ‘copy’? ida been interested in an all acoustic version of this.

    part of the reason this record works for me is its swinging roadhouse flavor…but without any of the more rock-oriented blues trappings (read: extended guitar solos)

    i see what you mean about the moood but given johnson’s huge influence in the blues and rock world, there are any number of ways to pay tribute to him.

  • frank tunk

    can you “jump the shark” twice?

    eric, you’ve assured yourself a spot as one of the great rockers, bluesmen, guitarists et al… your place in history is assured. Please stop this regression blues genre!! you’re killin’ me!!

    when an ‘unplugged’ layla came out i just about gagged!! noted for it’s listless slopey slow dulled cadence with all of it’s urgency, GONE!! what was the point? Elberta? couldn’t recognize it!!! syrupy crap!! yes, i think you sold a ton of it but there’s no accounting for taste out there. look at jerry springer’s popularity. you can also play acoustic? big deal, enough already.

    i am a crumby guitarist who is in love with music…all kinds, including blues. grew up in chicago and saw all the great electric ones. also have all the acoustic ones on lp or cd. this thing sounds like me at my most hoped for achievement…a white boy from the suburbs playing for my mates at the local!! “that’s what i’m talkin’ bout”? oy vay!! i thought i almost heard van morrison jump in with his mates from his skiffle album!!! YUK!

    i made a serious dash through it because i found nowhere to stop and listen….all the same with too much harp (great for a little riff here and there but…) and loads too much piano. i know, i know…the tinkering on piano goes along with the acoustic “that’s all we had way back then” idea. IT’S BORING!!! but worse, it can be reproduced by anyone with a small bit of talent, beneath you actually.

    please eric, break out brownie? blackie? oh, you sold em for charity… but something with a pickup? bring back a sense of urgency? take over a song again? we know you can sing. let’s not run through ALL the old songs…STOP!!!


    Authentic blues make me just want to weep. Is any other music quite so beautiful and genius in it’s simplicity? Perhaps their is a god?

  • Nick Jones

    Apropos of “Layla”:

    Nice acoustic version by John Fahey (with Terry Robb on slide) on the album “Let Go”, 1984.