Rock Musicians Recall ‘The First Time I Heard Eric Clapton’

Frank MastropoloCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

Eric Clapton is one of the most skilled and creative guitarists of his generation. For more than 50 years “Slowhand” has brought his brand of blues and rock to bands that include the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and Derek and the Dominos.

Clapton’s 1963-1965 stint with the Yardbirds came to an end with the release of “For Your Love.” Clapton, a blues purist, had no interest in recording three-minute pop hits. Clapton joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for the album Blues Breakers, popularly known as The Beano Album because its cover shows Clapton reading a Beano comic book. Mayall, the Godfather of British blues, had a surprising reaction to first hearing Eric Clapton.

John Mayall: The Yardbirds were quite prominent, playing many of the same clubs that we did in their early days. So I did hear Eric on a few occasions.

Regarding his playing, I can’t say that I was all that impressed at the time as he wasn’t given too much solo space and seemed to be just finding his way, fitting in, while the main focus was on Keith Relf’s vocals.

However by the time he quit them due to the nature of their hit single “For Your Love” and their obvious direction into a more pop style, he had made great strides into a blues style.

Greg Kihn (Greg Kihn Band): If you were a big Yardbirds fan, you were always trying to figure out what Jeff Beck was doing and what Jimmy Page was doing but I think there was something always a cut above with Eric Clapton. He just had that added dimension, I can’t identify it but it was that added dimension that really made it great.

John Mayall: The Yardbirds track “Got to Hurry” was the B-side of their single. As soon as I heard this guitar instrumental, I was so blown away by the progress he’d made in his last six months with them that I recognized him as a powerful and moving blues guitarist and someone that I had to have in my band at all costs. He was rather disheartened at the London club scene, but when I offered him the chance to join the Bluesbreakers and have the freedom to express himself, it didn’t take me too long to convince him to join my band.

Laurence Juber (Paul McCartney and Wings): I had been listening to the Stones and through them I discovered Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I was 15 years old and already set on being a studio guitarist, so I was equally into classical and jazz guitar, as well as rock and folk. I can’t say that I was deep into the blues, but it was a big part of the musical fabric of that period.

The first time I heard Eric was on the 1966 Bluesbreakers album, which was released a few months before Cream debuted, during that “Clapton is God” period. I was enraptured by his guitar playing on that album. His tone blew me away – it still does.  Not just the notes, but the sound that he was getting.

That really was a watershed moment for me as an electric guitar player. He delivered this incredible and definitive blues-rock lead guitar sound that encapsulated all of the Chicago blues tones, but in a very English way, and with a clarity and voice that was extremely distinctive. Nobody made a sound quite like that.

But that Blues Breakers album is, by any estimation, one of the definitive guitar recordings.  That record spawned a host of “forensic guitarologists” trying to figure exactly the right combination of Les Paul treble boost, Marshall amplifier, to get that specific sound, because it’s just so classic. It’s canonical.

Greg Kihn: I was aware of Eric Clapton right after he quit the Yardbirds and he was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And that Beano album, I got it for Christmas, I made my mother buy me that album for Christmas one year and it was one of my favorite albums of all time. It was a great, great album. That was the one where he does the incredible solo on “Have You Heard.” It was like he discovered the secret B.B. King gene in the back of his brain and he was just turning it on for the first time.

Martin Barre (Jethro Tull): Everybody bought their albums. Fresh Cream was the groundbreaking album, especially for guitar players. He was obviously playing a representation of Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King but putting it into a rock texture. So it was a very exciting thing to listen to.

He was reinventing the blues, playing it loud and getting huge amounts of sustain and every guitar player, certainly in England, wanted to know how he did it, what he was doing. So obviously he was a very important player and I can remember waiting so long for Disraeli Gears to come out. It was the event of the year. I remember waiting months and months and finally it was released and everybody ran out and bought a copy, and it was another groundbreaking album. The sounds, the texture, the richness of the tone that he was getting.

Everybody’s listening to the same thing but we’re analyzing it. Particularly in the early days, nobody knew how to produce those sounds. Everybody wanted to know exactly what amp, what guitar, what strings, how loud, what were the settings. Everybody wanted every bit of information they could possibly get.

I think the end result was the same, everybody was enjoying the music and the way he played and the sound he produced, particularly musicians who wanted to delve a little bit deeper.

Greg Kihn: Before the British Invasion, a lot of those guys were learning how to play guitar because solo lead guitar had not been invented yet. It was still kind of a Chuck Berry, a little George Harrison-y stuff, the little bits of guitar work but they weren’t solos. They were just little things. Clapton was the first guy to really step out and of course we discovered it because it was oh, that’s what B.B. King’s been doing all these years. But finally when Eric Clapton discovered how to play like Freddie King, boom, everything changed. And the electric guitar as we know it had been invented.

Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad): The guitar player in my first band that I was with, Mojo and the Nightwalkers, Curtis Johnson, had heard about Cream and he purchased the Fresh Cream LP. And we went out to his place and listened to it. And we fell in love with the sound, the tone and the nature of Clapton’s guitar. For a three-piece, they were soundin’ good, especially with Ginger Baker on the drums, flashin’, still holding down a good rhythm but somewhat flashing out where he could. It was a nice, very welcome change to what we’d been listening to.

