Selecting the essential recordings of Eric Clapton is like trying to pick the best of the Beatles or the Stones: ultimately futile. Clapton’s power and durability are such that his audience accepts his work as a continuum; the same fans who swoon to “Wonderful Tonight” and are moved to melancholy by “Tears in Heaven” also revel in the guitar fireworks of “Sunshine of Your Love.”
While there are great moments on every Clapton recording, his legend is based on a core group of albums –– particularly from early in his career –– that exhibit a consistent, transcendent brilliance. The eight-year span from his days with the Yardbirds to the breakup of Derek and the Dominos is justifiably considered Clapton’s most creative era –– a time when he, together with Jimi Hendrix, redefined the role of the electric guitar in rock music. The 1988 box set Crossroads is a fine overview of this period, collecting such memorable finds as the Yardbirds’ first studio demos, selections from Cream’s BBC broadcasts and several unreleased Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos tracks.
The last two decades are more difficult to assess. The pleasures of Clapton’s recent solo recordings are of a subtler, more intimate nature, as he negotiates the balance between his twin careers as elder pop statesman and mature bluesman. Clapton too often retreats into the mellow ozone. But for every limp AOR outing like August, there’s a tough-edged Journeyman; pop-rock gems like Slowhand more than compensate for studio snoozes such as There’s One in Every Crowd. Crossroads provides valuable insight into this second act of Clapton’s career, pulling together classic album tracks, live recordings and studio outtakes.
Consumer note: The record labels mentioned here are those on which the albums are currently available. The dates are those of the original issue. All albums are Clapton solo releases except as noted.
Five Live Yardbirds, the Yardbirds
His tone may be thin, and recycled Chuck Berry licks are the rule, but Clapton’s energy level has never been higher than on this bacchanal of British Invasion R&B, recorded live at London’s Marquee Club. On raveups like “Smokestack Lightning” and “Here ‘Tis,” Clapton’s flair for musical drama enables him to milk massive crescendos out of a few stinging notes. In the studio with the Yardbirds, on early singles like “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “I Ain’t Got You,” “A Certain Girl” and “Got to Hurry” (all compiled on Crossroads), Clapton’s exacting sense of taste and tension bursts through his compact solo statements, pointing to the breakthroughs soon to come.
Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
On his first masterpiece, Clapton turns up the volume and immerses himself in the blues. The influences are clear –– Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Freddie King –– but the thick tone, biting attack and naked emotiveness are uniquely Clapton’s. The depth of feeling on slow blues like “Have You Heard” is matched by the intensity of the rock-style leads on “Key to Love” and “Steppin’ Out.” Clapton’s first recorded lead vocal is a beautifully understated vesion of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind.”
Fresh Cream, Cream
The cult of the guitar hero starts now. Goaded by the ferocious Ginger Baker-Jack Bruce rhythm section, Clapton’s lyrical lines scream and sob, each solo so melodic it exists as a song within a song. Clapton mates virtuosity with architectural control and a masterly use of vibrato to construct leads that kick with the power of rock and sting with the sweetness of the blues.
Disraeli Gears, Cream
Psychedelia reigns, yet Clapton’s innate taste helps him rise above period affectations. The classics are on this album: “Strange Brew,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (with Clapton’s wah-wah orgy). But less celebrated tracks have their own astounding moments, including the aching beauty of Clapton’s playing on “We’re Going Wrong” and his slashing break on “Outside Woman Blues.”
Wheels of Fire, Cream
On its last album as a working group, Cream starts taking more chances in the studio. Clapton’s multitracked conversations with himself on “Politician” and his frenetic wah-wah counterpoint on “White Room” are among his more daring contributions. “Spoonful” and “Crossroads,” both recorded live at the Fillmore West, capture Cream at peaks of empathy and invention. The melodic logic of Clapton’s solos on “Crossroads” is a marvel of blues-rock exploration. The lengthy jam on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” with its spontaneous interplay and open-ended framework, finds Clapton walking the free-improvisation tightrope that he has shied away from ever since Cream’s demise.
