Eric Clapton (3) – Journeyman

My driving philosophy about making music is that you can reduce it all down to one note if that note is played with the right kind of sincerity.
—-Eric Clapton

Retreating to England, Eric Clapton went back to his house, the (I think) appropriately named Hurtwood Edge. He wound up joining Delaney and Bonnie on their tour. When that band ran its course, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle started hanging out at Hurtwood. (Gordon and Radle were just back from touring with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.)

“I had no game plan at this time,” says Clapton. “We were just enjoying playing, getting stoned, and writing songs.” Around this time – mid-1970 – Clapton and his mates were asked to play on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, his landmark triple album post-Beatles debut.

And for his next solo album, Clapton, along with Whitlock, Gordon and Radle started recording what would become the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album. By all accounts, this was a drug-fueled session, with songs that Clapton and Whitlock had started writing together, largely about Clapton’s unrequited love for George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd.

The addition of Duane Allman took what I think would have been a really good album and turned it into a guitar duel masterpiece. How this pairing came about is that when Eric found out the Allman Brothers were performing in Florida, the Dominos managed to get seats right up front.

When Duane saw Eric in the audience he froze and stopped playing. When Dickey Betts saw Duane had stopped, he looked and saw Eric and he froze. This inauspicious meeting ultimately led to Duane meeting Eric and playing on the album. (Whitlock already knew him through Delaney.) “I was mesmerized by him,” Eric says. “[Duane] was like the musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”

Basically the album tanked, not because it wasn’t great but because Clapton tried so hard to fade into the background that there was no real push to make the album sell. His name wasn’t even on the fucking thing. This – along with his continued pining for Pattie Boyd – sent the already depressive, addictive Clapton into a tailspin and he spent the next three years (!) more or less holed up in his house, smacked out on heroin.

Except for an appearance at Harrison’s 1971 Bangla Desh concert, he remained hidden away. In 1973 Pete Townshend – who over the years has been one of Clapton’s closest friends – dragged him out of the house to play at London’s Rainbow Theatre. (Now a church.) Townshend admitted he did so because he was concerned for Eric’s health.

Despite his friendship with Harrison, Clapton kept trying to get together with Pattie Boyd who had grown tired of George’s roving eye and inattention. Eventually Pattie and George separated and so in 1974, she and Clapton started living together. (According to Boyd, the “last straw” for her was George having an affair with Ringo’s then-wife, Maureen.)

Clapton eventually kicked his heroin addiction. But he kept on drinking. “However much I might have thought I loved Pattie at the time,” Clapton says, “the truth is that the only thing I couldn’t live without was alcohol.”

In 1974, his Tulsa guys (bassist Radle, drummer Jamie Oldaker) along with session guitarist George Terry recorded 461 Ocean Boulevard. This massively popular album was much less bluesy than Layla and continued to showcase the more commercial rock/pop sensibilities of Clapton. He had a pretty big hit with the Bob Marley tune ‘I Shot The Sheriff,” introducing much of the world to reggae.

That song is good. But I love his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children.” It just cooks. (Clapton, understandably, has a thing about being motherless. Check out a completely different but no less cookin’ number, Motherless Child, recorded for the From The Cradle album):

While Clapton remained a strong presence in the ‘70’s putting out albums like 1977’s Slowhand and the Budokan-recorded Just One Night (with the great guitarist Albert Lee), he eventually started to become eclipsed by the rise of punk and new wave. He did have big hits with songs like J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine,” “Lay Down Sally,” and another song for rock’s greatest muse, Pattie Boyd, “Wonderful Tonight.” (Three songs, BTW, I am so sick of I cannot listen to them any more.)

Clapton remained productive in the Eighties but I consider these somewhat his lost musical years. He did release albums but I would hardly call most of them classics. He started doing movie soundtracks and went way, way into a very commercial sound with songs like “It’s In the Way That You Use It” (co-written with Robbie Robertson) and the arena-friendly “Pretending.” (The latter from Journeyman, an otherwise pretty good 1989 disc.)

He would always put a blues or two on his albums. But any new listener could be forgiven for thinking that Clapton was a pop star first and foremost and a blues dabbler second. (A lot of people blamed this on his association with Phil Collins, who had transformed magically from a progressive rocker to a purveyor of sometimes overly sentimental soft-rock.)

That said, here’s an insanely frantic, cooking little number from 1981’s Another Ticket, “Rita Mae.” (I need to call out drummer Henry Spinetti’s work on this. Fantastic.):

Like a lot of my peers, if I was listening to any blues guitarist in the Eighties, it was Stevie Ray Vaughn who roared out of the gate with David Bowie and re-invented blues guitar with his terrific 1983 debut album, Texas Flood. This is what a lot of us wanted to hear Clapton do more of.

