“I sought my father in the world of the black musician, because it contained wisdom, experience, sadness and loneliness. I was not ever interested in the music of boys. From my youngest years, I was interested in the music of men.”
“I listened to King Oliver and I listened to Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp… I listened to everything I could that came from that place that they call the blues but, in formality, isn’t necessarily the blues.”
There had been virtuoso electric guitarists before. In jazz, there was Les Paul himself, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and more. Black electric blues had given the world such charismatic stars as Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King and Freddie King. Rock and roll elevated from the silvery country of Scotty Moore, James Burton and Carl Perkins, and the charged up R’n’B of Chuck Berry, a style extended by Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones.
And then, more or less simultaneously, three ground breaking young guitar slingers from Surrey began making waves on the London scene: Clapton, Beck and Jimmy Page. But Clapton was slightly ahead of the curve, and one reason may have to do with his near fanatical blues purism. Clapton was playing guitar from thirteen and the first music he fell in love with was American blues. As a young middle class boy, he had a record player, and spent his time seeking out obscure imported vinyl to learn from.
Born in Ripley, Surrey, England, on March 30, 1945, and raised by his grandparents after his mother abandoned him at an early age, Clapton grew up a self-confessed “nasty kid.” He studied stained-glass design at Kingston Art School and started playing the guitar at 15. Two years later he began joining groups. He stayed with his first band, the early British R&B outfit the Roosters (which included Tom McGuinness, later of Manfred Mann and McGuinness Flint), from January to August 1963.
He frequently jammed in London clubs with, among others, future members of the Rolling Stones. Clapton put in a seven-gig stint with a Top 40 band, Casey Jones and the Engineers, in September 1963. He joined the Yardbirds later that year and stayed with them until March 1965, when they began to leave behind power blues for psychedelic pop.
What gives Clapton a unique place in history, however, is his timing. And, in this regard, I’m not talking technique. “The album Eric did with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers is seminal for all rock guitarists,” according to Steve Hackett, virtuoso progressive rocker and former lead guitarist with Genesis.
“Clapton always brings an indefinable extra twist of fluidity to his phrasing. He’s a singer too and really knows where to judiciously weave his playing into a lead vocal top-line. He can be very languid but when he wants to step it up, he channels some kind of thug mentality, he’s got such fury and fire in his belly, he almost hits bum notes but his deep understanding of scales means he can play his way out of any tight corner. He’s pretty sodding fantastic.”
“He is still the best in the world, for my money,” according to contemporary blues virtuoso Joe Bonamassa. “I think a musician’s ability to reinvent their playing is the most important quality they could have. Eric’s playing has a depth of life in it now that wasn’t there in 1966. Just listen to Groaning the Blues from the album From the Cradle (1994) and tell me if it is not one of the greatest recorded blues solos of time? Or River of Tears from One More Car, One More Rider (2002). He’s just on fire, like he is saying to all kids – beat that! He’s still the man. If he turns up with a new amp or guitar, we all want the same piece of kit.”
Let’s investigate now Clapton’s top six albums:
6. 461 Ocean Boulevard
Clapton returned from heroin addiction with a disc of mellow, springy grooves minus guitar histrionics. He paid tribute to Robert Johnson and Elmore James, but his cover of Bob Marley‘s “I Shot the Sheriff” became his first Number One hit. 461 shies away from the rich sonorities and lyrical, flowing lines that made Clapton an unhappy superstar.
So he determined to break from his past of frequently playing dobro instead of guitar. 461 debuts a new, thin, circumscribed and circumspect style which will disappoint many — it has neither the beauty nor the power of the old sound. But rhythmically it constitutes an advance, lending itself more readily to syncopation. With its reggae and touches of Bo Diddley, 461 can swing as Clapton’s earlier work did not.
5. No Reason to Cry
When he gave a speech inducting the Band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton said that after he heard their debut album, Music from Big Pink, he wanted to join the group, the fact that they already had a guitarist in Robbie Robertson notwithstanding. In the winter of 1975-1976, when he cut No Reason to Cry at The Band‘s Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, California, he came as close as he ever would to realizing that desire.
Clapton is a musical chameleon; though some of No Reason to Cry is identifiable as the kind of pop/rock Clapton had been making since the start of his solo career (the best of it being “Hello Old Friend,” which became his first Top 40 single in two years), the most memorable music on the album occurs when Clapton is collaborating with members of the Band and other guests.
He duets with Band bassist Rick Danko on Danko‘s “All Our Past Times,” and with Bob Dylan on Dylan‘s “Sign Language,” as Robertson‘s distinctive lead guitar is heard rather than Clapton’s. As a result, the album is a good purchase for fans of Bob Dylan and The Band, but not necessarily for those of Eric Clapton.
4. I Still Do
I Still Do finds Clapton in a different place in his career and in his life. What was largely dismissed as unfocused regression back then is clearly a matter of dogged perseverance now. This languid, reverie-filled figure was who he actually became, no matter our collective presumptions after his flinty tenors with the Yardbirds and Cream. That’s played out in a solo career that still looks for (and often finds) new meaning from slow-burn explorations of the old ways, whether that be in an original song or with a now-seemingly ubiquitous Robert Johnson cover.
Slowhand was a wonder of consistency and balance, with smartly chosen material across a spectrum of styles held together by a group of like-minded studio aces under the direction of Johns. Backless, on the other hand, sounded like a deep exhalation. Determinedly laid back, the album couldn’t have had a better cover image, as we see Clapton picking away on a comfy couch. He mixed songs by J.J. Cale and Bob Dylan, and a smattering of originals, with older blues cuts and an off-genre aside.
A four-disc box set spanning Eric Clapton’s entire career — running from the Yardbirds to his 80’s solo recordings –Crossroads not only revitalized Clapton’s commercial standing, but it established the rock & roll multi-disc box set retrospective as a commercially viable proposition. Bob Dylan’s Biograph was successful two years before the release of Crossroads, but Clapton’s set was a bona fide blockbuster.
And it’s easy to see why. Crossroads manages to sum up Clapton’s career succinctly and thoroughly, touching upon all of his hits and adding a bevy of first-rate unreleased material (most notably selections from the scrapped second Derek and the Dominos album). Although not all of his greatest performances are included on the set — none of his work as a session musician or guest artist is included, for instance — every truly essential item he recorded is present on these four discs. No other Clapton album accurately explains why the guitarist was so influential, or demonstrates exactly what he accomplished.
Crossroads starts, quite rightly, with the very first demos cut by the Yardbirds in late 1963. The band sounds young and tentative, and the arrangements are little more than slavish and earnest imitations of the blues masters. There are definite hints of greatness to be, though, particularly in the frenzied “Honey in Your Hips,” where Clapton’s brittle guitar sound belies the pithy aggression in his fills.
1980’s Journeyman set up Eric Clapton’s renaissance in the 90s. It was a song-based album that offered a somewhat restless Clapton the chance to expand beyond his blues-based guitar-hero status. It clearly reinvigorated him – over half of the dozen tracks turned up in his live set and he still regularly dips into it.
In Jerry Williams, Clapton had already found a writer whose radio-friendly songs he could identify with, and keep his hit-hungry record label happy. The opening Pretending sweeps to a majestic chorus but Clapton’s solo brings a darker edge. The sumptuous No Alibis may be awash with keyboard and drum programmers (that’s the 80s for you) but Clapton is succinct enough to keep it rolling.
Thank you for reading this article. The next one will be about B.B. King.