In dramatic contrast, Clapton demonstrates his affection for beauty and precision that same year with two of his finest studio guitar performances ever: the concise rapture of his magical solo on the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Cream’s posthumous hit “Badge,” which was actually recorded by the group shortly after its farewell concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Blind Faith, Blind Faith
The band’s stormy existence doesn’t erase the majesty of Clapton’s work on the only recording from this blink-of-an-eye supergroup. Blind Faith marks the last time Clapton relied on the broad tone he developed in Cream; you can already hear him scaling down his awesome sound. Clapton’s composition “Presence of the Lord” is characteristic of the plain-spoken, soul-baring honesty of his best songwriting; his soaring, double-timed wah-wah break has the power of a shouted prayer.
On this foray into Southern R&B –– as much a Delaney and Bonnie record as it is a solo project – Clapton premières three future classic-rock-radio staples: “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power” and “After Midnight.” Switching guitars (from Gibson to Fender) and stylistic approaches (concision over effusion), as well as singing throughout for the first time, Clapton displays his ease with the laid-back rock sound that would become his future focus.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Derek and the Dominos
Exquisite pain is translated into exquisite music. A number of factors come together to make up Clapton’s most enduring musical statement: a skintight American band behind him, the addition of Clapton’s U.S. counterpart Duane Allman and a thwarted love affair inspiring deep song. The 1990 Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition includes two CDs’ worth of outtakes, including a wrenching “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with a Clapton solo that speaks volumes on the tortures of unrequited love.
461 Ocean Boulevard
Returning from his drug-induced hiatus, Clapton plays hide-and-seek with his talent; flashes of guitar greatness flicker out before they even quite register. But Clapton’s newfound mellow modesty holds its own pleasures: “I Shot the Sheriff,” personal takes on blues standards (“I Can’t Hold Out”) and an increased interest in slide guitar. Clapton’s intimate singing on “Let It Grow” and “Give Me Strength” allows you to eavesdrop on his soul.
In order to achieve superstardom, Clapton had to transform himself into a singer-songwriter as well as a guitar hero; he finds the winning balance on Slowhand. “Wonderful Tonight” is as perfect a testimony to domestic bliss as “Layla” was to the chaos of romantic love. The inspired fretwork on “Cocaine” and “The Core” provides the charge missing from the note-by-rote shuffles like “Lay Down Sally.”
Just One Night
Thank God for Clapton’s pride. Every so often he issues a live recording to remind you (and perhaps himself) that he can still hold his own with any blues guitarist alive. Egged on by an edgy band and a smoking second guitarist, Albert Lee, Clapton recharges studio favorites and draws on his own best strengths as an incisive improviser.
Money and Cigarettes
WARNER BROS., 1983
There’s something gloriously willful about Clapton’s postcomeback recordings. Try to goose him with other major-league guitarists –– in this case, Albert Lee and Ry Cooder –– and Clapton goes out of his way to avoid any anticipated guitar heroics. Harnessed to the R&B-grounded rhythm section of bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Roger Hawkins, Clapton lies back, content to ride the groove; the occasional tasty lick is its own reward. By this time, though, Clapton had already transformed bluesy languor into an art form.
An air of middle-aged stoicism toughens up Clapton’s music just when it seemed ready to hobble away completely. “Old Love,” another cut-from-the-gut meditation on emotional turmoil, finds Clapton commiserating with guitarist Robert Cray. Ray Charles’s “Hard Times” casts Clapton as a convincing blues balladeer, while Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” sends Clapton back to his roots for a good-natured raveup.
Clapton has done a number of interesting, if not revelatory, movie soundtracks, but Rush is the most successful for two reasons: the one-on-one blues throw-down with guitarist Buddy Guy (one of Clapton’s major influences) and “Tears in Heaven.” Appearing on this album in its original hit version, the song proves that Clapton’s expressive voice and songwriting are as integral to his popularity and legend as his guitar playing.
Having made his fame and fortune as a plugged-in guitar hero, Clapton scores his biggest commercial success with an album that doesn’t have a Fender within earshot. Coming off the hodgepodge of the live 24 Nights, Unplugged is a delight because of its atypical focus, from the indulgent kazoo jam on “San Francisco Bay Blues” to the first live recording of “Layla,” daringly recast as a half-fond, half-melancholy look back at a passion now mellowed by time. To be frank, Clapton doesn’t have the unplugged chops of, say, Stephen Stills; Clapton’s modest acoustic work is a mere shadow of his electric virtuosity. But few Nineties recordings communicate with such direct, unadorned spirit as this. Clapton’s main axe is honesty.