Over a 40-year career, Eric Clapton has carved out a reputation as one of the best guitarists in history, all the while becoming a staunch advocate for the blues that inspired him. A three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a solo artist and as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream), Clapton first made his name in the ‘60s as a member or sideman of various groups. In the ‘70s, he carved out a solo career that, by the ‘80s, saw him as a by-the-numbers album rock artist. In the ‘90s, the huge success of his Unplugged album gave him the clout to undertake more blues-oriented projects even as he made continued to make albums that catered more to his newly acquired adult contemporary audience.
Clapton first rose to acclaim with British blues-rock group the Yardbirds from 1963-65. Upset with the overly-commercial For Your Love, he left the group, replaced by Jeff Beck and later Jimmy Page, both of whom have also been extremely influential guitarists.
John Mayall, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie:
He would record one album with British blues-rock guru John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers before forming Cream with bassist Jack Bruce, who had also played with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and drummer Ginger Baker, who had worked with Bruce in the Graham Bond Organization. Cream has come to be known by some as rock’s first supergroup. In three short years, the group forged a reputation for their live shows.
Cream also proved a short-term home for Clapton as he and Baker went on to form the one-album project Blind Faith with Traffic alumni’s Steve Winwood and Rick Grech. While on tour with Blind Faith, Clapton befriended opening act Delaney & Bonnie and subsequently recorded with them as well.
By 1970, Clapton was finally ready to strike out on his own. With Delaney & Bonnie and others he worked with on that tour, he recorded his first solo album. That same year, he wandered right back out of the spotlight by putting together Derek & the Dominoes. The project paired him with famed blues-rock guitarist Duane Allman and the album Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums of all time.
Clapton drifted into a semi-retirement for the next few years, finally emerging to do the Rainbow Concert and release one of his strongest efforts, 461 Ocean Boulevard. He worked steadily for most of the ‘70s, churning out another classic in 1977 with Slowhand, an album so-named because of a nickname dating back to Clapton’s days with the Yardbirds.
During the eighties, Clapton had settled into a safe and secure album-oriented mode which garnered him plenty of airplay on such radio stations, but left fans feeling a bit nostalgic for days when his music mattered more.
Clapton saw a career resurgence in the ‘90s when he recorded an Unplugged session for MTV. The show was released as an album and went on to sell 10 million copies and win 1992’s Grammy for Album of the Year.
AC and the Blues
The Unplugged album had an ironic dual effect on Clapton’s future: it gave him clout to do projects more in tune with his blues roots and it pigeon-holed him as an adult contemporary artist.
In regards to the former, Clapton decided to record his first all-blues album. 1994’s From the Cradle became the best-selling blues album of all-time. By the turn of the century, he recorded a full album with blues legend B.B. King and, in 2004, did an entire album covering the songs of legendary blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson.
However, the rest of his ‘90s fare was fairly targeted at the older adult contemporary crowd who flocked in droves to some of the biggest pop hits of his career with songs like Tears in Heaven, the Unplugged version of Layla, and Change the World.
2006 saw a merger of the two sounds with Road to Escondido, an album recorded with J.J. Cale, a blues artist best known as the writer of songs like Cocaine and After Midnight, which Clapton made famous. However, the album managed to hang on to the AC crowd Clapton had built over the last decade and a half.