By Christopher Scapelliti
Throughout his long career, Johnny Cash straddled musical borders, including those of country, gospel and rockabilly. His appreciation of music knew no boundaries, a fact that was evident not only on his recordings but also on his short-lived variety program, The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from June 1969 to March 1971 on ABC.
Cash certainly demonstrated it on this day 45 years ago, when he introduced his country music–loving audience to a group that perhaps few of them had ever heard of: the blues-rock group Derek and the Dominos, fronted by Eric Clapton and featuring keyboardist/guitarist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon.
Derek and the Dominos were unknown in the U.S. at the time this show was taped, on November 5, 1970, in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The group’s sole studio album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, would not be released until four days later. (The album also helped to bring greater exposure to guitarist Duane Allman, who performed on many of its tracks and whose star was rising thanks to the growing success of his own group, the Allman Brothers Band.)
At the time of the taping, Derek and the Dominos were in the midst of a short U.S. tour that would conclude in December with little fanfare. Though Layla is today regarded as one of the great achievements in rock music, the album received little attention upon its release and didn’t have a chart single until March 1972, when its title track made the Top 10 in the U.K. and U.S. Long before then, Derek and the Dominos had broken up. In fact, by the time this performance aired on January 6, 1971, they were, for all intents and purposes, finished as a group.
The clip begins with Cash introducing the group to his audience, after which Derek and the Dominos perform “It’s Too Late,” the Chuck Willis–penned track that preceded “Layla,” the penultimate track on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Cash was perhaps self-conscious about presenting a group of rock musicians on his show. Right at the outset, he makes a point of breaking down any barriers between his Nashville audience and the band, saying, “If you detect any country blues picking in the song you’re about to hear, you’re right.” Cash continues to make his point following the group’s performance, when he gives a nod of appreciation for the reception he received when playing in England, Clapton's home country. Clapton, in return, acknowledges the importance of American country to English musicians. While the exchange was most likely staged, it was entirely sincere. From folk to blues to rock and roll, American musical genres influenced British musicians in the Fifties and Sixties like no other, as Clapton would readily acknowledge time and again.
As it happened, Cash also had Carl Perkins on his show that night. Perkins and Cash had both been stablemates at Sun Records in the Fifties, and their friendship continued through the years. Given that Perkins had himself been a huge influence on British musicians—most notably the Beatles, and particularly, George Harrison—it only made sense that Cash and Perkins would jam with Derek and the Dominos, choosing the Perkins hit “Matchbox” for the occasion.
You can watch the entire performance in the first video below. We’ve also included individual videos for each song, if you prefer to watch them that way. Enjoy this blast from the past.