There is no doubt that guitarist Eric Clapton is a complex soul. As a long time admirer of the band Cream, my mental image of that band was colored by what they did on record and on stage. I was a 14 year-old drummer in training when Sunshine of Your Love (from their second album Disraeli Gears – released November 2, 1967) dominated AM radio. When my first band, The Twig, began playing paying gigs three years later, we gravitated to songs from that album and their first release, Fresh Cream (1966) because a) they were great songs and b) they were a power trio. As we were also a bass, guitar, and drum trio, their music translated wonderfully to what we were trying to do. I have read several of author Philip Norman’s books about rock stars in the past, so when I found a copy of Slowhand – The Life and Times of Eric Clapton (2018 – Little Brown Books), I could not resist picking it up.
Just as I cracked the cover, there were reports that Clapton had come down with COVID 19 even though he had been vaccinated. He had to cancel part of his tour out of concern for his band, crew, promoters, and fans (a pattern repeated by many artists as they tried to get back on the road). I could not quite figure out, however, why he then went on a tear spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines, complaining about lockdown measures, and then finally announcing he would not play at any venue that required attendees to show proof of vaccination. He even went as far as joining fellow musician Van Morrison in producing a series of songs protesting, “BS vaccines and pandemic safety measures.” I set the book aside for a long time and wondered if I really wanted to know much more about Eric Clapton’s views. If he could not see the big picture during a time that saw millions around the world die from COVID, then I really did not want to know more.
The pull of Norman’s writing eventually overcame my reservations and I found answers to a lot of my questions about what makes Clapton tick. We all make mistakes in life and with any luck at all, we learn from them. I learned Eric Clapton came from a tough upbringing where he was raised by his grandparents and spent his early life pretending his real mother was his sister. There is probably a PhD thesis in psychology bound up in that statement alone, but it must have affected Clapton deeply. I will leave it at that. I still respect the man’s music but I can not quite wrap my head around his inability to (for lack of a better phrase) ‘grow up’. If you want all the sordid details, the book will be living at the Ontonagon Township Library by the time you read this. Since Cream was one of my favorite bands (and still is), I thought I would focus on the period of Clapton’s career up through his association with that band. As you will see, what happened with Cream wasn’t all Clapton’s fault, but he surely was given more than one third of the blame for what transpired. We will pick up the story just as the blues began to overshadow trad jazz in England and just before the ‘Swinging London’ era began in earnest.
It all started quite innocently enough in 1962. Former jazz banjo-player Alexis Korner became enthralled with the blues. Having caught the ‘blues bug’, Korner formed England’s first band truly dedicated to the genre, Blues Incorporated. The jazz clubs in London stiff-armed them, ignored their music, and labeled Korner a ‘traitor’. Never one to give up easily, he still managed to find a regular gig at a new club located below an ABC bakery in Ealing. It was at this Ealing club that two friends from Dartford, Kent joined the throng who would assemble to hear this new, remarkable music. Keith Richard and Mick Jagger were struggling to form a band they first called ‘Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys’ when they met Brian Jones at the same club. It was Jones who broadened their understanding of the blues, eventually joining them in a little band that would become known as The Rolling Stones.
Eric Clapton spent many hours in the audience studying the technique of whichever guitarist happened to be in Blues Incorporated at the time. The membership was, as Norman labels it, “fluid” and over time included, “A pink-faced blond beanpole known as Long John Baldry; an Oxford University undergraduate named Paul Pond (later Paul Jones of Manfred Mann); a former child skiffler named Jimmy Page, later of Led Zeppelin; a diminutive Scot who played upright bass named Jack Bruce, and an unruly red-haired drummer named Ginger Baker.” Clapton couldn’t know at the time he would eventually team up with this powerhouse Bruce / Baker rhythm section much later.
As the first outbreaks of Beatlemania began in the winter of 1962-63, Clapton would find himself joining some like-minded blues fans in a band called The Roosters. As The Beatles rose up the record charts with Please Please Me, the Roosters huddled around one small amp trying to find their own sound. They wanted to separate themselves completely from the ‘mindless commercial pop’ that was inducing female fans into hysterical gyrations. Though they were huge R&B fans themselves, The Beatles’ songwriting took their music in a different direction, soon to be followed by other pop bands who wanted a share of the screaming and adulation. Even though London’s Marquee Club wasn’t into the blues scene, something about The Beatles’ success turned the club away from pop music. The plethora of bands performing cookie cutter music patterned after the Fab Four began a sort of counter revolution. The marching music of this revolution was deeply rooted in the one truly American musical art-form called ‘the blues’. When the Marquee began booking blues artists like John Mayall and Graham Bond, fans of this growing musical movement followed. Interestingly enough, Bond was the former keyboard player in Blues Incorporated and his new band, the Graham Bond Organization, included the aforementioned Bruce and Baker.
Jagger seemed to have embraced the movement to preserve and spread blues music. He and Clapton became good enough friends that during one of the solo troubadour shows Eric was performing outside of The Roosters, Mick lent him his personal microphone for the gig. The mic Mick carried around in his back pocket did not include a stand and when Clapton got to the club, he found they didn’t have one either. Undaunted, he stacked two chairs and taped the mic to them. The Roosters advertised themselves in Melody Maker with the slogan ‘Can’t Be Beat’, yet they only played about a dozen gigs during their short time together between early spring and summer. Fellow Rooster Tom McGuinness recalled their time together fondly for Norman: “Looking back, it all seems incredibly innocent. We didn’t take drugs. We hardly drank. The greatest self-indulgence I can remember is a dough-nut eating contest Eric and I once had on Brighton pier.”
McGuinness and Clapton garnered enough attention in The Roosters to be offered a job in a professional band called Casey Jones and the Engineers. Norman’s explanation of how their tenure ended with that band is an eerie fore-shadowing of what was to come in Clapton’s career: “Though Eric liked Casey, and later said he gained much valuable experience with the Engineers, he soon developed the itchy feet he would be associated with during his career. The band was booked to appear at The Scene in London, but Eric failed to turn up and they never saw him again. McGuinness quit a day later, soon afterwards switching from guitar to playing bass in Manfred Mann.” The ‘itchy feet’ syndrome would repeat itself numerous times before Cream teamed up.
The next landing spot for Clapton was in The Yardbirds whom he joined in October of 1963. First off, he had to assume the debt to pay off the amplifier he inherited from the ‘Birds departed guitarist Top Topham. His grandparents-turned-parents needed to sign for the eighteen-year old Eric in order for him to sign the contract. Rose and Jack were fine with him turning professional, but in his mind, Jack figured it was only a matter of time before the boy came to his senses and returned to the trades. After all, when Eric was booted from Kingston Art College, he had shown great promise in Jack’s field, plastering and bricklaying (but just the same, the 20 pounds weekly wage Eric was earning with the Yardbirds impressed Jack). With a repertoire that included Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs, he was a bit nervous upon his debut, but a natural fit. The ‘Birds’ manager Giiorgio Gomelsky (who would eventually become Eric’s manager as well) kept them working at his string of CrawDaddy clubs almost every night. Gomelsky celebrated Eric’s signing by gifting him a red Fender Telecaster.
The Yardbirds were handed the opportunity to back Sonny Boy Williamson when he was imported to perform at Gomelsky’s clubs. This was actually ‘Sonny Boy II’ as the Sonny Boy who had pioneered blues harmonica back in the states and written the blues standard Good Moring Little Schoolgirl had been murdered in Chicago in 1948. The substitute Sonny Boy borrowed the original’s career and Gomelsky’s intent was to have the ‘Birds record a live album with ‘II’. Clapton learned an early lesson about dealing with the old guys when SBII pulled a pen knife on him when Eric inquired, “Isn’t your real name Rice Miller?” Gomelsky’s other contribution to Clapton lore was coining his nickname ‘Slowhand’. Over time it was turned into a compliment as people thought it had to do with his deliberate way of phrasing solos. In truth, Gomelsky dubbed him ‘Slow-handclapton’ because it took him forever to change a broken string, causing the audience to break into a slow handclap to show their impatience.
As the Beatles stormed the American shores in 1964, The Yardbirds found themselves being booked in a brutal, haphazard manner by their manager. The ‘Birds crossed paths with the Beatles when they were booked as part of the Fab Four’s Christmas Show giving Clapton an opportunity to get to know the shy Beatle, George Harrison. The ‘Birds’ record sales were modest and at the dawn of 1965, even groups who started up as blues bands began doing more ‘pop’ arrangements (like Manfred Mann (Do Wah Diddy Diddy), and The Animals (House of the Rising Sun)). According to bassist Paul Samewell-Smith, Clapton wasn’t the only one in the group who resisted their label’s attempts to get them to go the pop route: “None of us felt comfortable about being pushed towards becoming a pop group. We were all equally pissed off about it.” When pressed to suggest a song to get them on the charts, Clapton reluctantly offered up Hang On Sloopy. He was voted down by the rest of the band only to see it become a monster hit for Ohio’s own The McCoys a few months later.
