“I went off in a lot of different directions all at once it seems, but I find I have floated back to straight blues playing. I’ve returned to what I like doing as an individual, and that is playing exploratory blues. You get really hung up and try to write pop songs or create a pop image. I went through that stage and it was a shame, because I was not being true to myself. I am, and always will be, a blues guitarist.”
That is undeniably true. But even the most cursory review of Clapton’s 50+-year career reveals that he is every bit as much the pop artiste as he is blues guitar hero. Having come of age at the right time – and having met or played with everyone of note – the story of Eric Clapton is synonymous with the story of modern rock and blues. If, as you read, you click on the bolded items in this three-part series, you’ll get a better sense of his overall incredible output and interrelationships. And influences.
Eric Clapton was born in Ripley, Surrey, England (36 km SW of London) in 1945. His family was working class and he grew up in a house with no electricity and an outdoor toilet. For the first nine or so years of his life, he believed he was living in a house with his parents and brother.
Eventually he came to understand that his mother had gotten pregnant at 16 and gave him over to her mother. And the guy he thought was his brother was actually his uncle! Having an illegitimate child in England in 1945 – or anywhere for that matter – was not the done thing.
This realization had, as one might surmise, a fairly traumatic effect on young Eric (whom everybody called Rick.) Clapton, by his own admission, withdrew into himself. It’s not too fine a point to say that this situation led him to music which then led him to the blues. (Clapton actually says that his small community was pretty musical and some of his first loves were church hymns.)
Like pretty much all the Brit rockers of his generation, he listened to skiffle, a nationwide phenomenon that seems to have been largely relegated to the UK. He also loved Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis, etc. “Hound Dog” was a particular favorite that he and his friends played over and over again. But it was the acoustic blues of harmonica player Sonny Terry and singer/guitarist Brownie McGhee that really caught his attention.
“For me,” says Clapton, “there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” Here’s Sonny and Terry playing the blues standard, “Key to the Highway,” that Eric and Duane Allman would cover a few years later on the Layla album.
This clip comes from a TV show called Rainbow Quest that folkie Pete Seeger, right there in the clip, hosted in New York in the mid-Sixties:
When he was around 12 or 13, Eric decided he wanted to play guitar and badgered his grandparents to buy him one. It was the standard-issue cheap, shitty almost unplayable instrument that every guitarist started with in those days.
Eventually he got a better guitar and kept playing, learning how to fingerpick by way of acoustic blues and folk albums. “At last I had a proper guitar, meant for folk music,” says Clapton. “Now maybe I could become the troubadour that I thought I was meant to be.”
By the early ’60’s, Clapton was enrolled at the Kingston College of Art, closer to London. By his own admission, he was a pretty fair artist and draughtsman. But his obsession with music rendered his work increasingly substandard so they threw him out.
He started busking in a duet around London and at 17 – having acquired an electric guitar every bit as shitty as the acoustic – joined his first band, an R&B unit called The Roosters. (As near as I can tell, no known recording exists.) This is where he first became aware of and started listening to Freddie King, B.B. King and Muddy Waters.
He learned Freddie King’s “Hideway” which would become a staple not only of his, but of every bar band from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah. The ones that were willin’ anyway:
Clapton was especially an adherent of a man who eventually became a good friend, Buddy Guy. “He created a huge, powerful sound, and it blew me away,” Eric says. “It was almost as if he didn’t need anyone else … The combination of wildness and finesse that his playing encompasses is totally unique and has allowed players from the rock genre to approach the blues from an unfettered perspective.”
Those who have been reading this blog for a while will recall that Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies seem to crop up with some regularity. Clapton caught their act in 1962 at the legendary London club, the Marquee. “It was at the Marquee,” he said, “that I first came across John Mayall, and the saxophonist and keyboard player Graham Bond, playing in a trio with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker.” (Heavenly choir sings!)
The second time Eric went to the Marquee he met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones and then…
…sorry about that. I got overwhelmed just thinking about all that blues greatness in one place and fainted dead away. They needed smelling salts to revive me. No worries, mate. I’m back now. 😀
The other momentous event at this point in Clapton’s life was being given a copy of Robert Johnson’s album King of the Delta Blues Singers. “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense … It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard … I realized that on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.”
An impresario named Giorgio Gomelsky – who died in early 2016 – was the owner of suburban London’s equally legendary Crawdaddy club. Frustrated no doubt by having fellow manager Andrew Loog Oldham sign the Rolling Stones, he went looking for another blues/R&B unit to promote.
And in the Yardbirds, he found a very good one. Problem is, the current guitarist was too young so his parents made him quit. And so, the band needed to find a replacement…
Next post: Clapton “invents” blues-rock.
Sources: Clapton, The Autobiography. Eric Clapton. Broadway books; Wikipedia; too many books and articles to cite; a bunch of shit floating around in my head…