Cosmic Rock

The Night That Eric Clapton Played The Double Door Inn

excerpted from 
Home Of The Blues: A History Of The Double Door Inn
by Debby Wallace and Daniel Coston
published 2017 by Fort Canoga Press

PHOTO: Eric Clapton (bottom) with the Legendary Blues Band, June 1982. Credit Pat Shanklin/Double Door Inn archives

By 1982, the Double Door Inn was a busy place. When national acts weren’t packing them in, local acts like the Spongetones, and the Federal Brothers were holding court. Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing the venue for his third and last time, before his management moved him into larger spaces. By this point, Nick Karres had heard a lot, and and seen a lot. One phone call would soon change the course of the Double Door’s history.

“I received a phone call from an executive in New York who told me that we were going to have someone unexpected come into our business in about a month,” remembers Nick Karres. “I had no idea who he was talking about. Later, I was driving home and I heard a radio ad for an upcoming Eric Clapton show at the “Chrome Dome” Coliseum. That was about the same time that we had the Legendary Blues Band scheduled for a show. Back then, that band consisted of many former members of the Muddy Waters Band and they had played with Clapton previously. Jerry Portnoy was also in the band and when I heard the commercial, I felt chills go over my body. 

“The Legendary Blues Band was scheduled for a Monday night show. We told a few people that they might want to drop by, but Clapton did not show. One of the most unusual things that happened was that we already had local musician Bill Noonan scheduled for that Thursday night, and Legendary Blues band had a scheduled gig in Atlanta. Their gig was canceled, and they decided to spend a few days in Charlotte. This was one of the key events that made everything work.”

Clapton was basing his tour out of Charlotte at the same time. He, his managers and entourage were staying at the Radisson Hotel. Portnoy was talking to Clapton during this time and hoping to make something happen. Clapton played the Charlotte Coliseum on Wednesday night, June 23, but he did not come in that night. Many people still believe that this is the night he played at the Double Door after that show, but it did not happen that way. he actually came in on Thursday night, June 24, 1982, after playing a show in Tennessee and flying back to Charlotte. Clapton and Portnoy agreed that he would sit in with the Legendary Blues Band that night at the Double Door, in Charlotte. Then Legendary Blues Band requested to play that night. In fact, Noonan still tells people that [he] got bumped for Clapton. We were never really certain if this appearance would really happen but we wanted to accommodate such a blues legend if at all possible.”

“My band at the time, the Watchcats, were booked at the Double Door on a Thursday night,” remembers Bill Noonan. “When we showed up to set up the PA and gear in the late afternoon, we saw on our poster that the Legendary Blues Band had been added to the bill. That was the band that had just played there the previous weekend, so we were a bit confused. Jo Dawkins, who booked the club at that time, swore me to secrecy and told me that Eric Clapton might show up to play with the Legendary Blues Band. You can understand that we took this news with a bit of skepticism. But, Jo put me in touch with Jerry Portnoy, the harp player in the Legendary Blues Band. The LBB, by the way, was three older black guys, including pianist Pinetop Perkins, who had been Muddy Waters’ backup band, along with a couple of younger Jewish guys from the Northeast, playing traditional Chicago blues. So, I called Jerry Portnoy at the motel where they were staying. Jerry Portnoy could not have been more humble about the whole thing, and apologetic for crashing our gig. He explained that since Clapton, who had played in Charlotte earlier that week, was still in the area, and this was an opportunity for him to play with the guys from Muddy Waters’ old band. So I told him that if it actually came together, come on, and we’d accommodate. 
“That night, we played a first set, then just about the time we were wrapping it up, I looked over to the door and there was Clapton and entourage coming up the steps. I turned to the band and said, ‘One more song, guys’. We played one more tune, and turned it over to them. Jerry came up on the stage, introduced himself and Gary Brooker, the keyboardist from Clapton’s band. Again, they could not have been more polite or appreciative. At that point, we did what we could to facilitate the happening. We got them plugged up. They used our PA and some of our other gear, brought in a couple of their own amps, a Wurlitzer electric piano on loan from Don Tillman at Tillman Music, and then we got out of the way. They got up and played old-school Chicago blues, and Clapton sat in with them in a very low key way, like he was just one of the guys in the band. Obviously for them, it was all about the music.”
(PHOTO: Keith Shackleford)

Clapton came into the Double Door sometime around midnight, and watched the band play for more than an hour. Karres estimates that there were about thirty-five people in attendance when Clapton arrived. Soon after he appeared, a long line at the pay phone in the front began to form, with patrons called friends and anyone else that they could reach. Clapton walked in with a number of people, including his road manager, and members of his band, which included Procol Harum singer and keyboardist Gary Brooker, and guitarist Chris Stainton. 

Dillard Richardson, bass player with the Watchcats, also lent his gear to the Legendary Blues Band. “I had brought my camera with me, but Clapton’s road manager didn’t want any photos taken,” Richardson later recalled. “He made me give my camera to Martino. Later that night, I got Martino to give me back my camera, and I snuck some photos of Clapton onstage. There was not a lot of light onstage that night.” Richardson’s photos are the only photos of Clapton playing at the Double Door, and Richardson would later use those photos as the basis for his painting of that night, which Nick Karres displayed in the club for many years.

By the time that Jerry Portnoy welcomed Clapton to the stage, there were maybe around ninety people actually present. Clapton plugged in a Stratocaster guitar and played five songs with the band, and then one encore, and did not sing. After the show, Clapton hung around with Portnoy and the band in their dressing room, by then known as the bar’s green room. While there, local photographer Pat Shanklin orchestrated a posed photo of Clapton with the band, with Clapton lying on the floor, and this photo remains the best-known picture ever taken at the Double Door.

“Everyone that worked at the club went upstairs after the show to meet him,” recalls Mandrapilias. “I didn’t know what to say! He was very cool. He met everybody that worked there. It was beautiful, and one of the highlights of my life.”

For years after that show, whenever Clapton visited Charlotte, rumors would abound that he might once more stroll into the Double Door Inn again. In the intervening years, the people who “say” that they were there that night has grown well beyond those actual 60 to 90 people. The Double Door would later make a t-shirt for one of its anniversaries. The back of it read, “I was there when Eric played! Yeah, right!”

(PHOTO: Keith Shackleford)


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