That time Eric Clapton auditioned for — and was rejected by — the Band

'I thought, my God, these guys are real serious," the guitar icon says.

'I thought, my God, these guys are real serious," the guitar icon says.

Eric Clapton in a still from his new doc, Life in 12 Bars. (Tiff.net)

By Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Eric Clapton admits to not remembering much from large chunks of his legendary career — drinking and drugs will do that — but he vividly remembers the first time he heard the Band's Music from Big Pink

"I was given an acetate of Big Pink back in England and it shook me to the core," he said during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote his doc, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars. "I was in Cream at the time with already the notion that it wasn't going in the right direction, and I thought, well this is what it is. I knew who Robbie Robertson was but I didn't realize that was their group. I thought they just appeared. I thought they were all from the Mississippi Delta."

So Clapton, doing what Clapton does, ventured out to test the waters and see if he could be a part of what the Band was doing in Woodstock, N.Y., even though he was technically still in Cream. As Robertson writes in his memoir, Testimony, Clapton called them up and asked if he could visit Big Pink, the house they were writing and recording in. "Eric was such a gentleman when he arrived, and pleased to be in our surroundings," Robertson wrote. "All of us lived quite privately, and I hoped Eric wouldn't find it too low-key and boring."

Clapton describes their first encounter as a clash of two cultures: he in bright bellbottoms and a frilly blouse, the de facto uniform of the hippie era, and the band dressed like they just came off the line in the factory.

"They were magnificent heroes for me," Clapton said. "And so I went up to jam with them, and it's [the] same sort of thing that happened with the Aretha [Franklin] sessions: I show up with all this paraphernalia on, the guys are all in work clothes, and I thought, well, are we going to jam? They said, 'We don't jam, we write songs and play the songs.' ... I thought, my God, these guys are real serious."

Clapton admitted many years later when he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame that his intention was, quite frankly, to join the Band, although according to Robertson in his memoir, he never quite gathered the courage to do it. "I jokingly asked if he was suggesting that we could have two guitar players, or did he want to take my job?" he writes. "He never answered."

While Clapton didn't join the Band, he did go on to form Derek and the Dominoes and work with another rock icon, Duane Allman, whose distinct guitar work became a key sound on hit songs such as "Layla."

As for the Band, Clapton remained friends with the members and still credits The Basement Tapes and Music from Big Pink as a huge influence on his career.

"They were craftsmen, and they got it right," Clapton said. "Everything went on that record when it was right. Robbie is still a dear friend — I will see him soon — and that changed my life."