In the ‘90’s, Clapton did a series of gigs at the Royal Albert Hall, culminating in the live 24 Nights CD. (Through some cataclysmic mistake in the universe, I was unable to fly to England to attend any of these shows.)

And although they never got to know each other very well, Stevie Ray and Clapton had naturally gravitated to each other and started playing together. In 1990, after a concert in Wisconsin that included Stevie’s brother Jimmie, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy, Stevie was killed in a helicopter crash. (I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.)

To make matters worse, in 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor ran through an open window fifty-three stories up in New York City. Devastated, Clapton did what artists always do to deal with the pain, which was to write songs. He composed two, “Tears In Heaven,” and “Circus Left Town.”

In a BBC interview, Clapton said, “The last night I spent with Conor, we went to the circus… I suppose what I was doing, I was remembering, I mean paying tribute to this night with him and also seeing him as being the circus of my life. You know – that particular part of my life has now left town.”

This clip is from Clapton’s 1992 appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, filmed in Windsor, Berkshire, England. The album won three Grammys and sold about a bazillion copies:

In 1998, Clapton opened a rehab center on Antigua called the Crossroads Centre. In the 2000’s, he started a traveling festival – also called Crossroads – which was held to raise money for the center. The festivals were a who’s who of guitar greats: B. B King, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray, Larry Carlton, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Derek Trucks.

He also auctioned off some of his guitars. The Stratocaster he calls “Brownie” which he played on Layla fetched $450,000 USD. Another Strat which he used heavily in the ’70’s and ’80’s pulled in almost $1,000,000 USD.

Interestingly, for a guy who famously quit the Yardbirds because they weren’t bluesy enough, Clapton did not make an all-blues album until almost thirty years later when he released 1994’s From The Cradle, a really nice album. Here’s his version of “I’m Tore Down,” whose best-known version is by Freddie King:

I caught this tour which brought out the rabid blues crowd. This may have been as much because of the presence of Muddy Waters’ harp player Jerry Portnoy as anything else. In 2000 Clapton released Riding with the King, an album with B.B. King. And in 2004, he released Me and Mr. Johnson, a tribute to his main inspiration, Robert Johnson.

Clapton’s most recent album is 2016’s I Still Do which I reviewed previously. While his guitar playing is still outstanding – and one assumes he can still whip out solos on demand – it is somewhat of a laid-back album. But bringing it all full circle, Clapton plays on a couple of tracks on the Stones’ latest blues album, Blue and Lonesome. (Recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios.) So, hell yeah!

As I mentioned in my review, Clapton has health problems that are making it increasingly difficult for the 71-year-old to play. And by his own admission, his touring days are (mostly) over. Going in and out of airports and staying in hotel rooms has apparently become just too much of a hassle.

I say “mostly” because he will be playing a couple of shows in March of 2017 in NY and LA. And unless you’ve got a pile of cash stashed away somewhere, forget getting tickets for any of those shows. He’ll also be playing the Royal Albert Hall in May of 2017. If I can talk my wife into allowing me to extract just that tiny sum from my retirement account, I’ll see you there! 😂

Personal stuff: In 1998 Clapton, then 53, met 22-year-old administrative assistant Melia McEnery. They married on 1 January 2001 at St Mary Magdalene church in Clapton’s birthplace, Ripley. They have three daughters.

He also has a fourth daughter from a relationship with a woman named Yvonne Kelly who managed one of the studios he recorded in. By his own account, whatever hellhound that was on his trail seems to have been quelled and he’s a pretty happy, content guy these days.

If you like any of what you heard over this series, do yourself a favor and pick up his 1988 Crossroads box set. It is not only a great compilation but was also one of the first and most successful CD box sets ever made.

So what is Clapton’s legacy? Well, one could go on and on. But I will here quote Wikipedia:

“Eric Clapton has been referred to as one of the most important and influential guitarists of all time. He is the only three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: once as a solo artist, and separately as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream. He ranked second (after Jimi Hendrix) in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and fourth in Gibson’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time.”

He has won 18 Grammy Awards. Guitarists influenced by Clapton include just about everybody from Allman to Hendrix to SRV to Eddie Van Halen to Brad Paisley, Slash, John Mayer and … well, you name it.

That’s what you call a legacy.

Essential listening: “The Core,”; “Further on Up the Road,” (with Albert Lee); “Forever Man.” And his incredible version of Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.

11 thoughts on “Eric Clapton (3) – Journeyman

  1. Great series once again, sir. I’ve never really given old Slowhand much of a listen. Perhaps because my first exposure was Bad Love which maybe put me off a touch… that being said nothing touches Layla especially its second part / coda (even if it is now impossible to hear it and not see dead mafiosos) and Tears in Heaven is unquestionably moving given the circumstance surrounding its writing.

