As a rock star ages and fans become more and more accustomed to their trick bag, they can start to sound like old hat, running the risk of tarnishing their original reputation as innovators, leaders, and inspirational figures. Hendrix died at 27, Fleetwood Mac’s original guitarist Peter Green became disabled and faded into obscurity, but Eric Clapton lived on to flirt with both greatness and mediocrity over a long career.
Clapton made his bones as a blues guitarist — the most accomplished, authentic, purpose-driven white blues guitarist of his generation — his early work inspiring everyone around him, his legacy starting in the British Blues genre, but branching out across the entirety of 60s and 70s guitar rock. Sadly, he is eventually also known for “Wonderful Tonight,” the saccharine 1977 ballad that came to exemplify rock Muzak, and unfortunately his reputation rests too on a string of overproduced, mediocre Adult Contemporary 80s hits. That decade was very unkind to nearly every luminary of the founding era of rock, but Clapton gets particularly harsh and lasting treatment for his lesser material, some of it produced by the dread popmeister Phil Collins.
To illustrate, the other day I was involved in a music thread where someone was unfamiliar with drummer Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos, who has a shocking biography. “I had to look him up. Seems that he played with Clapton and killed his mother. I don’t know which is worse.” Yikes.
Familiarity can indeed breed contempt in rock heroes and Eric Clapton has had his share. A well publicized mid-70s racist outburst certainly didn’t help his standing, something for which he has apologized. Nevertheless, Clapton’s place in the history of rock is formative and essential. I contend that rock music as we know it would be very different without Eric Clapton’s guitar, his vision, and his passion for the blues.
The essential wisdom of essayist Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, David and Goliath is that in case after case, outstanding achievement in life can very often be traced back to childhood trauma and the skills developed to overcome that disadvantage in order to succeed. Born to an unwed mother who left him in the care of her parents at age 2, Clapton was nevertheless an extroverted and bright child, showing an aptitude for arts and language at an early age, quickly becoming skilled at drawing. Music was always around in his grandparents’ home and he describes his early childhood as unconventional but normal, even happy. But the reappearance of his mother at age 9 was a traumatic and confusing disruption to the talented boy, causing embarrassment and inner turmoil, eventually turning him moody and aloof. Not a bad pedigree for a bluesman, and by Gladwell’s theory, this trauma goes a long way to explain why Eric Clapton was driven to achieve so much as a guitarist and a pioneering rock musician.
After messing around with a plastic guitar that wouldn’t tune up, young Eric received a Spanish gut-string guitar from his grandparents on his 13th birthday, but his mastering of the instrument proved to be elusive, at least initially. His first obsession was not playing, but listening to the fascinating music coming from America, especially Black music, and specifically, the blues music of Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and eventually, the sublimely complex Robert Johnson, from whom Clapton would draw so much.
Accepted at art school for his drawing skills, a resurgent guitar obsession interfered with Clapton’s tenure and eventually derailed his career on the commercial artist track. But the young guitarist was anything but undisciplined. His compulsion extended far beyond learning the fretboard. Clapton needed to know, not just the music, but the stories and geography that surrounded the songs. He needed to know and be able to compare the different styles and forms of each of the blues artists that he was studying. Out of this deep journey into the American South and up the Mississippi all the way to Chicago, Clapton developed his own musical point of view, steeped in American music, but from his own mind and musical voice. The mental and emotional connection to his blues heroes must have been exactly what Eric the guitarist needed because by the time Clapton reached adulthood, his playing technique was unparalleled.
The burgeoning English rhythm and blues movement was well underway by the time Clapton burst onto the scene. A confident lead guitarist with a personal style and an instantly recognizable tone, it didn’t take long before word spread locally about the young firebrand gunslinger. When singer-harmonica player Keith Relf, who knew Clapton from his formative days in folk bands heard him play, he and friend Paul Samuel-Smith expanded their Metropolitan Blues Quartet to feature a lead guitarist and in mid-1963, The Yardbirds were formed.
Though an inventive soloist and and an eloquent speaker within the language of the blues, Clapton was much less of an innovator than his peers Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page who were to each subsequently replaced him in The Yardbirds. He saw himself as part of a blues tradition and his focus was on making a personal statement within the form. By the mid-60s, no longer the latest thing, the British Blues movement was shifting in a post-Beatlemania marketplace. The Yardbirds, now backed by management and Columbia Records, grew to exemplify the tension between the two genres, blues and pop.
But Eric Clapton the guitarist was not interested in economics. In fact, Clapton quit The Yardbirds on the eve of the release of their breakthrough hit single “For Your Love,” an overtly Beatlesque harpsichord-driven pop song that only featured the band in the middle-eight breaks. Increasingly arrogant at this time in his career, Clapton did not like how decisions were being made for the band — thoroughly disinterested in pursuing the pop trends that were exploding in this British Invasion period and tired of fighting the band over their musical direction, Clapton split with The Yardbirds in 1965.
