By Dan Forte
Eric Clapton's career -- his 22 years in and around, and sometimes out of, music -- is the stuff movies are made of:
The opening credits run across a black screen as a muffled guitar wails in the distance. The camera focuses on a teenager combing his Beatle-length hair and checking the progress of his wispy sideburns. Written on the men's room mirror, across the reflected image of the boy's face are the words Clapton Is God.
Cut to a cluster of wide-eyed faces, at the front of which are two youths playing air guitar and shouting words of encouragement that are rendered inaudible by the now-deafening maelstrom of blues licks. A reverse-angle shot shows the object of the throng's adulation for the first time: a slight figure with perfectly coiffed hair and bushy muttonchops, wearing a black suit. Eyes closed, his back turned to his disciples, he is oblivious to everything but the band's steady groove and the sounds pouring out of his amplifier. Licks stutter and stammer, then sustain almost interminably. Like a roller coaster, his fingers slide up he neck and cascade back down. He falls behind the beat, letting the band fly ahead of him momentarily, then catches up and overtakes them. Eric Clapton is composing one spontaneous masterpiece after another. At times, he sounds as if he is reaching inside his Les Paul and yanking its guts out.
The screen cuts to a closeup of Clapton's face just five years later; he looks tired, a bit drawn, and needs a shave. "Sorry, " he says. taking off his headphones. "No problem," the gray-bearded producer answers through the talk-back; "take your time." Clapton walks over and unplugs his barstool, his back to the studio glass, and resituates his head-phones. "Okay," he nods; "from the top."
A fanfare of electric guitars thunders through the monitors, while Eric plays along inaudibly. He shuts his eyes tightly and throws back his head in desperation: "What'll you do when you get lonely/Nobody's waiting by your side/You've been running, hiding much too long/You know it's just your foolish pride."
Without the aid of any directors or screen-writers, Eric Clapton's real life story has had enough Hollywood staples -- sex, drugs, wealth, fame, self-destruction -- to make any studio head drool. Throughout, however, there has also been an abundance of the one commodity rarely found in Hollywood: true genius.
"I've never been approached about a film," Clapton says, as though the notion had never occurred to him until now, "perhaps because the story is still going on. It has been a fascinating story -- even though it's only halfway over."
Ironically, after becoming the embodiment of the guitarist as superhero, possibly the best-known guitar player in the world, Eric Clapton's biggest sin, in many people's eyes, is that he didn't burn brightly, then burn out and die. Instead he survived, he struggled -- he revealed his flaws as well as gifts. He created masterpieces as well as flops. He sometimes played brilliantly, and other times scarcely played at all.
At present, Clapton is riding the crest of another wave of popularity and creative energy, with his current tour and new LP, Behind The Sun. "People are saying that I'm having a comeback," he smiles. "If that's the case, then I've had about 15 of them without ever really leaving."
Almost from the beginning, Eric Clapton has had a one-on-one relationship with the blues that no outsider -- be they friends, relatives, bandmates, or journalists -- can ever fully understand. Investigations into his background, his childhood, and his early semi-pro groups turn up next to nothing in the way of clues -- nothing that would indicate the rise of one of the most distinctive voices the guitar has ever known.
Eric Patrick Clapton was born to Patricia Clapton on March 30, 1945, in Ripley, in Surrey, England. On his birth certificate, the space for his father's name was left blank. His grandfather's name was left blank. His grandfather and grandmother, John and Rose Clapp, assumed the role of Eric's parents; when Patricia returned about 12 years later, Eric had to pretend they were brother and sister.
In school, Eric was by his own admission a "seven-stone weakling." The clique of scrawny, non-athletic outcasts he hung around with, dubbed "the loonies," were the first in school to discover Buddy Holly records. After displaying an aptitude for art early on, Clapton began teaching himself guitar, on a Hofner acoustic, at age 14 or 15.
By this time, Britain's traditional; ("trad") jazz movement -- spearheaded by dixieland-based artists such as Chris Barber, Kenny Ball, and Ken Colyer -- had sired the skiffle music boom and, in turn, serious blues outfits. Having toured America, trombonist Barber began bringing black blues and gospel artists to England, including Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee , Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Muddy Waters. The Skiffle Centre in London's Roundhouse pub was transformed into the London Blues And Barrelhouse Club, a regular haunt of such seminal British bluesers as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies, and Long John Baldry.
