Who knew? While the Beatles (raised on American Rock 'n' Roll) were perfecting their sound in the waterfront clubs of Hamburg, Germany, there was another group of English lads (raised on Mississippi Delta Blues) who were perfecting their art in subterranean London Blues clubs. This phenomenon, while out of the public's eye, was happening on the eve of the Beatles' historic Atlantic crossing. At the time, every British band to follow the Beatles to the U.S. was steeped in American Rock 'n' Roll. Who knew of the blues scene then taking place in London?
Indeed, who knew of an extraordinary blues guitarist named Eric Clapton who, by the early 1970s, would not only transcend American blues but rival the Beatles in popularity? In fact, Clapton had star power that dwarfed mere musical genres. In 1965, within a few weeks of making his debut as the Yardbirds' featured guitarist, he would see his name scrawled on the wall of a London club, with these words, "Clapton is God."
Yes, Eric Clapton, before he was a world-famous Pop star, had the English girls gushing at his blonde locks, while the English boys were inspired by his free-wheeling guitar solos, and buying electric guitars and all the imported Blues records they could find, and, like Clapton before them, were practicing all hours of the day and night, in hopes of playing like him.
While John, Paul, George and Ringo worshipped the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and the Everly Brothers, Clapton's idols were dirt-poor Mississippi sharecroppers with names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and the three Kings--Albert, Freddie, and B.B. Clapton purchased their records and spent countless hours trying to imitate the unique sound they were coaxing from second-hand electric guitars and low-tech amplifiers.
Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegün heard Eric Clapton perform while standing at a bar in a London club. "It was the most incredible blues guitar playing I'd ever heard," he remembers now. At first he thought it was B.B. King, until he realized B.B King was not there. So he turned to Wilson Picket who had a gig at the club, and said something like, "Your guitarist sure can play the blues."
Wilson said, "My guitarist is having a drink at the bar a couple of seats down from you." Ertegun turned around to see who it was he was hearing, and thought he saw a vision. "It was this beautiful kid who looked like some young angel," he says now. "He had his eyes closed and played guitar like nobody I'd ever heard."
And he thought, "I've got to him sign to a contract." The problem was Eric Clapton was footloose, and could not be got.
Clapton had picked up guitar at 14, and at 16, made his public debut with The Roosters. Ever restless, he moved on to Casey Jones and the Engineers. When he was invited to vacation with friends in the Mediterranean, he quit Casey Jones and the Engineers without a second thought. His friends thought he was crazy. Casey Jones and the Engineers were going places, and you're going to quit? Gigs like that rarely come along.
Such was his reputation and star power that when Clapton returned to London he didn't have to look for a gig. The Yardbirds had just replaced the Rolling Stones at the Marquee Club in London, and were looking for a lead guitarist. Clapton was invited to join the band without so much as an audition.
But he didn't stay long. In the wake of the Beatles' recent world-wide success, the Yardbirds management decided the blues was too limiting, and convinced the band to record a pop tune, which they did. Of all things, the song featured bongos in place of electric guitar. Clapton, a blues purist, hated it, and walked out. The band shrugged and replaced him with another guitar sensation, Jeff Beck, and never looked back. Within a year "For Your Love" topped the charts in Britain and, where it counted most, in the U.S. With that the Yardbirds boarded an airplane and followed the Beatles across the Atlantic to perform on U.S. television, and to begin a lucrative American tour.
And what of Eric Clapton, the Blues purist? As talented and charismatic as he was, he missed the first British invasion of America. In 1966, while the Beatles--and now the Yardbirds--were growing rich and famous performing American Rock 'n' Roll, Clapton joined a hard-core blues band headed by singer/keyboardist John Mayall, which, despite having a record contract, and making one of the greatest Blues albums of all time, failed to chart a hit single. Sure, American blues was big in London, but where it mattered most, on American Top-40 radio, the blues was a bust. Clapton was a star all right, but performing before a very limited audience.
Nonetheless, it was playing with Mayall that Clapton matched the right guitar (a Les Paul Gibson) with the right amplifier (a Marshall stack), and developed his signature "woman" sound. It was also during this time, he performed with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, which impressed him greatly. Like Clapton, both Baker and Bruce were absolute masters of their instrument, and loved to improvise. Clapton thought, "If ever I form a band, these guys must be a part of it." And so it was a year or so later that Baker called Clapton on the phone about forming a blues band. Clapton's immediate response: "I'm in, if Jack Bruce is a part of it." Clapton's idea was to form a trio--bass, guitar and drums--that worked so well in jazz.
The three got together at Baker's London flat to see if this trio idea had any merit. A two-minute song turned into a twenty-minute jam session, which left the three exhausted--and highly motivated to see where their new band (named "Cream") would take them.
