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The Blues Get a Slowhand from Eric Clapton

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Now that Eric Clapton’s collection of covers has become the first blues album ever to debut at No. 1 on Billboard‘s album chart, everybody’s wondering: Is the often-anticipated blues revival finally getting under way?

Looking at upcoming releases, you might think so. The issue of a Robert Johnson postage stamp will coincide roughly with Columbia’s rerelease of his classic King of the Delta Blues Singers; a future album by ZZ Top will be blues-themed; and artists such as Freddie King, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly continue to be staples for rerelease specialists like Columbia’s Legacy division, Rhino records, and even maven of mail-order mediocrity K-Tel, which currently offers five blues collections.

Some major labels appear to be so optimistic, they’ve even started blues divisions. Mike Vernon, head of Atlantic’s new Code Blue affiliate, thinks Clapton’s not the only artist who can chart: ”What’s to stop a blues act from having a hit single? It happened in the ’50s and ’60s. Why not again in the ’90s?”

But attitudes like Vernon’s may reflect wishful thinking. Even Clapton’s label seems wary. Says Warner Bros.’ Bill Bentley: ”I don’t think the interest in blues will be mass. I mean, it’s just a little too real and too raw for a lot of people.” Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records agrees. His independent label has been putting out about 12 contemporary blues records a year, typically selling in the 15,000 to 50,000 range — peanuts by the standards of a major like Warner. ”I think Eric intends to leverage his popularity into greater popularity for the blues,” says Iglauer, who obviously would welcome a revival. ”But when the big labels discover you can make money in the blues, but you can’t make money fast unless you have Eric Clapton, they will probably not stay in the blues business.”