By 1962, Clapton was attending Kingston College of Art. Not quite as old as local musicians such as Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce -- all of whom played with Alexis Korner's loosely-formed Blues Incorporated -- Eric Was nonetheless aware of and affected by Britain's first real R&B band. He bought a semi-hollowbody electric Kay, the brand of guitars Alexis Korner endorsed, and formed his first band, the Roosters, in January of 1963.
At the height of Beatlemania, Clapton chose to play the type of electric blues he'd heard on relatively obscure American records. Along with 17-year-old Eric, the group included Tom McGuinness on guitar, Robin Mason on drums, Terry Brennan on vocals, and Ben Palmer on piano. McGuinness, who later played bass with Manfred Mann, recalls: "We didn't have a bass player. At that time, there were very few people in England who wanted to play rhythm and blues, and it was impossible to find a bass player who wanted to. We did Lightnin' Slim songs like 'My Starter Won't Start,' Fats Domino stuff, T-Bone Walker. Our repertoire was pretty diverse -- not really purist."
After eight or nine months, the band "just sort of fell apart," in McGuinness' words. Tom and Eric then joined an ill-fated group called Casey Jones & The Engineers, but both quit after only seven or eight gigs. "Casey was a dreadful singer from Liverpool," states McGuinness," who got signed at the point when record companies were signing up anyone who came from Liverpool. We played a lot of Chuck Berry songs with him. Eric went straight from there into the Yardbirds, and I occasionally sat in with them at that point."
The Yardbirds had secured a regular spot at the Crawdaddy Club that had previously been held down by a splinter group from Blues Incorporated, the Rolling Stones. Soon after replacing guitarist Top Topham with Clapton, in October '63, it was clear that the band had found someone special. As John Pidgeon wrote in his biography, Eric Clapton, "Onstage, he stood out like an orchid on waste ground." To be fair, the Yardbirds were a tight, energetic, adventurous group, as their live and studio recordings attest. On some, such as Billy Boy Arnold's "Wish You Would," they succeeded in surpassing their American counterparts.
The beginnings of a cult following for the guitarist were already in evidence. Eric was nicknamed Slowhand because his heavy-handed playing tended to break strings on his Fender Telecaster with great regularity, and he would have to change them onstage to the accompaniment of a slow handclap by the band and audience. But after recording Five Live Yardbirds and the cuts that made up For Your Love, Clapton got fed up with the group's preoccupation with commercial success and split; the latter album was released in the States bearing individual photos of the band members with the uncredited Clapton replaced by Jeff Beck, who played on four tracks.
To clear his head and get into his instrument more seriously, Clapton vanished to the home of his Roosters partner, Ben Palmer. (It has been mistakenly reported that this woodshedding period took place between Clapton's tenure with John Mayall and the formation of Cream.) For the next month, he lived and breathed music and was rarely without his guitar in his hands, When he returned to London, he received a call from the leader of one of England's top blues units, John Mayall.
With the Yardbirds experiences behind him, a new focus on his musical objectives, and the chops to accomplish them, Clapton was more that up to the task at hand. The contrast between Mayall's previous incarnations with guitarists Roger Dean and Bernie Watson and the Blues Breakers album with Clapton is akin to the difference between grape Kool-Aid and a fine Bordeaux. Clapton was more authentic than any British blues guitarist that preceded him, but moreover he was authoritative. He could play in the styles of blues greats such as Buddy Guy, Freddie King, and Otis Rush, but could also go beyond them, his Les Paul adding decorative embellishments and brute force unheard of on either side of the Atlantic. Whereas most British blues was somewhat polite and academic, Eric's playing was mean and aggressive as well as extremely melodic.
With the Bluesbreakers, Clapton cut a romantic, mysterious figure-playing endless screaming solos as though he were oblivious to the world outside, an artist alone with his muse. His growing cult following mistook his gift as something akin to the second coming of Christ, and "Clapton Is God" was seen scrawled on buildings, tube stations, and bathroom walls all over England.
Only four months after joining Mayall, however, Clapton reunited with pianist Palmer and a group of mostly amateur musicians to tour the world like a caravan of Gypsies. Named the Glands, they got only as far as Greece, and Clapton returned to London and Mayall in October of '65. "I tried a succession of guitarists while Eric was in Greece -- none of whom really worked," Mayall remembers. "Eventually, Peter Green bulldozed his way into the job. But he'd only been in the band one week when Eric returned. I'd told Eric that the job would be open to him whenever he came back. Didn't leave Peter in a very good mood at all."
