As played by Eric Clapton (g and v) on Wheels of Fire, Polydor-Atco, 1968, with Jack Bruce (b) and Ginger Baker (d)

I had heard Eric Clapton before I’d heard of him. In the early 1960s he would have featured in some recordings by the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s band. But it was in 1967 that he made his name individually, when Ginger Baker invited him to join Cream.

This was the time of Disraeli Gears and “Sunshine of Your Love,” and Cream seemed dangerous. The music was big – glowering, throwing its drug-frenzied weight around. But even then, where Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker often seemed frighteningly dissolute (Baker was notorious as a speed freak, the allegation being heightened by his frenzy at the battery), Clapton was the still the still centre of the hurricane. His interest in Robert Johnson brought about a revival in the bluesman’s music and legend – that Johnson had gone down to the crossroads, where he sold his soul for his signature ability to play blues guitar – and in a great deal of African-American blues generally. And of course, for all his stardom, and his finesse as a guitarist, Clapton always has in fact (to my knowledge) been a gentleman.

“Crossroads” was all the scarier insofar as it was packaged in a silver-foil album called Wheels of Fire, all mirror-gleam and psychedelic hallucination, with aggressively psychedelic lettering. And it was paired on the live portion (recorded at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco) of the two-record set with the mostly psychotic, 17-minute “Spoonful.” But it was a hypnotic, thriller scary: good and angry, just like adolescent males who wrote “Clapton is God” on walls and in toilets, and it was much more sophisticated than the pandering heavy metal that followed. Remember “In a Gadda Da Vida?” It only got more troglodyte from there. Distortion was all the rage, but Cream was distortion with measured intent, played by serious musicians.

It wasn’t obvious to a 17-year-old, but if you listen to Johnson’s recordings of the song now, it’s clear that Clapton’s interpretation is faithful, if taken for a bone-rattling spin in a souped-up Chevy (yes, at last poor Robert “flagged” his ride), and not just to the spirit of the thing. This is even clearer in Clapton’s more recent performances of the song (as on his Crossroads Festival recordings), when he dismounts the muscle car and slows things down.

And then there are those solos. I have listened to them hundreds of times, and nearly five decades later (!) they still give me gooseflesh: yes, it turns out that to appreciate this tune you really don’t need adolescent hormonal overdrive. Although they are frequently nominated as among the “greatest rock guitar solos of all time,” Clapton has been dismissive, explaining that he played mostly on the wrong beat (the “off-beat”) – which clam he humbly attributes to why we think it’s “one of the great landmarks of guitar playing. … No wonder people think it’s so good—because it’s fucking wrong.”

Maybe so, but it’s wrong in the right way – the note choice, the natural feel for electric blues, are remarkable, and proved to be both pioneering and typical. In fact, of Clapton’s recorded music of those years (and probably since, but I am not sufficiently familiar with his later work to say), the only time he comes close is on Billy Myles’s “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” on Layla and Other Assorted Songs. It’s no wonder that nearly every guitarist wants to learn Clapton’s “Crossroads.” (You’ll find lessons here, here (holy moly, there are a lot of good guitar players around these days; play on Chelsea!), and here. And for further proof of Clapton’s improvisational talent, hear his solos on the same tune here (with a pretty hot third solo), around the same time.)

Of course the song wouldn’t be the classic it is without Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Much of the time Bruce doubles up as lead guitar on his bass, in perfect complement to Clapton’s riffs and solos, and to Baker’s percussion. Listen particularly for Bruce’s walking notes and bends starting at 1:30 on the YouTube presentation of the first solo, and everything from about 2:32 to the second solo’s end. Afterwards, you’ll find yourself humming those chromatic half-scales ascending at the end of solo two, starting at 3:22, that make you want to blow kisses. (I used to think that they were part of Clapton’s solo.)

The assigned date commemorates Robert Johnson’s death in 1938, age 26. The story goes that he was poisoned by a jealous husband. No one knows if the devil made either man do it.


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