Written by Andrew Catania
By the time Eric Clapton launched his solo career with the release of his self-titled debut album in mid-1970, he was long established as one of the world’s major rock stars due to his group affiliations — the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Blind Faith — which had demonstrated his claim to being the best rock guitarist of his generation. That it took Clapton so long to go out on his own, however, was evidence of a degree of resilience unusual for one of his stature. And his debut album, though it spawned the Top 40 hit “After Midnight,” was typical of his self-effacing approach: it was, in effect, an album by the group he had lately been featured in, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends.
On his 13th birthday, he received a guitar which he taught himself to play, and at the age of 17, he joined his first band, the Roosters. Growing up listening to blues recording by the likes of Robert Johnson, Clapton first made his name as a member of The Yardbirds, a pop-influenced rock and roll band whose biggest hit ‘For Your Love’ came whilst Eric was a member. Clapton, who was at that time obstinately dedicated to his blues roots, took a strong exception to the Yardbirds’ new ‘pop’ direction, refused to play on the single and quit the band as soon as it had been recorded; he was replaced by Jeff Beck.
After a spell working in a laboring job and several months of intensive practice, he joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. His emotional playing on their first album (which features Eric reading a copy of the Beano on the cover) established his name as a blues player and inspired a short-lived craze of graffiti deifying him (‘Clapton is God’, it read).
He left the Bluesbreakers in mid-1966 (to be replaced by Peter Green) and then formed Cream, one of the earliest examples of the supergroup, and also one of the earliest ‘power trios’, with Jack Bruce (also of Bluesbreakers and Manfred Mann) and Ginger Baker (of the Graham Bond Organization). During his time with Cream, he began to develop as a singer as well as guitarist, though Bruce, one of rock’s most powerful singers, took most of the lead vocals.
By late 1966 Clapton’s status as Britain’s top guitarist was shaken by the arrival of Jimi Hendrix Hendrix attended a performance by Clapton’s newly formed Cream at the Central London Polytechnic, October 1, 1966, during which Hendrix sat in on a shattering double-timed version of Killing Floor. Clapton immediately realized that he had a new and almost unbeatable competitor, whose dazzling showmanship was matched by his staggering ability as a guitarist. Hendrix’s early club performances were avidly attended by top UK stars including Clapton, Townshend and the Beatles. Hendrix’s arrival had an immediate and major effect on the next phase of Clapton’s career.
Cream’s repertoire varied from pop-soul (‘I Feel Free’) to lengthy blues-based instrumental jams (‘Spoonful’) and featured Clapton’s searing psychedelic guitar lines, Bruce’s soaring vocals and prominent, fluid bass playing, and Baker’s powerful, jazz-influenced drumming. The group achieved major commercial success during its brief existence with the song ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, from the Disraeli Gears album, and ‘White Room’ from Wheels of Fire. The lurid psychedelic covers of both these albums were created by Australian artist Martin Sharp, who lived in the same building Clapton at the time in the Chelsea ‘artists’ colony The Pheasantry. At their first meeting in a London club, Clapton mentioned that he had some music that needed lyrics, so Sharp wrote out a poem he had composed on a napkin and gave it to Clapton, who recorded it as Tales of Brave Ulysses.
Although Cream was hailed as one of the greatest groups of its day, and the adulation of Clapton as guitar hero reached new heights, the band was destined to be short-lived. The legendary in-fighting — especially between Bruce and Baker — and growing tensions between all three members eventually led to Cream’s demise. Another significant factor was a strongly critical Rolling Stone review of a concert of the group’s second headlining US tour, which affected Clapton profoundly.
The valedictory Goodbye album featured live performances from Cream’s farewell performance at the Royal Albert Hall; it was released shortly after Cream disbanded in 1968, and also featured the studio single ‘Badge’, co-written by Clapton and Beatle George Harrison. ‘Badge’ served as the basis for Harrison’s later Beatles composition, Here Comes the Sun.
The close friendship between the Clapton and Harrison resulted in Clapton playing on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ from the Beatles’ White Album — a tactic by Harrison to make the other band members take his song seriously. But the friendship was later sorely tested when Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd-Harrison, left him for Clapton. Clapton’s relationship with Pattie – who had
turned him down at first – was his inspiration for the classic song, ‘Layla’.
A second spell in another supergroup, the less successful Blind Faith (1969) with Baker, Steve Winwood of Traffic and Rick Grech of Family, resulted in a patchy LP and an aborted US tour. By now Clapton was tired of the spotlight, and the hype that had surrounded Cream and Blind Faith, and he had been strongly affected by the music of The Band — which he had asked to join after the split of Cream. Clapton then decided to step into the background for a time, and he toured as a sideman with the American group Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. He became close friends with Delaney Bramlett, who encouraged him in his singing and writing.
