Eric Clapton
Dignified 50th birthday

Let the God play
Way back in the ‘60s, when a wave of promising rock bands was developing in Czechoslovakia, I got my hands on a gramophone record containing a single by a Slovak band The Soulmen. I liked the single a lot and learned from back of the record’s cover that all the band members listened to The Beatles and Cream. Even then, The Beatles needed no introduction for me since I was already a fan but I was not very familiar with Cream. I eventually got a copy of the double album Wheels of Fire released by the Supraphon label which is how I learned of Eric Clapton. At the same time, cold-war Czechoslovakia was experiencing a short period of political, social, and cultural freedom (soon to be suppressed), allowing us to receive current news on Anglo-American scene, something I was as hungry for as an aspiring guitarist. The album took some getting used to but once acquired, the taste was wonderful and enduring thanks to Clapton’s contribution. The record features many great songs including the timeless hit White Room, the fascinating 17-minute cover of Willi Dixon’s Spoonful with Ginger Bakers groundbreaking drum solo, and last but not least, Crossroads.
The Wheels of Fire version of Crossroads was spot on for me with Clapton’s youthful, sincere vocals and improvised guitar solos. To this day, I believe this guitar work to be the foundation of more recent complex rock and jazz-rock guitar styles. Clapton’s playing artfully combines a balance of tension, color, energy, and melody.
It was through Wheels of Fire that I joined the seemingly endless ranks of Clapton fans.
Through my older friends I was exposed to Clapton’s remarkable earlier work with John Mayall and Bluesbreakers. Still in his early twenties, Clapton was already beginning to define the evolution of blues and rock.
The 60’s were peculiar and volatile times, especially in England. One might envy those who were there at the time when people were painting graffiti the likes of „Clapton is God“. Calling a musician God indicates the power of musicians of this era and the passionate nature of their fan-base. I was told years later by an English friend of the unimaginable excitement of attending Eric Clapton concerts in Marquee Club those days.

A young boy touching Heaven
Since most facts on this topic are today well known and accessible, we don’t need much history here, so let’s be brief: Eric Clapton was born on March 30 1945, shortly before the end of 2nd World War. His earliest influences included Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Freddie King, Robert Johnson, and B. B. King. These influences can still be heard in Clapton’s music today.
Clapton was born into a post-World War Two middle class English family. As he tells it, his grandmother paid for his first guitar. And Eric knew exactly what to ask for.


Eric had his first band, The Roosters, when he was 18 and a student at the Hollyfield Acadamy. He soon joined The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. This was Clapton‘s Fender Telecaster era. His sound and style did not really start to develop until he acquired a Gibson Les Paul and plugged it into his Marshall amp. It was around this time that the young Clapton was discovered by John Mayall and offered a gig he couldn’t refuse. It was with Mayall that the consistently solid, multidimensional qualities of his solos began to be noticed. His as yet undiscovered style brought audiences to the state of ecstasy resulting in the phrase „Clapton is God“ appearing on walls of ‘60s London. Clapton’s playing boosted him to the top of British and international guitarist polls along with his idol Jimi Hendrix. This was the era of the famous Variety show-like Cream guitar orgies. Eric Clapton was often asked about his sudden rise to popularity and becoming the world’s “greatest guitarist”. His responses included „Yes, I wanted to be the world’s greatest guitarist, everyone does at some point, but what does it mean? Upon a closer look, it doesn‘t really make sense...“ Great guitarists such as Jimmy Page have expressed their appreciation for Eric’s role in establishing the role of the Les Paul as Rock’s premier guitar. Clapton’s first Les Paul was stolen and he went on to try the Gibson SG, Les Paul 62, and the Gibson ES 335. At the end of the day, which of his guitars (eventually numbering in the hundreds) he played did not matter as much as the music.
After two busy years, Cream concluded its brief life span in Royal Albert Hall to overwhelming shouts of „God save The Cream“. Drummer Jon Hiseman (later of Colosseum), was in the crown and noted „I don’t think it’s humanly possible to do more...“.
The disbanding of Cream in 1968 was followed by the founding of Blind Faith, a short-lived endeavor which produced just one album of amazing music. Clapton was tired of the guitar arms race – the continuous competitions of stamina, speed, and complexity – often spawned by management rather than players. Upon hearing two American bands, The Band and The Allman Brothers Band, Clapton supposedly said „Okay, we wouldn’t be able to play like this even if we rehearsed twenty hours a day“, and Blind Faith was over.

