Clapton’s Road to Greatness
It is difficult to write anything not already written about the man named Eric Clapton. So I am going to approach this from yes the Guitarist angle but also from a Human Level. Growth in both areas applies to us all. The Lens looked through today just happens to be based on a wonder of the Guitar world.
You can’t deny Eric Clapton’s self-development as a young man in his learning, living, and breathing the Blues. You didn’t get in a band like The Yardbirds by not having the immense Talent he has always Possessed. You also Don’t get the gig in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers by being anything but a powerhouse talent. Yet we all learn from our peers and our Elder statesmen no matter if you are a guitarist or a Mason or Carpenter. Eric Clapton always brought talent to the table.
Cream Solidified him as the Virtuoso. That contribution he gave the world in just a couple of short years would have been enough for anyone to have been considered a master of their chosen field. He Quickly Joined up after the end of Cream for another classic but short-lived membership in Blind Faith . Yet another group that left a massive impression. Yet the touring with that particular band marked a time of change for the man known as “Slowhand” and even as the Graffiti declared “GOD”. Eric had discovered THE BAND’s album “Music from Big Pink” and was drawn away from the 45 minute Marathon guitar improvisations and was, even still touring with Faith, becoming much more interested in not only being part of a larger collective. He also wanted to learn to craft the art of songwriting. A change for his life energy and purpose was pulling on his Soul. He was about to get that life change as while the Tour with Faith wore on they were being upstaged by an opening act called “Delaney and Bonnie and Friends”.
Delany & Bonnie and Friends and George Harrison
He began to socialize more with this Gang of some of the best American musicians ever. They Rocked with the best of them, but with a southern swagger and Religious fervor. Same as The Blues from America grabbed him, this Rocking Soul review did as well. Unbeknownst to each other D.B. and friends had been sizing him up from the side of the stage on a nightly basis…and he was trying to figure out how to get in their band at the very same time.
Much like Frank Zappa was a musicians’ school for members to pass through and graduate. This Group was undoubtedly the most talented in one band you could ask for.
Delaney Bramlett was a White Soul singer extraordinaire, with Bonnie no slouch either. Then look into the rest, Rita Coolidge backing up on vocal, Carl Radle one of the most melodic masters of the Bass, Jim Gordon despite his troubles was one of history’s great drummers. Jim Price and Bobby Keys on horns and the youngest member a fellow named Bobby Whitlock on The Hammond B3 Organ with a voice that was a force to be reckoned with. Eric was eventually invited into the fold if as Bobby often has said he would “Lose those pink pants”.
At some point after Eric shifted gears to do some travel as a “friend” as well, they pulled the bus to the front door of George Harrison’s house, and after the simple question of “ya wanna go play?” Harrison left with a guitar, told the wife “see ya sometime” and got on the bus. Ready for whatever that adventure held in store.
Eric was just happy to have the Pressure off and Bonnie has been heard to say she felt it saved his life and sanity. He wanted to be a smaller part of something that worked as D&B did and to their advantage well, they had Eric Clapton and a BEATLE on the road to boost their profile as well.
Eric had done some singing in the Bluesbreakers and Cream and had been involved in songwriting in Cream and Blind Faith. The only issue wasn’t his quality of those factors, it was his confidence.
Delaney Bramlett to his credit encouraged and mentored Eric into taking it deeper and The results can be heard in the video in this article of “I don’t know why” that in short order Eric would step up to the mic and deliver an exceptional emotive vocal. We all learn something from others and in this case, Clapton was learning from one of the best. The discussion came up soon again prompted and supported by Delaney that it was time for Eric to make a solo record and just be “Eric Clapton” and even though he was the same as a child learning to talk from hearing others speak he was learning to sing like Bramlett at first. Not a bad way to go. 1970 saw both an Eric Clapton record and the beginning of Derek and the Dominos.
The Dominos came from the core band of D&B and they were also the band backing Eric’s first album. They were all in a prolific situation as George Harrison had asked Eric to Participate in His “All things must pass” sessions and Whitlock had Left the Bramlett’s and flown to Eric’s doorstep after one too many fights between the Husband-wife duo. Joe Cocker and Leon Russel had borrowed Radle and Gordon for the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour and when that was done they were asked to England as well and again this core band was neck-deep in Harrison’s project while simultaneously becoming the Dominos.
Again “Derek was Eric” was his attempt to be in a band known for its own merits not just because Clapton was the frontman. Before and during the Harrison sessions Bobby Whitlock was already co-writing with Eric what became the album “Layla”.The two had a Sam and Dave call and response approach and no one, especially Bobby Whitlock was a “sideman” as then and to this Day Bobby Whitlock can sing the phone book and is one of the all-time greatest singers I’ve ever know of. A lot of people agree with me, a LOT. Bobby began his own solo albums after the Dominos had busted up and makes records to this day with His Multi-Talented wife Coco.
The amount of work that was done in just a 3 year period is staggering. Then came the seclusion. Layla and other assorted love songs were a sonic plea to Patti Boyd Harrison to leave George as Eric had been madly in love with her. Her Decision, although she was admittedly moved by all Eric’s advances, was to for the time remain Mrs. Harrison.
