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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Eric Clapton has been reinventing himself musically for more than 40 years now. But the strong pulse of the blues has powered his guitar-playing since the beginning. From The Yardbirds when he was 18…

(Soundbite of song "Boom, Boom")

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Musician): (Singing) Boom, boom, boom, boom. I'm going to shoot you right down.

BLOCK: …on to his stint with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. This is Clapton's first recorded vocal, a Robert Johnson song.

(Soundbite of song "Ramblin' On My Mind)

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) I got rambling, I got rambling all on my mind

BLOCK: Clapton brought the blues to the super group, Cream…

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: …and to Derek & the Dominos.

(Soundbite of song "Crossroads")

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) Tried to flag a ride. Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.

BLOCK: Eric Clapton is 62 now and has just come out with his autobiography. I met him in our New York studios to talk about the blues. We started by talking about his first guitar. It was a steel-string Hoyer made in Germany. He says it was about as big as he was at 13.

Mr. CLAPTON: It was a very cheap guitar. And most cheap guitars, as anyone will tell you who tries to play a cheap guitar, is that they hurt to play. So it kind of put me off in a way. It was - it sounded nice, but it was just such hard work, and I gave up. I mean, so I started playing when I was 13 and gave up when I was 13 and a half.

BLOCK: You were listening to the radio, and I want to play you something. I know you're going to recognize it.

(Soundbite of BBC Radio program with Uncle Mac)

Mr. DEREK MCCULLOCH a.k.a Uncle Mac (Radio Presenter and Producer): Hello, children everywhere. This is Uncle Mac. Good morning to you all. It's here in London on Saturday, the seventh of February. It's quite fine and cold, so far.

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, that's Uncle Mac and he was on, if I remember rightly, Saturday morning. And he would play a variety of music, which mainly was for kids. Most of the time, it would be, I'm a pink toothbrush, you're a blue toothbrush. Have we met somewhere before? Those kind of things, or "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" All those kind of novelty things he would play.

And then, every now and then, he'd play some blues. And I don't know what this guy was on. I've - I can't imagine how it would get snuck into, whether it was his taste or someone else's, his wife's - who knows? And I heard - the first time I heard the blues was on that show - it was I think Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee playing a thing called "Whooping the Blues" or something like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLAPTON: And that's where it started.

BLOCK: What was it about that?

Mr. CLAPTON: I have no idea. I mean, it got to me on a level that nothing else did. And I think it was - I got what they were trying to do. I mean, and I think that, you know, the purity of what they were trying to do on the - everything else that we - you could hear on the radio. I mean, aside from great, classical music or great opera, there was a seriousness about it that none of these other music had. All everything else was novelty and sort of glitchy kind of weird stuff, and that was dead serious.

BLOCK: That felt like the real thing.

Mr. CLAPTON: The real thing.

BLOCK: I'm surprised it didn't make you want to be a harmonica player.

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, it kind of did. But - and I tried to play harmonica, but I couldn't figure it out.

BLOCK: You couldn't do what Sonny Terry was doing?

Mr. CLAPTON: No, no way.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You write in the book about other guitar players who you were listening to, who started influencing your style, and one of them is Big Bill Broonzy.

Mr. CLAPTON: Big Bill was the one I think that got to me on another level above everybody else because he was just an extremely good technician. He was a great player.

BLOCK: Let's listen to his song "Hey, Hey" a little bit.

(Soundbite of song "Hey, Hey")

Mr. CLAPTON: Wow.

(Soundbite of song "Hey, Hey")

Mr. CLAPTON: The thing I like - when you can hear his foot tapping and just the rhythm. It was absolutely perfect, you know?

BLOCK: It's so interesting to me that as you're listening to this, you got a big smile on your face.

Mr. CLAPTON: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: And you still say, wow…

Mr. CLAPTON: Wow.

BLOCK: …even now.

Mr. CLAPTON: Oh, yeah. You - well, I - if I have - I haven't heard this for a couple of months so, I don't, you know, I listen to this stuff all the time, believe it or not, even today. So - but if I don't hear it for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, it comes back with such strength for me.

BLOCK: You write about listening what he was doing, that you were trying to figure out how to do it as a young guitar player, which was bend the notes…

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah.

BLOCK: …make a blue note, you call it.

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: What's that?

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, bending a note up on, you know, the top strings, the first, second string, you can bend from one fret up, say, two frets up. I mean, you just take the string and bend it to one side. And it moves through between being a minor to a major sometimes. And it has some kind of quality - an emotional quality, which - I mean, it's beyond description. It really hits the soul in some way or moves the heart or something.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You say that Muddy Waters is probably the blues player who influenced you the most. You think that's about right?

(Soundbite of song "Honey Bee")

Mr. CLAPTON: Overall, it could be right, yeah. You see, Muddy was there at a time when really the music was getting to me and I was really trying to grasp it and make something out of it.

BLOCK: This is his song, "Honey Bee."

(Soundbite of song "Honey Bee")

Mr. MUDDY WATERS (Musician): (Singing) Sail on, sail on my little honey bee, sail on

BLOCK: And you say you were trying to imitate a tone that he was getting. What was he - what were you taking away from Muddy Waters as a young player when you were learning?

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, the slide playing, and there was a thing he does in part of a - first part of the verse where he sings a line and then he plays - it's like the one that I think you call it a triad. It's a three-finger shape, which you would normally use to make the chord of D.

BLOCK: And you're making that shape in your fingers right now.

Mr. CLAPTON: And I'm making - I just automatically do it.

BLOCK: That's a D, right?

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah, and it's like a bell. It makes the sound of a bell.

(Soundbite of song "Honey Bee")

Mr. CLAPTON: A lot of the time, these guys were symbolizing sounds that they would hear themselves, like the sound of trains and train bells. And that was -it really hooked, it was a hook to me. And I kind of made - this is a sort of milestone for my learning capability. If I can get that, I'm one rung up the ladder.

BLOCK: When you listen to these songs, are you hearing them, in a way, through your fingers right now?

Mr. CLAPTON: I've learned to understand, yeah. I think - I - but, you know, the mystery is that when you actually see sometimes footage of Muddy or people like that, they're not doing anything like what you think they're doing. And so what you've interpreted by listening may not be exactly what they're doing at all.

BLOCK: So you have a different impression in your mind than what they're actually doing?

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah, yeah. I mean…

BLOCK: I guess I'm wondering whether you have like a physical reaction as you hear the music as a player. That you actually…

Mr. CLAPTON: I do, according to what I've learned it to be. And, you know, we did spend some time together. But I was never really comfortable with asking him, you know, technical questions. I wish I had.

BLOCK: You think…

Mr. CLAPTON: I wish I had.

BLOCK: Because you've got quite close. I mean, you say he's like a father figure to you.

Mr. CLAPTON: Oh, we did get - but we never dealt with stuff. We never, you know, I never said, oh, can I - will you show me how to do it? I felt it was inappropriate. It's stupid, really. Maybe - I'm sure it was, it would have been okay.

BLOCK: Were you too proud do you think?

Mr. CLAPTON: I think probably so, yeah.

BLOCK: So what would you talk about?

Mr. CLAPTON: Oh, anything. But see, that was the other thing about Muddy. When I've got to own Muddy, unfortunately, my drinking career was in full sway. So we just kind of - I mean - and he liked to drink too. You know, I mean, there - he wasn't really down on it, but I was definitely not, you know, I was not really there as much as I wish I had been.

BLOCK: And tomorrow on the program, I'll talk with Eric Clapton about his years of drug and alcohol addiction, and how his music survived. You can read an excerpt from "Clapton: The Autobiography" at npr.org.

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