The adult years
Clapton next played with the rhythm and blues duo Delany and Bonnie followed by his solo project Derek and The Dominos. H also did sessions work with fellow musicians including his friend George Harrison and with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
The Derek and The Dominos project produced the hit Layla, which was dedicated to Pattie Boyde, Harrison’s (and later Clapton’s) wife. Layla was beautifully crafted and played by Clapton and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.
Clapton did not consider himself a lead singer. His singing came out of the necessity of playing and performing the songs he wrote. It was Delany Bramlett from Delany and Bonnie who, upon hearing Eric‘s backing vocals, encouraged him to sing more. What followed was an unbelievable forty years during which Eric Clapton released twenty-one studio solo records with amazing lineups, as well as numerous live albums and videos, each selling millions.
Over the years Clapton naturally developed a talent for producing a unique musical feeling combined with an introverted expressiveness. His early ‘70s work reflected the more improvisational styles characteristic of Cream while his later recordings are more melodic and with attention to details. During the following decade, Eric Clapton’s music continued to mature with albums like Behind the Sun and Journeyman. He admitted to struggling with alcohol and drug addiction which adversely affected his ability to perform and sing.
In the ‘80s, Clapton began incorporating electronic elements into his music with taste and without self-indulgence. His collaborations with Phil Collins (who had been producing some of Clapton’s work) and Tina Turner speak to the quality of his music‘s evolution. One notable event during the 1980s is Clapton‘s 1985 Live AID performance with Phil Collins on drums.
There are few musicians who are accomplished on so many levels, from electric to traditional acoustic blues, to pop-rock and pop, to lyrically simple songs that range from humorous to melancholic. That’s Eric Clapton for you, impossible to label. This diversity of material and experience gives Clapton plenty of momentum going into the ‘90s.
For those wanting to experience his musical and emotional range I recommend the 1991 live album 24 Nights. It shows Clapton’s versatility with a sort of a Classic Blues meets colorful melodies with a symphony orchestra, all with some nice “shredding“ by a guy referred to a “Slow Hand“.
Where did the nickname “Slow Hand“ originate? Though well known as a searing lead guitarist since the Cream years, especially live, it was long notes that defined his style and influenced fellow guitarists such as Carlos Santana. Quality was and is more important than quantity. With this mindset, he could leave competitive speed-playing to other musicians. For a good comparison of these stylistic contrasts, compare some of Clapton’s Cream work to his more melodic and deliberate solo in Forever Man.
Another notable contrast is comparing the 1994 electric blues album From the Cradle to 1998’s Pilgrim, which is far away removed from the roots of the ‘94 release and nowhere near as musically accessible. In 2000, Eric Clapton released Riding with the King, a collaboration with the legendary B. B. King. The music emanates positive energy and hope. Even the cover – with both musicians smiling from a cabrio limousine, Clapton at the wheel – evokes feelings of relaxation and tranquility. Eric Clapton has always believed himself to be a blues guitarist above all and tributes American bluesman Robert Johnson as his greatest influence. Johnson composed Clapton’s lifetime motto and festival namesake, Crossroads. Eric Clapton has always said that he is basically trying to apply Robert Johnson’s acoustic work to electric guitar. The two styles share some traits to which Clapton pays tribute on traditional blues recordings Me and Mr. Johnson, Sessions for Robert J., and Clapton. That said, Eric Clapton does much more than just emulate Johnson’s acoustic playing on electric guitar. He has been masterfully playing C.F. Martin acoustic guitars for a long time. The notes clearly identify the player.
One important moment, especially for musicians, was when Eric Clapton – originally a Gibson guy – switched to a Fender Stratocaster, playing it almost exclusively since. His most famous guitar was „Blackie“, which was based on a 1957 Strat and jury-rigged from multiple instruments. According to Clapton, he had a couple of these guitars which were inexpensive. The original Blackie was eventually sold in an auction along with other famous instruments, including Jimi Hendrix’s white Strat and the ’59 Les Paul owned by Peter Green and Gary Moore. One thing that made Clapton’s Fender attractive for collectors was a picture of Layla (Pattie Boyde) on back of the body.
Clapton’s transition from Gibson to Fender instruments was perhaps initiated by his admiration for Jimi Hendrix whom he had wanted to befriend but didn’t manage to due to Hendrix’s premature death. Clapton admired Jimi’s ability to express his emotions and angst while in a meditative mindset. Clapton admitted that he would never match or even comprehend Hendrix’s playing abilities.
After a quick retrospective, we arrive at the 50th anniversary of the start of Eric Clapton‘s professional musical career. And what better way to celebrate something like this than a large dose of great music. With this in mind, Clapton sets off on a Euro-American tour starting March 14 in Phoenix, Arizona and finishing June 19 in O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic.

