Eric Clapton was often in an interpretative mood in the early and mid-1970s. In addition to expanding his own songbook, on albums such as 461 Ocean Boulevard and There’s One In Every Crowd, he released a sequence of cover version singles that showed his eclectic taste.
They included songs by Bob Marley (“I Shot The Sheriff”) and early rock’n’roller Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) as well as an early 20th century spiritual (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). Then on August 16, 1975, “Slowhand” made the UK charts with a Bob Dylan number that had, only two years before, given Dylan one of his signature songs of the 1970s. Now it was Eric’s turn, musically speaking, to be “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
Commercially, it was far from a milestone, but its origins were unusual, and Clapton’s version is also notable in that it never appeared on an original studio album. Early in 1975, he played on a reggae-flavored remake of the Dylan composition by blues-rock artist Arthur Louis, and it inspired him to do his own recording.
The two singles ended up competing with each other that summer; Louis’ earned an admiring “works well” comment from Billboard, but Eric’s effort unsurprisingly came out on top. Only in the form, though, of a minor UK Top 40 entry, and he missed the Hot 100 altogether.
“Eric Clapton Month”
Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” had been a top 15 pop success in both the US and UK, and made the Top 10 in Australia and Canada. Clapton’s reading, released as usual on the RSO label, entered the then-50-position UK singles chart at No.48, climbing to 39 and then 38, but it would go no higher. RSO, meanwhile, declared August “Eric Clapton Month,” with the release of his new live album E.C. Was Here and the start of the second leg of his North American tour, in which “Heaven’s Door” featured.
In the US, the release’s only singles recognition came with a mention at No.109 on Cashbox‘s Looking Ahead listing; its best showing around the world was a No.31 peak in the Netherlands. The track went on to be included on several compilations, such as The Cream of Clapton and Complete Clapton, and returned to the set list for some of his subsequent tours.
Clapton had met Dylan in the 1960s, when the English guitar hero had what he described in his autobiography as a “healthy prejudice” towards him, until he heard Blonde On Blonde, and “finally got it.” Eric played a less than satisfactory session for Bob during the sessions for what became the Desire album. But their next encounter was much more productive, when Dylan accepted the invitation to contribute a song to Clapton’s 1976 album No Reason To Cry.
Eric recounted that Bob told him he penned the number, “Sign Language,” “in one setting, without any knowledge of what it was about.” Clapton told him that didn’t matter at all, and after overdubbing Robbie Robertson onto the recording, it became his favourite track on the record. The mutual respect between two undisputed giants of music had been strengthened even further.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is on the compilation The Cream of Clapton, which can be bought here.
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