Eric Clapton

TrackAlbum
Have You Ever Loved A WomanLayla (Derek & The Dominos)
Presence Of The LordBlind Faith
Little WingLayla (Derek & The Dominos)
CocaineSlowhand
Can’'t Find My Way HomeE.C. Was Here
LaylaLayla (Derek & The Dominos)
Hard TimesJourneyman
Nobody Knows You When
You’'re Down And Out
Unplugged
Rocking ChairClapton
Heads In GeorgiaThe Road to Escondido

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Contributor: David Lewis

Eric Clapton needs no introduction among rock fans. One of the most influential guitarists of all time, he emerged from the British Blues Revival, first as ‘God’ with The Yardbirds, then in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then finally Cream. After this, he joined Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos. In 1972, he released 461 Ocean Boulevard. After a long period fighting various addictions, (all documented on the public record, and not for discussion here), he has settled pretty well into the role of elder statesman. He is, at his best, one of the finest guitarists. Critics point to his seeming predictability and complacency. They point to a long string of ‘average’ or ‘just better than average’ albums. Yet, this is a man who has managed to retain the respect and regard of his peers; a man who has consistently produced quality music over a period approaching half a century, and a man, who, at his best, is almost untouchable as a rock and blues guitarist. In fact, there’s a sense in which he is underrated as a guitarist … He’s also a very fine singer.

Selecting 10 songs out of such a long career was more arduous than the lists I have previously done. Why? Well, in all honesty, the quality is patchy. But even when you remove the chaff, keeping the list representative, and limiting it to 10 is pretty hard. I have excised Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers and Cream (all of whom deserve Toppermosts (if they don’t already have them). I’ve also excised the Roosters, Eric’s first band. You pedants may sit down now. This still leaves Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, (whose output doesn’t quite rate a full toppermost, at one album each – just go and buy both albums – you won’t be disappointed.) Then about 20 albums. He has collaborated with artists like J.J. Cale, B.B. King and Wynton Marsalis. And has done hundreds of guest spots. So, strapping the boots on, let’s start.

Have You Ever Loved A Woman. Derek and the Dominos. If you ever doubt Clapton couldn’t play the blues, start here. Passionate, precise, magnificent. Freddie King was a major influence on Clapton in his early days, and this King song shows Eric was far more than just a King impersonator. Fans drew the connection between events in his personal life and the song – quite possibly they were right. But all that aside, it’s a marvellous, marvellous take on the song.

Eric has a deep Christian faith, apparently. Presence Of The Lord, performed by Blind Faith, is a gorgeous example of how to do gospel. And halfway through, a stomping hard rock riff.

Little Wing. Derek and the Dominos again. The band finds the majesty of the song. This is not Hendrix’s nurturing figure, but a regal warrior queen, deserving of our adulation. A note for note copy of Hendrix’s solo is actually an inspired choice.

When Eric finally went solo, he surrounded himself with crack musicians. He also found, often, great songs. With J.J. Cale, he found a songwriter who suited his style and his voice. While many point to the superb After Midnight, I’m putting on Cocaine, because I KNOW many of our guitar playing readers had this riff among one of the first they learned.

The gorgeous shared lead between Yvonne Elliman and Eric on the E.C. Was Here live album make Can’t Find My Way Home an irresistible choice. Strengthened by some very tasty playing, I actually prefer this version to the original.

The elephant in the room is Layla. It’s too good not to go in, though of course it’s his best known song. So good, in fact, that even when Eric perpetrated the acoustic slowed down version, it didn’t detract from the original. Duane Allman’s guitar over the piano coda is the perfect ending.

From his excellent Journeyman album, which saw me consider Bad Love and No Alibis for this list, I’ve picked Eric’s take on Ray Charles’s Hard Times. Just exactly right. And Ray Charles is, of course, not easy to cover.

Eric’s Unplugged album is one of the few of that series that lasted. Despite the presence of the travesty that is Layla, and a song that, given its circumstances, is beyond criticism (Tears In Heaven), it is a terrific album. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out is a masterpiece. Popularised by Bessie Smith, covered by Big Bill Broonzy (another early influence of Eric’s – he also covered Key To The Highway), this isn’t quite the definitive version, but it comes really close.

