Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sonny Boy Williamson with the Yardbirds: "Take It Easy, Baby"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.1.

Clapton started out with the Yardbirds, and for the longest time, your Yardbirds collection started out with Sonny Boy Williamson.

There were a surprising number of real live American bluesmen kicking around Europe in the mid-'60s, brought over to reward the British blues boom for its devotion.  Sonny Boy was the most important of them.

The standard thing seems to have been to pair the visiting blues god with some of his local acolytes as a backing band.  Thus did Sonny Boy play the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond Surrey, backed by the Yardbirds, on December 8, 1963.  All the songs they did that night, plus a few from the night before and a couple months later, have been released;  the first shot was in 1965 on the lp Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds.  The Yardbirds' Sonny Boyless six-song warm-up set has also been released, but it's not that great.  This is a better starting point for the story.

Sonny Boy was one of the four or five most important Chess blues guys, but for the record he's nowhere near my favorite:  his songs tend to all sound the same.  He's essential - for any given three minutes of listening he can make you sound like he is the blues, not nobody else - but a little goes a long way.

Still, on these recordings you can hear what must have impressed British listeners, and players, so much.  In unfamiliar and not necessarily comfortable circumstances he still manages to utterly dominate the proceedings, projecting his personality and his musical vision into nearly every corner of the music.  It helps that he's much more heavily amped than the rest of the band.  His voice is huge, and his harmonica gargantuan, and the pale skinny boys in the background are...unobtrusive.

Which is great if you're listening for Sonny Boy, as you probably should be;  not so great if you're interested in what Clapton was doing at the very beginning of his career.  He only gets to solo on a couple of tracks, and even then it's only a few bars.  "Take It Easy, Baby," a long slow blues, is his longest moment in the spotlight, and so it's where we begin.

For most of the song he comps along in a fairly unobtrusive manner, and that's the first thing we might want to notice.  It's not easy, as I say, because Sonny Boy almost immediately swoops in with his vulture-breath harp and Chicago-tough exhortation to "take it easy baby" (and how exotic must that locution have sounded to British boys in 1963?).  But the first lick of the song is Clapton's, and even though he immediately recedes (in the mix, as well as the arrangement), he can still be heard playing nice chords and fills at appropriate moments everywhere.  It's standard-issue blues guitar accompaniment, nothing to steal the spotlight from the main guy, everything to make a bed for what he's laying down.  And that's the point:  EC could do this, from the very beginning, and sound natural.  The rest of the band, essentially drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, sound understandably nervous and tight - they manage to keep the tempo, and add a few nice rolls here and there, but basically they're stiff.  They don't swing.  But Clapton does.

Sonny Boy takes a solo, half moaning it, and then Eric gets his big moment in the spotlight.  So what does he do?  Plays it like any young man his first time around:  too much, too soon.  It's a 12-bar solo, and for the first six bars he tries to show us everything he can do.  He rushes the beat, he drags the beat, he plays on the off-off-beat, he subdivides the beat, he throws out a blinding series of bends and chirps.  It makes sense if you listen closely, a number of times - it's not chaos - but it's way too fast and energetic for the song.  This goes on for six bars and then, oh yeah, we got six bars to go, and suddenly he slows down, slips into the groove, picks his licks a little more carefully, does a little low trill, and then a quick slicing chord to hand it back to Sonny Boy.  'Cause pale skinny EC is spent.

No comments: