In light of most of his late 70's to early '90s recordings, it's hard to believe Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds because he thought the band was getting 'too pop'. But being a pop star was just one of many stops in Clapton's storied career. He has gone from being an electric Blues guitarist to psychedelic god to acoustic balladeer; then back full circle to the Blues. And like anyone who's had an extended career, Clapton has had his share of highs and lows - and most of those lows were self-inflicted.
Having received a guitar as his fourteenth birthday, Clapton eventually joined the Yardbirds for a brief stint. Dismayed by the group's apparent direction, he departed, later joining John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Soon "Clapton Is God" was being scrawled on London walls.
Clapton acquired the "Slowhand" nickname (a "joke" on his playing style) and was clearly a man on the rise. From there he founded one of the first supergroups, Cream. Once Cream had run its course Clapton leapt into another supergroup, Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood. Their self-titled album and a massively successful U.S. tour left Clapton stunned. He momentarily retreated to Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, a loose collection of musicians who played a friendlier, less frantic brand of Rock.
Ironically, Clapton never stayed with a group for very long (couple of years at the max) yet his best work was in that environment. That's not to say Clapton didn't have both artistic and commercial success on his own. It's that his solo career, considering what had preceded it, was a bit of a disappointment. But Clapton started strong with a self-titled album that contained one of his biggest hits "After Midnight" and the shimmering "Let It Rain." The album was recorded while Clapton was working with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and used many of the same musicians including Bonnie Bramlett on backing vocals. Delaney Bramlett produced.
After a falling out with Bramlett, Clapton took a good portion of the "Friends" and started Derek & The Dominos with the legendary Duane Allman playing guitar in the studio. While Clapton may have enjoyed the group ethos, he'd been, since the mid-60s, the focal point. If you're always going to be the center of attention why not just go it alone? That realization compounded by the failure of the single "Layla" and disappointing sales of the "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" LP prompted Clapton to pull the plug. It might have been a hasty decision. Who knows what a second effort would have yielded? To make matters worse, rather than hitting on all cylinders, the solo Clapton settled for passable performances with popular, if generally weak, material ("Lay Down Sally," "I've Got A Rock 'n' Roll Heart" and the cloying Patti Boyd/Harrison/Clapton inspired "Wonderful Tonight"). Though in fairness, he did produce a credible cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff" which was a huge hit.
A nasty drug habit, which he eventually kicked, led to lackluster albums and staid concerts. While '80s recordings occasionally touched past highs ("Forever Man"), absent was the power and authority. Following a successful MTV "Unplugged," ('93) featuring an acoustic version of "Layla," Clapton churned out sedate MOR ballads (though "Tears In Heaven," a touching tribute to his son Conner who'd fallen to his death, was an exception).
Like a prodigal son, Clapton returned to the Blues; "From The Cradle" in '96 and "Pilgrim," three years later. Clapton also started auctioning off his guitar collection to raise money for his Crossroads Foundation, a drug rehab center.
'00 saw Clapton continue his Blues streak on "Riding With The King." The tepid live album, "One More Car, One More Rider" was released in '02. Covering Blues great and personal inspiration, Robert Johnson, Clapton released "Me and Mr. Johnson" in '04. The next year Clapton returned with the pop oriented "Back Home," a languid set with a touch of Soul and Reggae.
Taking a more creative turn, Clapton launched a North American tour with fellow legend Jeff Beck (who replaced Clapton in the Yardbirds which somewhat explains why the pair hadn't previously gotten together). Both played a full set individually before teaming to close the '10 shows. Prior to the tour, the guitarists graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and sat for an extensive interview.
Clapton went the all-star line-up route for his next project, a self-titled album. JJ Cale, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Willie Weeks, and keyboardist Walt Richmond participated in the initial sessions for the '10 set. Later, Winwood, Wynton Marsalis, Sheryl Crow, Allen Toussaint, and Derek Trucks contributed their talents.
'13's "Old Sock," Clapton's 21st studio album, was essentially a covers set, with Winwood, Cale and Keltner returning, plus "musical guests" Paul McCartney and Chaka Khan.