Truly magnificent 50th anniversary
Having, according to the record, played only three live shows in 2012, Eric Clapton’s return to the live stage was welcomed by many fans. His shows have always been in-demand and we had to get our tickets almost six months in advance. For me, the biggest attraction was the Royal Albert Hall show. This famous, Coliseum-inspired venue built in honor of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and opened in 1871. The venue has a unique atmosphere and ability to surround (but not drown) you with history, as if inviting you to experience something majestic.
Eric Clapton concerts certainly fit this description. The Royal Albert hall has long been his London home venue having hosted over 200 of his shows including the 1968 Cream farewell show and numerous shows with famous bandmates like Stevie Winwood and Jeff Beck. In May 2013, Clapton played seven shows in Albert Hall with every one a sell out. We were lucky enough to get some of the last tickets. On May 21, we arrived in Kensington gardens, home to the beautiful Prince Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences. The atmosphere was ceremonial with minimal security as mostly middle-aged visitors were politely guided to their seats.


Clapton likes to acknowledge younger colleagues who have the right vibe by inviting interesting, blues-related artists to open his shows. Austin, Texas fusion-blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr was the opening act for tis show. In early ’80s, another Austin musician, Stevie Ray Vaughan, was among his favorites.
Gary Clarke‘s performance had the right pace and the band was a perfect opener for the show. At 9 PM, after the stage has been rebuilt, the 50th anniversary honoree and his band took to the stage and were enthusiastically greeted by the audience. Sporting jeans and a T-shirt, Clapton came off as a regular guy with no pomp and circumstance. He opened the show with his Martin playing Hello Old friend, a great piece from the album No Reason to Cry. This song captivated me years ago when I first heard it .The song flows like a river with its gently weeping steel guitar, female backing vocals, and erotic overtones blending with Clapton’s slightly weary voice.
Before the applause subsided, the band launched into My Father´s Eyes.
The pace then picked up as Clapton switches from Acoustic to his Strat to play Tell Me the Truth from the Derek and the Dominos era. There are two versions of the song of which I prefer the faster version. To top it off, Eric included some Duane Allman-like slide guitar in his well-arranged, powerful solo. The concert line-up consisted of Willie Weeks on bass, Steve Jordan on drums, Greg Leisz on pedal slide guitar, Clapton’s long-time bandmate Chris Stainton on piano and synthesizer, Paul Carrack on Hammond organ, keyboards, and vocals, and Doyle Bramhall II on guitar and vocals. This ensemble was backed up by soulful vocals delivered by Michelle John and Shar White. While not a fan of female vocals in rock, Clapton, like his fellow Englishman Joe Cocker, does it well. Doyle Bramhall, who has been with Clapton for a long time, brought an element of Duane Allman’s playing to the show. Clapton has always valued the influence of and his relationship with Allman Brothers Band, most recently by having young Derek Trucks (the son of Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks) as a guitarist on his 2005 tour.
During Tell Me the Truth, Clapton pleased fans with two great solos reminiscent of the Cream era.
The next song, a Duane Allman-esque Gotta Get Over Play from Clapton’s last album Old Sock, kept the heat turned up. The song is greatly improved live, a rich guitar driven figurative theme blending Clapton’s voice with the Hammond and backup singers.
The next song, a boogie called My Woman Got a Black Cat Bone treated us to a nice guitar exchange between Clapton and Bramhall.
Next was my favorite Got to Get Better in a Little While. I have loved this Derek and The Dominos piece since the ’70s for its very lively music and lyrics, not to mention the wah-wah guitar reminiscent ofWhite Room.
Then came a lingering yet earnest cover of Harold Arlen‘s Come Rain or Come Shine, with an Eric Clapton-Paul Carrack vocal duo. Carrack is a singing organist to my liking, almost as good as Greg Allman. As Delany Bramlett pointed out years ago, it would be a shame if Eric Clapton didn’t sing. At 68, Clapton is in amazing shape.
