Eric Clapton’s 51-year career spans 22 solo albums, 11 live albums, four with Cream, one-offs with John Mayall, Derek And The Dominoes and Blind Faith, and moonlight flits with Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy and more.
It all started with The Yardbirds, who exploded on to London’s R&B scene in 1963. Captured in the heat of the moment on 1964’s Five Live Yardbirds, the guitarist, born in Ripley, Surrey in 1945, screamed potential as he unleashed fire and skill on what the group called rave-ups – that’s experimental instrumental passages inspired by jazz improv.
After the band went pop with their third single, 1965’s For Your Love, Clapton jumped ship to work with John Mayall. Ditching his Fender Telecaster and Vox AC30 for a 1960 Gibson Les Paul and Marshall, his distorted tone on 1966’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton ignited the British blues boom.
Post-Mayall, he formed Cream with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who reflected the changing times in their lysergic blues from 1967’s second album Disraeli Gears to 1969’s Goodbye. Clapton and Baker then worked together in Blind Faith alongside Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Family’s Ric Grech.
Their 1969 self-titled album still divides opinion and even Clapton preferred the supergroup’s opening act, Delaney & Bonnie. After a stint playing live and in the studio with the pair, he co-wrote the majority of his first solo record, 1970’s Eric Clapton, with them which made the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic – the same year spawned Derek And The Dominoes’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, his masterwork. In 1974, 461 Ocean Boulevard, contained his sole number one solo single, Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff.
Highpoints in Slowhand’s subsequent back catalogue include 1992’s Unplugged, his biggest-selling album to date; 2000’s Riding With The King, with his hero B.B. King; and 2004’s Me And Mr Johnson, his heartfelt tribute to Robert Johnson.
He’s signalled every giant step forward from 1963 onwards, so reducing his catalogue down to just one essential album is near impossible. But, when push comes to shove, 1970’s Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, recorded under the name Derek And The Dominoes at Miami’s Criteria studios with producer Tom Dowd, is the one that captures Clapton at his very best. Driven by painful yearning for his friend George Harrison’s wife, Patti, Clapton is laid bare, revealing inner workings on a fine balance of candid songwriting and standards he makes his very own.
The group arose from the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, when Clapton teamed with co-writer/keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon and guitarist Duane Allman, who contributes one of the most remarkable intros ever on the title track. With the addition of Gordon’s threnodial piano coda, it’s the most stirring piece of music in the Clapton canon to date.
It’s also one of the most successful, placing in the UK and US Top 10 when released in 1972 as a single on the back of The History Of Eric Claptoncompilation. But the album’s more than just the record’s most famous track. Tell The Truth, the first song Clapton and Whitlock penned for the project, modelled on Sam and Dave’s churchy call and response, with the pair trading verses, points the direction for every down home blues-rock band since.
Bell Bottom Blues captures Clapton at his most urgent, with heart on sleeve. And then there are the tear-it-up covers Key To The Highway, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out and Have You Ever Loved A Woman? The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition from 1990 adds three discs of unissued tracks, alternate takes and studio jams.
This recording from West Hampstead’s Decca Studios, produced by Mike Vernon, captures the verve and excitement of their stage show and highlights Clapton’s transition from blues fan to blues-rock pioneer.
Future Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie and drummer Hughie Flint are behind him, at his side is Mayall, as Clapton imprints his personality onto Otis Rush’s All Your Love and Freddie King’s Hideaway and on Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, he gives us his first lead vocal.
The Yardbirds wowed audiences with their feverish live show captured at the Marquee in 1964 on this album, the perfect encapsulation not only of the five piece’s on-stage allure but of Clapton’s nascent innovation.
Displacing the Chicago jukejoint to a sweaty London club, they pin their allegiance to Windy City R&B, tearing through Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Eddie Boyd numbers with a fan-like commitment and determination. Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightningprovides the highpoint, and the ideal vehicle for their signature rave-up – an extended improv where guitar and blues harp do climactic battle.
Breaking free of the blues-rock straitjacket and heavily under the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Clapton produces some of his most memorable riffs, see Sunshine Of Your Love in particular, one of the album’s two singles written by Jack Bruce, Pete Brown – Bruce’s beat poet pal – and Clapton.
Cream’s 1967 second album and follow-up to the previous year’s Fresh Cream captures a group rooted in the blues but perfectly attuned with the times; Tales Of Brave Ulysses sees Clapton embrace the wah-wah pedal; Strange Brew is built on an Albert King riff.
The husband and wife team’s third album, 1970’s On Tour With Eric Clapton, is just that, the duo on the road backed by a stellar band including Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Leon Russell and Dave Mason. Capturing Clapton in transitional mindset, post-Blind Faith, pre-solo artist, its eight tracks reveal inner workings that come to fruition on his self-titled debut later that year.
Reissued in 2010, expanded to four CDs, the On Tour box set includes material culled from 1969 Royal Albert Hall and Croydon Fairfield Halls gigs.
After a three-year heroin addiction, Clapton returned with his second solo set in 1974. Recorded in Miami’s Criteria Studios with producer Tom Dowd, backing vocalists Yvonne Elliman and George Terry, and main influences JJ Cale and Bob Marley, it balanced blues with pop and reggae on his cover of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff, which helped introduce reggae to the international stage.
His reworkings of Robert Johnson’s Steady Rollin’ Man, the traditional Motherless Children and Elmore James’ I Can’t Hold Out stole the show.