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. The set also featured originals "Gotta Get Over" and "Every Little Thing" and peaked at #7 in the U.S.
With some musicians, like Clapton, who've had lengthy careers, it seems like they've issued more live and compilation collections than studio albums. Giving credence to that impression, Clapton rolled out "Give Me Strength" in time for the '13 holiday season. The a 6-disc set held previously unreleased recordings, as well as outtakes, studio sessions and live recordings from '74/'75.
Despite the emphasis on his live work, Clapton announced his intention to stop touring in '15 because being on the road had become "unbearable."
Future retirement plans didn't stop Slowhand from headlining the final two evenings of the "Baloise Sessions," an annual indoor music festival in Switzerland. That was followed by a series of concerts in Asia, U.S. and Europe.
But of course, the limited time we all have causes us to pause. JJ Cale, a longtime friend and composer ("After Midnight" and "Cocaine") passed away on 7/26/13. A year later, Clapton released "The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale" as an homage. There were contributions by Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Derek Trucks.
Clapton rolled out "I Still Do," in '16. The album was produced by Glyn Johns who was at the controls for '77's "Slowhand."
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
2014 The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale
2016 I Still Do
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)
2013 Give Me Strength
Eric Clapton was Rock's first guitar God.