The Musical Tales Of Eric Clapton
The most famous living guitarist in the world, Eric Clapton’s career has passed through an extraordinary series of highs and lows during his five decades as a guitar hero. To the general public he’s known for timeless radio-friendly songs like ‘Wonderful Tonight’, ‘Lay Down Sally’, ‘Tears In Heaven’ and ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ (which was most people’s introduction to reggae in the 70s). To the rock fan he’s the performer of classic anthems like ‘Cocaine’, ‘Badge’, ‘White Room’, ‘Tearing Us Apart’ and of course ‘Layla’. And to the blues fan he remains unrivalled as one of the finest guitarists ever, a continuing influence on every blues guitarist who has been inspired by his tortured licks on ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’.
It’s the blues that has sustained Clapton through thick and thin. There have been periods of success and public acclaim, well-documented battles with drink and drugs, personal tragedy and plenty of romantic intrigue, but through it all Clapton has never strayed far from the blues. "If you hand me a guitar I’ll play the blues. That’s the place I automatically go,” he says. It also sustains his fan base. A new studio album from Clapton may barely rate a mention in the media these days, unless it’s a blues album - a collaboration with B.B King or a collection of Robert Johnson songs.
What makes Clapton such a guitar hero? Chris Dreja, a member of the Yardbirds who played with Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the 60s puts his finger on it. "Beck was a genius, I’ve no doubt about that. He was also unpredictable to work with. I don’t think Clapton was a genius. He has a God-given gift to play guitar and a passion for playing the blues that is unsurpassed. He would spend a weekend practising one guitar phrase.”
The Yardbirds was Clapton’s first proper band. They hadn’t been going long when he joined them in 1963, aged 18, but within a year they were at the forefront of London’s thriving R&B scene. "It was a very intense period where we all became very close, which I think was important to him,” remembers Dreja. Unbeknown to the rest of the band Clapton was already carrying a quantity of emotional baggage. Born illegitimately in 1945 (a major social stigma back then), he was brought up by his grandparents who he believed were his parents until the age of nine. It begins to explain why the teenage Clapton had such as empathy with the blues.
The Yardbirds were about high-energy R&B – "having a rave up” they called it – that you can hear on their rough and scarcely ready Five Live Yardbirds album recorded at London’s legendary Marquee in 1964. Clapton already had his "Slowhand” nickname, after the slow-handclaps that would accompany the changing of a broken string. The Yardbirds also got to back legendary Mississippi bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson which was both a dream come true and a reality check. "It was an insight into the real world of the blues,” remembers Dreja.” We’d just been mimicking it before. Sonny Boy was a real character. He had a wicked sense of humour that screwed us up on stage a few times. He was a drinker too – a bottle of whisky a day.”
That was as good as it got for Clapton with the Yardbirds. The next step was being sent out on package tours around the country, part of a bus-load of groups playing 28 towns in 29 days to audiences who’d come to swoon over Gerry & The Pacemakers or Herman’s Hermits. "Eric had this thing about paying his dues,” says Dreja. "He was a purist, to the point of being blinkered.” Clapton quit when the rest of the band picked the poppy ‘For Your Love’ for a single. He was snapped up by John Mayall who’d heard his solo on ‘I Ain’t Got You’, a Yardbirds B-side, and decided he was the right man for his Bluesbreakers.
Clapton found himself stuffed to the gills with pure blues, courtesy of Mayall’s voluminous record collection, and it rubbed off to the point where he was famously deified on a corrugated iron wall in London. When the Bluesbreakers recorded the now-legendary "Beano” album in April 1966, Clapton set his amp to 11 to get the sustain and feedback he used on stage. The result was chaos as his guitar bled into every microphone in the studio. But he’d heard his castrated sound on some BBC sessions where the engineers had forced him to turn down and he wasn’t going to back down now. Producer Mike Vernon and engineer Gus Dudgeon had to cope. "We just shrugged our shoulders and got on with it,” recalled Vernon later. "If the music felt right then who cared if we had too much top here or a curve problem there.”.
