This was originally recorded by the blues musician Robert Johnson in the 1930s. According to legend, Johnson went to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil, giving up his soul in exchange for the ability to play the blues. The story originates from an interview with the blues singer Son House, who explained how Johnson went from being a terrible guitar player to a very good one in a very short period of time. Over the years, the story grew into the tale of Johnson selling his soul to the devil.
Johnson fueled the legend on his track "Me And The Devil Blues," where he sings about his meeting with Satan himself. In that song, Johnson explains that as part of his deal with the devil, the prince of darkness would harvest all of Robert's "Childrens" at the age of 27, which is exactly how old Robert was when he died in 1938. A spooky correlation is the number of music stars who have died at age 27. Some members of the "27 Club" include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Al Wilson (Canned Heat), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones) and Kurt Cobain. (Thanks to music historians Dwight Rounds and Ed Parker for their help with this)
Cream's version is a compilation of parts of two Johnson songs: "Crossroads Blues" and "Traveling Riverside Blues."
Inside the gatefold of the 2-disk LP Wheels Of Fire, the song listings for Sides 3 (including "Crossroads") and 4 are misleadingly subheaded, "Live at the Fillmore." Same with Disk 2 of the 2-CD versions.
"Crossroads" was recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, also in San Francisco. Just one of the four live songs on these two LP sides, "Toad," was actually recorded at the Fillmore, but the Fillmore name had a lot more marketing appeal. "Crossroads" was recorded at Winterland on March 10, 1968, a Sunday, during the first of the two Cream shows that night. "Crossroads" immediately followed "Spoonful" in the performance, whereas on the album, "Crossroads" comes right before "Spoonful."
The version on the album was not edited down, although the booklet for the Crossroads boxed set implies that it was. Eric Clapton didn't like to talk about the song and has said it was an inferior performance because the trio got the time disjointed a bit in Eric's third solo chorus - that is, the first chorus (instrumental "verse") of his second solo. So, he never really praised that performance.
When pressed on the length and editing issues, he might say something along the vague lines of he supposed it was originally longer, because the Cream usually played it longer live.
At the end of the song, Jack Bruce announces, "Eric Clapton, please," over Eric's saying, "Thank you" (both said simultaneously). Eric follows up by saying (probably turning toward Jack), "Kerfuffle." This is British English for "foul-up," referring to the time disjoint back in mid-song.
Clapton played this on a Gibson SG, a solid-body guitar that had been psychedelically painted.
Clapton recorded this song two years earlier in a greatly different form - slower, less urban, Steve Winwood singing, plus a harmonica - though he still gave credit to Robert Johnson.
In March 1966 he was still with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, but he went to do a one-off studio session with, among others, Jack Bruce (bass) and Stevie Winwood (vocals and keys). This group called themselves The Powerhouse, and "Cross Roads" (note space) was one of three songs they recorded. This was the version, appearing on an album with various artists called What's Shakin', that was heard by a young Duane Allman in mid-1966. With his early band The Allman Joys, Duane (with his brother Gregg on vocals) recorded a ragged version of "Cross Roads" soon after What's Shakin' was released, and about two years before the Cream version was released. The Allman Joys' version might have been pretty ragged, but in spirit it actually anticipated the Cream's smoking version, rather than the Powerhouse's take.
Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded this for their One More From The Road
live album. In most ways it is like the Cream's arrangement, but the guitar solos are pretty much different, though they refer to Eric's solo in a few phrases.
Fusion bassist Jeff Berlin
did a version on the 1986 album Pump It!
. It had additional parts - especially an intro and an outro - but was otherwise similar to the Cream's arrangement. Berlin played Eric's solos somewhat note for note, only on bass.
Eddie Van Halen has also covered the song, and Rush (another trio of musicians) covered this on their album Feedback
. John Mayer covered the song on his 2009 album, Battle Studies
Clapton named his 1988 greatest hits compilation Crossroads after this song. In 2004, he released a blues album called Me And Mr. Johnson, the title a reference to Robert Johnson.
Cream played this in 1993 when they reunited for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Crossroads" is the name of Clapton's rehab center in Antigua. Clapton battled depression and drug addiction in the '70s.
In Clapton: The Autobiography
, Eric talks about Robert Johnson's fingerpicking style that had him "simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time." Johnson's sound was very hard to re-create, and it often sounded like more than one guitarist was playing.