In many places in the ’70s, if you wanted to buy Cocaine, you also had to buy an equal amount of Heroin..which up to this point had not really been involved, it was tucked away in a dresser drawer each time a Coke purchase was made. That collection became more sizable and the love not returned made the dresser drawer come open and Eric an Addict. He didn’t come out of his house for a couple of years and at one juncture was spending roughly $16 thousand dollars a week on the drug.
Now, this is a guitar site, and much of this story you may already know so my repeating the story ends. The point of this is we have had a full-on “Eric Clapton” with roughly 30 records not counting the work before 1970. This means the Guitar player who caused Gibson to sell more Les Pauls than almost anyone, then change to Fender to the same outcome would not be complete as an artist were it not for having surrounded himself with others of equal talent to work with. Guitars and Guitarists? Well, Eric Clapton inspired millions to pick up the instrument. Yet Eric was learning right along with those people, as the guitar is an endless learning experience no matter how many decades you spend with it. Duane Allman, Dave Mason, Pete Townsend, B.B. King, J.J. Cale, Robbie Robertson, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Reed, and the list goes on also were large part and Parcel of why we have such an incredible Eric on the guitar side. Going back to his Teens in the early 60’s he had begun a friendship with a fellow named Dave Brock, another solid Guitarist. They did a lot of Busking and hanging around learning from each other. Brock later went on to form a little band called Hawkwind and Eric and Dave came full circle in 2019 when Eric Played on Hawkwind’s “Road to Utopia” Album and played a few shows with Brock and Hawkwind as a guest.
Eric was not beholden to any make or model. Yes, he went at the right time to Nashville and bought four Strats for less than a few hundred dollars each. He in a way created the situation to be able to do that by popularizing Gibson’s to the point when he ventured into Fender they were in a small sales slump. The timing was great for him as there was no “Vintage” Market. They were just used guitars. Eric Had run the Gamut of 335’s, Firebirds, of course, Les Paul’s, and the SG Psychedelic painted by the “The Fool” in the ’60s. He took those Fender Strats apart and picked the best parts of each to build the two he used the duration of his career “Blackie” and “Brownie” and then reassembled the others and gifted them to friends. Back in the Yardbirds days he played a Red Fender Telecaster,(owned by the Manager)This “Band Guitar” also played by Jeff Beck was most likely chosen because of Muddy Waters’ heavy influence. Eric stuck with a Tele acquiring another on leaving the Yardbirds.
To give proper credit that many don’t know, Bobby Whitlock when not behind a Hammond B 3 is a GREAT Guitarist as is Coco. Much of “Layla “ was written on Guitars by Eric and Bobby at Eric’s Hurtwood edge estate.
You are only as good as the musicians you surround yourself with, and This man chose the Best every time.
Eric was also a team player. During the time working on the road with George Harrison, they eased into a twin-guitar attack. The Lead work overall was a lesser part as they had the Horn Section, but when the leads did come in they were harmonized, tasteful, and to the point but amazing. On His first recordings, he began to apply that theory to his songwriting such as in “Let it Rain”. Razor-sharp twin-guitar tones, with a bit of the older “Woman tone” in the proper places.
He branched into a more Popular sensibility and accessibility through the solo years but always treated and seasoned these departures with The Blues somewhere. This was not music that was for The Cream fan. There was a more laid-back approach and it did create some division, but it was good solid writing and FM radio brought new audiences. Again be it Leon Russel or Bob Marley Clapton embraced a great song. He became a musical chameleon. About the time he was expected to continue the format, He would bring forth a Blistering Blues album and Tour. Right back to the Roots, he grew from.
Eric suddenly became a Political lightning rod of the past in support of Enoch Powell and present now in his views of Covid vaccinations. He turning tragedy into song from the loss of his son. His aid to Stevie Ray Vaughan during Stevies own drug and alcohol issues. This is a man of many complexities as a human aside from being one of the best guitar players ever.
This is also a man who learned to be more than he thought he could be. A man who overcame the ever-present hand of death, that was HIS hand when he picked up a bottle or a bag of chemicals. He learned to be all things. As we all do, He is still changing and finding the proper balance of life and his place in it.
He achieved Greatness by listening to those he spent time with, be it on record, or in the studio, or on a stage with them. Guitar player lessons are great, Life lessons are Greater. I think He would agree. Point is…The Blues are lived before they are played. That ladies and Gentlemen are why he’s sooo Great at it through the voice of his guitar, the voice of his soulful singing, or the voice that will tell you “You don’t have to do that, I already did it. And it doesn’t work.”
I think the bottom line of inspiration is “Learn to be confident enough to try and work at it and you can achieve it.” Play on. Play on and then Play some more. Every voice is Valid. Every goal is achievable if you are open to the many roads you may travel to get there. As Boris Zamba said regarding the breakthrough to the Bigtime “It won’t come to all of us, but if you stop trying you Lose.”
Even at the age of 76 and claiming retirement, never count out Eric Clapton. He’s always full of surprises, be that Joining The Likes of Jimmie Vaughan or Gary Clark Jr. onstage in his now Home of Columbus, Ohio. The possibility always lurks he’s got more to say and play. One never knows with E.C. He may just pull off another work of guitar greatness.