Before he had even picked up the instrument that would make him a legendary rock star, a multi-millionaire and one of the most influential musicians on the planet, Eric Clapton knew he wasn’t destined for ordinariness. ‘When I was about six or seven,’ he explains in his 2007 autobiography, ‘I knew that there was something different about me.’ By 1965, when he was just 20 years old, the writing was literally on the wall: his legion of loyal fans were scrawling ‘Clapton is God’ all over London.
It’s hard to believe that an introverted guitarist from the rural English county of Surrey could inspire such reverential graffiti in an era when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones ruled the airwaves, but his masterful command of a six string has helped him shift tens of millions of albums, while playing sell-out concerts all over the world for five decades.
Clapton has experimented with many musical styles throughout his career – most notably when he helped bring reggae music to the mainstream with his 1974 chart-topping version of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ – but it is his lifelong devotion to the blues that has galvanised his reputation. The son of a Canadian soldier found teenage inspiration in the likes of Buddy Guy and B.B. King, but no musician resonated through the grooves of the vinyl more than legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. ‘I had found the master, and following this man would be my life’s work,’ said Clapton, who would channel his hero as he became a guitar legend in his own right.
It was with ‘power trio’ Cream that Clapton enjoyed a meteoric rise in Europe and the USA, with pyschedelia-tinged hits such as ‘Sunshine of your Love’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Strange Brew’ boasting some of his most famous licks. On stage, Clapton was given ample opportunity to shine during extended improvised guitar solos, but often appeared shy and reticent to the fame that had befallen him by performing with his back to the crowd.
Despite four hugely successful albums and worldwide adoration, personal conflicts and frequent dalliances with illicit substances gave Cream a shelf life of just two years. Clapton hasn’t exactly dined out on the success of the band for the rest of his career, though – in fact, he’s been in more line-ups than many have had hot dinners. He was in the Yardbirds (whose former members included Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin guitar genius Jimmy Page), John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos, and has made guest appearances with The Beatles, Sting, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Santana, to name but a few.
After years of performing under various guises, Clapton finally ventured out as a solo artist in the ’70s. Showing no signs of slowing the prolific pace he set in the ’60s, he released six studio albums in that decade, including the multi-platinum ‘Slowhand’, the name of which is a reference to a nickname he was given in his early career – he would often painstakingly change guitar strings on stage, prompting slow clapping in the audience. Five more albums followed in the ’80s, along with a memorable performance at Live Aid, in which he made the rather wise decision not to change strings.
Despite having held real estate in people’s record collections for more than 30 years, Clapton had to wait until 1992 to enjoy his biggest commercial success. The recording of his MTV Unplugged session, which included a reworked version of ‘Layla’ and an emotive ‘Tears in Heaven’, sold more than 10 million copies in the USA alone, and remains among the biggest-selling albums of all time. In the year of its release, he
won six of the 17 Grammy Awards he has accumulated thus far, and a year later Cream were honoured with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The 65-year-old’s status as one of rock music’s all-time greats remains unfaltering. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine hailed him as the fourth greatest guitarist of all time – only Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Duane Allman (whose epic slide guitar kills can be heard on ‘Layla’) were considered better. The following year, he was appointed OBE by the Queen of England, and his sublime skills have since been introduced to a new generation of fans with the inclusion of ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ in the Guitar Hero video game franchise.
The graffiti alluding to Clapton’s deity status in London may have been long erased, but the career of one the greatest men ever to caress a fretboard has outlasted most of his ’60s contemporaries. If you have any interest in the guitar and the evolution of rock and roll, you owe it to yourself to pay ol’ Slowhand a visit when he hits Yas Island.
Eric Clapton plays Yas Arena in Abu Dhabi on February 11. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets Dhs250-Dhs650. www.timeouttickets.com.
Clapton’s choice cuts
With more than 50 albums to his name, there’s a lot of Eric to choose from. Here are our highlights of his back catalogue.
Clapton’s idol Robert Johnson sealed his infamy and fuelled myths surrounding his own death with ‘Cross Road Blues’, a song about a man who makes a Faustian pact in exchange for awesome musical ability. Cream reworked it into ‘Crossroads’, with Clapton adding a solo that’s considered among the best of all time.
Sunshine of Your Love
Written at a frenzied pace shortly after Clapton attended a Jimi Hendrix concert, the riff has become ubiquitous in pop culture. It’s a prime example of Clapton’s famously fuzzy ‘woman tone’, achieved by cranking the volume and turning the tone knob on his guitar down to zero.
Although its riff is iconic and piano coda instantly recognisable, ‘Layla’ barely scraped the top 10 upon its release in the UK and US. The lyrics are inspired by an unrequited love for George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. Nine years after its release, though, she married Clapton.
Tears in Heaven
One of Clapton’s most commercially successful songs is also one of his most tragic, inspired as it is by the death of his four-year-old son. It was the biggest single from his biggest album, MTV Unplugged, but Slowhand hasn’t played the song live in more than six years.