While they quickly found a manager, who lined up plenty of clubs for Cream to play in, thy struggled to find their identity. Clapton saw himself as the singer/songwriter frontman. Only he rarely sang, and had trouble writing songs. On the other hand, Jack Bruce did sing, and possessed a wonderfully bluesy voice. Most important of all, songwriting came easily to him. When beat-poet Pete Brown showed up with wildly evocative lyrics, he found a songwriting partner in Jack Bruce. Brown wrote the words, and Bruce wrote the music. When they entered a studio to record their first album, the role of lead-singer fell not to Eric Clapton, but to Jack Bruce.
While Clapton didn't write songs, he did have a list of blues standards for the trio to perform, on a few of which he actually did sing lead. And that pretty much comprised the playlist of their fist album: a sprinkling of catchy Bruce-Brown originals, coupled with several blues standards; add Ginger Bakers' manic drum solo, and you have the contents of "Fresh Cream", their debut album.
The problem with "Fresh Cream" was no one liked it. Their legion of fans, who loved Cream's live instrumental improvisations, didn't like it; the band didn't like it; management didn't like it; and, worst of all, their record company didn't like it. While "Fresh Cream" sold reasonably well in Great Britain, it failed to chart in America. Thus, their American record label, Atlantic Records, invited them to record their next album at their New York City studio, where Atlantic's head honcho (the aforementioned Ahmet Ertegun) would exercise more creative control.
Ertegun's first plan was to make Clapton the frontman. Despite their prodigious talents, he saw Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker as mere sidemen. Adding insult to injury, Ertegun dismissed the latest batch of Bruce-Brown songs as not commercial enough.
To punch up their sound, he brought in sound engineer Tom Dowd (who managed the sound board for Aretha Franklin's hit records); to insure quality control, he made a young, musically-hip New Yorker named Felix Pappalardi their producer.
Pappalardi proved to be an inspired choice. He quickly saw the possibilities of making Cream recording stars, while Bruce discovered the two had much in common--both played bass, both were classically trained, and both were proficient songwriters.
After Ertegun dismissed several Bruce-Brown songs as too experimental, he set about making Clapton the frontman. The problem was Clapton was shy about singing, which dumbfounded Ertegun. That and the fact Clapton was not a songwriter, dashed Ertegun's dream of making the blond Englishman a star.
Clapton did have one song he wanted to record, however. It was yet another blues standard, called, "Hey, Lawdy Mama." Despite Clapton's inspired arrangement, "Hey, Lawdy Mama" was deemed not commercial enough. However, Felix Pappalardi heard something in the arrangement he liked. He made an acetate and took it home. When he returned the following morning and presented Clapton with new lyrics, Clapton duly recorded the vocals, thus was born one of Cream's signature songs, "Strange Brew."
Because the band was struggling to come up commercial songs, Pappalardi introduced the band to another of his tunes, "World of Pain," which, after discovering that Jack's and Eric's vocals blended nicely together, was recorded as a duet.
One night, while fooling around on his double bass, Jack Bruce came up with the riff for what would become their all-time biggest hit, "Sunshine of Your." It was early morning when Bruce discovered this riff, and Pete Brown, ever attentive, looked out the hotel window as dawn broke over New York City, and crafted these words, "It's getting near dawn, when night closes a tired eye." When the song was finished, it was presented to the record execs. Everyone was stunned by the power of Bruce's riff, and decided that "Sunshine" would be their next single.
After that, the contents of "Disraeli Gears" (the album's title), more or less fell into place, with Jack Bruce singing all the Bruce-Brown songs, and Eric Clapton singing the few blues standards that made the cut.
On the strength of "Disraeli Gears," Cream emerged as the surprise hit of 1967, and was heralded as the leader of the second British invasion--comprised mostly of English blues bands. Ironically, Cream was by now more pop than blues, thanks to Ahmet Ertegun. As one critic put it, Cream's idea of the blues was "purple, with polkadots." For sure, Disraeli Gears significantly changed the band's musical direction. But in the live arena, such as New York's Madison Square Garden, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and the Los Angeles Forum, Cream reverted back to a handful of blues standards, which they used as jumping off points for extended jam sessions--with Eric Clapton out front improvising fantastic blues riffs on his Les Paul Gibson. Clearly, he was the star Ahmet Ertegun had envisioned all along.
Below are three albums that testify to Clapton's special gifts on electric guitar:
JOHN MAYALL AND ERIC CLAPTON: BLUES BREAKERS (1966)
In hindsight, "Blues Breakers", as a collection of blues and pop tunes, is, perhaps, over-rated. Frontman John Mayall, while a dedicated aficionado of American blues, is not that great of a lead singer. What makes the record great is Eric Clapton's scintillating guitar solos, which proved highly influential, both in England and in America. At the same time, the album made stars of two band members: Eric Clapton (obviously), and bassist John McVie, who, with drummer Mick Fleetwood, would go on to form Fleetwood Mac.
