Friday, November 18, 2011

November 19, 1970: Derek and The Dominos, Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA

The cover to the January 1973 album Derek & The Dominos In Concert, recorded October 1970
How did 16-year old Neal Schon, future guitarist for Journey, come to be playing on stage with Eric Clapton and Derek and The Dominos on November 19, 1970? At the time, Schon was a high school dropout and playing in a local band, but he had not yet joined Santana, much less Journey. Yet there he was, invited to join rock music's most famous living guitarist on stage at a headline concert in Berkeley. The story of how this came about was a reflection of a time when rock guitarists were visiting gunslingers, and meeting at High Noon was the order of the day. That era would soon pass, and Clapton's appearance at Berkeley seems to be about it's last manifestation.

Derek And The Dominos
By 1970, Eric Clapton was perhaps rock music's most famous and respected lead guitarist, as a result of his stellar work with Cream. Cream established the idea that rock musicians were potentially the equal of jazz musicians, and hearing them play live was a unique experience that, by definition, could not be repeated. Only Jimi Hendrix had eclipsed Clapton's stature as a guitarist, and after his unfortunate death on September 18, 1970, Clapton was alone at the top of the tree. That isn't to say that many rock fans couldn't make a good argument that Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jerry Garcia or someone else wasn't "better" than Clapton, whatever that might mean, but Clapton was the standard by which all other rock guitarists were judged.

Clapton had been unhappy with what he considered the self-indulgence of Cream's music, and he had become enamored of The Band and their album Music From Big Pink. Clapton wanted to put his formidable guitar playing in the service of a group playing songs, rather than improvisation for it's own sake. He had joined Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker, but the massive hype overwhelmed the project. He then tried to be just a sideman, playing lead guitar for Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and in that case the fact that Clapton wasn't out front enough let his fans down. Delaney Bramlett produced Clapton's first solo album in 1970, but Clapton was still unsure of himself.

When Clapton started to tour in support of his Eric Clapton album, he insisted on being billed as Derek And The Dominos. The core of the band was Delaney and Bonnie's rhythm section, drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle, guitarist Dave Mason and organist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock. Mason only played the very first concert (London, June 14, 1970), and then left the group, but Clapton was on the lookout for another guitarist. When the Dominos recorded the immortal Layla album in Florida in the Fall of 1970, Clapton found his co-pilot in the great Duane Allman. Duane had his own band, however, and his Allman Brothers obligations kept him from touring with Derek And The Dominos (save for two shows in Tampa and Syracuse, of all places).

However, when Derek And The Dominos set out on their American tour in the Fall of 1970, Layla had not yet been released, and the name Derek And The Dominos meant nothing. The band was generally billed as "Derek And The Dominos featuring Eric Clapton." The band toured as a quartet (Clapton/Whitlock/Radle/Gordon), and while they did a few numbers from the Layla album, which was released in November of 1970, the tour was perceived as an Eric Clapton solo tour. Nonetheless, Clapton, after his great experience with Duane Allman in the studio, was looking for a guitarist to trade licks with on stage.

Welcome To San Francisco
Thanks to the Fillmore and The Fillmore West, San Francisco had been a sort of rock mecca in the 1960s. One of the rites of passage for touring English bands when they played the Fillmores in the '60s had been an invitation to jam with the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane, if they were in town. There was an appeal and the hint of a threat in this. The Dead and the Airplane saw rock music as serious Art, and themselves as striving to be like jazz musicians. Bands whose members felt likewise would find themselves challenged by the opportunity to play with the local heroes, particularly if they were all dosed to the gills on Owsley's finest. The implication was that a real psychedelic gunslinger would be delighted to spend a free afternoon jamming with the Dead or the Airplane, zonked out of their minds, while lightweight musicians were just possibly a bit chicken.

Some great friendships and alliances grew up between visiting English bands and the San Franciscans: Jimi Hendrix wanted Jack Casady of the Airplane to join his band, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac found his music transformed by the free-flowing jamming of the Grateful Dead, and so on. There were some negative implications, too: Jimi Hendrix blew off a jam with the Dead one night, and when--according to legend--he showed up the following night at the Avalon hoping to jam with the Dead, Jerry Garcia refused to invite him on stage (October 13, 1968, if the legends are true).

