Eric Clapton: Living On Blues Power

Whether or not you think he's God, Eric Clapton's mastery of the blues might get you crying tears in heaven

eric clapton cover
Albert Watson
Eric Clapton on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Thirtysomething years ago a teenage Eric Clapton was toting his acoustic guitar from pub to pub in London and nearby towns such as Kingston, playing and singing what was then called "folk blues'' for drinks and pocket change. His idols were Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and other black American songsters until friends he made in the pubs introduced him to the more hard-edged and emotionally compelling sounds of Mississippi Delta bluesmen Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Once he heard what Muddy Waters had done with Johnson's legacy and an electric guitar, there was no turning back. He abandoned the acoustic music of the pubs and coffeehouses for electric blues, and within a few years he had become the most admired British blues and rock guitarist of his generation. He was still in his early twenties when his more vociferous admirers began leaving graffiti on London walls proclaiming, CLAPTON IS GOD.

Within the last year, Clapton has come full circle – and then some. The acoustic guitar is back in his professional life; songs by Broonzy, Leadbelly, Johnson and Waters are back in his repertoire. But instead of doing his folkie bit in the pubs, he has reached an audience of millions with a landmark appearance on MTV Unplugged and the album from that show, which has become the most successful recording of his career, scaling the charts and winning six Grammy awards. Even when he was "God,'' Clapton never managed anything quite this spectacular; he is now more visible, and more widely popular, than at any other point in his career.

For longtime Clapton fans, the unprecedented success of Unplugged is both puzzling and ironic. For Clapton himself, his new popularity has been won at great cost. During the early Seventies, heroin addiction almost wrecked his life. He fought the beast to a standstill, only to have to confront the demons of alcoholism a decade later. But his trials and tribulations during the last five years have been even more devastating. In 1988 his relationship with Patti Boyd, the inspiration for his 1970 masterwork Layla, finally ended in divorce. In 1990 he lost four of his closest associates and friends, including his bodyguard, tour manager and booking agent, as well as fellow blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, in a postconcert helicopter crash. And on March 20th, 1991, his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from a fifty-third-floor Manhattan window. "Tears in Heaven,'' which won a Grammy as Song of the Year and is the emotional centerpiece of the disc Unplugged, has been widely perceived as a response to his son's death. Clapton hasn't just been singing and playing the blues, he's been living the blues.

But Clapton has endured these tragedies, transforming personal suffering and temporary defeats into lasting artistic victories. That's the kind of artist he is. The commitment to emotional expression and unalloyed truth-telling that has characterized his best work has enabled him to rise above the vicissitudes of his life, and it's this quality that informs the soft-spoken but deeply felt performances on Unplugged. The acoustic format may downplay the very qualities guitarophile fans most admire in Clapton's playing – the unexcelled richness of his sound, the fat sustains, the deft balance of fluid phrasing and crackling intensity. But Clapton has never valued technique for its own sake.

"I'm very much a romanticist musically,'' he said in a mid-Eighties interview. "I prefer to be drawn into something by the way it makes me feel emotionally. It's not technique that I listen for; it's content, feeling, tone. With one note, if it sounds right, you can create everything.'' And, he might have added, that one right note doesn't have to come from the guitar. Though he's always been insecure about his vocals, Clapton at his best sings with an emotional honesty unmarred by mannerisms and cliches. And vocally, Unplugged is surely his finest hour.

Eric Patrick Clapton was born March 30th, 1945, in Ripley, a small village in Surrey, some thirty miles outside London. His mother was young and unwed, and he was raised by his grandparents. Early rock & roll stirred his spirit: Years later he remembered hearing recordings by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and, especially, being impressed by a television performance featuring Jerry Lee Lewis. "What knocked me out really was the bass player, who was playing a Fender Precision bass guitar,'' Clapton recalled. "I just knew it was a guitar, and I thought, 'This is the future' . . . There [on television] was something out of the future, and I wanted to go there.'' By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, Clapton was teaching himself to play an acoustic guitar. At sixteen he went to art school, but a year later he dropped out. He did manual labor for about a year while playing and singing in local coffeehouses and pubs. Then he joined his first electric band, an R&B outfit called the Roosters.