With Wynton Marsalis, Eric changed direction, just for a bit. Their version of the old Hoagy Carmichael number, Rocking Chair, is sublime. Eric looks remarkably comfortable with a Gibson semi-electric, having used a Stratocaster for most of his career.

Last but not least, The Road To Escondido saw Eric teaming up again with J.J. Cale. An album with deep, yet satisfying grooves, I could pick any of the tracks, but I’m going to pick, almost at random, Heads In Georgia.

It’s easy to criticise Eric Clapton on a superficial level. His is a legacy that will outlast his critics. The young hotshot may well have become the elder statesman, and he may well make safer choices in his 60s than when he was in his 20s, but who doesn’t? He can still fire when he wants to, and his place in music history is secure and unchallenged.

Eric Clapton official site

Where’s Eric! The Eric Clapton Fan Club Magazine

Eric Clapton biography (iTunes)

See Toppermost #163 for Eric Clapton with Cream and Toppermost #612 for The Yardbirds.

TopperPost #189

11 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Feb 6, 2014

    I seem to be first to comment every day this week, but it has been a run of major favourites! I enjoyed the list and article, and it’s a slightly different angle to my favourites. I think Eric is an under-rated melodic singer-songwriter, maybe because his own compositions are quite thinly spread over a large output. That other elephant in the room with Layla is Wonderful Tonight from 1977, and it’s been much used for teaching English as a Foreign Language, and I found that the melody and lyrics had a universal appeal. Not much has.

    I’m a 461 Ocean Boulevard fan, so Let It Grow, as his song, stands above the covers. Then I’d go for the album (no reason to cry), recorded at The Band’s Shangri-La studios. All Our Past Times, written by Rick Danko, reappears on The Complete Last Waltz live, and Beautiful Thing is a Manuel-Danko song, with Sign Language as a rare Dylan, done together. His own songs Hello Old Friend, Innocent Times and Black Summer Rain are all memorable on a fine album.

    He’s a good collaborator. He has tried for years with Robbie Robertson off and on (apart from the guitar duel on Further On Up The Road in “The Last Waltz”), and Won’t Be Back, Fear of Falling and Madame X all appear on Robbie’s How To Be Clairvoyant (2011). Fear of Falling is the outstanding one for me. But the one I’d have to have is from 2013. Angel from ‘Old Sock’ was one of my favourite songs of last year. So I could find fair list of songwriter Eric Clapton, if you like “Eric: The non-blues list.”

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Feb 6, 2014

    I seem to be Peter’s number 2 this week. Another great essay from David and I’ll not challenge the list except I may have taken Presence Of The Lord from the Rainbow Concert album. If tracks from Riding With The King (recorded with BB King) are allowed then Three O’clock Blues has to be there – in favour of what, I don’t know.

    Legend has it that on the Layla album, Key to the Highway started as an unrecorded jam and it was only when the recording engineer realised what was happening that the record button was hit, which is why it fades in.

  3. Rob Millis
    Feb 6, 2014

    You know, it is a toughie to stand up for EC these days, because he HAS done an awful lot of near-middle of the road dross, and his better stuff – if you have played in bands, at least – becomes over familiar and easily seems hackneyed, or too easily defaulted to.

    But I won’t hear him rubbished without a good argument, and have always said to those who considered him a sell out. “I totally agree. We really need another TWO Jeff Becks, making increasingly inaccessible records for only guitar students to understand, let alone purchase. Or maybe two Jimmy Pages, each one seemingly adrift since cut loose from a sizeable band of note, putting out sporadic releases of varying quality and never seeming settled.”

    As my taste shifted away from riffy British rock towards Americana in my twenties, I found that I got the same enjoyment from an awful lot of the Layla LP as I did from, say, The Band. A big influence on it, for sure – definitely that wall of Marshall amps and guitar onslaught that was Cream (and which Blind Faith descended into unwittingly if you’ve heard live bootlegs) was gone and the sense of composition, and in turn of melodic accompaniment, came to the fore at the expense of guitar virtuosity.

    I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, It’s Too Late…would all be on my Topper Ten, along with Bottle of Red Wine, Blues Power slightly before, and I’d probably fill the rest up with 461-era stuff (Mainline Florida would be there) and leave a space for something from No Reason To Cry, an album not generally rated by EC diehards, but the sheer Band presence is enough for me.

