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Eric Clapton plays the devil's music
Updated: 2004-03-31 14:39

Of course, Eric Clapton remembers the first time he heard Robert Johnson's music.

Eric Clapton has recorded several Robert Johnson songs through the years -- including "Crossroads" with Cream -- but never a whole album's worth.
He was 15. Already an aspiring blues guitarist, he would play a limited repertoire in the corner of a pub. Clapton and a friend used to buy blues albums, unheard, simply because they were intrigued by pictures on the cover.

One day, his friend brought a copy of Johnson's "King of the Delta Blues" album to the pub. The friend didn't particularly like it.

"I didn't know quite what to make of it, either," said Clapton, who nearly 45 years later has recorded an album solely composed of the late Johnson's songs. The CD, "Me and Mr. Johnson," was released Tuesday.

"It was the first record I'd heard that didn't have any kind of attempt to be entertaining," he said. "It was just simply what it was. As I listened to it more and more, it got stronger each time I would go back to it. It was my first experience of music happening that way, that each time you listened to it something more would be revealed."

He heard the attributes of adolescence -- low self-esteem, loneliness, sexual desire and frustration -- expressed in raw form through Johnson's voice and guitar.

"It became like a beacon to me, that album," Clapton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

It still is.

Throughout his career, Clapton has repeatedly turned to Johnson -- the composer of "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Crossroads," who, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent -- when he found himself drifting musically.

"I get in touch with the little boy, the adolescent, again and I find that very invigorating," he said. "It's like when people tell me, 'My wife and I got married to `Wonderful Tonight.' I mean, from my point of view, `Wonderful Tonight' is a nice little song, but for someone else, it has tremendous significance. It all has to do with what they experienced."

'I kind of intuitively knew'

Clapton had his band record a Johnson song every time it reached an impasse in the studio.
Clapton had his band record a Johnson song every time it reached an impasse in the studio.

The Mississippi-born Johnson recorded only a few dozen songs in the 1930s, but became the prototype blues legend when he died at 27 under mysterious circumstances.

Nearly two years ago, Clapton and his band went into the studio to lay some groundwork for a new album. They worked on a few original compositions and some covers, including one Johnson song, "Travelin' Riverside Blues."

When Clapton brought a CD of the session's highlights home, he found that all he wanted to listen to was the Johnson song.

The band returned to the studio last summer, again with the intent to make a conventional album. But Clapton had a little exercise in mind. Every time the band reached an impasse in recording, he'd suggest they play a Johnson song. For fun.

"All the time, I kind of intuitively knew that I was going to make a Robert Johnson album," he said.

For Clapton, it was almost a case of now or never for paying tribute to his childhood idol. He's turning 60 next year and, he said, "I'm not sure when I'm going to be on the decline."

One of the reasons it took him so long is that he was unsure of an approach. Do you try to stay true to Johnson's original recordings or use them as a starting point for new interpretations?

"It has taken me to this stage in my career or my life to be man enough to tackle it," he said.

He told his band to perform the compositions as if they were in a bar playing an ordinary blues song, and the words were all they knew.

"That way, the album gets to have some different flavors," he said. "Otherwise, everything would wind up sounding pretty much the same."

Normally, a record company would recoil in horror when a big star wanted to make a cover album. But Clapton's history with blues obviously runs deep. When he's explored it, most notably with the "From the Cradle" album, his fans have responded.

Raising awareness

The cover of "Me and Mr. Johnson."
The cover of "Me and Mr. Johnson."

Clapton is preoccupied with two other projects this spring. He's organizing a three-day guitar festival, planned for June 4-6 in Dallas, to raise money for Crossroads Centre Antigua, the drug and alcohol treatment center he founded in 1997. Clapton is also auctioning off guitars as another fundraiser for the Crossroads Centre.

Clapton will perform at his own guitar festival, of course, along with Carlos Santana, Steve Vai, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Brian May, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Vaughan and others.

Clapton has mentioned, during his 2001 "Reptile" tour, that it might be his last extended concert tour. But with the Dallas festival on the horizon, he and his band will hit the road.

"I can't just do that (the Dallas performance) because I'd no way be able to play well," he said. "We've got to be in pretty good shape. We've got to do a tour first just to get ready. We're touring Europe through March and April to warm up."

Then, following Dallas, he'll do a tour of the United States "to kind of wind down."

The guitar auction will take place on June 24 in Christie's, the New York auction house. Clapton is donating more than 50 of his own guitars, with other instruments donated by Vai and Pete Townshend.

It includes a cherry red Gibson Clapton bought "with my first real money from the Yardbirds," that has the case with Cream stamped on it.

"I've used it all through my career," he said. "It's the first proper electric guitar I ever had. That one is probably the most valuable."

He'll hold back a couple of guitars to work with and then build up his collection again.

"You're talking about people coming out (of the treatment center) with a new life," he said. "What's a guitar?"

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