Collecting Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton has had a long career as a blues-rock guitarist and has lived a hard life, full of addictions and tragedies. His work offers the collector many opportunities, and in many different directions. As recently as 1997, for example, he made a pseudonymous appearance on an album by TDF, Retail Therapy, a techno-rock album on which he is credited only as “X-Sample.”
Clapton was born on March 30, 1945, in his grandparents’ home. He was the illegitimate offspring of Patricia Molly Clapton and a Canadian soldier named Edward Fryer, and was raised by his grandparents, who passed him off as their child and his mother’s younger brother. He did not learn the truth until he was 9.
As a boy, Clapton was excited by American blues and R&B music, and he was further inspired by the sight of Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Great Balls of Fire” on British TV. Although an art student (as so many British rockers of the 1960s were) with an intended career in stained-glass design, Clapton gave it up to play guitar at 17. Working daytime jobs as a manual laborer, he began playing in local blues bands at night.
1963 was the year in which Clapton’s career began to take off. In January he joined the London-based R&B band, The Roosters, with whom he played for nearly eight months. In August he played for two weeks (only seven actual gigs) with Casey Jones & The Engineers, a “Merseybeat” band. In October he replaced lead guitarist Tony “Top” Topham in The Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds (who took their name from the American southern black slang for chickens, which had led 25 years earlier to jazz-great Charlie Parker’s nickname, “Yardbird,” subsequently shortened to just “Bird”) had just succeeded the Rolling Stones with a residency at the Crawdaddy Club, and had a record contract. This was with the Columbia label, which released two albums in Britain featuring Clapton, Five Live Yardbirds in 1964 and Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds in 1965. Mercury issued the second album in the U.S.; Epic released the first album and an additional album on which Clapton plays, For Your Love, in the U.S.
There is little memorabilia from Clapton’s pre-Yardbirds stints, and not a lot from the Yardbirds either, but collectors will want the band’s early TV appearances, which include Ready Steady Go for April 22, 1964.
In March, 1965, Clapton left the Yardbirds, whom he felt were abandoning the blues for commercial viability. He would be replaced by Jimmy Page. In April Clapton joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a blues-purist’s group. Unfortunately, there is relatively little recorded documentation of this group with Clapton because Decca had just dropped the band. Two singles were recorded, “I’m Your Witchdoctor” b/w “Telephone Blues” for Immediate, and “Lonely Years” b/w “Bernard Jenkins” for Purdah, released in 1965 and 1966, respectively.
In 1966 Decca reconsidered and recorded Bluesbreakers, with Clapton. Celebrated as the first classic British blues album, it elevated Clapton to stardom. But Clapton had already taken a sojourn in Greece with something called the Greek Loon Band in the late summer of 1965, and his return to Mayall’s band lasted only through June of 1966, when he was sacked.
Clapton immediately formed Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce – the first of the “power trios” which would inspire generations of rockers to come. Cream offers many opportunities for collectors. Any items from Cream’s appearance on October 1, 1966, at the Regent Polytechnic are hot, since Jimi Hendrix joined the band that night for a version of “Killing Floor.” Video collectors will want copies of the band’s appearances on Ready Steady Go on November 4, 1966, Simon Dee Show on April 6, 1967, Our World on June 25, 1967, Twice a Fortnight on November 26, 1967, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on May 20, 1968. Cream released only four albums – Fresh Cream in 1966, Disraeli Gears in 1967, Wheels of Fire in 1968 and Goodbye in 1969. Wheels of Fire was a double-album, one LP recorded in the studio and one recorded live at the Fillmore West. Both LPs were also released as separate albums as well. And there have been a number of compilations, Best-Ofs, and live albums released after the fact.
Cream’s final performance was a farewell extravaganza at the Royal Albert Hall on November 26, 1968. Soon thereafter Clapton and Cream drummer Ginger Baker formed rock’s first “supergroup,” Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood (formerly in Traffic) and Ric Grech (formerly in Family). This band released only one album, Blind Faith, which went to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and after one tour of the U.S. the band split up.
The album exists in variantly-packaged editions. The gatefold sleeve originally featured (on the British edition) a nude photo of Baker’s 11-year-old daughter (from the waist up), holding a model airplane. It’s a charming picture, but it ran afoul of American sensibilities. The American edition was redesigned to use a band photo on the cover. The group’s first appearance was in Hyde Park on June 7, 1969, in a free concert before an estimated 100,000 people. The entire concert was filmed in color by Mike Mansfield, but most of it has never been shown, apparently because it was considered a lackluster performance.
The most important collectible, however, was Blind Faith’s first recording, an instrumental promotional single, pressed in an edition of only 500 copies, which was included in a package from Island Records to inform clients of their change of address. This never had a general release, but in 1992 Westwood One included it on a radio-only CD called Eric Clapton Rarities on Compact Disc, Vol. II, itself a now-sought-after collectible.
Unfortunately, at this point in his career Claption had become addicted to heroin, and he would begin the first of a series of reclusive “retirements” in which he attempted to cope with the problem – eventually kicking the habit with the help of electro-accupuncture, on the advice of Pete Townshend. Later he would endure the tragedy of losing a band in a helicopter crash, and losing his son (who fell from a Manhattan window to his death), and he would fight alcoholism.
But people still scribble “Clapton is God” on walls.