Photojournalist Ronnie LeBoeuf remembers seeing Eric Clapton for the first time like it was yesterday: “He was coming out the Half Moon Bar down on Magazine Street one night and there was a lady that had a baby in her arms and [Clapton] was there on a Harley Davidson Chopper with the open pipes and he got on it and he was getting ready to open it up, rev it up, and he told the lady in his British accent, ‘Hold the baby’s ears.’”
It’s the summer of ’74. Clapton is in town for a concert at City Park Stadium and LeBoeuf, a 22-year-old cameraman for the Times-Picayune, is assigned to cover it.
Just hours before the start of the show, Clapton’s new single “I Shot the Sheriff” blares from the speakers outside of Shopper’s World on Royal Street. AM radio powerhouses WTIX and WNOE play the hit song off Clapton’s new album 461 Ocean Boulevard what seems like every 15 minutes. Rumor has it he’s on tour to pay for his expensive acupuncture treatments. Ticket prices are stiff at $7 and $8 apiece and, according to one local rock critic, “It’s expected to be the biggest deal since the Beatles played City Park in 1964 in their salad days.”
New Orleans has never been far from Clapton’s universe. In his 2007 autobiography, the guitarist revealed a formative Crescent City connection while listening to New Orleans jazz as a young boy in Ripley, England. A teenaged Clapton cut classes at the Kingston College of Art to steal away to a dance hall on Eel Pie Island on the edge of London. “On Saturday night they would have New Orleans jazz bands playing there like Ken Colyer and the Temperance Seven and we loved it,” Clapton wrote. Perhaps just as influential, though, was a stateside encounter circa June 1969. On the way home from a Sha Na Na show in New York City, Clapton and friends stopped by Dr. John’s hotel, where the artist also known as Mac Rebennack performed a song called “You’re Giving Me the Push I Need.”
“It was the first time I had met him and I was totally mesmerized,” Clapton wrote. “Soon after that we went to see him play live, and I just fell in love with him. He’s a wonderful man and an incredible musician. Whether or not he was ever a practicing voodoo doctor, I don’t know, but for my own purposes, at that time, I chose to believe he was.”
At the time, Clapton’s relationship status could be best described as “It’s complicated.” He was in love with George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, and if it took an eccentric witch doctor/musician from New Orleans to cure his lovesick heart, well, he was willing to give it a try.
“When I ran into him at the Lyceum, I told him that I wanted to consult him as a doctor,” Clapton said in 2007. “[Dr. John] asked what the problem was, and I told him that I needed a remedy. ‘What kind of remedy?’ he asked and I told him… ‘A love potion.’ Clapton was just calling the bluff of the legendary Night Tripper at first until Dr. John probed him for more information. “So I told him I was deeply in love with the wife of another man, and that she was no longer happy with him, but wouldn’t leave him,” Clapton wrote. “He gave me a little box made out of woven straw and told me to keep it in my pocket, and gave me various long-forgotten instructions as to what do with it. I do remember that I did exactly as I was told.”
The results of Dr. John’s handiwork were not immediate. While it was the beginning of what Clapton called a “semi-clandestine” affair between Eric and Pattie, she had no imminent plans to leave George. The pair wouldn’t marry until 1979. Cinderella and witchcraft are sometimes better late than never.
“Layla” was the love child born out of Clapton’s obsession with Boyd. Clapton would play the however indirect breakthrough from his counseling session with the good doctor, among the greatest classic rock guitar songs of all time, that July 31, 1974 night in City Park Stadium. Ronnie LeBoeuf recalls the scene well.
“It was a packed stadium, [there] may have been 20,000 people there and I was on the field right in front of the stage. It was mesmerizing. Clapton was at his peak. He came out and it was a really nice night, a clear night and I got a great shot of him just wailing on the guitar with the full moon in the background.”
Ronnie LeBoeuf will be there when Eric Clapton plays the New Orleans Arena on March 23, this time as a fan—no Kodachrome—no photos to worry about.