Eric Clapton is an enigma. Just as his physical appearance changed throughout the 60s and into the early 70s, his music – indeed the very essence of the man as a musician – morphed as well. From his serious young man days in the Yardbirds – a band he quit because he felt they were selling out by making pop records – and with the Bluesbreakers, through to his freaked out days in Cream, through to his more casual and earthy down-home approach in Derek & The Dominoes and beyond, Clapton changed greatly with the times.
Indeed he was at the vanguard of all those changes; perhaps not the first to charge through previously unopened doors, but certainly not far behind whoever was. Indeed he had his frizzy hair when Cream played a show at the Marquee Club in London just two weeks after Jimi Hendrix made his London debut in November 1966; Cream’s debut album was released the following month, but of course it had been recorded before Hendrix arrived, so Clapton and co were slightly ahead of the curve sonically in that instance. His subsequent return to a rootsy style, like that of everybody from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, was most likely prompted by the arrival of The Band’s Music From Big Pink in 1968.
Let's relish in ten of the best Clapton recordings from Cream and beyond.
Cream – Crossroads
While they were as profoundly progressive in their own as Jimi Hendrix, with a similarly electrifying sound and psychedelic energy, Cream was still based in the blues – the music that Clapton had made his name playing with the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers. Of course, Cream’s blues covers were anything but standard – Skip James’ 1931 blues “I’m So Glad” was almost unrecognizable in Cream’s hands, and their version of Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording “Cross Road Blues” was nearly as unique. Of course, Johnson’s music had a profound lifelong effect on Clapton, and he would name the guitar festival he instigated in 1999 after this crucial track in the seminal bluesman’s repertoire.
Cream – Badge
A Clapton-George Harrison co-write that that was the second product of their musical kinship, following Eric’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. It was a relationship that would of course spill over into messy personal stuff when Eric fell for George’s wife Patti Boyd. From Cream’s 1969 farewell album Goodbye, this is Eric at his most melodic; a gorgeous song that is surprisingly not better known.
Blind Faith – Presence of the Lord
Everyone talks about EC the guitar player; not many talk about EC the songwriter. Not the most prolific of writers, he was still capable of some seriously great material, as this classic from Blind Faith’s sole album attests. Beautifully sung by Steve Winwood, the song shows Eric getting away from his heavier Cream style and into something more soulful; the influence of The Band and Robbie Robertson is apparent here.
Eric Clapton - Let It Rain
Another gorgeous track – decidedly non-bluesy – this time from Eric’s first solo album. Co-written with Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie, who Eric had met on the road with Blind Faith and whose band he would join, the song has been compared melodically to Stephen Stills’ song “Questions”; Stills actually appears on the track.
Derek & The Dominos – Layla
The group of musicians that Clapton met playing with Delany & Bonnie, and who went on to play on his first solo album, would form the core of Clapton’s next project, the legendary Derek & the Dominos. With the addition of Duane Allman on slide guitar, the band as it is known and loved was complete, and the classic album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was the result. One of rock’s all-time great songs, “Layla” was written by Clapton with band member Jim Gordon and made complete by Allman’s soaring guitar riff. The song would win Clapton a Best Rock Song Grammy when he revisited it acoustically in 1993.
Derek & The Dominos – Bell-Bottom Blues
Another track from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; this one co-written by EC and keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and recorded before Duane Allman joined. With its gorgeous melody and anguished vocal this is Clapton at his most soulful, and like so many of his songs of the time, it was inspired by his unrequited love for Patti.
Eric Clapton - I Shot The Sheriff
As Clapton’s solo career really took off post “Layla” – after three years of inactivity due to drug addiction - he seemingly became best known for his cover versions. Written by Bob Marley and initially released by Marley & the Wailers in 1973, Clapton’s softer version of the song was a huge radio hit and helped his 461 Ocean Boulevard album top charts internationally.
Eric Clapton - Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
A single from Clapton’s 1977 album Slowhand, Eric’s version of Bob Dylan’s tune, written for the film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, helped establish the song as an icon song in rock’s canon of song.
Eric Clapton - Wonderful Tonight
Another song from Slowhand, and another song for Patti Boyd. A fan favourite, Eric performed the song with backing from Dire Straits at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988.
Eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven
Eric’s best selling single in the US and a song that’s as loved as any of his classic earlier material, the heartbreakingly beautiful “Tears In Heaven” was inspired by the death of Clapton’s four-year-old son. Shortly after its initial release in 1991, the song was featured on Eric’s Unplugged album, driving that album to massive success and nine Grammy nominations.
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