1970 Eric Clapton
1974 461 Ocean Boulevard
1975 There's One In Every Crowd
1976 No Reason To Cry
1981 Another Ticket
1983 Money And Cigarettes
1985 Behind The Sun
1994 From The Cradle
2000 Riding With The King (with B.B. King)
2004 Me And Mr. Johnson
2004 Sessions For Robert J
2005 Back Home
2006 The Road To Escondido (with JJ Cale)
2013 Old Sock
1973 Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert
1975 E. C. Was Here
1980 Just One Night
1983 Time Pieces Vol. II Live In The Seventies
1991 24 Nights
1996 Crossroads 2: Live In The Seventies
2002 One More Car, One More Rider
2009 Live from Madison Square Garden (with Steve Winwood)
Eric Clapton's solo career never touches the majestic grandeur of Cream, or even Derek & the Dominos, perhaps by design. Too bad. But Clapton's self-titled solo debut is a good start. With help from the Delaney & Bonnie clan, Clapton is loose and comfortable. Later in the decade he struck again with "461 Ocean Boulevard" containing a hot version of "Willie & the Hand Jive" and a spirited cover of "I Shot The Sheriff."
Clapton built a large part of his reputation as a live performer with Cream, so in-concert albums show up regularly. "The Rainbow Concert" is one of his best efforts. The Who's Pete Townsend is also on the bill. "EC Was Here" is another good set. Clapton extended his career going "unplugged" in the '90s. Pass on this era unless mellow vocals and acoustic guitar are a major passion. To understand why Eric Clapton is a legend get the "Crossroads" box set, a career retrospective. This is the box set all others are measured against.
Clapton's return to Blues must have seemed like a good idea. "From The Cradle" features excellent Clapton performances but his backing band couldn't find the groove with a shovel. The follow-up "Pilgrim" is the better of the two. "Riding With The King" is good but considering the talent involved (Blues legend B.B. King - hence the title) it should have been better. There's too much cruising and not enough overdrive. "Me and Mr. Johnson" continues Clapton's Blues revival. This is one of those rare occasions when the artist and material are simpatico. It is easily the best of his late career Blues efforts. Clapton takes a natural, heartfelt approach on "When You Get A Good Friend," the joyous "They're Red Hot" and the rolling "Traveling River Blues." His respect is evident but it doesn't weigh down the proceedings. In fact, he conveys the essence of each song. Kudos to harmonica player Jerry Portnoy and keyboardist Billy Preston for helping Clapton bring it on home.
Clapton retreats (significantly) on "Back Home." Not to get too catty about this but it's never a good sign when one of the guys arranging the strings (strings?) and horns made a name for himself producing elevator music. Nick Ingman is a nice fellow and all but he has Muzak M.O.R. stamped all over him. While the Rolling Stones can at least approximate the energy and style of their classic efforts, Clapton, on "Back Home," seems lost in a "Lay Down Sally" rut. Why break a sweat if you don't have to? Not even a cover of George Harrison's "Love Comes To Everyone" amounts too much although it works far better than the dull, dismal reworking of "Love Don't Love Nobody." Clapton does make some effort to rouse himself for the Reggae numbers ("Say What You Will" and "Revolution") but even that falls short.
"Clapton" is a case of 'no risk, no reward'. On the same day that fellow '60's icon Neil Young issued "Le Noise," an unconventional set that proved Young was still vital, Clapton dropped his self-titled album of Blues covers, Dixieland and pop-standards ("How Deep Is The Ocean"). While Young used Punk and Grunge as touchstones, Clapton stayed on safer ground. Technically, Clapton is a better singer than Young (EC sings in tune) but Young is a far more expressive vocalist. And while Young has had his share of failures, and so too Clapton, ol' Neil is still willing to take a chance. Something Clapton seems adverse to.
The performances on "Clapton" are amiable enough but there isn't much excitement. Actually, Clapton has recorded this type of album before with much better results ("Riding With The King" and "Me And Mr. Johnson").
"Rockin' Chair" is oddly similar to the unplugged version of "Layla" in places But it's not sustained as the song veers, out of necessity, toward its Country-Blues roots.
Ironically, the set's two best tracks, the Blues-Boogie "Travelin' Alone" and "Run Back To You Side" would have fit perfectly on Eric's debut solo album released forty years earlier, also titled "Clapton."
"Old Sock" is another comfortable album with Clapton venturing into Jimmy Buffet territory ("Further Down The Road" featuring Taj Mahal) or lifting a page or two from Rod Stewart's "American Songbook" and Paul McCartney's "Kisses On The Bottom" ("All Of Me" with McCartney no less, and "Goodnight Irene").
Fortunately, Chaka Khan injects some life into both Clapton and the song "Gotta Get Over" while "Still Got The Blues" shows that the Clapton-Winwood pairing is still potent.
Also see Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominos.