Eric Clapton ~ More Significant Than You Think
One way you can consider the impact and significance of any specific musical artist is to consider their influence, what music was like before them and what music was like after them. There are only a handful of names in American popular music that you can point to as changing things, as having an impact that made everything after them different than it was before them. Bing Crosby taught everyone the subtleties and phrasing of how to sing into a recording microphone. Benny Goodman gave popular music a legitimacy to sit and listen to, not just to dance to or to play at some particular occasion, and he brought blues-influenced sounds to the forefront of American music. Muddy Waters incorporated authentic Delta Blues into an energized, hopping, electric Chicago Blues that informed the Rock & Roll that was just around the corner. Little Richard took Rhythm & Blues and bumped up the tempo and urgency to create Rock & Roll. Elvis took the Country Music he grew-up with and the Black church music and Blues that he loved and jammed them together and popularized the 3 minute Blues-based record that still dominates the sound of American Popular music. The Beatles, listening to all those early American Rock & Roll records, mixed in string arrangements and show-tune features and witty songwriting with an abandoning of genre rules or expectations to broaden the whole field of American Popular music . . . they were simply so big, if The Beatles did it it's ok to do. All of these artists changed things, music was different after them than it was before them.
Eric Clapton must be included in that small list of innovative, significant, music-altering artists. Today, when you see an electric guitar you think of Rock music - when Clapton started, Rock & Roll music might just as likely have a piano or saxophone as the lead sound of the solo break. Eric Clapton so gloriously played guitar that he just about single-handedly established it as THE sound of Rock music. David Crosby, of The Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, & Nash, once said that The Beatles made every young American boy want to go out and buy a guitar - Eric Clapton made them all want to learn how to play it. George Harrison, the guitarist for The Beatles, said that back in the early days when from night to night local clubs might have The Beatles, The Animals, The Kinks, or The Yardbirds, etc, on stage, Clapton was the only guitar player who didn't shrink back and hide a bit when the guitar solo part came around, that he was the only one who relished a chance to play and would stand boldly offering his interpretation of American Blues and Rock & Roll.
It's not uncommon for people to quickly count Clapton the best guitar player in the world, but he's one of those performers who, with any and all his recognition, it cannot be overly emphasized how significant he is and the profound impact and influence he's had on music that's come after him. He's the only artist to be inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame 3 times (as a member of The Yardbirds and then Cream and as a solo performer), he has been awarded an OBE & a CBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), seventeen Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy & a BAFTA, and was nominated for a Golden Globe, etc, etc. And year after year his "Layla" is voted on radio stations around the world as the number 1 greatest Rock song ever recorded.
And in 1990, Eric Clapton sold-out London's The Royal Albert Hall for 24 consecutive nights. On the final night of this remarkable record Clapton was presented with the original key to Second Tier Box 77 which had first been presented to the Trustees of the Great Exhibition of 1851 - making the presentation, the hall’s chief executive Patrick Deuchar said: “We have had many stars at the Albert Hall. Eric is the star.”
As I say, it's impossible to overemphasize the significance of Eric Clapton and his influence on music, but let's try . . .
These two clips are from 1966, Clapton demonstrates how he gets the sound that no one has yet heard from a guitar - again this is years before Led Zeppelin and just prior to Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix was playing with bands like Joey Dee and The Starliters & The Isley Brothers when The Animals bass player Chas Chandler told him he would be a big hit in England - Hendrix agreed to go to England, not to become a big hit, but because he wanted to meet Eric Clapton.
Before we move through Clapton's career and observe how his own developing style influenced other players and music in general, I think it helpful, at the start, to be clear about the timing and Clapton's place in the history of Rock music. I've talked with numerous people who advance a scenario or turn of events that simply is historically inaccurate regarding the development of the Rock music genre and Eric Clapton's foundational role.
We'll get to Cream later, but it must be established that Clapton's band, Cream, is the platform on which Rock music is built. many seem to just indiscriminately jam all the early Rock bands together, and there was indeed a lot going on, but Cream was before them all . . . historically, date-wise, Cream started it all and everything came from them. Consider this; some of the biggest bands of the 60/70s (Hendrix, Santana, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, etc) first came to be known by many from their appearance at Woodstock and some bands (like Led Zeppelin) didn't appear until after Woodstock - Cream was already disbanded and Clapton had moved on to other work before Woodstock.
Just to understand the impact that Cream had on bands and music that came after them, click on each of the landmark top bands listed below and listen to a bit of earlier Cream that so observably influenced them ~
Having played in several pick-up and local bands, Clapton joined The Yardbirds in 1963. The Yardbirds had a couple of records released in the U.S., but they were huge in England - at that time the music scene in England was bubbling over with excitement. A whole new generation of kids who had been listening to American Blues records (Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, etc) were forming bands, playing clubs, and making records. Everyone seemed to know that this new Blues-based Rock & Roll sound was on the verge of breaking big worldwide, it was a race to see which band would be the first to 'make it' in America - that turned-out to be The Beatles, but in London, many thought it was going to be The Yardbirds.
What's so stunning about this clip is that you can just about witness musical history - watch and listen to Clapton's guitar solo . . . he starts by playing a kind of standard riff better than others were able to play it, but then he leans forward a bit, adjusts his guitar, and you can hear Eric Clapton invent the lighting attack guitar solo that became the signature feature of what would become Rock music.
"Louise" - 1963. . . The Yardbirds
John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
The Yardbirds saw the success The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had with American audiences, and they wanted to follow in their footsteps. Clapton was far more interested in further exploring the Blues music he loved and developing his own interpretive style than in having hit records or becoming famous - in 1965 he left the band and joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. John Mayall was a few years older than most of young kids in the various English bands at that time and he was a Blues historian/archivist and the father of the British Blues scene. Clapton actually moved in with Mayall and relished access to a massive library of Blues recordings.