When Clapton returned, he found that Jack Bruce, bassist from the Graham Bond Organisation, had temporarily replaced the bluesbreakers' John McVie. "When Jack joined and brought his influence to bear," Mayall says, "the Cream began to take fruition. He was instrumental in steering Eric in that direction." By the summer of '66, when the Blues Breakers album was released with Clapton receiving special billing, Eric had left the group to form Cream. The album (with McVie back on bass) went to #6 on the British Charts, a monumental feat for a blues record in any era.
Oddly enough, American audiences' first proper introduction to Clapton (since he had played anonymously on the Yardbirds hits) was via an Elektra compilation LP entitled What's Shakin', released in June of '66. Amidst tracks by the Butterfield Blues Band, the Lovin' Spoonful, Tom Rush, and Al Kooper were three down-home jams by an ad-hoc group produced by Joe Boyd. Going by the name of Eric Clapton & The Powerhouse, the band included Clapton, one "Steve Anglo" (actually Stevie Winwood) on vocals, Jack Bruce on bass, the Spencer Davis Group's Pete York on drums, Ben Palmer on piano, and Manfred Mann's Paul Jones on harmonica.
Michael Bloomfield had by this time upped the ante in the rock guitar game, through his incandescent work with Paul Butterfield; if the Blues Breakers album saw Butterfield's bet, Fresh Cream raised the stakes. By all accounts, the first time Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker rehearsed together, sparks flew. With Clapton's ready following of fanatics and the most creative environment the guitarist had yet played in, Cream took England by storm.
Fresh Cream was released in late 1966, but by the time the trio played San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, in August of '67, they had been preceded by the newest kid on the crowded Guitar Hero pedestal, Jimi Hendrix. Which axeman aspiring guitarists chose to align themselves with -- Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, or Bloomfield -- was purely a matter of preference. "Who is better" arguments raged on, but no one who took the instrument seriously could afford to ignore any of the four.
Players had long been influenced by the instruments associated with their idols. But Clapton's sound -- particularly on Fresh Cream -- was so powerful and unusual, so unique, that guitarists began to investigate every link in the signal chain, looking for any clue that might help them attain that tone-from the guitar's vintage and string gauge to the amp's wattage and speaker size. (It is no small coincidence that 1967 also marked the first issue of Guitar Player Magazine.) Having lost his sunburst Gibson Les Paul to a thief, Clapton bought a '61 SG-shaped Les Paul and commissioned a psychedelic paint job for it by a team of British artist known as the Fool. The Les Paul/Marshall amp combination became the setup, and prices for the vintage Gibson (discontinued in the early '60s) skyrocketed, thanks to their association with Clapton, Bloomfield, Beck, Keith Richards, Peter Green, and others.
The combination of Clapton's blues base and the jazz slant of Baker and Bruce -- along with their sizable egos and collective sense of humor -- made Cream as much fission as fusion. While Clapton's playing became more compositional and lyrical on record, onstage he engaged in improvisational blitzes that were unprecedented in rock music. Like his subsequent bands, Cream was virtually anti-theatric -- practically the only movements onstage were Bruce bobbing up and down to the beat and the blur of Ginger Baker's arms. Clapton stood motionless, eyes shut, but at least faced the audience most of the time. Still audiences were riveted as they watched the three virtuosos coax, nudge, and sometimes shove each other into uncharted territory.
Cream's second LP, Disraeli Gears, introduced them to Atlantic Records' engineering wizard Tom Dowd and 8-track recording; it also introduced Eric to the wah-wah pedal, which had previously been employed by Jimi Hendrix on his recording of "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp." The LP transformed the trio from a cult band (albeit one commanding a large cult) into a megagroup. It also garnered their first hit single, "Sunshine Of Your Love," a vocal duet between Clapton and Bruce. Clapton's kazoo-like tome on much of the LP (particularly "Swlabr" and "Outside Woman Blues") was a result of him rolling the guitar's tone control back and then cranking his Marshall to the maximum volume.
