Eric Clapton pays tribute to Robbie Robertson in rare interview: "He was the visionary. I have no doubt that he wrote all those songs"

Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson perform at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007 to benefit the Crossroads Centre in Antigua July 28, 2007 in Bridgeview, Illinois
(Image credit: Lyle A. Waisman/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

"I feel safe to talk to you," Eric Clapton tells YouTuber The Real Music Observer in the video below. By his own admission, the post-COVID Slowhand is now only agreeing to interviewers with him and not established mainstream "journalists", but he's in an open and honest mood, keen to talk about his past and the monumental figures he made history with.

He recounts first hearing The Big Pink by The Band on the best "Mexican grass" he'd ever had in his life and being transported to "another dimension". The impact immediately made him feel deflated about his work with Cream at the time.

"I just thought, 'Oh man, what am I doing this [for] when that has already been going on?'".

While he admitted he'd softened on his feelings about Cream's achievements in retrospect, he was also keen to pay tribute to his late friend and The Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson

"The Band to me was amazing because they were all giants," Clapton reflected. "Every one of them was a giant on his own, and [Robbie] was the visionary. I have no doubt that he wrote all those songs."

Clapton even repeated his desire to join The Band's ranks, despite knowing it could never have worked.

"If you had taken that to its conclusion and Robbie had said, 'Do you want to join?' when I was up there, I may have said yes. But I wouldn't have done that because I was already a celebrity [at the time] and none of them personally, individually, were celebrities. That was their thing – even their name was [about] anonymity. That was also what was magnetic for me because I always wanted anonymity, I wanted to be in the rhythm section. And if that would have been possible to sneak in, even if I'm disguised, and played rhythm guitar then we could have done it. But it was never gonna happen."

Clapton also shared his desire to pay tribute to Robertson by playing a couple of The Band's songs at upcoming solo shows ahead of his appearance at the September 23 and 24 Crossroads festival in LA  – an event Robertson was billed to perform at. However, Clapton admits it will be a challenge to play some of his friend's guitar parts. 

I know him well enough to know he was really precise about what he did

"When people underestimate what he does – they want to try doing it," he notes. "The intros to songs, the little things that sound like they're scrappy and off the cuff, which is part of his unique attractiveness to me – he sounds like he's only just now working out that this will work. I'm sure it's a lot more crafted out than that. I know him well enough to know he was really precise about what he did. It's so difficult to recreate that kind of on the edge of expression [feel] and not making a mistake, not blowing it. It's really, really difficult."

Slowhand also remembered Robertson had a particularly unusual ability for a guitar player. 

"He had hands like a Boxer, said Clapton. "He could play piano but he had very, very wide fingers. Not fat but there's a lot of soul guitar players who do that thing with two strings sliding at the same time, they usually do that thing with [two fingers] sideways on. With one finger he could cover two strings and that's really unusual. "

"He was a dear friend," Clapton added elsewhere. "He had told me about being ill but I never asked him what it was. And I don't really know that I want to know, other than he's gone and it's very very sad. People will never know what a hole it's left for those of us who were around at the time." 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.