But even before the album was released, Clapton had handed in his notice when drummer Ginger Baker lured him into his new band, Cream. Clapton agreed on condition they got bassist Jack Bruce who’d played with Baker in the Graham Bond Organisation and, briefly, in the Bluesbreakers. Unfortunately he was unaware of the enmity that had already built up between Baker and Bruce. At first this didn’t matter.
Cream’s musical chemistry redefined the possibilities of pop music – no-one called it rock music back then. A trio of virtuoso musicians, Baker and Bruce fused their jazz sensibilities with Clapton’s blues. They took the two-note riff of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’ and spun it to a mesmerising six and a half minutes on their first album. In concert they could stretch that to 15 minutes. Clapton succinctly called it "Blues, ancient and modern”.
More significantly, Cream found a huge audience. Fresh Cream, released at the end of 1966, went Top Ten and spent four months in the charts. In America. West Coast audiences had already been primed by the spaced-out jams of psychedelic musical crusaders like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but Cream simply blew them all off stage. They were that good. Not surprisingly they focused their attention on the States.
They recorded their second album, Disraeli Gears, at Atlantic Records’ New York studios next door to Aretha Franklin who was working on Lady Soul (Clapton even shows up on one of the tracks). But Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun, who thought he was getting a British blues band led by Eric Clapton, was aghast at some of their material. He was particularly contemptuous of a song Bruce had written with Clapton and lyricist Pete Brown, called ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. "I remember playing it to Ahmet and he called it ‘psychedelic hogwash’,” remembers Bruce. "Fortunately there were other people coming in and out of the studio like Booker T Jones and Otis Redding and they listened and said ‘This is good, this is happening’. They saw that riff as something that was musically interesting and commercial as well.” ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was Cream’s breakthrough in America and remains their best known song. It can also claim to be the template for heavy metal.
Cream toured America relentlessly and lucratively but that proved to be their downfall. Life on the road was not conducive to the volatile relationship between Baker and Bruce. Stories of Baker trying to ram a fire extinguisher hose up Bruce’s arse – and not in a playful way – at a gig in San Francisco indicate the depth of their animosity. It didn’t do much for their playing either. The intensity of their live shows proved impossible to maintain, with or without artificial stimulants. Without inspiration the jams became tedious. When Rolling Stone magazine pointed that out in a review Clapton felt rumbled. Cream announced they were splitting in the summer of 1968, just before their third album, Wheels Of Fire, spent five weeks topping the US charts making them the biggest selling British band in America so far. Clapton declared that Cream had "lost direction”.
He had a new direction in mind, having heard an advance tape of the Band’s Music From The Big Pink, an album that would have a profound impact on the whole music scene. Hooking up with Steve Winwood, who’d become similarly disillusioned in Traffic, seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately the media, record companies and managers saw Blind Faith as another supergroup to hype and the band was doomed. "We were pushed to the forefront before we were ready,” Clapton said later. Their self titled album in 1969 was a modest beginning with plenty of potential – ‘Presence Of The Lord’ was the best song Clapton had written to date. But after one miserable American tour - where audiences came to party rather than listen – they broke up.
The saving grace for Clapton was Blind Faith’s support band, Delaney & Bonnie, a feisty southern couple who had a seven-piece band and lived to play music rather than vice versa. Clapton found himself hanging out with them in preference to his Blind Faith colleagues. "I was so turned on by them I thought I could somehow try and stay in Blind Faith and skip off and do that as well,” he admitted. "But Blind Faith didn’t work like that. They wanted what I should have wanted – a very tight, integrated unit. But I was feeling quite free. I don’t think Steve’s ever forgiven me somehow.”
After Blind Faith’s demise, Clapton toured with Delaney & Bonnie as a sideman and they in turn helped out on his solo album, Eric Clapton, the first time he’d paid as much attention to the songs as his guitar playing. Not long afterwards, Delaney & Bonnie started getting a little too feisty and keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon quit and came over to England in the early summer of 1970, offering to become Clapton’s band.
