Eric Clapton: Crossroads
Before long, Clapton had become a central figure in London’s blues subculture, playing with a number of local bands and drawing praise for his powerful guitar style. In 1963, he joined the highly regarded Yardbirds, and on the one full-length album he cut with the group, 1964’s Five Live Yardbirds, his solos bore a raw authenticity that left other Brit wannabe bluesmen in the dust. It was around this time that Clapton acquired the nickname “Slowhand,” an ironic comment on both his speedy fingerwork and the slow handclaps he’d get from audiences while replacing broken strings onstage (a frequent occurrence).
Clapton’s tenure in the Yardbirds came to a messy end after the band had a major pop hit with “For Your Love” in 1965. The blues purist in him couldn’t abide such a transparent grab for chart success. He jumped ship, to be replaced by Jeff Beck and, eventually, Jimmy Page. Clapton’s departure from the Yardbirds set the tone for the rest of his career, establishing him as restless and unwilling to commit to creative dictates that weren’t his own. His next phase, as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, would last barely a year, but during that time he helped create what is generally regarded as the greatest British blues album ever recorded and arguably the greatest white blues album of all time: 1966’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. Having switched from a Fender Telecaster and Vox AC30 to a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall 1962, Clapton unleashed a scorching overdriven roar that’s considered a pinnacle of electric guitar tone to this day. He also sang for the first time on record, covering his hero Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind.”
An apt title, to be sure, for by the time Blues Breakers was released, Clapton had already moved on to form Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. The ultimate example of the power trio, Cream played blues rock with a psychedelic edge, a style they worked to perfection on hits like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and a supercharged version of another Robert Johnson song, “Crossroads.” Over four albums and three U.S. tours, the band won America over with its lengthy jams, powered by Clapton’s magisterial guitar. But in May 1968, the group’s ascent came to a halt when Clapton read a scathing review of a Cream live performance in the then-new, hip magazine Rolling Stone. The article “said how boring and repetitious our performance had been,” Clapton later recalled. “And it was true! The ring of truth had just knocked me backward; I was in a restaurant and fainted. And after I woke up, I immediately decided that that was the end of the band.”
Within months, Cream was history and Clapton had formed a new band, Blind Faith, with Baker, Traffic singer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech. Sadly, this early prototype of the supergroup quickly fell apart under the weight of outside expectations, leaving behind just one roughedged, but appealing, studio album. A subsequent tour with American roots-rockers Delaney and Bonnie spawned Clapton’s first solo record, simply titled Eric Clapton, in 1970. Although the album was successful and featured a Top 40 cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” Clapton remained uncomfortable as a frontman. He went underground, bringing together several Delaney and Bonnie cohorts in a new configuration that would eventually be called Derek and the Dominos. Joined in the studio by another brilliant guitarist, Duane Allman, they recorded the 1970 double-disc Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The album sold poorly at first, in part because many didn’t realize it was Clapton’s project, but both it and its anguished title song are now acclaimed as rock masterpieces.
The heartache so palpable in Layla’s grooves was real: Clapton had fallen in love with Pattie Harrison, the wife of his best friend, ex-Beatle George Harrison. Convinced his feelings would never be requited, he took refuge in drugs. By the end of 1971, Clapton was a serious heroin addict and had dropped out of music entirely. In 1974, after a traumatic withdrawal, he re-emerged as a solo artist once and for all with 461 Ocean Boulevard, which helped introduce reggae to a wider audience via its hit version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” But Clapton’s addiction hadn’t really disappeared; it had just switched its allegiance from heroin to alcohol and would continue to dog him for years to come.
At first, the music didn’t seem to be affected. The albums he released in the late Seventies include one of his all-time best, Slowhand (1977), which boasted such evergreens as “Cocaine” and “Wonderful Tonight.” Clapton got the girl, too, marrying Pattie in 1979 with faithful friend Harrison in attendance. However, his luck ran out in the early Eighties, and life-threatening bouts with bleeding ulcers and pleurisy finally led him into rehab in 1982.
The new, clean Clapton became an even bigger star in the Eighties, but for the first time he seemed to lack confidence in his direction. The eclectic Behind the Sun (1985), produced with Phil Collins, unsettled the heads at Warner Brothers, who insisted that five tracks be scrapped and replaced with more commercial material. Uncharacteristically, Clapton caved to the label’s demands, and the finished album, along with its successor, 1986’s August (another collaboration with Collins), made longtime fans wonder where Slowhand’s edge had gone. By the end of the decade, however, Clapton had regained his self-assurance. Journeyman (1989) was his strongest studio effort in over 10 years, and his live energy was undiminished, as he demonstrated most notably with a record-breaking 1990 residency at London’s Royal Albert Hall, documented later on 24 Nights (1991).
By this time, his relationship with Pattie had dissolved, and Clapton had taken up with Italian model Lory del Santo. In August 1986, their son, Conor, was born. Tragically, in March 1991, the four-year-old fell to his death from a window of a New York apartment building. Stricken with grief, Clapton bared his feelings in the song “Tears in Heaven.” The tribute received its debut at Clapton’s 1992 appearance on MTV’s acoustic performance series Unplugged and now stands as his biggest solo hit. The Unplugged album that followed has sold more than any other Clapton disc and won six Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
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