[Slowhand] Robert Johnson, Crossroads ...

DeltaNick deltanick at comcast.net
Sun Oct 5 14:00:00 EDT 2008

>> The earliest Crossroads I'm aware of is the electric, up-tempo version done by EC and the Powerhouse. I assume that provided the basis for the versions with Cream. Was any other artist covering Crossroads in an electric version back then? <<

I remember reading that "Crossroads" is actually a mix of "Crossroad Blues" and "Traveling Riverside Blues," because EC couldn't understand enough words of "Crossroad Blues" to write down several verses. He borrowed words from "Traveling Riverside Blues" to put enough verses together, resulting in "Crossroads." So, "Crossroads" was actually Clapton's rearrangement, and nobody had ever done it before that way, with those words, with that electric guitar riff, which he copied from Robert Johnson. Another version of this story claims that Clapton favored recording "Traveling Riverside Blues," while "What's Shakin'" producer Joe Boyd wanted Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse to record "Crossroad Blues." Clapton was able to compromise by putting verses from both songs together into one titled simply "Crossroads." Whichever story is correct, Clapton gives credit to Johnson as the author of "Crossroads."

Elmore James, who died in 1963, certainly knew the "Crossroad Blues" song, having recorded it as "Standin' At The Crossroads." However, the Robert Johnson album, "King Of The Delta Blues Singers" wasn't released until 1961, on the Columbia Records label, as a 33-RPM LP. Only a few of Johnson's songs were released during his lifetime, as 78-RPM "singles." But why were so many of Johnson's songs known before the entire collection of his recordings were first released in 1961? Was he that popular? In all, Robert Leroy Johnson recorded 29 songs (40 or 41 recordings: he recorded two versions of several songs). So, did Johnson actually write the 29 songs?

A terrific book, explaining Robert L. Johnson's place in the annals of blues, appeared about 3-4 years ago: Elijah Wald's "Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson And The Invention Of The Blues" (Amazon.com link below). It actually "dethrones" Johnson a bit, in that he was actually never very popular when alive. He never had a record album, and his record company released only a few singles. His biggest seller -- I think it was "Terraplane Blues" -- sold only some 5,000 (yes, five thousand) 78-RPM records. In fact, Johnson's legendary popularity stems almost entirely from the Columbia Records release in 1961, "King Of The Delta Blues Singers," some 23 years after his death. It's the one with the brown cover, if you surf through the Johnson albums on Amazon.

There was a companion CD to Wald's book, on the Yazoo label, which illustrated -- quite convincingly -- where Johnson got most of his songs. On most, if not all, of his recordings, Johnson had done exactly what Clapton did with "Crossroads." He simply rearranged other songs that he'd found. Many of these are actually traditional songs: nobody knows the author, if there actually was only one. The companion CD, of the original recordings that preceded Johnson's, is quite interesting, and as I wrote previously, quite convincing. A few legendary bluesmen who knew or saw Johnson were still around in 1961: Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett, and Robert Lockwood, Jr. -- Johnson's "adopted" son, to name just two. They, and some others, added their memories to the evolving legend.

Finally, I've read that while Clapton was still with John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers (1965-1966), a version of "Crossroads" may have been performed, although I don't know who sang it. A recorded live version has never been found, to my knowledge. Keep in mind also that Eric Clapton And The Powerhouse was a studio-only band, which recorded only 4 tracks (January 1966), while its members belonged to other bands. Clapton was in Mayall's band, Winwood and drummer Pete York were in the Spencer Davis Group, Paul Jones and Jack Bruce were in Manfred Mann, and pianist Ben Palmer, who later became Cream's road manager, wasn't in any band at that point.



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