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  2. Yeah, I think that’s the problem. Older fans think of Clapton as a bluesman, which is primarily how he sees himself. But he fell into perdition music-wise for a number of years. So if your first association is some of that pop stuff then you’re not really getting the true flavor of it. It all depends, I think, on where you came in and how compelled you are to go back.

    So for me, and for legions, Clapton is not the pop purveyor of ‘Bad Love’ and even the recent years, but that Cream/Bluesbreakers/Yardbirds/Dominos/Blind Faith/blues guy. If you were to listen to every tune I posted you would have a much better sense of the real Clapton. I’m not necessarily saying you’d like it. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on your predilection for the blues. But you’d have the bigger picture and you’d see that that other stuff is, yes, him but then not really. If you follow. I think he lost his way. He is so much NOT that shit era I wanted to set the record straight. Thanks for sticking it out.

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    1. I’ve duly listened and there’s no two ways about it; the man can play. Very happy I did so. Particularly enjoying the Blind Faith stuff.
      That being said I’ve just listened to Circus Left Town and it absolutely gutted me.

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      1. Wow, you actually went back and listened to much of that stuff? I’m impressed. After I said it I figured it was a tall order. And so yeah, after you read about his whole history and listen to a smattering of what he’s offered, I think we can probably agree that ‘Bad Love’ and its ilk are not only just disposable pop songs, they are in no way truly representative of what Clapton does. And that shit would never have gotten him to be #2 on Rolling Stone’s list.

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  3. CB better chime in. As usual you did a lot of work and crammed a lot in. (CB use to do book reports from comics, I would have paid you big time). EC and I have been hanging around since the first ‘Cream’ album. I was just a kid, so i’ve been around for the ride. I’m a fan. You covered the road, plus come up with some new things. But like you know it’s always about the music with CB. The guy has made some of my favorite music. Cream, Blues-breakers, Blind Faith, Dominoes. His solo stuff which you covered. I have it all on record (a few cds). The last solo I have is ‘Cradle’ and the two collabs with BB and JJ (which I just love). I have drifted away over the years. Nothing against him, he’s still one of the best. Love his playing. His solo on ‘Badge’ still does it for me. When i went to see the ‘Last Waltz” he was still magic.
    So again Jim you are preaching to the choir with me. I’m listening to him and ‘Winwood at MSG’ as I type this and Eric is cutting loose on ‘Forever Man’. So keep up the love you have for the guts of this kind of music. (The Cream reunion a few years ago was in CB’s opinion , fantastic. Nothing felt like bullshit about it, just 3 really good players making really good music together. Later. (longest response in CB’s history)

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  4. Long posts deserve long comments. 😁 Yeah this series was a killer. I first started writing it months ago and quickly realized that due to Clapton’s extensive career, this could easily be 6 or 7 posts. And I’m trying to keep series to 3 posts max. So that’s why I split off The Band, Harrison and Cream first. All part of the plan to eventually circle around and point to them. I agree about that Cream reunion. Great stuff. Clapton’s music has provided me enormous pleasure throughout the years. I take it for granted as part of the soundtrack of my – and my generation’s – life.

    You and I are the choir but I think I might be getting the word out to people who think Clapton is some Vegas act. Which is all good. One listen to his take on Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all you need. Thanks for checking in. Always a pleasure.

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  5. So much to cover but you did a great job. I’m still listening to the ‘MSG’ thing with Winwood. ‘Little Wing ‘ just finished and they’re doing ‘Voodoo Chile’ right now. Steve and Eric’s connection won’t be lost on you. They’re killing it (in a good way). Eric is feeling his Jimi vibe. Great! You said a cool thing “take it for granted”. Posts like yours keep it focused on the music and how good it really is. Thanks fella.

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  6. What a treat I haven’t heard “Motherless Children” in years. Thanks for bringing this classic back to me. On a side note thanks for these very informing posts. I have learned a lot about Clapton that I didn’t know about,

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    1. Yeah, sure. No problem. A lot went into this one but a total labor of love. I’ve been listening to and following EC for a while so I already knew the rough trajectory of his career But it still amazed me to unravel all his connections. He’s pivotal in a way we may never see again.

      And yeah, “Motherless Children” is such a great tune. I love when I’m reminded of a song. Such a joy. Doesn’t happen a lot but when it does, it’s like running into an old friend you’ve lost contact with.

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    2. BTW, I don’t know how I forgot about this but in the ’90’s, EC had a pretty big hit with the song “Change The World.” It’s a really nice love song that I used to have on my iPod and still listen to occasionally. It’s a love song but he manages to subtly sneak a blues solo into it. Total mind cramp on that one.

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