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Clapton Back at Crossroads

Rock legend plays tribute to his "gentle" idol

February 12, 2004 12:00 AM ET

"I should have done it a long time ago," says Eric Clapton about his tribute to the man who first inspired him to pick up a guitar, Robert Johnson. The album, titled Me and Mr. Johnson, is due March 23rd.

Clapton -- whose first lead vocal was a 1966 rendition of Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers -- says he fell in love with the Johnson collection King of the Delta Blues Singers when it came out in 1961; most of the tracks on Me and Mr. Johnson are drawn from that album.

With a band that includes Billy Preston on keyboards and Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall II on guitars, Clapton swaggers through low-key renditions of "Milkcow's Calf Blues," "Hellhound on My Trail" and "32-20 Blues."

"Johnson's style was so complicated that it usually takes two people to copy his sound," says Clapton. "I've always found it necessary to delegate parts of his arrangements to other musicians."

Clapton's favorite track is "Kindhearted Woman Blues." "It was so gentle," he says of the original. "Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House were all rough-sounding guys. Robert Johnson wasn't able to mask his vulnerability."

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