IT WAS 49 YEARS AGO TODAY … As much as I respect his varied body of work, and his refreshing, post-Cream, non-guitar hero stance, I’ve never been a huge Eric Clapton fan. Too much soporific singing, boringly bland vocals, and mid-tempo, play-it-safe material soon after he flew solo and settled, comfortably numb, into a mid-’70s Adult-Contemporary hammock. (And let us not even speak of his slew of slickly produced, ’80s-era MOR atrocities with Genesis muppet Phil Collins … oops, too late).
That said, what I do like about Clapton is that, to my mind, he’s often done his best work — especially in the early days — as a collaborator and sideman, from the Yardbirds to Delaney & Bonnie to John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. This essential album from the latter represents the pinnacle of the “Clapton Is God” phase of his career — and his playing on it makes that famously scrawled and sprayed slogan, which began appearing all over England in the mid ’60s, instantly understandable.
To me, this is Clapton at his rawest and fiercest; his bluesiest, purest, and most exciting, channeling his heroes like Robert Johnson and, especially, Freddie King (and even covering a tune or two) with a bottomless bag of stinging riffs, ferocious solo outbursts, and inventive accents of color and melody.
As a sidebar, bandleader John Mayall certainly had a knack for choosing guitar players for his Blues Breakers. Eric had initially joined Mayall after quitting the Yardbirds because they were becoming too “poppy.” When he left to start Cream, Mayall enlisted a young slinger named Peter Green, who would, of course, go on to launch Fleetwood Mac with another Mayall alum, John McVie.
And when Green left, Mayall wasted little time filling that sizeable vacancy with a slightly promising 18-year-old future Rolling Stone named Mick Taylor. Legend has it that as a 16-year-old a couple of years earlier, Taylor had the brass balls to ask Mayall if he could sit in for God, er, Clapton — and play Eric’s axe — when Eric didn’t show for the gig; A taken aback John warily said OK, and Taylor proceeded to play Eric’s parts and the band’s repertoire flawlessly. When the show was over, Mick disappeared into the crowd, not to be heard from again … until he re-emerged following Green’s departure.
What’s most amazing to me, beyond all this history, is how utterly fresh this album still sounds — whether in its original LP format or in one of the ‘deluxe’ and expanded editions that have been released over the years — nearly 50 years later. It is one of the major monuments of both the ’60s British Invasion and Blues Revival that woke England up and changed music forever. And to me, it’s still the best thing Clapton ever did.
I think Clapton also set a very high bar with his first solo album, which was, essentially, an extension of his ensemble work with Delaney & Bonnie. He’s certainly gone through high and low creative points. Cream and his “Back To Cradle” era are highs, and, honestly, since BTC he’s appeared less inclined to pen sappy pop tunes — although there’s something to be said about his range in those, as well. As somebody who is well-attuned to the current blues world, in terms of both the general level of artistry and the business that surrounds and often squashes it, I am certain that Clapton remains well above just about anybody in the pack, and was rightly inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame this year. (Haters gonna hate, and, indeed, there was an outcry from the ignorant about Joe Bonamassa’s Blues Music Award for best guitarist. Who’s better — empirically, creatively and as a flag-waver for the genre?) But Clapton… A bluesman, a sentimentalist, a hard-rocking improvisor… as unexcited as I’ve been about his work at times, he will always have my admiration. And the stink of self-importance doesn’t really cling to him as thoroughly as it does to, say, a Don Henley or — here’s where I put my foot in it — Paul McCartney. (Paul’s remarks about Lennon achieving an undeserved higher status because he was shot to death are unpardonably swinish, even if the guy can still write great tunes and rock like a mother.)
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Thanks for your thoughtful, and wise weigh-in, as always, Ted. I agree on many counts, not the least of which is his excellent first solo album (notice how I carefully chose my timeframe about Clapton settling in to a laid-back MID-70s groove, because I do continue to enjoy that first solo flush of music, which sees him collaborating — there’s that word again — with his “Derek & The Dominoes/Delaney & Bonnie”-era cohorts. And I’ve always respected the fact that, unlike many of the contemporary “guitar heroes” (British and American) of the day who kept mining similar, sometimes safe hard-rock territory or aping Cream/Zep/Hendrix, Clapton stepped back — as he had done before, especially (and maybe even perversely) in the face of great commercial success — took stock of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go artistically, and ultimately rejected (or became bored by) the notion of merely repeating the Cream Power Trio formula as potentially lucrative as it may have been. As he’s said himself over the years, he wanted to become a good songwriter and become more of a complete artist rather than just soloing, soloing, soloing over everything into eternity (I’m paraphrasing here). Among Clapton’s most famous guitar hero contemporaries, I’d say Jeff Beck is also a notable exception to the more is more approach of that era: a guy who, despite some forgettable albums and uninspired moments, has rarely played it safe or predictable (his ’70s rock-fusion forays such as “Blow By Blow” and “Wired” come to mind). And to your observation about how he carries himself, I too get the feeling that Eric doesn’t possess the mercurial personality or ego of Jeff Beck. He does seem down-to-earth, plain-spoken and forthright in his assessment of himself, secure but not smug in his legacy etc. An ordinary bloke, even. It’s just too bad that so much of his latter work (as in, the last 35 years, save some of his back-to-the-blues efforts) feels so laid-back and coasts along as easy as a Jimmy Buffett trip to Margaritaville. Gotta tell ya (and you know this better than anybody): Seeing SRV, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and just about any and everybody I could on the Alligator Records roster in the ’80s and ’90s) made me realize how tame and rote so much of what passes for “modern blues” is (Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd…). And then, hearing that amazing stuff by your pals Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and even latter-day saints like the Black Keys, were revelations that made Clapton’s duets records with B.B. King etc. so…ho-hum obvious. I’ve just simply never connected on a visceral or emotional level with Clapton and his vibe. A staid frontman and performer (and you know me; I like my frontmen/frontwomen performers a little more animated, heheheh). And the voice, for me, is soooo pedestrian, bland, and colorless. But here’s the rub. I’ve got to admit: I never cared for Cream much either. But that’s not Clapton’s or Ginger Baker’s fault. Jack Bruce’s stiffly baroque, mannered elocution going on and on about Aphrodite and rainbows having mustaches? Can’t stand it! (One good foot put into it deserves another my friend).