WHEN I first heard Eric Clapton, he was 35 years old, exactly half his current age. The year was 1980, and my first exposure came through the songs ‘Lay down Sally’, ‘Layla’, ‘I shot the sheriff’ and ‘Wonderful tonight’ over the radio. The following year, ‘Cocaine’ was played at every college festival in Delhi. Soon, I was hooked to the live album ‘Just One Night’, tripping on newer favourites like ‘After midnight’, ‘Tulsa time’, ‘Setting me up’ and ‘Blues power’ once my ear slowly got trained into appreciating those gorgeous guitar parts.
Clapton, who turns 70 today, has been regular on my playlist since the early 1980s. After the initial exposure, there was an effort to listen to his earlier stuff, beginning with his work for the groups Cream and Derek & The Dominoes, and his solo albums. His contributions to Blind Faith, Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers came later in my life, and at the same time, I tried to keep in touch with his latest releases.
While the initial admiration was more for his guitaring, I slowly began grasping the beauty of his raspy voice. Still, though he became one of my favourite musicians ever, I had two
complaints. One, many of his most popular songs were actually written by others. Even though he gave a completely different twist to his cover versions, only a handful of songs written by him were hugely successful.
Secondly, Clapton has had a fair share of erratic and average albums, specially in the 1980s and early 2000s. While his work till the mid-1970s was memorable, his later efforts were not always consistent, despite some excellent albums now and then. In the latter part of his career, the collaborations with greats like BB King and JJ Cale were brilliant, and so were some of his blues tributes. His rendition of Gary Moore’s ‘Still got the blues’, from his 2013 album ‘Old Sock’ was first-rate. But efforts to write his own stuff were namby-pamby.
These flaws notwithstanding, nothing could stop me from getting back to Clapton after regular intervals. I may have spent months away from other favourites like Pink Floyd, Doors, Jethro Tull and Santana, but Clapton, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, always kept returning. To pep up one’s mood, nothing seemed better than a live album of Clapton – ‘Just One Night’, ‘Unplugged’, or his tie-ups with Steve Winwood and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
The admiration of the man increased after I read his autobiography, where he not only talks of his music and influences, but about his various romantic interests (including the one with George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd), his battles with drugs and alcohol, his subsequent attempts to help addicts, and the tragic death of his son Conor, which led him to write the brilliant ‘Tears in heaven’ in ‘Unplugged’.
Clapton has been on the scene for nearly five decades, and released some incredible stuff over the years. To join in his 70th birthday celebrations, here’s my list of favourite Clapton studio albums culled from various phases of his career. Not an easy task, of course, but here goes, in chronological order of their release:
Blues Breakers – John Mayall with Eric Clapton: This 1966 recording was fronted by British blues great John Mayall, who does lead vocals and plays piano and Hammond B3 organ. Clapton joins on electric guitar, with John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) on bass and Hughie Flint on drums. Popular songs are ‘All your love’, ‘Hideaway’ and ‘Rambling on my mind’.
Disraeli Gears – Cream: The second studio album of rock supergroup Cream, featuring Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. The 1967 record, also recognised for its psychedelic cover artwork, features classic Cream numbers like ‘Tales of brave Ulysses’, ‘Sunshine of your love’, ‘Strange brew’, ‘We’re going wrong’ and ‘SWLABR’.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith: Released in 1969 with a controversial cover, this was the only album by the legendary line-up of Clapton, keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, bassist-violinist Ric Grech and drummer Ginger Baker. Classic cuts include ‘Had to cry today’, ‘Can’t find my way home’, ‘Well all right’, ‘Presence of the lord’ and ‘Sea of joy’.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek & The Dominoes: One of Clapton’s best works to date, this 1970 release features the memorable ‘Layla’, which Clapton wrote for Pattie Boyd. Super-guitarist Duane Allman appears on 11 of the 14 songs, which also include ‘Bell bottom blues’, ‘Have you ever loved a woman’, ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out’ and a version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little wing’ Bobby Whitlock does a great job on piano and organ.
461 Ocean Boulevard – Solo: Clapton’s second solo studio album, released in 1974, was an indication of the style he was to follow for many years, using laidback pop-infused rock songs laced with blues influences. Hits here included a version of Bob Marley’s reggae hit ‘I shot the sheriff’, ‘Let it grow’ and ‘Willie and the hand jive’.
Slowhand – Solo: The title of this 1977 record was based on the nickname given to Clapton. The first three numbers became classics – namely ‘Cocaine’, ‘Wonderful tonight’ and ‘Lay down sally’. The album was to reach No 2 on the Billboard 200 charts.
From the Cradle – Solo: Released in 1994, this was Clapton’s marvelous tribute to old-school blues, as he played a selection of standards in his own style. On the list were Willie Dixon’s ‘Hoochie coochie man’, popularised by Muddy Waters, Tampa Red’s ‘It hurts me too’, Lowell Fulson’s ‘Sinner’s prayer’ and Leroy Carr’s ‘Blues before sunrise’.
Riding with the King – With BB King: Clapton fulfilled his dream of collaborating with one of his heroes in this 2000 album, which also featured great talent like guitarists Andy Fairweather Low, Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II, keyboardist Joe Sample, bassist Nathan East and drummer Steve Gadd. The version of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Keys to the highway’ is brilliant.
Me and Mr Johnson – Solo: Another blues tribute, this time dedicated to the legendary Robert Johnson, with Clapton exclusively playing his compositions. Released in 2004, it contains Clapton’s versions of favourites ‘Milkcow’s calf blues’, ‘Love in vain’ and ‘Kind hearted woman blues’.
The Road to Escondido – with JJ Cale: Clapton had over the years popularized two Cale songs ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’. In this 2006 collaboration, he teams up with his idol on songs like ‘Sporting life blues’, ‘Hard to thrill’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Ride the river’. The guests include guitarists Derek Trucks and John Mayer.