When Eric Clapton Paid Tribute to "Mr. Johnson"

'Me and Mr. Johnson'
Photo Credit
Reprise Records

With his 15th solo album, Eric Clapton finally made good on a lifelong fascination with the music of Robert Johnson, recording Me and Mr. Johnson, an entire album’s worth of his iconic songs.

For those who haven’t followed Clapton throughout his lengthy career, he’s never been afraid to show his love for Johnson, the legendary Delta bluesman who arguably laid the groundwork for the entire genre. Although Johnson died in 1938 when he was only 27 years old, having only done two recording sessions which resulted in a total of 29 songs (plus 13 alternate takes), his work gained prominence after a collection of his work, King of the Delta Blues Singers, was released in 1961. It would inspire a wave of British guitarists, chief among them Clapton, who would cover Johnson's songs as a member of John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, Cream, and as a solo artist. Arguably Johnson's defining song, "Cross Road Blues," went on to inspire the Crossroads title to Clapton's bestselling box set in 1988, the drug rehab facility he co-founded, and the music festival he's organized over the last two decades to benefit said facility.

READ MORE: Five Forgotten Eric Clapton Singles Worth Revisiting

Mr. Johnson began when Clapton started work on writing a new album of original material, but was short of a full album by the time he hit the studio. Clapton then suggested to his band that they play some Robert Johnson songs, and within two weeks they’d managed to lay down 14 of them, including "Hell Hound on My Trail," "When You Got a Good Friend" and "Come on in My Kitchen." (The original material would be completed and released as Back Home the following year.)

"It is a remarkable thing to have been driven and influenced all of my life by the work of one man,” Clapton told Rolling Stone at the time. "And even though I accept that it has always been the keystone of my musical foundation, I still would not regard it as an obsession; instead, I prefer to think of it as a landmark that I navigate by, whenever I feel myself going adrift."

If Clapton was adrift before recording Me and Mr. Johnson, he was clearly back on the right path during the course of the sessions. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in his AllMusic review of the album, “It's been a long time since this guitarist has sounded so comfortable and relaxed, as if he was having fun making music. Some might take issue with this, and others may find the album too slickly produced – admittedly, blues albums should never boast a credit for Pro Tools, as this does – but this is a heartfelt tribute that's among Clapton's most purely enjoyable albums.”

Listeners clearly agreed: Me and Mr. Johnson surprised pundits by peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and becoming one of 2005’s best-selling blues albums.

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