When Neal Schon Said No to Joining Derek and the Dominos
It's impressive enough that Neal Schon was just a teenager when he joined Santana. But before he started his distinguished career trading licks with a legend, Schon turned down a job offer from another guitar god: Eric Clapton.
Clapton was on tour with Derek and the Dominos in the fall of 1970, playing in support of his new Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs LP. The Dominos' loose, shifting structure invited lineup changes, and Clapton's guitar foil on the Layla record, Duane Allman, was already back at his main gig with the Allman Brothers Band, so a second chair was theoretically open for the right player.
Schon, meanwhile, was busily making a name for himself in the Bay Area, and by the fall of 1970, he'd started drifting into the Santana orbit — so when Clapton and Santana arranged a studio jam session in advance of the Dominos' Nov. 19, 1970, gig at the Berkeley Community Center, Schon got the nod to join in. Although he was obviously skilled enough to stand toe-to-toe with Clapton and Santana, the magnitude of the occasion wasn't lost on him.
"Eric came in the studio, Santana was in the studio, we were jamming," Schon later told Noise11. "I got to jam with Clapton that night. I was astounded he was in the room. He was one of my biggest idols."
Things got even more surreal for Schon the following day, when he received a phone call from Clapton inviting him out to Berkeley. After bumming a ride out to the theater, Schon arrived shortly before Clapton's curtain call. "I walked in backstage. I had my guitar and he told me that we’d play seven songs," Schon recalled. "He would then introduce me, and I would stay onstage and keep playing."
That stage summit spilled over into Clapton's hotel room after the show, where Schon remembers telling a disbelieving Clapton that he "listened mainly to him." "I learned to play by listening to Wheels of Fire and he didn’t believe me," he added. "He had a guitar there and I played note for note ‘Crossroads.' I knew every note. He asked me if I would move to London but it was crazy."
Aside from not being able to wrap his head around moving to London, Schon also said he "felt in my gut" that he was about to receive an invitation to join Santana — which, as we all know, is exactly what happened after he politely turned down Clapton's offer. Derek and the Dominos would fall apart shortly after the tour, and though Schon's tenure with Santana lasted long enough to produce only two albums (1971's Santana III and 1972's Caravanserai), it served as a springboard into his multi-platinum career with Journey.
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