The Roosters lasted from January to August 1963, and during that time the band's other guitarist, Tom McGuinness, introduced Clapton to recordings by modern-blues guitarist Freddie King. "That was the first time I ever heard that electric, bent-notes, T-Bone Walker-B.B. King style of playing,'' Clapton recalled. "Hearing that really started me on my path; that's what I was going to be.'' At the time, the razor-sharp polyrhythms and stinging slide-guitar inflections of Delta artists like Johnson and Waters were an inspiration but too daunting for Clapton to emulate directly. But playing single-note leads, like Freddie King, was something he could deal with. When the Roosters broke up, Clapton made a few gigs with the otherwise-obscure Casey Jones and the Engineers and then joined the Yardbirds, who held down a weekly gig at London's Crawdaddy Club. They had replaced the Crawdaddy's first resident R&B band, the Rolling Stones, after the Stones began making records and touring. Soon the Yardbirds were making records themselves.

In those days – '63 and '64 – the British R&B scene was small, inbred and dominated by purist tendencies. When the Stones followed the Beatles onto the pop charts with a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On,'' their success created a dilemma for other British blues musicians, including the Yardbirds and their lead guitarist. "Some of the band began to see a future in being internationally famous,'' Clapton said, "and I couldn't see what the rush was all about, what was so wonderful about competing with the Liverpool sound.''

When Sonny Boy Williamson, the irascible, hard-core Delta bluesman, undertook a tour of England with the Yardbirds as his backup band, the experience precipitated a crisis for Clapton." I realized we weren't being true to the music,'' he said. "It was a frightening experience, because this man was real and we weren't. We didn't know how to back him up, and he put us through some bloody hard paces. I was very young, and it was a real shock; I had to almost relearn how to play. But it taught me a lot. It taught me the value of that music, which I still feel.'' When the Yardbirds began moving in a more pop-oriented direction, culminating in the recording of the very unbluesy hit single "For Your Love,'' Clapton was disillusioned: "I began withdrawing into myself, making snap judgments about other people, becoming sort of dogmatic, intolerable really. It was kind of hinted that it would be better for me to leave, and I did.''

At the Oxford home of the Roosters' Ben Palmer, Clapton worked at turning himself into a blues guitarist. Soon after, he was asked to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. His playing on Five Live Yardbirds and other recordings by that band had been distinctive and powerful, but it was Mayall's 1966 album Blues Breakers that announced the arrival of a truly incendiary talent. His supercharged, bravura playing paid tribute to influences such as Freddie King and Otis Rush, often quoting their recordings, but even then Clapton wasn't content to merely imitate. He had his own, fat sound, a distinctive approach to vibrato and sustain and a brace of original, slashing licks. And above all, he played the blues authentically, with a genuinely idiomatic feel. In later years, several black American blues guitarists who were Clapton's early idols – B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Jr. Lockwood - would comment on his feel for the music: "You know it's the blues when he plays it,'' B.B. said. When Clapton was asked in 1985 if this blues feel was learned or innate, he responded: "I think it's something you're born with; it's a gift. I don't ever remember not having it.''

Whatever the source of his blues savvy, Clapton stretched it to the limit with his next band, Cream, the definitive power trio. Vocalist-bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker were experienced players with a modern-jazz orientation, and they pushed Clapton into epic improvisations like nothing heard before in blues or rock. Clapton's grounding in blues and his acute, internalized sense of structure often provided the glue that held the music together, while Bruce and Baker spun elastic variations in meter and tempo. Playing through stacks of Marshall amps at staggering volume levels, the guitarist did pioneering work. Cream set new standards for freedom of expression in electric music, risking chaos and sometimes succumbing to it.

On records the music was more structured and, if anything, even more resourceful. Cream's studio recordings of Delta blues from the song books of Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Joe Reynolds and others were the first ensemble reworkings of this sort of material to do justice to its polyrhythmic subtleties. The "heavy'' guitar riffs that anchored songs like "Sunshine of Your Love'' and "White Room'' provided blueprints for the development of heavy metal. And "I Feel Free'' flirted with polytonality. Clapton has expressed reservations about Cream, especially in its later stages, and there were times when the three musicians seemed to all be soloing at once, with cohesion going by the boards. But the band did such innovative work in so many musical areas, taking so many chances along the way, that the reverence with which die-hard fans remember it seems entirely justified.