    Great article – not an easy task given on one hand the amount of dross, but on the other a still sizeable catalogue riddled with too much choice to make 10 selections easy. Glad to see There’s One In Every Crowd was shunned though (shudders).

    You ought to have placated Peter with a single though. I’d pick the impossibly rare and withdrawn 45 of Roll It Over, featuring an embryonic Dominos with Dave Mason and George Harrison on board!

  4. Richard Bleksley
    Feb 7, 2014

    As for EC’s predictability, a few years back my son, a guitarist himself, while watching the Cream reunion DVD with me, commented ‘He’s not bad playing rhythm, but when he solos it sounds like he’s playing straight from the book of guitar breaks by numbers.’

    I replied ‘That’s because he wrote the book.’

    QED, I think.

  5. David Lewis
    Feb 7, 2014

    Thank you all for your appreciation. Some of the ‘near misses’ – this toppermost went, unusually for me, into a fourth and fifth draft, included, in no particular order:

    Riding With the King: with B B KIng.

    It’s in the way that you use it: A Robbie Robertson song, even when produced in that Phil Collins style in which everything sounds like Phil Collins, is still a Robbie Robertson song. And it’s a good performance. And representative of Eric’s ‘Phil Collins’ period

    Wonderful Tonight: Peter’s regard for the song, had I known or remembered, probably would have nudged it in. But when I was considering it, I could feel the arched eyebrow of Rob Millis… perhaps unfairly to Rob.

    Blues Power: I love this song: yes, it’s a choogler, but the live version I used to have on a greatest hits compilation on cassette was a killer. there was a great version of ‘Further on up the Road’ with Albert Lee on the same compilation.

    Peter makes a fine point on Eric’s songwriting. He is no slouch and that is a fine list, and one that could be used to show how good Clapton is as a composer.

    And Ian is right about the Rainbow Concert album: I went with the recorded track ultimately, as it’s a little more accessible to the new listener’s ear, but the Rainbow Concert is, at least to me, an underrated live album.

  6. Peter Viney
    Feb 7, 2014

    I’d forgotten It’s In The Way That You Use It. Definitely.

    If you’re looking for singles, Rob, stick to the stuff on Purdah with John Mayall. Only 500 copies were pressed.

    But Layla was a hit single three times. Now we’ve owned up to loving Wonderful Tonight, I have the courage to propose Tears in Heaven too. I’d class Presence of The Lord as a “virtual single” as the lead track on a best-selling #1 album, though personally I’ve played Well All Right a lot more.

  7. Rob Millis
    Feb 7, 2014

    David, the arched eyebrow is reserved for Peter who said “we” rather than “some of us”….

  8. Rob Millis
    Feb 7, 2014

    I played the opener Had To Cry Today a lot, and that has the virtual single trick of being a first album, first cut selection. I think there is as much of a case for Can’t Find My Way Home being the lead track though based on its popularity.

    A funny band Blind Faith. What started out as being a post-Big Pink rethink and antidote to Cream went awry somewhere along the line. You wonder if Jim Capaldi might have been a better choice on drums for the original vision to have endured.

  9. David Lewis
    Feb 9, 2014

    Eric, I think, always regretted Ginger muscling his way in to Blind Faith. Wasn’t it Jim Capaldi who Eric cited as his all time favourite drummer to work with?

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Feb 10, 2014

      I remember reading a couple places, during a Jack Bruce phase about 20 years back, that Bruce really took offense to Blind Faith as he felt the three of them had a handshake agreement not to work with each other unless all three men were present. And then all of a sudden Eric and Ginger were in a group together.

      It is hard to appreciate Eric at this point for, as someone said, there has been such mediocrity over the years. I do find it telling though that half of your choices arent really EC solo but in a group or duo context, I think that is somehow telling.

  10. Peter Viney
    Mar 7, 2014

    I doubt it would make the list, but there’s an extra version of Eric Clapton doing “Don’t Think Twice” on the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert remaster, out this week. It’s the afternoon rehearsal, and it has everything that most like: great singing, lovely guitar and of course the A-list backing band, G.E. Smith + Booker T and the MGs, with Jim Keltner and Anton Fig drumming.Listening again, I think it might make my ten. The evening one was always on there, but you can see why they chose this rehearsal take as a bonus track.

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