Eric Clapton (2) – Slowhand

My theory was that making records, first and foremost, was always going to be a commercial enterprise and therefore not pure. It was a ridiculously pompous attitude, considering that all the music I was learning from was on records. … As exciting as it was to be actually making a record, when we listened back … we just sounded young and white … I still felt we were falling short of the mark in some way. 
—-Eric Clapton

Clapton, not yet having truly found his footing in the music world, much less having made the decision to be a professional musician, had been doing work for his grandfather, a master mason and plasterer. “I was in the best shape of my life,” he said. But musically, he had become somewhat of a blues purist and by his own admission, an arrogant one at that.

Yardbirds singer Keith Relf knew of Clapton’s playing and invited him to hear the band play at the Crawdaddy. Clapton liked what he heard and in October of 1963, joined the band. He was 18 years old and had, by now, been playing guitar for about 5 or 6 years.

As I mentioned in my Yardbirds post, over time that ensemble has become recognized as one of the most important bands ever in rock and blues music. They were famous for stretching their live songs out to five and six-minute lengths, which were unheard of at that time. 

Clapton, not yet having settled on a Stratocaster – and now able to afford good quality guitars – alternated between Fender Telecasters and Gibson semi-hollowbodys, similar to BB’s. And as I mentioned in my Police series, guitarist Andy Summers says he sold Clapton that Bluesbreakers Les Paul.

Since he used light-gauge strings, Clapton would often break one, causing him to restring. The audience would clap slowly while he did this. And this, not his speed or prowess, is how he got the nickname “Slowhand.”

Clapton, being somewhat of a blues purist and musical snob, left the Yardbirds just as they were gaining fame. As I relate in my Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album post, it was, for him, blues or nothing. That record was made with John Mayall, whom he joined a month after leaving the Yardbirds.

The twenty-year-old Clapton, having nowhere to go, moved in with the thirty-two-year-old Mayall and his wife. He would sit for hours in his attic room, listening to blues and honing his craft. It was around this time, much to his mixture of embarassment and pride, that due to his amazing guitar prowess, fans started referring to Clapton as ‘God.’

Bluesbreakers, like all other bands, slogged up and down the M1 motorway and all around England, gaining a following. Bear in mind, the Beatles and the Mersey sound had by now been popular in the UK for two years. So the blues scene was related but different, with not necessarily a lot of overlap between fan bases. 

In August of 1965, the band went into the studio and recorded a song called “I’m Your Witch Doctor.” But I like the flip side, “Telephone Blues” better. Producer? None other than Immediate Records’ new guy, a session guitarist named Jimmy Page. (My head has now completely exploded.) Page and Clapton recorded a couple of blues together that later showed up on compilation albums.

As I mentioned in the Bluesbreakers post, if there’s any hallmark of the blues scene in London in the early ‘6o’s, it’s that of instability. Unlike the Mersey bands who tended to stay intact as a unit, the blues guys were more like jazzers in that they tended to move around a lot and were generally more nomadic.

So much so that by the time the Bluesbreakers album was released in July of 1966, Clapton had already moved on to Cream which is where Clapton famously first met – and was blown away by –  Jimi Hendrix. (See this post for a brief history of Cream and this one for Clapton’s outstanding “Crossroads” solos.)

In 1968, after their turbulent, wildly successful ride, Cream broke up. And by now, Clapton – having heard Music From Big Pink – wanted to join The Band in the worst way. He wanted to leave guitar heroics behind and move towards a simpler sound. The guitar, he now felt, should support the song, not the other way around.

Clapton met the guys in The Band but described them as having their own thing and looking like the “hole-in-the-wall-gang” while he was dressed in his hippie psychedelic gear. Plus they were a pretty intact, self-contained unit who had been together for years, ever since they supported Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks. (Hawkins is, like Levon Helm, from Arkansas but made his name in Canada.) 

During his Bluesbreakers travels, Clapton had met a 15-year old keyboardist/singer at the Twisted Wheel, a now-defunct club in Manchester. So he met up with this old pal – Steve Winwood –  and together they formed the band Blind Faith. (Clapton later said he was trying, consciously or unconsciously, to sound like a British version of The Band.)

Somehow, Ginger Baker found out about this and, from Clapton’s description, bullied his way into the band. Eric admits to being intimidated by Baker. (Check out the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker some day for an interesting take on the volatile drummer.)

In reading about Clapton, I find that there was in those days something very unassertive and non-confrontational about him. He seemed to just drift in the wind. Certainly he wasn’t in the least bit interested in taking on any leadership role, leaving that in Cream to Baker/Bruce and in Blind Faith, to Winwood.

Blind Faith released its first (and only) album in August of 1969. (Fellow blogger Crotchety Man conveniently reviewed this album a short while back. It just so happens he attended their debut concert (100,000 people in Hyde Park) as a schoolboy which is an amusing read.)

The album reviews were generally good but Clapton felt ill at ease from the beginning, worrying that his little side project with Winwood would turn into another supergroup. Which of course, the public wanted and the record company ensured would happen. What he really craved and needed was just to be another member of the band. 

Clapton had heard the debut album of a group known as Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and loved it. It was laid back, had good playing and a nice R and B feel. So he arranged to have them open for Blind Faith’s American tour.

As I related in that post, Clapton found himself less and less interested in Blind Faith and more and more drawn to Delaney and Bonnie and their good-time funky traveling tribe. Plus I think he liked being just another member of the band and not “Eric Clapton, aka God.”

By August of 1969 – the same month their album was released – Blind Faith had broken up. (For historical reference, same month as Woodstock.) Clapton says in his autobiography that had it not been for his exposure to Delaney and Bonnie, Blind Faith might have continued to keep on keepin’ on.

But between being ignited by their music and Delaney’s exhortation that he find his own voice, literally and metaphorically, Clapton realized he couldn’t continue in that same vein.

After Blind Faith inevitably fell apart, Clapton decided it was time to do his own solo album. Till then I think he never really felt comfortable being the front man. So with Delaney’s help, he made the album Eric Clapton, which was released in 1970, exactly one year after the Blind Faith record.

This debut album, which some critics called a Delaney Bramlett record with Clapton guesting, is actually pretty good and it was hard to pick just one song for this post. This is the album that includes both “Let it Rain” (co-written with Delaney and Bonnie) and “After Midnight,” Clapton’s first J.J. Cale song.

But I’ll go with a live version of “Blues Power,” co-written by Clapton and Leon Russell. Significantly, backing Clapton on this album are bassist Carl Radle, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock (original Delaney and Bonnie member), and drummer Jim Gordon, who will become the Derek and the Dominos rhythm section. All were members of Delaney’s band:

I should also note here that Clapton had been about as far from a saint as one can be. By his own admission, he was a pretty serious drinker, smoker and drug user. His substance abuse was far from uncommon in the Sixties and Seventies and the trail of rock casualties speaks to that. Seems to me, Clapton has a pretty strong constitution. Unfortunately he also has somewhat of an addictive personality.

And so by 1970, Clapton was going in two directions at once – deeper into drugs as a part of his lifestyle and further and further into a background role. He succeeded at both all too well. 

Essential listening: “Politician,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Badge,” “Let it Rain.”

Next (and last) post – the ups and downs of a rock legend

Sources: Clapton, The Autobiography. Eric Clapton. Broadway books; Wikipedia; too many books and articles to cite; random bits of knowledge in my head

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