Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Eric Clapton - Me and Mr. Johnson (2004)

When it first came out I quickly picked up a copy of Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson before ever hearing a note. I played it a couple of times and then sold it. Looking back on it later I wasn't sure why we parted ways and I regretted my decision.

I haven't heard Clapton's fourteen song tribute to bluesman Robert Johnson (perhaps the founding member of the 27 Club) in many years so when I found a used copy recently for only $1.99 I picked it up again and listened to it intently in my car. Given a second chance this still isn't the album it could have been but it is a keeper.

The former Bluesbreaker and Domino who also was in Cream and Blind Faith assembled an outstanding band of all-stars. Steve Gadd played drums, Nathan East was on bass, while Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II accompanied the star on guitars. Jerry Portnoy contributed very fine harmonica. Pino Palladino (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums) also assisted on one track, "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Then there was the undisputed star of the sessions, Billy Preston on piano and organ. Just like he did with The Beatles on Let It Be many years earlier his virtuosity on all fourteen Johnson composed songs elevated the sessions to heights they may not have reached without him. Based on these two records alone one could make a case that Preston is one of the most impressive sidemen in rock history.

Preston's organ work and solo on "Little Queen of Spades" steals the show. His barrelhouse piano on "They're Red Hot" and "32-20 Blues" is also superb.

As for Clapton, other than singing lead, he seemed to lose himself inside the band and that's what is missing. This critically acclaimed set needs more of him as he was on another Johnson song he starred on way back in the day, Cream's "Crossroads." While we all know that Clapton's work on Mr. Johnson was truly a labor of love it wasn't always apparent. This is why there is a lot of room for Preston to shine.

Johnson, of course, influenced many and he sometimes wasn't even credited (His final lines from "Traveling Riverside Blues" were completely appropriated by Led Zeppelin on their 1968 album track "The Lemon Song") but he has never meant more to anyone than he does to Clapton. Inside the CD's gatefold he wrote that Johnson's work was "the finest music I ever heard. I have always trusted its purity and I always will..."

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