WHEELS OF FIRE (1968)
Cello, viola, calliope, Swiss hand bells, glockenspiel? On a rock album? Are you kidding? The members of Cream weren’t really rock musicians, not in the literal sense; nor did they learn to play in some garage in the San Fernando Valley. Jack Bruce was classically trained on cello. He and Ginger Baker were seasoned jazz professionals and veterans of countless nights in London blues clubs. They were musical risk-takers, and highly inventive. Eric Clapton, who grew up listening to the Mississippi Delta blues of Robert Johnson and the like, was a guitarist of considerable taste and imagination, who never overplayed his hand. In producer Felix Pappalardi they had the perfect foil. In the summer of 1968 “Wheels of Fire” topped the album charts nationally, and became the first double-LP to be certified platinum. Just as surprising, having reached the summit of Rock Stardom, Cream decided to call it quits.
Looking back, it’s clear “Wheels of Fire” was their masterpiece—a moody, jazzy, bluesy, hard-rocking collections of songs on Disc One (“In The Studio”), and on Disc Two (“Live at the Fillmore”) a live album to top all live albums, a tour-de-force showcasing the virtuoso talents of all three—Baker on drums, Bruce on electric bass and harmonica, and Clapton on his six-string Les Paul Gibson. The expression, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” though highly over-used, applies. Cream did for guitar, bass, and drums what Elvis Presley did for rock vocalists, and the Beatles did for singer/songwriters. Unwittingly, Cream launched extended jamming and long instrumental solos as a regular feature of live performances, and in turn launched a host of heavy metal bands, but nobody, and I mean nobody, could rival them in the live arena.
Apart from cellos, violas and the like, “Wheels of Fire” is a guitar album. From “White Room” to “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” Clapton’s guitar dominates: multi-tracked soloing on the bridge of “Politician,” Chicago-style blues on “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” quicksilver solos on “Those Were the Days” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart” and infectious wah-wahing on “White Room” (their follow-up hit to "Sunshine of Your Love"). And it continues unabated on Disc Two (“Live at the Fillmore”) with “Crossroads” and the 15-minute blues improvisation, “Spoonful.” And the aforementioned cellos and violas? On “White Room” violas are employed to complement Clapton’s descending guitar chords that open and close the song; on “Deserted Cities of the Heart” viola and cello serve as serene interludes in what is a frenzied rock anthem. Rounding out the album are Baker’s quirky “Passing the Time” (featuring glockenspiel and calliope) and the equally quirky “Pressed Rat and Warthog” (featuring Pappalaradi's trumpet solo), and Bruce’s exquisite “As You Said” (with Bruce on acoustic guitar, cello and vocal).
What “Wheels of Fire” actually is, is an eclectic, sophisticated (by rock standards) collection of pop and blues tunes that for some (including Eric Clapton) is an acquired taste. That it topped the charts was perhaps more the result of their huge fan base and legendary reputation than the record’s commercial appeal. Also driving sales was the reputation of their previous album, “Disraeli Gears,” a pop psychedelic classic featuring a host of radio-friendly songs. “Wheels of Fire” was a decidedly different song collection than “Disraeli Gears,”—less pop but more interesting; a reflection of the group’s divergent musical tastes that, by the summer of 1968, was driving them apart.
LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS (1970)
It seemed Eric Clapton had lived several lives prior to making “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”. He had walked away from more great bands than any musician had a right to: Casey Jones and the Engineers, the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. And every time he landed squarely on his feet with yet another great group of musicians. Who wouldn’t want to play with Eric Clapton? Everyone wanted him in their band. The Rolling Stones wanted him. Both John Lennon and George Harrison created bands that featured Clapton on guitar. Promoters were standing in line to sign him to a national tour. By 1970, however, Clapton had tired of being a guitar hero. He wanted to be a singer first and a guitarist second, to have his own band where he would be the undisputed leader. In forming Derek and the Dominos (as his new band was named), he got just that. There was only one problem—he was not as yet a prolific song writer. At the time, and by his own admission, he was good for about one song per year. Thus, when Clapton’s new band arrived at Criteria Studios in Miami to make an album, the only finished song was “Layla.” The rest was bits and scraps of half-formed song ideas. From this, coupled with endless jamming, “Layla and Other Love Songs” emerged, with many of the songs co-written by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. On the advice of producer Tom Dowd, guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, was invited to sit in, and the music soared to unimagined heights. “We knew it was phenomenal,” said engineer Karl Richardson. “You couldn’t not know that the music flying out of Studio B was phenomenal. You’d have to be deaf.” The result was a masterpiece. The album didn’t sell as expected, not at first. A year after its release, a single (“Layla”) ascended the Top Forty and album sales finally took off. By then, Clapton had walked out on yet another great band, and Derek and the Dominos slipped into history.
Clapton would continue to tour and make records, not with yet another band, but as a solo artist.