BY Brian M. Reiser
for the Joe Bonamassa Official Blog
Many people think of Eric Clapton as primarily a rock star who went adult contemporary later in his career. There’s some truth to that assessment from a certain perspective. Certainly, Clapton is a rock star, being a member of such illustrious rock bands as “The Yardbirds,” “Cream,” and “Derek and the Dominos.” And, without a doubt, in the 90’s Clapton moved into adult contemporary territory with soft rock hits like “Tears In Heaven,” “Change the World,” and “My Father’s Eyes.”
But many of us know another side of Eric Clapton – that of bluesman extraordinaire. Throughout his entire career, the blues have been a mainstay, an integral part of what Clapton has been trying to accomplish musically. In our last blog piece, which you can read here, we discussed ten ways that the blues played a formative influence on Eric Clapton as he was growing up and as he honed his craft as one of the top guitarists of the twentieth century. In this blog, we complete the story, explaining ten ways that the blues continued to influence and even dominate Clapton’s career as he progressed from his various bands to his solo career.
1. Being a member of the band The Yardbirds was Eric Clapton’s first full-time, professional job as a musician. For Clapton, it was a dream come true to be part of an act that whose sole raison d’etre was to honor and play blues music. In the beginning, the band’s repertoire consisted solely of covers, such as “Got Love If You Want It” by Slim Harpo, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” by Sonny Boy Williamson, and “Smokestack Lightnin'” by Howlin Wolf. The latter was the band’s most well received, popular number and they’d play it at almost every gig.
2. The band’s management arranged for them to join Sonny Boy Williamson on his European tour. Clapton wasn’t especially thrilled, as he much preferred the harmonica stylings of Little Walter. It is important to note that this was not the same Sonny Boy Williamson that wrote “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” Williamson basically thought the British bluesmen stunk, and he made them do odd things like kneel down around him while he did “a sort of moonwalk” on the stage as he played. Overall, this wasn’t a great experience for Clapton and The Yardbirds.
3. In these days of The Yardbirds, Clapton was ideologically opposed to making records, believing it was destined to be merely a commercial enterprise, and not a pure artistic experience as playing live was. But behind this rather deep reason for opposing the production lay another, more egotistical reason – Clapton did not really like the way he sounded on record, especially as compared with his authentic blues heroes.
4. The band became known for its jam session interludes during the middle of a song, which is part of why the band felt they sounded so much better live, in addition to also having a more raw and real feel than in the confines of a recording studio. The jam sessions would feature rising crescendos that created a kind of music frenzy before settling back down again. While most bands were playing three minute ditties, The Yardbirds were stretching their live songs out to 5 or 6 minutes including the jam-based sections. The audiences loved the instrumental sections and really got the idea of the blues jam.
5. During his time in the Yardbirds, Clapton became more and more of a blues purist and, in general, an intellectual interested in the arts of various sorts – the poetry of Baudelaire, beat poetry, Japanese and French cinema, and of course, the blues. But, pure, authentic blues. What Clapton was not interested was the mainstream pop music that was dominating the music scene, and he began to look down on such music with a sort of contempt. This began to cause tension for Clapton as a member of the Yardbirds, as their manager, enamored with the pop success of The Beatles, wanted very much to emulate that success with the ‘Birds. What Clapton minded was not so much having hit songs, but having hit songs that were basically sell outs – not the authentic blues music that Clapton so desperately wanted to produce and champion. Recording the hit song “For Your Love” was the gateway to Clapton’s exit from the band, as he felt the tune was a complete sell-out and not at all in the spirit of what he was trying to do with The Yardbirds.
6. The answer Clapton turned to for an authentic blues experience was to join up with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton saw in Mayall a man who was doing exactly what Clapton had envisioned for The Yardbirds. At this time, Clapton became more and more engrossed in the modern Chicago blues scene, especially the music of people like John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. This was now the music that Clapton was steering Mayall to emulate with the Bluesbreakers, whereas before Mayall’s band had a kind of jazz-blues leaning. Interestingly, Clapton was also very influenced by the Harold Pinter play The Caretaker at this time, absorbing the elliptical and biting style of Pinter’s writing.
7. During this period, Clapton got to do a session with some of his heroes, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Clapton was at once terrified of how to act around these legends, whom he considered real men, although he believed he could keep up with them as a musician despite being more of a “little boy.” The song recorded for the sessions was called “Pretty Girls Everywhere I Go” (which was also a fairly accurate description of Clapton’s personal life at this time). Around this time was also when the “Clapton is god” slogan began popping up on graffiti around London.
8. Clapton’s latest inspiration was the highly charismatic, not to mention eminently talented, Buddy Guy. Clapton was impressed by his stage presence as a front man as much as by his incredible musicianship, but Clapton also began to get the idea in his head that he could do what Buddy Guy was doing also. This lead to thoughts that perhaps his time playing the sideman to John Mayall were coming to an end, and directly led to the formation of Clapton’s next major blues-rock project, Cream. Clapton’s beginnings with Cream led him to travel to America where he started jamming with major heavyweights like B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix. Although Cream scored hits with some fantastic original tunes that veered towards rock and blues-rock, their repertoire included plenty of the hardcore blues that was Clapton’s true love. Unfortunately, the band was not to last, as interpersonal tensions between the three members ultimately got the best of them.
9. Clapton would continue to have great success in his career, playing with bands like Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos, producing some incredible blues-rock music including the all-time great hit “Layla.” Ultimately, Clapton would move towards a solo career that reached its zenith with his famous Unplugged album. But although that record is most known for its acoustic arrangements of Clapton’s rocker “Layla” and his soft-rock heartstring-tugger “Tears In Heaven,” the album is actually full of down and dirty acoustic blues. Included on the album are tunes like Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey,” Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” and “Malted Milk,” Leadbelly’s “Alberta,” and the classic Muddy Waters tune “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
10. Despite continuing to find success in the rock and adult contemporary idioms, Clapton continues to explore his blues roots, creating timeless music that helps keep the music alive. Some of his most important projects include his collaborative album with B.B.King, Riding With the King, as well as his Robert Johnson tribute album, Me and Mr. Johnson. But above all, it seems to be Muddy Waters that had the most profound influence on Clapton, not only musically but personally, as a kind of father figure to the younger bluesman. Waters spoke to Clapton in earnest about carrying the torch of the blues tradition, and Clapton has certainly done all in his power to keep that torch alight.
What is Eric Clapton’s most important blues song in your mind? Let us know in the comments below, or leave us a message on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TributApparel or on Twitter at @tributapparel.