I'm not sure how I missed doing this in five and a half years of blogging, but I've failed to post anything about one of the musicians who played the biggest roles in my becoming a fan of the blues. I first heard Eric Clapton in the mid-70's when he had a hit on the radio with "I Shot The Sheriff." Now, back then I didn't know anything about Clapton, his music and history, and even the history of the song. The main thing I knew back then was that the Top 40 station that I was listening to played the song to death over a couple of months.
As time passed, I began to hear more of his music. A few years later, he had a hit with "Lay Down Sally," then "Wonderful Tonight" and "Cocaine." The latter song was on the jukebox at a local restaurant and somebody played it every day, several times a day, so if you were in the restaurant you heard the song. I really liked his music, it was sort of understated and there was some pretty cool guitar, but again, I didn't really dig deeper at the time.
I continued to listen to him, eventually buying a copy of his greatest hits from the 70's, where I got to hear a few songs that I was not that familiar with from his earlier career. One of them was "Layla," from his stint with Derek and the Dominos, which was just an amazing song to me. The other one was "After Midnight." Back in the early 80's, information was not available at the touch of a finger, so background info was pretty hard to come by, other than word of mouth, in my neck of the woods.
Over time, I picked up a couple of his albums, beginning with 1983's Money and Cigarettes. I really liked the single, "Rock & Roll Heart," that was being played on the radio at the time, but once I heard the whole album, some of the other songs really appealed to me even more than the single, such as the opener, "Everybody Ought To Make A Change." That song was written many years before by Sleepy John Estes. I didn't know who he was, but I really liked the words and I liked the guitar (I later found out that it was a joint effort from Clapton and Ry Cooder). The other song was "Crosscut Saw."
At the time, I didn't know the whole "Layla" backstory or even who was playing on the album with Clapton. I just knew that it was an incredible set of music that was loaded with fire and passion. It was the fiercest music this 20-year-old had ever heard, almost cathartic in nature just to hear. I could only imagine how it must have been for the musicians who were recording it at the time.
A few years later, when I was finishing up college, my roommate, who was also a big Clapton fan, picked up an import album called Backtrackin'. This was a two-LP set that collected many of the high points of Clapton's then 20-year career, from his days with Cream up to the late 70's. I'd never heard any of Clapton's work with Cream and it was a real eye, and ear-opener.
By that time, I was looking at the authors of the songs Clapton was performing and some of the names I saw were Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Jimi Hendrix. I had heard of Robert Johnson in high school, when someone told me that he was a musician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for playing guitar better than anyone else, which sort of spooked me at the time. Hendrix I had discovered in high school while playing one of my uncle's old albums on my record player, which led me to some of his greatest hits collections.
As I was finishing up college, I found a biography of Clapton, by Ray Coleman. This filled in a lot of the gaps in my education. I learned about his love for the blues, his tenure with a couple of British blues bands (The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), then the tempestuous years with Cream and later Blind Faith, and the star-crossed Derek & the Dominos period. I also learned about his battles with heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, and his long unrequited love for his good friend's wife. That love was the entire inspiration for the Layla album, where Clapton took several songs written by other artists and completely made them his own. He had lived the lyrics himself and it showed.
While all of this was interesting, what intrigued me even more were the musicians who influenced him, particularly the blues musicians. Artists like Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B. King, and Otis Rush......these were names that I was familiar with, but I'd only heard the music of B.B. King. He wasn't just influenced by blues guitarist......there were others like Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, Bob Marley, Don Williams, and The Band, but by this time, based on what I heard and what I read, the blues was at the heart of everything Clapton played.
I decided to dig a bit deeper and check out some of the musicians that influenced him and their music, which was easier said than done. I had no idea where to start looking. It wasn't like any of my local record stores were even large enough to even have a blues section over two rows long and what was there was pretty limited. Plus, Clapton in the mid-80's was veering more toward pop music and his recordings were still good, and there was the occasional foray into the blues on each album, but not as compelling as the first ones I heard from him.
Other artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray were beginning to make a name for themselves in the blues field and I was really getting into them, as were a lot of other listeners. Around this time, some of the record labels, like MCA, Columbia, and Atlantic, began to release compilations from their blues artists. I was able to get into Chess Records and their artists, the vast Atlantic catalog which encompassed multiple labels, and the Columbia labels, which kept many of their blues albums in circulation over the years, via budget collections and reissues.
It was through these recordings that I discovered many of the artists that I heard about (via Clapton) and grew to love, such as Guy, Rush, Albert King, Junior Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, and Freddie King. This enabled me to really know what to look for. I found many albums by these artists, usually at budget prices, and my blues knowledge gradually expanded.
Meanwhile, a huge retrospective of Clapton's career, Crossroads, was issued in 1988. It was a box set consisting of four CDs of his best work, spanning his early days with the Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos, and his solo career up to that point. At the time, the box set was a fairly new concept......the only other one I can remember at that time was from Bob Dylan, but Crossroads became a major hit (spawning the box set craze over the last twenty-five years) and Clapton was discovered by many new fans and rediscovered by his older fans. One of the coolest things about Crossroads was the mix of familiar tunes with unreleased material (lots from the aborted second Derek & the Dominos album) and a lot of live tracks. There was a pretty big emphasis on the blues, which makes perfect sense because, as stated above, the blues influences everything that Clapton plays.
From Journeyman onward, Clapton primarily focused on the blues side of his music, with a live set (24 Nights) featuring Clapton with Guy and Cray, to a straight-up blues albums (From the Cradle) to a collaboration with B.B. King (Riding With The King), to a couple of tributes to Robert Johnson (Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J.). The blues enjoyed a huge resurgence for many different reasons, beginning in the late 80's/early 90's (the emergence of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the reissue of the Robert Johnson box set, etc....), but sometimes it's easy to forget that there were still a lot of artists plugging away at that time that never went away. Clapton may have lost his way creatively in the 80's, but he never went away and even on those 80's albums like Behind the Sun and August, the blues can still be heard and felt.
One thing I always liked about the way Clapton operated, especially after I discovered the blues, was the complete awe and reverence he held for many of the blues artists that influenced him, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, etc...... He always went out of his way to make sure that his listeners knew who influenced him and he took great pains to even bring them on stage to play with him. He still does that today with not only the older legends, but also the newer blues artists, many of whom he introduces to wider audiences via his regular Crossroads Guitar Festivals.
I've been listening to music for a long time, going back to when I was four or five years old when I listened to my uncle's Beatles records. Looking back over that time, my musical tastes have moved around quite a bit, as most music fans' do....in my case, from rock to R&B to funk to disco (yeah, like you didn't) to jazz to soul and finally to the blues. The blues is what I've been listening to, basically nonstop, since 1985 or so. Eric Clapton and his music is the main reason that I made that move to the blues and I'm sure many blues fans can say the same thing. I wasn't fortunate enough to grow up in an area where I had the opportunity to hear blues artists live on a regular basis and I didn't have access to a whole lot of blues recordings either, so Clapton's music, and his approach to the blues, was the driving force that led me to find out more about the music, and I owe him a big debt of gratitude for that. Thanks, Slowhand!