By 1970, most of the English bands had been through San Francisco, and in any case the local bands were mostly on tour, so the jamming ritual kind of faded away. However, the major San Francisco attraction for visiting musicians in 1970 was the group Santana, who had become an international sensation following the release of their debut album in August, 1969. While the Santana members were all nice guys, they were all hard driving musicians who liked to show visitors how well they played. Clapton had missed some of the early business of jamming with the locals, so when Derek And The Dominoes showed up in San Francisco in November, Clapton accepted an invitation to jam with Santana in the studio. The Santana members were all big fans, of course, but there was the implied challenge--six-strings at High Noon.

Neal Schon and Santana
By 1970, Santana was looking to add some additional members, particularly another guitarist. With only Carlos Santana on guitar and Gregg Rolie on organ, they had a hard time keeping up with the awesome rhythm section featuring three drummers. Neal Schon was a high school dropout who was playing with a band from suburban Redwood City, CA called Old Davis. Old Davis had been playing Peninsula gigs for years, never really breaking out of the local mold, but with enough of a following to kind of make a living. Rolie and drummer Mike Shrieve, both from the South Bay themselves, heard Schon play with Old Davis at a Palo Alto club called The Poppycock, and invited him to jam with Santana. This wasn't casual--they had an eye towards adding Schon to San Francisco's hottest band.

Coincidentally, one of the days when Schon was jamming with Santana was the day when Clapton was jamming with them as well. Derek And The Dominoes were headlining two nights at the Berkeley Community Theater, and on the afternoon of the second day, Clapton came by the rehearsal studio to hang out and play. Clapton passed the musical test with Santana easily, of course--whatever his own reticence about his fame, Clapton was a sensational player with a guitar in his hands. The surprising part to Clapton was the presence of Schon. Clapton was so taken with Schon's playing that he invited him to sit in with Derek And The Dominos at Berkeley that very night.

A 21st Century shot of the back of Berkeley Community Theater
Berkeley Community Theater
The Berkeley Community Theater was (and is) on the grounds of Berkeley High School, at Alston and Martin Luther King Jr Way (then Grove Street). However, although it serves as the Berkeley High auditorium, it is also the principal performance venue for the city of Berkeley, seating about 3500. In 1970, it was the largest available seated venue short for rock concerts short of the giant Oakland Coliseum, which often had conflicts with basketball or other events. It was also considerably larger than the Fillmore West, so acts that could easily sell out Fillmore West were often moved over to the Community Theater. Derek And The Dominos were headlining two nights there, supported by the now-obscure Toe Fat (Toe Fat featured Ken Hensley, later in the better known Uriah Heep).

The setlist for the November 19 Derek And The Dominos show was:
Got To Get Better In A Little While
Key To The Highway
Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad
Tell The Truth
Mean Old World
Little Wing
Blues Power
Have You Ever Loved A Woman
Let It Rain
Little Queenie
Neal Schon played on stage with the band for most or all of the show. There is a mediocre audience tape of the show circulating, but its hard to hear for certain whether Schon plays on every song, but there are definitely two guitarists. Pretty heady stuff for a 16-year old to be invited on stage to sit in with the most famous rock guitarist in the world, on pretty much no rehearsal. According to legend, Schon did so well with Derek And The Dominos that Clapton asked him to join the band.

The remarkable thing about Clapton's job offer to Schon, however it exactly may have occurred, was that Schon turned him down. Schon had gotten another offer from Santana, supposedly earlier in the day, and he preferred playing with them. Imagine--how many High School dropout guitarists are there, dreaming that if they just got the chance they could show the biggest rock artists in the world how good they were. Neal Schon not only had the opportunity, he got job offers from both Clapton and Santana, both on top of their respective universes at the time.

I suspect the actual reality of Schon's situation was a little more complex. Both Santana and Clapton had management, and the actual sequence of events was a little more complex and somewhat duller. Nonetheless, the outlines of the story are fixed by the timeline: Clapton was only in the Bay Area for a few days, invited Schon to jam with him on stage and must have made some kind of job overture before he left town. Whatever the Santana crew had been planning, they would have had to step up to the plate quickly to keep Schon in their camp, and they succeeded.

Schon's instincts were correct. Derek And The Dominos only lasted another few weeks on tour, and after some abortive sessions in London the next year they disintegrated. Santana, on the other hand, went from strength to strength, and Schon joined the band for Santana III (which included "Everybody's Everything," among other famous tracks). After a few years touring the world with Santana, Schon went on to even greater success with Journey. Even today, however, there has to be a lot of hot guitarists, young or old, who think, "man, if I could just jam with Eric, I know he'd invite me on stage." It really happened to Neal Schon.

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