Dates on the trio's '68 American tour in support of the album were recorded and, combined with their most experimental studio work, surfaced on Wheels Of Fire, a vivid juxtaposition of their studio and onstage personas. Clapton's version of "Crossroads," by his favorite American bluesman, Robert Johnson, secured its own place in the annals of rock guitar. The American tour was to be their last, followed by a farewell concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in November 1968. When Cream played its last show, Clapton was 23 years old -- arguably the most famous guitarist on earth.
Goodbye, an album of Cream leftovers (live and studio), was released in March of '69 -- it included the lyrical "Badge," a collaboration between Clapton and George Harrison. But Eric had already formed a new supergroup, Blind Faith, with Baker, Traffic's Steve Winwood, and bassist Rick Grech.
Blind Faith was, in many ways, Clapton's first failure -- not because it wasn't a good band, but because it never fulfilled its potential. The pressure created by unrealistic audience expectations made that all but impossible. Approximately 36,000 people turned out for the quartet's debut performance, a free concert in London's Hyde Park in June of 1969. Despite the presence of two-thirds of Cream, Winwood's seemed to be the strongest personality in the band. As one Melody Maker reporter wrote, "It seemed very much like Stevie Winwood plus a backing group." The band's self titled album, released in August of that year, also had Winwood's indelible stamp, accounting for a decidedly Traffic sound; he played keyboards, handled all lead vocals, wrote half of the LP's tunes, and even traded guitar riffs with Eric on "Sea Of Joy" and "Had To Cry Today." By this time, Eric had set aside his SG/Les Paul in favor of a Gibson ES-335 (which he played at Cream's farewell concert), a Firebird, and sometimes a Fender Telecaster Custom with a blonde Stratocaster neck.
The group's one and only tour was, for the most part, a disaster. Instead of playing the sorts of venues Cream first played -- clubs like New York's Cafe Au Go-Go and dance halls like San Francisco's Fillmore -- Blind Faith's opening date was at Madison Square Garden. Clapton got frustrated with being hyped as a supergroup and called it quits. He joined the tour's opening act, a veritably unknown American husband-and-wife team, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett.
During the Blind Faith tour, Clapton had also quietly converted to Christianity. As he told Steve Turner in a 1975 cover story for Rolling Stone. "Two guys came to my dressing room. They were just two Christians, and they said, 'Can we pray with you?" I mean, what can you do? So we knelt down and prayed, and it was really like the blinding light, and I said, 'What's happening? I feel much better!' And, then I said to them, "Let me show you this poster I've got of Jimi Hendrix." I pulled it out and there was a portrait of Christ inside, which I hadn't bought, had never seen in my life before. And, it just knocked the three of us sideways. From then on, I became a devout Christian."
In 1970, Clapton toured with Delaney & Bonnie And Friends (resulting in a lackluster live album); appeared with John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock And Roll Revival (released as Live Peace In Toronto); recorded his first solo album (a self-titled disappointment produced by Delaney Bramlett that yielded the hit "After Midnight"); and formed Derek And The Dominos from members of the Delaney & Bonnie troupe. He again changed guitar preferences, opting for the Fender Stratocaster he uses to this day. Around this time, he also fell in love with the wife of one of his best (and most famous) friends, George Harrison. When their affair ended, and Patti Harrison returned to her ex-Beatle husband, Clapton was crushed. Less than a year after he'd been born again, he now turned to heroin as a means of escape.
Derek And The Dominos' only studio effort, 1970's Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, was an emotional catharsis. A concept album about unrequited love, it included four sides of the best work in Clapton's career. Everything that the Eric Clapton LP lacked (emotion, inspiration, dynamics) or tried self-consciously to attain (comradery, lyricism), Layla contained in abundance. Producer Tom Dowd introduced Eric to slide maestro Duane Allman, who not only sat in, but became an integral part of the group for the duration of the album. Along with the Dominos -- bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon, and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock -- Eric now had the best of both worlds' a supportive, egoless unit that could still prod him to new heights. Both Clapton and Allman turned in some of their best guitar work on LP, in songs such as "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "Tell The Truth," "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?" and "Layla."
In his essay on Eric Clapton in The Rolling Stone History Of Rock & Roll, Dave Marsh called "Layla" "perhaps the most powerful and beautiful song of the '70s," "It emerges, seven minutes of agony," he wrote, "from an album that is the most assured Clapton has ever made. With 'Layla,' Clapton composed his own perfect blues without resorting to the traditional blues form. He matched Robert Johnson blow for blow, sorrow for sorrow." (Typically, Clapton says when he wrote the song it was "just a ditty," and attributes his searing vocal performance to "the fact that I didn't think I could sing, so I was just going on pure energy and emotion, and knowing what I was doing, having no technique whatsoever -- just forcing it through.")
