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.