I think the silliest question I’ve ever been asked was when I got a call from Warner Brother’s Records, “We were wondering if you would photograph Eric Clapton for his new album? You would also be photographing B.B.King”. I would think the “Yes please” is implied. With a simple “O.K.” we were in preproduction for Eric’s Riding With the Kingalbum package.
Eric had seen a particular convertible Cadillac for sale and had already determined that it was the car for the shoot. He had envisioned a shot of him driving with B.B. in the backseat shot from slightly above. We tracked-down the car and hired it for the shoot. I decided that we would shoot on the backlot of Warner Brother’s Pictureswhere we could have Eric drive in a loop around a block without having to worry about other cars, onlookers and copyrighted branding on the street. We hired a camera truck with a two seat jib so my assistant and I could be positioned in front of, over or beside the car as Eric drove B.B. around the lot.
Eric Clapton possesses a trait that seems impossible (besides his guitar prowess), he can walk through almost any crowd and avoid detection. I don’t know if it’s a skill he’s developed or something intrinsic to his nature but for some reason people tend to look right past one of rock’s greatest treasures on a regular basis. (On a side note, I sat next to him at a crowded theater just a year before this shoot and didn’t realize who he was until the movie ended and we were online for the bathroom together when I recognized his voice.)
Eric arrived and walked right past myself and my crew making his way to his motorhome before we realized he had arrived. I was impressed to see that other than his manager he was alone, no entourage. Shortly after that B.B. King arrived with just his long-time roadie, Norman, carrying his wardrobe. I gathered the two legends together to brief them on the game plan when around the corner comes one of those Warner Brother trams full of tourists. They slowed in front of us and as people got their cameras ready I started to step out of frame so they could get the money shot. Just then the tour director motioned for me to step back into the group and then pointed to Eric and politely motioned for him to step away. I just stood there being photographed with B.B. King while Eric grinned and looked on. To this day I wonder who they thought I was and how angry they would be if they realized the shot they didn’t get.
Before Eric and B.B. arrived we lit the Cadillac from a truck which Eric would follow and got the jib truck that I was suspended from prepped and in place. We also pre-lit a few other shots in the area making use of the Warner backlot for portraits and additional art for the package. As is typically the case, what started out as a pretty simple game plan got interesting fast. The first set up was a single shot of Eric which we had prepped and tested so it was just a matter of getting Eric on set and pushing the button. I was shooting with a trusted Hasselblad and after just a few exposures the lens malfunctioned and we were suddenly troubleshooting gear with Clapton standing idly by…not a good start. Fortunately Eric mentioned, in a good natured way, that technology acted in a similar manner in the recording studio which served to bring everyone’s stress factor down a notch. After swapping out some gear we had the shot in the can and moved on to the next one.
We had made several passes shooting the overhead car shot when Eric thought perhaps he should be wearing a chauffeur’s cap. I think this was a show of respect to B.B. since he didn’t want any confusion who “The King” was in the title “Riding With The King” since technically B.B. was riding and Eric was driving. Fortunately Warner Brothers has there own massive wardrobe department so we sent our stylist running to the Edith Head building for hats. We shot briefly with Eric wearing the hat but ultimately I felt it looked like we were trying too hard and we went back to just the two legends being themselves in a classic car, pure and simple, like blues-based rock and roll. The best part of my day was listening to the stories Eric and B.B. swapped the whole time they were in the car, occasionally B.B. would glance over his shoulder to make sure Norman wasn’t within earshot before telling what he considered a particularly scandalous tale.
There was one more shot I wanted to get of the two of them. I had the W.B. facilities department put letters on the marquis of a theater facade with the album title and their names and thought it would be nice to photograph them with the car and their legendary guitars, Blackie and Lucille. I had contacted my friend, the letterpress master himself, Jim Sheridan from Hatch Show Print in Nashville who sent me some authentic B.B. King concert posters and I scribbled “Eric Clapton is Good” (with one of the “o’s” crossed out) on the theater wall. At Eric’s request we had several license plates for the car mocked-up, I remember one read “Blues”, another “BluesMen” and I believe there was a “RWTK” and “EC BB” among others. I had contacted someone in WB’s legal department to find out what the catalogue number for the album would be and had that put on a plate.
I discussed the shot with Eric and showed him the selection of plates in his trailer while the car was positioned and he naturally gravitated to the “BluesMen” plate which is one that he had requested, after a pause he asked what the random number was all about. When I told him it’s significance we agreed it was the hands-down winner. We slapped the plate on the car, tweaked the lighting, shot some tests to make sure their guitars would read well and made pretty quick work of the shot as the sun was falling fast.
The art was well-received by the label and Eric liked it so much they didn’t stray far from my imagery when they made the video a couple of months later.