They honed their chops playing on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album before hitting the road as Derek & The Dominos. They then headed to Miami to record an album that was transformed when Clapton hooked up with guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers. ‘Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs’ was an incandescent album of pain and unrequited love, something Clapton knew all about with George Harrison’s wife Patti.
Commercially however the album flopped. The era of the supergroup that Cream had spawned had produced new rock gods like Led Zeppelin and ELP. Clapton’s quest for low-key anonymity had cruelly succeeded. ‘Layla’ didn’t even make the singles charts until a couple of years later. Producer Tom Dowd was mystified: "When we finished it I felt it was the best goddam album I’d been involved in since The Genius of Ray Charles. And Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic was absolutely enamoured of the album but they couldn’t get the goddam thing on air. They couldn’t get a single out of it. Nothing. I kept walking around talking to myself for a year. Then suddenly it was the national anthem.”
By then it was too late. Clapton had slumped into a heroin-induced torpor. Along with unrequited love, his woes had worsened with the death of Jimi Hendrix just a week after Derek & The Dominos had recorded his ‘Little Wing’. After a drug-fuelled tour of America the band broke up in a narcotic haze during sessions for the second album. Clapton barely remembers George Harrison’s historic Concert For Bangladesh in August 1971 because he was barely there. Two months later his new best friend Duane Allman was killed in a motorbike accident. Clapton’s career came to a grinding halt and he retreated from view. He resurfaced at a concert organised for him by Pete Townshend at London’s Rainbow Theatre at the beginning of 1973 and disappeared again. It was another year before he faced up to his addiction and prepared to pick up the pieces.
He sounded rejuvenated on 461 Ocean Boulevard and scored a worldwide hit with a cover of ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ by the largely unknown Bob Marley. Clapton had been introduced to the song by the guitarist in his new band, George Terry. "He played me the Burnin’ album and it was on there. I loved it and we recorded it but I didn’t think it should go on the album, let alone be a single. I thought we’d done it with too much of a white feel. Shows what I know!”
Having re-established his career, he promptly let it slide again with the uninspired There’s One In Every Crowd that chugged along in a sleepy reggae groove and the unfocused No Reason To Cry, on which Clapton was in danger of being crowded out of his own album by Bob Dylan, members of The Band and Ron Wood among others. On tour he could still pull a crowd. He already had an enviable legacy of songs and had put his own imprint on blues standards like ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ and ‘Further On Up The Road, but alcohol had replaced narcotics as a crutch and it was fortunate that George Terry could mimic Clapton better than Clapton could on a bad night. Even the lighting guy was frequently fooled.
Slowhand in 1977 brought Clapton back into the limelight with three songs that have become regular cornerstones of his live set – ‘Cocaine’, ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ – even though Clapton himself was not keen on the album. "Maybe it was the lack of material we had when we went into the studio. It was lightweight. Some of the stuff was written six months before and by the time we got into the studio everyone knew the stuff so well that we were lazy.” Subsequent albums were even lazier. It didn’t help that Clapton’s main influences at the time were the laid-back JJ Cale and Don Williams, and even the album titles inadvertently described the general malaise – Backless and Another Ticket. The impeccably recorded but lifeless live album from Tokyo, Just One Night highlighted the problem. "We recorded both nights and I think they chose the one I didn’t like,” Clapton said afterwards. Phil Collins, a neighbour of Clapton’s at the time, remembers getting an advance tape and then ringing Clapton to ask why the best song he’d heard, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, was not on the finished album. "Isn’t it?” replied Clapton.
Clapton was not paying attention and the reason became obvious when he collapsed a few dates into an American tour in 1981, with an ulcer the size of an orange primed to burst in his stomach. It took another year before he admitted that he was an alcoholic. Then he faced up to his other responsibilities; when early sessions for the Money And Cigarettes album produced a feeling of deja-vu, Clapton fired the band and brought in guitarist Ry Cooder and Booker T & The MGs’ bassist Donald "Duck” Dunn.