Samwell-Smith overruled the rest of the ‘Birds’ ideas and chose a Graham Goulman (later of the seventies band 10cc) tune called For Your Love. The sessions were the beginning of the end for Clapton’s time as a Yardbird. Not only did he feel they were ‘selling out’ (from the blues), he had to watch another band sell out. As The Rolling Stones climbed the charts with the Jagger/Richards’ collaboration, The Last TIme, it put the writing on the wall for Eric. He made everyone else in the ‘Birds so miserable Gomelsky told him he was free to leave if he wanted to. Leave he did, and within a month, For Your Love hit No. 1 on the NME Top 30.
Adrift without art college or a band, the twenty year old Clapton went back to Rose and Jack’s home. While waiting for his next opportunity, he immersed himself in the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy until out of the blue, he was invited to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Joining in April of 1965 with no formal audition, Eric signed on for a weekly salary of 35 pounds. Managed by the tough Gunnell brothers (who ran a mobster-like empire that included clubs and band management), the Bluesbreakers set out on a schedule that made the Yardbirds’ feel like a part time job. Eric recalled, “If there had been eight nights a week, we would have played them with two shows on a Sunday.” Regardless of the grind, Clapton accepted his lot as he lived to perform. He had an immediate impact on the Bluebreakers’ sound. The press, on the other hand, could not let go of his past with headlines like ‘The Yardbird Who Got Left Behind’.
After a short sabbatical to travel to Greece with a throw-together group they called The Glands, Clapton returned to the Bluesbreakers only to leave again. Both times he left, Mayall replaced him with Peter Green, later of Fleetwood Mac fame. Returning from his first sojourn away from The Bluesbreakers, Eric found a new bassist in the band; Jack Bruce. Bruce had been fired from The Graham Bond Organization after Bond’s drug use incapacitated him to the point that drummer Ginger Baker took control of the band. The bad blood between the GBO’s rhythm section was legendary including fisticuffs and knife throwing. Bruce made his escape and joined the Bluesbreakers just before Clapton returned from Greece and displaced his replacement Green.
Armed with a Gibson Les Paul and a stack of the powerful new Marshall amplifiers, Clapton began playing in an aggressive style much like Freddie King. After Ginger Baker sat in for one number at a gig in Oxford, the red-haired drummer (whose wild driving was on par with his drumming style) gave Eric a lift home. On the drive, he confided he was tired of running the GBO after three years and wanted to start his own band. The discussion drifted to a Buddy Guy show Clapton had recently attended. Guy had put on a powerful show backed by just a drummer and a bass player. Baker nearly crashed the car when Eric told him he was all in for a go at being a power trio, but only if Jack Bruce was on bass. Bruce had already left Mayall’s band to play with Manfred Mann and it left Ginger with a predicament. How would Baker talk Bruce into working him after their acrimonious parting from the Graham Bond Organization?
When they met up, things went better than planned. Bruce and Clapton agreed to give the band a go, but only if Baker stopped using heroin. In his typical blunt take no prisoners manner, Baker was clean in a week and in June of 1966, they held their first acoustic-only rehearsal at Baker’s house. Tension immediately surfaced when Bruce and Clapton learned Baker had already leaked word of the new ‘supergroup’ to Melody Maker. Indeed, both Mann and Mayall learned about their band members moving on in print, not from them personally. Once they began to play, however, the angry glares exchanged between Baker and Bruce turned to smiles.
The band considered the name ‘Sweet ‘n’ Sour Rock ‘n’ Roll’ but wisely settled for ‘Cream’ because they viewed themselves as the ‘cream of the crop’ as musicians. Hooking up with manager Robert Stigwood (known later for branching out into film work like Saturday Night Fever), they began and intense period of creativity. Conflict between Bruce and Baker would eventually wear down Clapton who longed to make music closer to what Bob Dylan was recording with The Band. Cream played their Farewell shows at the Royal Albert Hall in November of 1968.
After Cream dissolved, Clapton found himself free to join Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett in a more low-key role. Eric would eventually ‘borrow’ the Bramlett’s band to record the Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Assorted Love Songs. In typical rock band fashion, rampant drug abuse would crash the group before a second album could be completed and Clapton was off following his ever changing muse (again). Cream would reunite for their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the first time they played together in twenty-five years. They would come together again for a series of celebrated shows (again at the Royal Albert Hall) in 2005. These would be their last concerts together. Future reunions will have to be in the after life as Bruce passed away in 2014 and Baker joined him in 2019.
Top Piece Video: NSU was one of the Cream tracks we covered in The Twig – this version was recorded at their reunion shows at Albert Hall in 2005