Laurence Juber: Eventually, as Eric Clapton became a solo artist, he went in a different direction with his playing, trading the Gibson for a Fender. The sonic focus changed.

Also his vocals became more important. He didn’t sing a lot to begin with: John Mayall was doing the lead vocals there and with Cream, it was mostly Jack Bruce, but Eric certainly chose his moments. One of the biggest Cream hits was “Crossroads,” which was Eric singing his homage to Robert Johnson.

Martin Barre: Probably a year after his name was being bandied around the London scene, we did a gig somewhere outside of London in a huge concert hall. We were on pretty well first or second. And they kicked us out the venue, probably because we were low down on the bill. It was long, long before Jethro Tull or any of those days.

And then Cream played. I had to sit outside in the van and you could just about hear sort of a whisper of Cream as they were playing. And of course it sounded amazing. That’s as close as I ever got.

Mark Farner: That first LP Fresh Cream had that tone. And then when Clapton changed his guitar tone it was completely different. It was so far away from Fresh Cream that I yearned for the character and the nature of that thing back in those days when it was more spontaneous and grooving, you know? That whole thing. Fresh Cream was a super nice groove. All the songs were good grooves.

Bobby Whitlock (Derek and the Dominos): The first time that Eric and I ever played together was when I went over to his house and we just started playing acoustic guitar together. When Eric was with us with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and he was one of our other friends, I didn’t get to play guitar with Delaney. He wouldn’t allow anybody else to play rhythm guitar with him. So I just had to sing.

Eric and I never really played together, just he and I, until I went over to his house. It was a week or something before we ever picked up the guitar. I knew that he was in that band called Cream and I didn’t listen to that music and I wasn’t impressed with that whole thing. I was not impressed with that. I come from a place with Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, man, William Bell, Albert King. So I wasn’t into the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, especially Cream. I’ve yet to this day listened to a Cream record.

Even when we were putting the Dominos together, Eric and I, we did some Cream songs, I think we did “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” but we had to because we didn’t have enough songs. That’s what got us to really writing our own songs. And every song we’d write that would be one we’d take out, that would give us room in our set list. The next thing you know, we’re doing only our songs.

He was a great player. The first thing we played together was “I Looked Away.” We didn’t sit down and start jamming, we went to work. He showed me his chord progression and the song just came. I worked on that all night long, went upstairs and took the guitar up there. I played all of his guitars. I had my own old Dobro but I played every guitar Eric Clapton had in his house.

Gary Wright: Eric played on the entire All Things Must Pass album. That’s the first time I met him. We were in the rhythm section together. With Phil Spector starting this big huge production in the beginning there was a different kind of sound, the tracks were three pianos, two basses, two drums all dumped in a whole bunch of reverb. But near the end of the recordings, the band actually started to get smaller. It was Jim Gordon on drums or Ringo, Klaus Voormann on bass or Carl Radle, and George and Eric with the guitars. And I played keyboards, sometimes Bobby Whitlock played organ. So that was it. So I got to actually play a lot with Eric. He was a great guitar player. One thing that impressed me, I never heard him ever make a mistake. It was really spot-on. His playing, the sound of his guitar, it was great.

Rusty Young (Poco): Poco opened for Eric Clapton in 1975. I was kind of walking on thin ice, waiting to see what would happen. Eric wasn’t around a whole lot and the guys in the band were but there was a lot of attitude and a lot of drugs. It was a very strange scene that Eric wasn’t a part of. I don’t know if he stayed away on purpose or not, but one of the thrills of my life is that he called us up on stage, me and Paul Cotton, to play “Little Wing.” I played what I used to call The Bear. It’s a steel guitar that you wear on a strap that these guys in Seattle had invented for me.

It was an 8-string steel guitar that you could carry around and play through a fuzz tone. Paul and I got to be on stage playing with Eric Clapton, which has got to be a highlight for anyone’s career.

He was a little like Leon Russell. Leon would give you the eye. You knew Leon was king of everything that’s happening on that stage. And Eric was a lot the same way. You could see it in his eyes. He was guiding things and overlooking it – he was like the school teacher that you don’t wanna get on the bad side of. He reminded me a lot of Leon Russell in that respect. He was large and in charge.

Laurence Juber: I did get to play with him briefly in early ‘81. That was at the old Air Studios at Oxford Circus in London. They had shown the Kampuchea concert on television the night before. Wings were in one studio and Eric was next door. And he had apparently seen the concert and invited me in to jam.

I sat there with my ’57 Stratocaster and jammed with Eric for about 20-30 minutes. Tom Dowd was producing and Albert Lee was there too. They were both major guitar heroes, so it was a bit intimidating. I’m not sure quite what he was looking for from me. I was maybe just there to kind of just get himself fired up, although it wasn’t a competitive situation by any means.

I don’t recall it being a particularly productive session. I don’t even remember what we played, just the fact that “Jeez, I’m in the studio with Eric Clapton.”

A very talented man, brilliant guitarist, terrific songwriter and a tireless artist. Really quite remarkable.

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