10 March 2010

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 114]

b/w "Passing The Time"
Written by Robert Johnson
Produced by Felix Pappalardi
Atco Records 6646
Released July 1968

On 10 March 1968, the British "supergroup" Cream was at the end of a 10-night live stand in San Francisco at Winterland Ballroom (the band had also played a couple of nights at The Fillmore as well during this span). Captured on tape was arguably the greatest single live track in rock and roll history. But the man made internationally famous by the song, Eric Clapton, never liked to talk about it, and reportedly said the performance was inferior because the trio got the time disjointed a bit in his third solo chorus.

Cream (originally christened The Cream) consisted of Clapton on lead guitar, Jack Bruce on bass guitar and Ginger Baker on drums. Bruce assumed the great majority of lead vocal duties for the band; Cream had burst onto the scene with the smash single "Sunshine of Your Love" and the top five album Disraeli Gears in 1967. But from its inception, the focus had been on the blues and the band's unique "heavy" sound in transposing that traditional genre.

At Winterland on this particular night, Cream launched into "Crossroads," a staple of their set. The song was an amalgamation of "Cross Road Blues" and "Traveling Riverside Blues," both penned by legendary (and mysterious) bluesman Robert Johnson in the 1930s. While Clapton's guitar playing was already being lauded by fellow musicians and the average rock fan (the latter scrawling the now famous screed "Clapton Is God" on the walls of the London Underground), the young guitarist found Johnson's sound very hard to re-create, because it often sounded like more than one guitarist was playing. In Clapton: The Autobiography, he talks of Johnson's fingerpicking style that had him "simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time."

Maybe the story of Johnson's deal with the devil at the crossroads rubbed off on Cream on stage, because they surely caught lightning in a bottle here. Listening to previous or subsequent live recordings of this song by the group, the level of ferocity of Cream never comes close to this single, later included on the double LP Wheels of Fire. Clapton takes the mike on lead (rare enough that Bruce - or is it Baker? - famously remarks at the end of the recording, "Eric Clapton, please . . . the vocal") and more notably fills the air with phenomenal guitar licks emanating from his solid body Gibson SG. But what is overlooked is the
incendiary bass playing of Bruce, at his very best here, keeping beat for beat with Clapton while Baker provides fills at every opportunity.

"Crossroads" was never released as a single in the UK. But it became a staple on the emerging underground FM scene when included on Wheels of Fire, which became the first platinum selling double album. It is the prototypical example of Clapton's genius on the live stage and the recording is always listed at the top of any lists of greatest live performances in rock history.

Listen to "Crossroads" here.

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