Using the Bramlett’s’ backing group and an all-star cast of session players including Leon Russell, Clapton then released his restrained 1970 self-titled solo album, which included the Bramlett composition Bottle of Red Wine and one of Clapton’s best songs from this period, Let It Rain.
Taking over Delaney & Bonnie’s rhythm section — Bobby Whitlock (keyboards, vocals), Carl Radle (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) — he formed a new band which was similarly intended to counteract the ‘star’ cult that had grown up around him and show Clapton as an equal member of a fully-fledged group. This was made evident in the choice of the name — ‘Derek and the Dominos’ – which came from a backstage joke at their first concert appearance.
Working at Criterion Studios in Miami with producer Tom Dowd, the band recorded a brilliant double-album which is now widely regarded as Clapton’s masterpiece — Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Most of the material, including the title track (which soon became an FM radio staple), was inspired by Clapton’s unrequited love for Patti Harrison. The two-part Layla was recorded in separate sessions; the opening guitar section was recorded first, and for the second section, drummer Jim Gordon composed and played the elegiac piano part.
The Layla LP was recorded by a five-piece version of the group, thanks to the unplanned addition of slide guitar virtuoso Duane Allman. A few days into the session, producer Tom Dowd invited Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert in Miami (he was also producing the Allmans). The two guitarists — who previously knew each other only by reputation– met backstage after the show, then both bands repaired to the studio to jam (an impromptu session which, happily, was captured on tape). Clapton and Allman ‘fell in love’ with each other’s playing and became instant friends, so Allman was invited to become the fifth member of The Dominos. (These studio jams were eventually released as part of the 3-CD 20th-anniversary edition of the Layla album.)
When Allman and Clapton met, The Dominos had already recorded three tracks (I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues and Keep On Growing); Allman debuted on the fourth cut, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, and contributed some of his most sublime slide-guitar playing to the remainder of the LP. The album was heavily blues-influenced and featured a winning combination of the twin guitars of Allman and Clapton, with Allman’s incendiary slide-guitar a key ingredient of the sound. It showcased some of Clapton’s strongest material to date, as well as arguably some of his best guitar playing, with Whitlock also contributing several superb numbers, and a powerful soul-influenced voice.
Tragedy dogged the group throughout its brief career. During the sessions, Clapton was devastated by the news of the death of Jimi Hendrix; the band cut a blistering version of Little Wing as a tribute to him which was added to the album. One year later, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident. Adding to Clapton’s woes, the Layla album received only lukewarm reviews on release.
The shattered group undertook a US tour. Despite Clapton’s later admission that the tour took place amidst a veritable blizzard of drugs including alcohol, it resulted in the surprisingly strong live double album in Concert. But the group disintegrated messily in London just as they commenced recording for their second LP. Although Radle worked with Clapton for several more years, the split between Clapton and Whitlock was a bitter one, and they never worked together again.
Another tragic footnote to the Dominos story was the fate of drummer Jim Gordon, who was an undiagnosed schizophrenic — some years later, during a psychotic episode, he murdered his mother with a hammer and was confined to a mental institution, where he remains today.
Despite his success, Clapton’s personal life was in a mess by 1972. In addition to his (temporarily) unrequited and intense romantic longing for Pattie Boyd-Harrison, he withdrew from recording and touring and became addicted to heroin, resulting in a career hiatus interrupted only by the Concert for Bangladesh and the ‘Rainbow Concert’ in 1973 (see 1973 in music), organized by The Who’s Pete Townsend to help Clapton kick the drug.
Clapton returned the favor by playing ‘The Preacher’ in Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s Tommy in 1975; his appearance in the film (performing Eyesight to The Blind) is notable for the fact that he is wearing a fake beard in some shots — the result of him unthinkingly shaving off his beard between takes!
Relatively clean again, Clapton put together a strong new touring band that included Radle, Miami guitarist George Terry, drummer Jamie Oldaker and vocalists Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy (later better known as Marcella Detroit of 1980s pop duo Shakespeare’s Sister). They toured the world and subsequently released the superb 1975 live LP, ‘E.C. Was Here.
Not surprisingly, before his solo debut had even been released, Clapton had retreated from his solo stance, assembling from the D&B&F ranks the personnel for a group, Derek, with whom he played for most of 1970 and recorded the landmark album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton was largely inactive in 1971 and 1972, due to heroin addiction, but he performed a comeback concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London on January 13, 1973, resulting in the album Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert (September 1973). But Clapton did not launch a sustained solo career until July 1974, when he released 461 Ocean Boulevard, which topped the charts and spawned the number one single “I Shot the Sheriff.”
