The most popular blues guitarist that ever deigned to play rock 'n' roll, Eric Clapton (b. March 30, 1945, Ripley, England): 1) Was part of the Yardbirds and Cream, two of the most popular rock groups of the '60s, 2 Made rock history with Derek & The Dominos' classic album Layla in the '70s, 3) Was the subject of one of pop music's most popular boxed-set retrospectives the 4-CD Crossroads in the '80s, and 4 met the greatest commercial success of his life with his live Unplugged set of the '90s.
The only rock star to be nicknamed "God" against his will--as British graffiti of the mid-'60s had it--Clapton has had more ups and downs in his lengthy career than most of his contemporaries, but in the literal sense remains very much a survivor.
Clapton's early history involved a thorough appreciation of the blues, which he'd played in early '60s R&B band the Roosters and, between 1963-65, with the Yardbirds. But by the time most Americans had the first inkling the latter band even existed--via their initial summer 1965 hit "For Your Love"--Clapton had already departed, frustrated by the group's increasingly poppish direction. He embraced the blues wholeheartedly on 1966's Blues Breakers, the album that remains the most distinguished in prolific U.K. bluesman John Mayall's bulging catalog, but soon felt dissatisfaction in that context as well.
The guitarist's U.S. introduction essentially came when he joined bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker to form Cream, perhaps the first rock "supergroup" of the era, whose influence on hard rock from 1967 onward cannot be overstated. Renowned mostly for Clapton's stunning guitar work, which was amply displayed during extended solos in live performance, the band's relatively commercial albums were instant hits, with Disraeli Gears, Wheels Of Fire, and Goodbye each rapidly reaching the top 5 upon their 1967-69 release.
Though bassist Jack Bruce wrote the lion's share of Cream's material, Clapton held a co-writing credit on two of their best known songs, including the classic top 5 hit "Sunshine Of Your Love" and "Badge," co-written with Beatle George Harrison. Additionally, Clapton sang the band's arrangement of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," a top 30 single in 1969 that has since become even more of a classic rock radio standard than "Sunshine Of Your Love."
Following the group's late-'60s demise, Clapton and Baker joined forces with Traffic's Steve Winwood and bassist Rik Grech for the ill-fated Blind Faith, who lasted long enough to produce one album and briefly tour America in 1969 before disbanding. Though viewed in retrospect as an experiment that failed, the group produced one of Clapton's best early songs in "Presence Of The Lord"; in fact, detached from the heavily-felt hype of its time, the album sounds remarkably good nearly 30 years later.
A growing friendship with American act Delaney & Bonnie, who had opened for Blind Faith on some American tour dates, led Clapton to invite the duo to England to perform; they did, he joined them on guitar, and the results can be heard on 1970's On Tour With Eric Clapton by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends with Eric Clapton. Clapton, who had lingering doubts about his singing ability, has credited Delaney Bramlett for providing him the emotional nudge he needed to become a front man for his own band. Bramlett further proved his point by producing Clapton's 1970 solo debut Eric Clapton, which boasted eight songs written or co-written by the guitarist and reached the top 15, thanks in part to top 20 hit "After Midnight" (penned by J.J. Cale) and the radio hit "Let It Rain."
Encouraged, Clapton then formed Derek & the Dominos, whose inspired album Layla featured guest guitarist tDuane Allman and showcases both players at their absolute best; regarded by many as one of the best rock albums of the era, the double LP reached the top 20 in 1970 and was reissued in a 3-CD "deluxe anniversary edition" by PolyGram in 1990. With co-writing credits on "I Looked Away," "Bell Bottom Blues," and the legendary title track, Clapton proved his worth on Layla both as songwriter and guitarist; he was no longer regarded by the public as merely Cream's ex-guitarist.
While Clapton enjoyed great success in the '70s, problems with heroin and, later, alcohol significantly disrupted his career. Off the scene between 1971-73 (except for an uninspired Pete Townshend-organized "comeback" concert, released in 1973 as Rainbow Concert), the guitarist returned in triumph with 1974's 461 Ocean Boulevard, which became the first No. 1 album of his career largely due to its cover of the Wailers' classic "I Shot The Sheriff." Clapton was shifting his musical emphasis more and more into songs rather than the lengthy improvisations that had once been his trademark with Cream. It was a move that had been long in coming; in 1974, he told Rolling Stone that he had been impressed some years earlier upon hearing the Band's classic Music From Big Pink album. "I thought, well this is what I want to play," he recalled, "not extended solos and maestro bullshit but just good funky songs."
Clapton's songwriting continued to improve, and throughout the remainder of the '70s he enjoyed a non-stop run of successful albums--four of which made the top 10 between 1977-81--and self-penned hit singles, including "Hello Old Friend," "Lay Down Sally" (co-written with Marcy Levy), "Wonderful Tonight," and "I Can't Stand It." In 1983, Clapton moved over to Warner Bros., and with Money And Cigarettes began recording on his own Duck Records label. The resulting albums continued to be substantial efforts, often featuring the guitarist with top-notch musical partners including Ry Cooder, Albert Lee, and Phil Collins. Clapton began writing with a host of new collaborators--among them keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, the Band's Robbie Robertson, Collins, Steven Bishop, Foreigner's Mick Jones, and blues guitarist Robert Cray.
By the early '90s, Clapton had further extended his compositional chops by scoring several film soundtracks, including all three of the Lethal Weapon films, Mickey Rourke's Homeboy, and Rush, which featured Clapton's Grammy-winning single, "Tears In Heaven." The moving lyrics of the latter track, co-written with Will Jennings, connected heavily with the public after Clapton's four-year-old son Conor was tragically killed in a 53-story fall in early 1991.
In 1993, Clapton reunited and performed with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker when Cream was inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. And by the next year, Clapton had returned to the blues with From The Cradle. For longtime fans, it was like a gift from "God."
By: Dave DiMartino