411 Music Hall of Fame Class of 2009: Eric Clapton
ERIC CLAPTON’S MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
• Received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire title in 2004.
• Named Best International Musician in the Melody Maker Pop Poll in 1969.
• 80 Gold, Platinum, Multi-Platinum and Diamond Sales Awards by the Recording Industry Association of America throughout his career.
• 18 Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
• 4 Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
• The only artist to have been inducted thrice into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame (The Yardbirds (1992), Cream (1993), Solo (2000))
• Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001.
• The most accomplished guitarist of his generation.
• A pivotal artist in the breaking of the blues into the mainstream.
• “Clapton is God.”
Born on March 30, 1945 in Ripley, Surrey, England, the child Eric Patrick Clapton would have a hard road ahead of him and his only companion throughout would be the blues, a musical genre that bases itself on human suffering and doubt, sincerity with oneself being the cathartic solution offered by Clapton’s blues heroes such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. A loyal companion he would need to get through the constant turmoil in his life, starting with him discovering when he was nine years old that he was not the son of his parents because they were, in fact, his grandparents. His mother had him at the early age of sixteen, left him in the custody of his grandparents, and then took off. This would make Clapton feel estranged from the rest of the world and would be a defining moment in his life.
Another defining moment in his life would come when he received an acoustic guitar for his 13th birthday. He found learning to play guitar a difficult task, but that didn’t stop him from practicing for hours, even if it meant not taking care of his school assignments. Also keeping him from his studies at the Kingston College of Art was his fondness for listening to blues records. His “distractions” got the best of him and he left school completely to start playing in bands such as The Roosters (his first band) and Casey Jones and The Engineers, but his big chance came when he joined The Yardbirds in 1963. It was during his tenure with the band that he got his nickname “Slowhand”, because it would take him forever to replace a broken string onstage and the audience would get frustrated and pressure him with slow handclaps. Clapton recorded a couple of albums with The Yardbirds but grew tired of the band’s growing commercial leanings and left after the hit single “For Your Love” was recorded. His passion was the blues and he was going to go wherever the blues went.
In 1965, in his purist search for other musicians who indulged in the blues, he accepted John Mayall’s invitation to jam, and a connection was made. John Mayall is considered the godfather of British blues, but only until Clapton played under his wing did people start to listen. The band Mayall assembled was called The Blues Breakers and they could do no wrong with Clapton playing his heart out, night after night. It was in this stage of Clapton’s career that the famous “Clapton is God” graffiti started to appear all over the streets of London and his legend began to grow. The only album they recorded – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton – is considered the definitive British blues album of the sixties. Clapton was happy playing straight blues with a solid band, but he soon got bored and started to look for new challenges. It would be a thing of destiny that two other musicians (Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) would also be bored with their respective projects and that they would also be looking for more challenging situations.
Clapton, Bruce and Baker got together and thus Cream, the first supergroup, was born. Even though the band lasted only two years (1966-1968), their musical impact was unprecedented. It was thanks to Cream that musicianship became hip and future musicians strived to become good at playing their instruments. Cream’s electric rendition of the blues brought a never before heard of rush to pop music. Clapton, Bruce and Baker pushed each other’s limits every night in wild extended soloing, breaking the barriers of onstage performance for rock & roll at the time. Although the instrumental talent was overwhelming, the competition and internal strife was even more, and this would bring the band to its end, leaving Clapton once more astray. It would be thanks to his acquaintance with Steve Winwood that a new but brief chapter in his career would take place.
Blind Faith had Clapton once more in the supergroup scenario, only this time with Steve Winwood (of Traffic fame), Ginger Baker (of Cream fame) and Rick Grech (of Family fame). The businessmen behind the band saw great money-making potential and pushed them to record and tour. They only released one self-titled album and had only one disastrous tour. The band broke up shortly after. At this time, Clapton was going through tough times with his fame; he no longer wanted to be a guitar hero, he wanted to be part of a stable band and behave like a normal band member, not like a trophy guitarist. It was during the Blind Faith tour that he met Delany Bramlett, a key personality in the blooming of Clapton as a singer and band leader. Clapton joined Bramlett’s band for a short time and toured under the name “Delaney and Bonnie and Friends”. Bramlett later encouraged Clapton to record a solo album and 1970 saw the release of Eric Clapton, his first.
Being in love with his friend’s wife would push Clapton to record one of his quintessential albums (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) under the pseudonym “Derek and The Dominos”, an album secretly dedicated to George Harrison’s then wife Patti Boyd. The album was recorded with Delaney and Bonnie’s band and with The Allman Brothers Band’s Duane Allman; it’s the only occasion on which Clapton and Allman collaborated and it would also be one of the last recordings of the late guitarist. Drugs were being used loosely during the sessions and Clapton fell into a heroin addiction which would keep him away from the public eye until his friend Pete Townshend (The Who guitarist) pulled him out of his rut with the famous Rainbow Theater concerts in 1973. Clapton was now out of his addiction and he was back on his feet and motivated to record what would be another quintessential album of his career.
461 Ocean Boulevard showed Clapton venturing into other styles, especially reggae, and scored a number one single with a cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”. After this success, Clapton released a couple more albums that weren’t as successful, that is until he released Slowhand in 1977. The album spawned three hit singles: “Wonderful Tonight”, “Lay Down Sally” and “Cocaine” (originally by J.J. Cale). And even though Clapton had proven that he was no longer a virtuoso playing in a band, but a songwriter, a singer and a guitarist who could hold his own, the beginning of the 80′s would be his last commercially successful period until the beginning of the 90′s. These years would see him working on film scores (the death of Clapton’s son Connor would inspire him to write the hit single “Tears in Heaven” for the Rush soundtrack) and releasing his multi-Grammy winning Unplugged album (his best-selling record ever) which would place him once more under the public eye.
The 90′s and the new millennium would be when Clapton indulged in the blues once again. From the Cradle (1994) was comprised completely of blues covers; Riding with the King (2000) was a collaboration between Clapton and B.B. King (one of his life’s blues heroes); Me and Mr. Johnson (2004) was made of Robert Johnson (Clapton’s most important influence) covers. Not only would his indulgence in the blues consist on recording, but also on playing once more with those who accompanied him when he started in the 60′s. His reunion with John Mayall in 2003, on Mayall’s 70th birthday, would become one of the highlights of both artists’ careers; the sold-out Cream reunion shows saw that the talent of Bruce, Baker and Clapton had only gotten better with time; the reunion shows with Steve Winwood did justice to the Blind Faith songs that had been butchered live during the band’s only tour in 1969.
As of now, Clapton still performs, records and raises money for the Crossroads Center, a rehab facility for substance abuse on the island of Antigua, and hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival which has had two very successful editions (2004 and 2007). He also published his autobiography, “Clapton”, in 2007.
Why Eric Clapton was selected:
Eric Clapton has had a long successful career. He was responsible, though not entirely, for the breaking of the blues (and reggae to some extent) into the mainstream vein of music. He is one of the many brilliant guitarists of his generation to survive the perils and excesses of the times he had to live and emerge as a player who honed his skills and acquired an instrumental finesse, songwriting skill and voice of his own, while some of his peers favored stagnation. He has played with a slew of important artists and bands that have also made incredible contributions to rock and music in general. As for his playing, which is what he is known most for, he has proven that the guitar is first an instrument for the blues and second for whatever else; that dexterity is of no use if the right notes aren’t played.
Clapton has shown that the rock & roll lifestyle is one crossroad after another, and that only a select few can make it through.