Though he would go on to explore other styles of music, Clapton at that time was interested only in the blues in all of its forms. John Mayall, welcomed Clapton into his Bluesbreakers band with open arms. Already signed to EMI Records and coming off of his debut live album, John Mayall plays John Mayall, the white English blues singer and multi-instrumentalist was breaking out of the common fare of the early British blues movement with a more electrified, energized version of the form. Whereas the majority of early British Blues followed the lead of Alex Korner, the acknowledged godfather of British Blues, focusing on the lighter textures of acoustic guitar blues and the sax-driven jazz blues reminiscent of “Night Train,” Mayall’s vision drew inspiration from the fiery electric Chicago Blues and Memphis uptempo R&B. And like his jazz counterpart, Miles Davis, Mayall was to carved out a place in rock history as a bandleader who sought out young, exceptional talent, bringing to the world such luminaries and Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie (who would later form the very successful original Fleetwood Mac), Jack Bruce who would rule the rock world for a spell with Clapton in Cream, and also Mick Taylor who would join the Rolling Stones for their most fertile period — all Bluesbreakers at one point, all brought into the band and developed by John Mayall. Quite the rock legacy.
Like the members of The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, Mayall and his Bluesbreakers were obsessed with American blues and sought to fuse the blues language with the power and sound of rock and roll. For this mission, Mayall found the perfect guitarist in Eric Clapton. Though Mayall would recruit Peter Green (later of the original Fleetwood Mac) when Clapton took a sudden and curiously amateurish leave to tour Greece with a pack of rock and roll misfits, The Glands, on Clapton’s return, he was immediately hired back into The Bluesbreakers, his forceful electric playing preferred over the more relaxed, fluid style of Green, a style that can be heard on the subsequent Bluesbreakers album, A Hard Road.
The sound of the John Mayall album, The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, owes much to the timbre of Clapton’s 1959 Les Paul Standard with PAF humbucking pickups through his small Marshall combo amp cranked up insanely loudly (a nightmare for Engineer Gus Dudgeon, yes, you know that name). But an even bigger contribution to the sound of the album than the equipment choices was the attitude of Clapton’s playing and the strength in his fingers, bending notes with incredible precision, introducing vibrato, and tearing off riffs and melodic figures like a man on fire. Determined, even angry in tone, this was the sound of a guitarist announcing his presence on the world stage, forcing his arrogant attitudes about the blues on the young rock and roll audience assembled before him. These teenagers had no idea who Robert Johnson was, but they knew who Eric Clapton was and they scrawled his name on the walls around London with the ubiquitous catch phrase that was to haunt him through his career, “Clapton Is God.”
Not an easy thing to live up to through the peaks and valleys of one’s career. But all it takes is a listen to the featured track on the album, Hideaway, a reworking of the Freddie King instrumental in the Clapton style. First, check out Freddie King’s original:
Now listen as Clapton’s cranked-up version lights the song ablaze. This is the power of rock and roll. This is blues through a rock lens. A fulfillment of the promise of the entire British Blues movement and quite literally, the birth of the rock lead guitar hero as we know it:
Up until this point, lead guitar breaks were limited to either instrumental restatements of the vocal melody of the song, or what could be termed “freak outs” (the Dave Davies lead break in “You Really Got Me” being a prime example). But here on Hideaway, as he did night after night on stage with the group, Clapton is playing leads in a much more compositional style, crafting solos with a beginning, middle and end, with an ear as much toward storytelling as guitar tone.
And here is Clapton on “Stepping Out,” his other feature on the album, although Clapton’s presence screams out on almost every track. Imagine his small Marshall amp cranked loud enough to emulate the fiery tone Clapton would achieve on stage, so loud that the engineer had to modify his normal practice and back his mic off a few yards so that what we hear is essential the sound of the small studio room being overloaded with a naturally distorting amp tone. By the way, that engineer, Gus Dudgeon would go on to produce Bowie’s first hit, Space Oddity and every one of Elton John’s albums through his golden 70s era.
Clapton would go on to bring out more genius stuff: Cream, his guest spot on The Beatles’ While My Guitar, the early solo career including the extraordinary Layla and Assorted Love Songs album — before settling into the less notable periods. That “Clapton Is God” thing would follow him around, probably a great annoyance to the man, but rock fans’ obsession with and deification of lead guitar players is a long, winding river through the body of rock history. It runs through Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and ever forward, but a strong argument can be made that it source lies in the hands and musical determination of Eric Clapton in those early years when he was passionately making his case for the blues to an young rock and roll audience.