Having created what most artists can only dream of, a true masterpiece, Clapton dropped out of sight. For most of 1971 and '72, he was a more active drug addict than musician. He made only two onstage appearances during that time, one with pianist/singer Leon Russell and, ironically, one with George Harrison at the Concert For Bangladesh in New York. In January of '73, the Who's Pete Townshend put a band together whose aim it was to get Eric back into the spotlight. With Grech, Winwood, Ron Wood, and others, Townshend formed the Palpitations, who backed Clapton for two shows at London's Rainbow Theatre. An album released from those dates shows little sign of the Clapton of yore, but the gig succeeded in getting Eric out of hiding.
In 1974, with the help of Dr. Meg Patterson, Clapton underwent electro-acupuncture treatment and kicked heroin. Eager to work again, he summoned Carl Radle to Miami to record. The bassist brought along Tulsa, Oklahoma, buddies Dick Sims (keyboards) and Jamie Oldaker (drums), and Clapton called in guitarist George Terry, whom he'd met during the Layla sessions. Yvonne Elliman was added on vocals, and the result was 461 Ocean Boulevard. Due to their laid-back stance and lack of extended soloing, 461 and virtually every post-Layla album Clapton released in the '70s confounded die-hard fans. 461 was not only the most impressive of the lot, it introduced white audiences to a form of music they otherwise may have never checked out, reggae, with Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff."
For the better part of a decade, Clapton searched for a new identity. He couldn't decide what role he wanted to assume, but he knew that Guitar Hero was not it. He alternately modeled himself after J. J. Cale (composer of "After Midnight" and "Cocaine"). Delaney Bramlett, and country singer Don Williams without success. Even on Top-10 hits such as the blatantly Cale-tinged "Lay Down, Sally" (Slowhand) and the sing-songy "Promises" (Backless), Clapton seemed out of place.
But, he seemed to regain his focus in 1979. One reason could be his marriage to Patti, whom he'd won back years earlier. Another could be his tour with Muddy Waters, who referred to Eric as his adopted son. "Short of actually going to the courthouse," Clapton says, "he was my father. He'd scold me, give me advice -- like any father would." Eric formed his first all-English band in 10 years, with guitarist Albert Lee, bassist Dave Markee, drummer Henry Spinetti, and keyboardist Chris Stainton. The group played Tokyo's Budokan Theatre in December of that year, recording a live double-album of Clapton's best material from the '70s, Just One Night.
Outwardly, Clapton's outlook was finally improving, but along the way he had picked up a sizable drinking habit, which (combined with a taste for rich foods) caught up with him in 1981, when he collapsed from a penetrating ulcer. Having recorded his best LP in 10 years, the highly underrated Another Ticket, his '81 tour was cut short after only eight dates. After his recovery, he made only two appearances that year, one being a benefit show for Amnesty International that teamed him with Jeff Beck for the first time on record (The Secret Policeman's Other Ball). In 1983, Clapton and Beck joined forces with the third link in the Yardbirds/Guitar Hero chain, Jimmy Page, for the ARMS (Action Research in Multiple Sclerosis) shows benefiting Ronnie Lane.
Clapton's latest LP, Behind The Sun (named after a line in Muddy Waters' "Louisiana Blues"), was recorded in 1984 with producers Phil Collins, Ted Templeman, and Lenny Waronker coaxing some of his best studio performances in years -- ranging from the love song "Never Make You Cry" to the sinister "Same Old Blues" to the hit single/video "Forever Man." Critics who had been ready to signal the demise of the guitar hero are instead proclaiming it a major comeback.
Clapton knows better. His reputation will never stand or fall on the basis of any one album or concert As long as he's around, Eric Clapton will remain the standard by which lead guitarists are measured. Subgenres may come and go; styles and techniques may change radically; and there will always be a faster, flashier, perhaps better newcomer. But, Eric Clapton virtually defined lead guitar as its own artform, regardless of idiom. He not only authored the book, he wrote most of the language. As Robbie Robertson said in introducing Clapton at the Band's Last Waltz, "Play guitar? Eric Clapton."
Originally appeared in Guitar Player, July 1985.
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