The persona Clapton established over the next decade was less that of guitar hero than arena rock star with a weakness for ballads. The follow-ups to 461 Ocean Boulevard, There’s One in Every Crowd (March 1975), the live E.C. Was Here (August 1975), and No Reason to Cry (August 1976), were less successful. But Slowhand (November 1977), which featured both the powerful “Cocaine” (written by J.J. Cale, who had also written “After Midnight”) and the hit singles “Lay Down Sally” and “Wonderful Tonight,” was a million-seller. Its follow-ups, Backless (November 1978), featuring the Top Ten hit “Promises,” the live Just One Night (April 1980), and Another (February 1981), featuring the Top Ten hit “I Can’t Stand It,” were all big sellers.
Clapton’s popularity waned somewhat in the first half of the ’80s, as the albums Money and Cigarettes (February 1983), Behind the Sun (March 1985), and August (November 1986) indicated a certain career stasis. But he was buoyed up by the release of the box set retrospective Crossroads (April 1988), which seemed to remind his fans of how great he was. Journeyman (November 1989) was a return to form. It would be his last new studio album for nearly five years, though in the interim he would suffer greatly and enjoy surprising triumph.
On March 20, 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son was killed in a fall. While he mourned, he released a live album, 24 Nights (October 1991), culled from his annual concert series at Royal Albert Hall in London, and prepared a movie soundtrack, Rush (January 1992). The soundtrack featured a song written for his son, “Tears in Heaven,” that became a massive hit single.
In March 1992, Clapton recorded a concert for MTV Unplugged which, when released on an album in August, became his biggest-selling record ever. Two years later, Clapton returned with a blues album, From the Cradle, which became one of his most successful albums, both commercially and critically. Crossroads, Vol. 2: Live in the Seventies, a box set chronicling his live work from the ’70s, was released to mixed reviews. In early 1997, Clapton, billing himself by the pseudonym “X-Sample,” collaborated with keyboardist/producer Simon Climie as the ambient new age and trip-hop duo T.D.F. The duo released Retail Therapy to mixed reviews in early 1997.
Clapton retained Climie as his collaborator for Pilgrim, his first album of new material since 1989’s Journeyman. Pilgrim was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews upon its spring 1998 release, but the album debuted at number four and stayed in the Top Ten for several weeks on the success of the single “My Father’s Eyes.” In 2000, Clapton teamed up with old friend B.B. King on Riding with the King, a set of blues standards and material from contemporary singer/songwriters. Another solo outing, entitled Reptile, followed in early 2001.
Three years later, Clapton issued Me and Mr. Johnson, a collection of tunes honoring the Mississippi-born bluesman Robert. Released in 2005, Back Home, Clapton’s 14th album of original material, reflected his ease with fatherhood. Also in 2005, Clapton unexpectedly teamed with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker for a Cream reunion that included May concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall and shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October, with the former being compiled for a live release that fall.
This turned out to be the first of many reunions and looks back for Clapton. In 2006, he elevated the profile of his latter-day idol, J.J. Cale, by recording an album-long duet, The Road to Escondido. The following year he released his autobiography — accompanied by a new career compilation called The Complete Clapton — which focused more on his trials with addiction and subsequent recovery than his musical career.
In 2008, Clapton began playing regular shows with his old Blind Faith partner Steve Winwood, gigs that were captured on the 2009 double-live set Live from Madison Square Garden. Winwood also appeared on Clapton’s next studio album, 2010’s Clapton, which was a collaboration-heavy affair also featuring Cale, Sheryl Crow, Allen Toussaint, and Wynton Marsalis. In 2011, Clapton returned the favor to Marsalis by collaborating on the live concert album Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Clapton parted ways with Warner after Clapton, and he chose to set up his Bushbranch imprint on Gary Hoey’s independent label Surfdog. His first album for the label was Old, largely a collection of old songs the guitarist loved. It reached the Top Ten in the U.S. and Great Britain.
In the fall of 2013, Warner Bros. released Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013, and his Unplugged album was expanded and remastered by Rhino. Early the following year, Clapton announced that a new album, The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale, would be issued in July, one year on from the passing of his key inspiration. The tribute album included contributions from artists such as Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Tom Petty, and Mark Knopfler.
A collection of his Warner recordings called Forever Man saw a spring 2015 release. Clapton returned in May of 2016 with I Still Do, his third album for Surfdog, his 23rd studio album, that saw him reuniting with Slowhand producer Glyn Johns.
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