Cream made Clapton a star in America. Formed in 1966, the band burned so brightly that by the end of 1968 its flame had guttered out. Clapton and Baker then joined forces with Steve Winwood and Rick Grech in Blind Faith, which collapsed in 1969 after one LP and one tour from the ill effects of stardom and hype. In retrospect, Blind Faith holds up very well indeed, but Clapton felt the need for a less pressured performing situation and proceeded to tour as a guest soloist with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, who had been the opening act on the Blind Faith tour. By mid-1970, Clapton had picked up Delaney and Bonnie's rhythm section and formed a new unit, Derek and the Dominos.

But the road was taking its toll. Having fallen headlong into the late-Sixties LSD subculture, Clapton increasingly felt the need to dull the sharp edges with cocaine and heroin. At the same time, he was suffering a guilty conscience from having fallen in love with Beatle George Harrison's wife, Patti (George had drawn him into the Beatles' orbit to play on the White Album's ``While My Guitar Gently Weeps''). The unstable, highly charged situation promised nothing but trouble, but in the short run, it goaded Clapton into making the album many fans consider his masterpiece, Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The Dominos lineup expanded for the sessions to include Duane Allman, a brilliant guitarist who was in every way Clapton's equal. Pushing each other to new heights of intensity and invention, the two guitarslingers made music for the angels – and for the ages.

After popping up all over the place in 1970, Clapton spent much of 1971-73 in seclusion, grappling with his drug addiction. The deaths of his friends Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman didn't exactly lighten his mood. "I felt like I'd been left behind,'' he later admitted. "And I went on my journey through the dark to find out what it's like in there. I had no care for consequences, the idea of dying didn't bother me. But as I grow older, as I live more, death becomes more of a reality, something that I don't choose to step toward too soon.''

When he finally emerged from his hermitlike retreat in 1974, Clapton had kicked both his habit and his taste for guitar godhood. His albums of the middle and late Seventies, beginning with 1974's 461 Ocean Boulevard, found him assuming the more laid-back posture of a team player, deliberately avoiding the marathon soloing and high-energy ambience of his work with Mayall, Cream and the Dominos. Always a consummate musician, he now became a pop craftsman, equally at home with love songs, reggae covers (like his '74 hit "I Shot the Sheriff'') and the loping country-rock twang of J.J. Cale and Don Williams. Still, he never abandoned his loyalty to the blues, and his most outstanding performances during this period were almost invariably blues based. Just One Night, a double album recorded in concert and concentrating on his bluesier material, was one of the decade's highlights.

As the Eighties began, it became apparent that the "relaxed,'' low-energy approach Clapton's longtime fans had found so frustrating was in fact an alcoholic daze. In 1981, just eight days into an American tour, he collapsed with a penetrating ulcer and had to cancel the remainder of the tour. The condition forced him to cut out his boozing, and he reemerged with at least a semblance of his old fire and flair. Teaming up with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, who had succeeded him in the Yardbirds, Clapton played spectacularly at a series of concerts benefiting ARMS (Action Research in Multiple Sclerosis), organized to help Ronnie Lane, his old friend from the Small Faces. And while his own albums continued to be somewhat compromised by commercial considerations, the best ones – Money and Cigarettes, Behind the Sun – rekindled much of the emotional intensity of his earlier work. This time around, he was able to handle Edge City with a more evenhanded maturity. And while the tragedies of 1988-91 slowed him down, they couldn't derail him. He bounced back with a series of performances at the Royal Albert Hall, which included collaborations with blues guitarists such as Buddy Guy and Robert Cray and a concerto for electric guitar and symphony orchestra, as well as appearances fronting his regular band. Highlights of these shows constitute the album 24 Nights. Clapton also broadened his scope with a series of film-scoring assignments; he now appeared to thrive on playing in as many different contexts as possible. His next project was Unplugged.

Clapton's music was never a case of youthful hormones running wild. It's always been an adult sort of music, and as a result he's been able to age more gracefully than many of his contemporaries. As he approaches fifty, he continues to strive for the emotional honesty that has always been the core of the blues. And the blues, in art as in life, is still very much what he's about.

This story is from the April 29th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 655: April 29, 1993
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