The haze of the previous decade appeared to be lifting. When his friend Ronnie Lane became seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, Clapton organised a series of benefit concerts in 1983 roping in the other two members of the Yardbirds triumvirate of guitarists, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page for a unique collaboration. The following year he took the unusual step of joining Roger Waters’ band for the Pros & Cons Of Hitch-Hiking album and European tour.
But he wasn’t quite out of the woods, even after he’d roped in his (now superstar) neighbour Phil Collins to produce his next album, Behind The Sun. His new record company sent the album back, demanding a hit. ‘Forever Man’ provided a temporary reprieve but it was 1985’s Live Aid that was the springboard for Clapton’s renaissance.
Interrupting his American tour he walked on stage at Philadelphia and reminded the world who he was by playing ‘White Room’, ‘She’s Waiting’ (from the new album) and ‘Layla’ and the world was suitably impressed.
Then he began an annual residency at London’s Royal Albert Hall and teamed up with Tina Turner for ‘Tearing Us Apart’ (drums by Phil Collins). Seeking refuge from the monster that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler enlisted as rhythm guitarist in Clapton’s band (in a wonderful misunderstanding, when Knopfler rang to ask if he could "come to the Albert Hall”, Clapton thought he wanted tickets). Clapton reciprocated by joining Dire Straits for the Nelson Mandela Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in 1988 but what confirmed Clapton’s new status that year, was the release of the 4-CD Crossroads box set, that chronicled his career thus far and included a wealth of rare and unreleased material. To the record company’s astonishment the set sold over a million copies, arguably doing for the reissues market what ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ had done for heavy metal.
Clapton was approaching an indefinable critical mass. 1989’s ‘Journeyman’ was his most successful album for more than a decade – carefully picked songs, carefully picked guests (Robert Cray, Linda Womack, David Sanborn) and a hit single, ‘Bad Love’, written to order when, according to Clapton, the record company "wanted another ‘Layla’”. But it was the blues that set the seal on it - in January 1992 he played the first MTV Unplugged show, using the acoustic format to pay his respects to Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and a host more as well as giving ‘Layla’ a complete makeover. "I was at home with Andy Fairweather-Low doing some pre-rehearsal rehearsals and I picked up my guitar and said ‘What do you think of this?’ It clicked straight away.”
Unplugged sold a whopping 12 million copies worldwide. Lurking relatively unnoticed on the album was a new song indelibly linked with the tragic death of his son Conor, called ‘Tears In Heaven’, that within months become another worldwide hit. A couple of years later 1994’s From The Cradle, an electric blues album, topped the UK and US charts selling 10 million copies – an unprecedented feat for a blues album.
Since then Clapton has balanced contemporary albums - Pilgrim (1998), Reptile (2001) and Back Home (2005) - with blues albums - Riding With The King (2001) with B.B King and Me And Mr Johnson (2004) devoted to his hero Robert Johnson. And his annual Crossroads Festival in America where he plays and jams with a host of guitarists to raise money for his addiction treatment centre in Antigua, has become as much of an institution as his Royal Albert Hall residencies.
Most fascinating for dedicated Clapton watchers this millennium have been his musical journeys back to the past. He rejoined John Mayall for his 70th birthday concert in 2005, he reunited with Cream in 2005, he revisited much of the Layla album on tour in 2006, joined by slide guitarist Derek Trucks from the Allman Brothers (and nephew of drummer Butch), and this year he has teamed up with Steve Winwood to revive Blind Faith songs and record some new ones. With nothing left to prove Clapton can please himself.
About The Writer
Hugh Fielder is a freelance journalist who has written for Classic Rock Magazine and has contributed to past Genesis and Jethro Tull Planet Rock features months.
He is the author of 'The Book of Genesis' (band biography) and hailed as the only 'journalist who actually likes Genesis' by frontman Phil Collins.
Hugh Fielder says of himself that he can't remember the 60's, even though he was there. He can remember the 70s and the 80s because he was working at Sounds Magazine (RIP) and the 90s because he was editing Tower Records TOP magazine (RIP).
To date he is still trying to remember. His wife and daughters have finally accepted that he will never grow up.
The Musical Stories of Eric Clapton
Written By Hugh Fielder
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