It was with Mayall's Bluesbreakers, before Cream, before "Layla", before "After Midnight" & "Cocaine", etc, that "Clapton is God" began to appear painted on the walls of London. Clapton recorded only one LP with John Mayall, "Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton", but it is a landmark album (often referred to as 'The Beano Album' because the cover shot shows Clapton reading a well known British comic, 'The Beano'). In this album Clapton establishes the guitar as irrevocably the sound of Rock music and sets down the template that every guitar player would, and still do, follow - this is one of the most influential and important LPs of the Rock era and demonstrates a giant leap forward in the developing style of Blues-based rock music . . . no one could have done this, played like this, at that time besides Eric Clapton - and now, everyone plays like it. Clapton taught generations of young guitar players how to play guitar with this LP.
"Steppin' Out" - 1966 . . . John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers
There are too many laudable distinctions to list to properly recognize the significance of Cream; they were the first super group, the first to perform extended live versions of their songs, the first album rock band (songs well over the 3 minute radio standard that became hits), they invented the improvisational solo, etc, etc - Cream is the watershed Rock band that started everything and that every other Rock band comes from. "Super group" refers to the fact that each of the band members (Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton) were already known and esteemed as members of other bands . . . they were named "Cream" because they were widely considered the cream of the crop of the British music scene; Baker was the best drummer, Bruce was the best bass player, and Clapton was the best guitarist. Together, as Cream, they changed the direction of popular music.
"Crossroads" - 1968 . . . Cream
When the volatile, mercurial Cream had run it's course, Clapton joined with Ginger Baker (Graham Bond Organization & Cream) and Steve Winwood (The Spencer Davis Group & Traffic) to form music's second super group, Blind Faith in 1969. Again, Clapton was breaking new ground, Blind Faith had a sound that would eventually influence bands like Rod Stewart & Ron Wood's Faces, Fleetwood Mac, and others.
"Sleeping in the Ground" - 1969 . . . Blind Faith
Derek & The Dominos
In 1970 Clapton formed a new band with American Rhythm & Blues, Blues, & Rock players. Wanting to shun the limelight, avoid the newsworthy notice of another super-group, and simply make music, Clapton hid behind the band name Derek & The Dominos. When Clapton invited Duane Allman to join them for the recording sessions, Daune's beautiful slide guitar and Clapton's scorching Blues-drenched guitar and his achingly passionate songwriting, came together to produce one of the most epic classic albums of the Rock era. Song after song on the band's only LP, "Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs", demonstrates the musical genius of Clapton the songwriter and singer and reestablishes him forever as the most gifted guitar player of his generation. The power and passion and breathtaking musical beauty of this LP cannot be overstated.
This clip is of Clapton and the Dominos appearing on The Johnny Cash Show doing an old Blues/Rockabilly classic . . . it's too difficult to pick just one of the songs from the Derek & The Dominos' "Laya" LP, and the clip shows Clapton and Carl Perkins, who would become friends and play together on occasion.
"Matchbox" - 1971 . . . with Carl Perkins & Johnny Cash
Years later, Clapton joined in a tribute to Carl Perkins and re-performed "Matchbox" with him - note the confident development in Clapton's playing, he had, by this time, mastered and enhanced the lighting attack guitar solo he invented in The Yardbirds, refined in The Bluesbreakers, experimented with in Cream, and displayed so flawlessly in Derek & The Dominos.
"Matchbox" - 1985 . . . with Carl Perkins & Ringo Starr
In the 90s Clapton returned more and more to the Blues that formed his playing style. By this time, his vocals had become as artistic an expression of his music as his guitar playing.
"It Hurts Me" - 1996
Clapton now might play with the same group of musicians (drums, keyboard, bass, etc) for a couple of years and record an album or two with them, and then change the line-up. He also is the guest at many fund-raising or tribute concerts - today when you see Eric Clapton on stage it's not unlikely to see Phil Collins on drums, Mark Knopfler or Jeff Beck on guitar or one of his Blues heroes like Buddy Guy or B.B.King next to him. Below is from a benefit concert for the island of Montserrat after devastation from hurricane Hugo.
"Same Old Blues" - 1997
Below is from a fund raiser for Clapton's 'Crossroads Centre', recognized as a premiere addiction treatment center. And this performance is a premiere example of what Eric Clapton can do that leaves other great guitar players behind; Clapton can play scorching Blues as could Stevie Ray Vaughan, thundering Rock as can Jeff Beck, and many other forms and styles like many other great players - but no other players can do the kind of symphonic soaring, the lush, beautiful, haunting kind of guitar that you can hear here ~
"River Of Tears" - 1999
The 'unplugged' idea, musicians doing stripped-down acoustic versions of their familiar hits, did not become a viable endeavor until Clapton recorded his 'Unplugged' session - then many followed with their own 'unplugged' versions of their music. Years later Clapton recorded several CDs of the music of Robert Johnson, below is from one of those sessions.
"Stones In My Passway" - 2004
I end with the clip below because, while not exactly in chronological order, I think this might be the single finest guitar solo ever recorded. Andy Fairweather-Low has been playing with Clapton for some years now, and this is a song from Andy's early British invasion era group Amen Corner that they play together on occasion at Clapton shows . . . it demonstrates much of what Clapton has in his arsenal and how he puts things together, the choices he makes, the flat-out skill with the instrument that he has and the inspiration he draws from, so that in the end, nobody plays guitar like Eric Clapton.
"Gin House Blues" - 1999 . . . with Andy Fairweather-Low
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