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Contemplating Clapton

August 24, 2017

Contemplating Clapton

        The big bag of free CDs (see my previous blog post) I received from my older brother last month included three Eric Clapton albums: “Slowhand,” “Journeyman” and “Clapton Chronicles.” So I spent some time last week listening to the English six-string wizard’s work.

        I’ve liked Clapton since his days with Cream — heard him with the Yardbirds before that, of course, but he wasn’t a household name then — but have never owned much of his solo work. He gets plenty of air/facetime on the sat radio stations I listen to, so I hear his stuff regularly.

        The only thing I had in my iTunes library, though, was a digitized version of his 1972 compilation “Eric Clapton at His Best.” But that mostly cribs from his Derek and the Dominos work and collaborations with Delany and Bonnie and Friends and Leon Russell.

        “Slowhand,” released five years later, was his fifth solo studio LP, so it’s pretty representative of Clapton early in his prime. The album includes three of his best known songs: “Cocaine,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Wonderful Tonight,” all Top 30 hits in the U.S., the second of the three a No. 3.

        “Cocaine,” although best known as a Clapton hit, was written by J.J. Cale, one of a couple of the late, under-appreciated rocker’s songs he covered. Clapton liked Cale’s work so well that the two collaborated on a Grammy-winning album, “The Road to Escondido.”

        “Slowhand,” though, also offers another song I really like, “The Core.” It was Clapton’s second-most successful album at the time, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard chart; “461 Ocean Boulevard” had been a No. 1 three years earlier, and 1994’s “From the Cradle” also was a chart-topper. Those three are among the 11 U.S. Top 10 LPs Clapton has recorded.

        (The title of “Slowhand” is also the guitarist’s nickname — one which seems odd, considering his ability to rapidly pick it. The origin, though, was the slow handclap that Yardbirds’ audiences would do while waiting for Clapton to change a broken guitar string.)

        “Journeyman,” a 1989 release, didn’t quite have that kind of success, peaking at No. 16. But two cuts from it, “Bad Love” and “Pretending,” topped the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and the former won Clapton a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal.

        His first release after straightening out from years of alcohol addiction, critics called it a return to form for Clapton. It’s purportedly one of the artist’s favorites among his own albums.

        I like “Pretending,” and “Running on Faith,” too. But the other songs haven’t gotten their hooks into me yet.

        The subtitle of “Clapton Chronicles,” “The Best of Eric Clapton,” seems like a bit of a stretch. The 1999 compilation includes “Bad Love,” “Pretending,” “Running on Faith,” “Tears in Heaven” and “Wonderful Tonight,” and an unplugged version of “Layla.” But the rest of the cuts don’t seem to make the cut.

        But listening to those albums brought me to the larger question of Clapton as a solo artist, and a creative force on his own. There’s a clip of an interview with him on Sirius XM’s Deep Tracks, during which he (paraphrasing here) says he doesn’t really need to write songs, and would be happy just playing in a cover band.

        Hearing that, I thought to myself, well, he doesn’t write that many songs, does he? Which isn’t exactly true; the list of songs written, or co-written, by Clapton runs to 125 or so titles, and includes some of the best-known numbers he’s performed, among them several from the Derek and the Dominos album.

        But most of those Assorted Love Songs were co-written with others: “Layla” with Jim Gordon, several others with Bobby Whitlock. He gets songwriting credit on a few of Cream’s recordings, but shares it with others, usually bassist Jack Bruce, who wrote a lot of the First Supergroup’s material; ex-Beatle George Harrison co-wrote “Badge.”

        “Bad Love” was co-written by blues dude Robert Cray. Delaney Bramlett got co-writing credit on a number of Clapton tunes.

        Interestingly, among the best of the Clapton-only songs are autobiographical: “Bell Bottom Blues” and “Wonderful Tonight,” which he wrote for Pattie Boyd, the wife he stole from Harrison; and “Tears in Heaven,” penned after the death of his son by the woman who took Boyd’s place.

        Early in Clapton’s career, other people were singing the songs: Keith Relf with the Yardbirds, John Mayall with the Bluesbreakers, Bruce with Cream, Steve Winwood with Traffic. He shared vocal duties with Whitlock on the Dominos album.

        But how good a vocalist is Clapton? I remember a discussion I had with a couple friends while listening first to Van Morrison, then Clapton. When I said the latter wasn’t much of a song stylist, my friends countered that neither was Morrison.

        But Van the Man has much more range than Slowhand, whose voice I find adenoidal and rather limited. But he does have that Grammy for a vocal, so what do I know?

        And, overall, it’s hard to argue with the impact that Clapton has had. The “Bad Love” honor was one of 18 Grammy Awards he has received, for one thing.

        Clapton was an electric six-string virtuoso for five seminal groups in blues and rock music: the Yardbirds, Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos. He ranks second among the all-time greatest guitarists on Rolling Stone magazine’s list, fourth on Gibson’s.

        Clapton is the only three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, going in as a solo artist and as a member of Cream and the Yardbirds. The bands he played in produced numerous gold and platinum albums, and his solo projects have sold millions of records and CDs — the live album “Unplugged” moved 10 million units alone.

        And he’s still doing it, in his mid-70s, as the title of his 20th solo studio album attests. “I Still Do,” released in mid-2016, reached No. 6 on the Billboard chart, his 11th Top 10 effort.

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