In the same way that Louis Armstrong was at center of the genesis of Jazz in the 1920s, Eric Clapton at the center of the British Blues invasion of the 1960s. In the early years (1965-1971) Clapton was a member of the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and Derek and the Dominoes. My favorite bands on this list were Blind Faith and Cream.
I listened to the songs I feel Free, Spoonful, Born on a Bad Side, and Crossroads over and over once I added the Cream albums to my collection. In particular, the vocal harmonies and guitar work of I Feel Free captured my attention. I still listen to the song with some amazement, wondering how the arrangement was conceived by Jack Bruce and the interpreted by Ginger Baker and Eric into the form we hear on the Fresh Cream album. It is a truly original song. As for Blind Faith, their single album was very difficult to locate because of problems with the cover image. I listened to the song Can’t find my Way Home any time I can find access.
Over the next 34 years, Eric released about 25 recordings. In 2004 Eric published the recording that firmly justified his senior position in the blues community. Me and Mr. Johnson (album #16) is Eric Clapton’s authoritative interpretation of Robert Johnson’s songbook delivering 14 out of the 29 known Johnson songs. This album and Riding with the King (2000) are my two favorite blues albums from Eric.
Clapton’s arrangement philosophy in Me and Mr. Johnson is defined by the early electric guitar band sound one could have heard in the early ’50s in Chicago or Memphis (Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, or Walter Jacobs albums). The album helps me to define a path to transition acoustic rural blues into electric urban blues, while giving homage to both.
Clapton articulates the songs by finger picking an electric guitar, following a style similar to Johnson on his acoustic guitar yet emulating the Chicago electric blues style. His warm overdriven guitar dominates the songs When You’ve Got A Friend, Little Queen of Spades, and Kind Hearted Woman. I learned much from this album on how to use the Chicago and Memphis blues approach for phrases in my personal phrase library.
The signature sounds of Me and Mr. Johnson are a significant recording for me, they help to define the history and articulate the life stories contained within the songs. Some may view this album in the same way they view vintage guitars – the instrument retains their mystique only as long as they are completely untouched and presented exactly as they were in the day they were created. But for me, the modern interpretation of older blues songs by Eric provides an expert guide of the nuances that exist in the song I might have missed with my untrained ear, but he did not miss.
When all the original blues guys are gone, you start to realize that someone has to tend to the tradition. I recognize that I have some responsibility to keep the music alive, and it’s a pretty honorable position to be in. – Eric Clapton