The applause gets stronger with the first notes of Badge. There is nothing more to say about this Cream classic written by Clapton and Harrison. I was a bit disappointed when Eric next switched gears for an acoustic set which I thought a bit long. However, we came to see Eric on his terms, not ours. The acoustic songs included Driftin´Blues, Nobody Knows You When You´re Down and Out , It Ain´t Easy (To Love Somebody) and the well-known unplugged version of Layla. I would have preferred the electric version of Layla. I have seen Clapton several times and always had the fortune to hear the original version, so I can „forgive“ him for not being so generous this time around.
The acoustic set ended with the emotional, organ-driven hit, Wonderful Tonight. Being a love song, it left me wanting more action.
Then, as if heeding my desires, an assistant brought Eric his Stratocaster, followed immediately by the first notes of Blues Power, a song that has been with Clapton for a long time. To my satisfaction, this song got everyone back in the electric groove. I don’t mind acoustic guitars, but it was Clapton’s electric guitar that first mesmerized me years ago and on which my admiration is based.
Then it was time for Robert Johnson‘s classic Love in Vain, made famous by The Rolling Stones. Clapton‘s version is more of a slow boogie which retains its beauty thanks to guitar parts. Speaking of Robert Johnson, it wouldn’t be a Clapton show without the magical Crossroads, with which I sing along and imagine playing guitar, as I have done countless times. I can’t imagine how many times and how many versions of this song Clapton has played over the years. This version has excellent pace. The song is joyfully delivered as Clapton and Bramhall exchange their guitar riffs while the backup singers sway wildly to the rhythm. Bramhall and Clapton’s styles blend perfectly.
Next is a pure blues song, the Robert Johnson tribute Little Queen of Spades, with each band member playing a solo to a delighted audience. This is along song but not at all boring thanks to the live interpretation, and the Clapton climactic finish.
At this point, the audience cheers wildly, with 100 minutes of the show having passed.
As the show’s summit kicks off with J. J. Cale’s Cocaine, Eric Clapton seems to be playing better than in the ‘70s. Back then, the song had more of an instinctive nature, but today‘s version is completely conscious and well executed with incredible drive. Words cannot do it justice. Hats off to pianist Chris Stainton on this song for the characteristic rhythm and his flawless solo, definitely the right man for the job. For the song’s finale, the entire hall filled with the audience singing the final „Cocaine!!!“.
The audience is in a frenzy as the band leaves the stage. It is obvious that they will not get away with it. When it seems the stage will collapse under the synchronized stomping of anxious fans, the band returns and continues with Sunshine of Your Love. This song produced the same wave of excitement in me that I experienced when I first saw Eric Clapton years ago. Gary Clark Junior, part of that evening’s opening act, joined the Clapton – Bramhall duo. Bramhall sang the vocals previously sung by Bruce in the Cream days.
Without letting the audience catch its breath, the band finished with High Time We Went. Dominated by the Hammond organ, the Joe Cocker cover, has a Stevie Winwood sound. The audience is highly energized and the energy builds until the final chord following which the whole of the Albert Hall is flooded with joy as Clapton and his band receive a standing ovation.
With a thankful bow, the band leaves the stage for the final time. The next thing we know, the house lights go up and we depart unwillingly. London and The Royal Albert Hall in London have seen yet another blast of Eric Clapton. The 50th anniversary couldn’t have been better.
I planned to revisit this show in Prague in June so our son, also a big Eric Clapton fan, can share the experience. I have no problem attending repeat concerts of this honorable gentleman.
I am pleased to have seen Clapton in both The Royal Albert Hall and in Prague’s O2 Arena. Both shows made a big impression and left me wanting to quote a phrase reportedly tatooed on an Eric Clapton groupie „Eric Clapton was here“... When taking a trip London’s Thames river, the guide thanks the passengers and finishes with the traditional phrase „God save the Queen“. I will say, with a slight modification „God save Eric Clapton“.

Martin Koubek, July 7 2013
Translated by Martin Kmínek
Edited by Gary Beardmore