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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: Eric Clapton

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: Eric Clapton

Written by Phil Gallo

Great artists have been making history using Fender instruments for decades. Many of these greats are featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has been honoring legendary musicians over the last 25 years. Join us as we take a detailed look at some at some of the artists who’ve been inducted in previous years and who make the Hall of Fame one of the world’s greatest monuments to one of the world’s greatest musical forms.

In his 2007 autobiography, Eric Clapton let the world in on the transformative moment when he fell in love with the electric guitar and its possibilities. The momentous occasion occurred at a neighbor’s home in 1957, at the one house on the block with a television set. Clapton and his friends tuned in to watch Live From the London Palladium. Buddy Holly came on first. Then, Jerry Lee Lewis, whose bassist was playing a Fender Precision Bass.

“It was like seeing an instrument from outer space,” Clapton wrote in Clapton: The Autobiography, recalling that experience at the age of 12. “That’s the future,” he penned, equally fascinated with Holly’s Fender Stratocaster as he was Lewis’ Precision Bass. “That’s what I want.”

Clapton’s vision of the future, though, would be permanently grounded in the past, specifically the blues that inspired him in his teen years and would serve as a muse throughout his life. In John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos and throughout his solo career, all of Clapton’s music has sprung from the music of the men who inspired him to play: Robert Johnson, Freddie King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. 

Clapton is the only triple inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: He went in first as a member of the Yardbirds (1992), followed a year later with Cream and then as a solo artist in 2000.

Clapton has proven uniquely resilient, capable of generating rock and pop hits in every decade from the 1960s forward while continuing to display his devotion to blues heroes and his peers such as Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck and J.J. Cale.

His story begins March 30, 1945, in Ripley, Surrey, England, where he was born to an unwed 16-year-old named Patricia Molly Clapton. Clapton was raised by his grandparents while Patricia – whom young Clapton believed was his sister until he turned nine – moved to Canada to start a new family.

It was his grandparents who gave Clapton his first guitar, a German-made Hoyer. The guitar was difficult to play, and Clapton chose to spend more time listening rather than trying to master the stubborn strings.

At 16, he secured a double-cutaway Kay and set out to learn the electric blues songs he worshipped coming out of Chicago, Memphis and Mississippi. His devotion led to him ignoring his studies at the Kingston College of Art; he was expelled after just one year.

Out of school, Clapton started playing in local R&B bands that provided entertainment in pubs. Word got out quickly that this guitarist in bands such as the Roosters and Casey Jones and the Engineers was the hottest musician on the local circuit, piquing the interest of Yardbirds singer Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. They approached Clapton in October 1963 to invite him to join the Yardbirds, an association that would last 18 months, earn him the nickname “Slowhand” and allow him to record with blues harp legend Sonny Boy Williamson. Once the band chose to enter the pop arena with the song  “For Your Love,” he quit.

John Mayall, a singer and harmonica player whose debut album had flopped, promptly invited Clapton to become part of his act, freshly named the Bluesbreakers. Clapton entered the band with the intention of rewriting the rules of the blues by using heavy amplification and the guitar licks of Freddie King. Their one album together, 1966′s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, is the blueprint for blues rock. It also introduced the concept of the guitar hero, a fact memorialized by an admirer who painted “Clapton is God” on the wall of London’s Islington tube station.

Just as Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton was released, Clapton was out of the band and on his way to a new project with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, two musicians who had been working with Graham Bond. Although their union as Cream lasted only two years, their albums Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire were powerful and unique distillations of blues, jazz, folk and psychedelic rock that defied categorization; a starting point for the hard rock that would follow in the 1970s. It was also the first time Clapton was able to put one of Robert Johnson’s compositions, “Cross Road Blues,” into the rock lexicon by creating an arrangement that Cream made famous with “Crossroads.”

Their live performances were legendary for exceptional – and exceptionally lengthy -solo passages. Egos and constant arguing brought the band to an end with two final performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 1968.

Clapton and Baker stayed together and joined Steve Winwood, who had recorded four songs with Clapton as the Powerhouse, and bassist Rick Grech in one of rock’s first supergroups, Blind Faith. It lasted for one album and a disastrous tour, but it did generate songs that would become staples in Clapton’s repertoire, “Presence of the Lord” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Uncomfortable with being the focal point of a band, Clapton tried moving to a sideman’s role, playing guitar with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (he would also play sideman for George Harrison and John Lennon; he recorded the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the Beatles in 1968). While with Delaney & Bonnie in 1970, Clapton began to compose more and started work on his first solo album, which would yield the hit “After Midnight,” and lead to the creation of Derek & the Dominos.

Legendary as the Dominos’ “Layla” is today, it was considered a commercial failure at the time. That, combined with an unrequited love for Patti Boyd Harrison, wife of his friend George Harrison, led to Clapton isolating himself in Surrey, where he became addicted to heroin for three years.

He kicked the addiction and re-launched his career in January 1973 at London’s Rainbow Theater with two concerts organized by his friend Pete Townshend. Clapton re-emerged a changed man. His voice had grown huskier and his guitar playing had gone from hard charging to laid-back and emotional. He switched his main axe to a Fender Stratocaster for the album that would signal his return, 461 Ocean Boulevard, a reference to the address of the Miami studio where the album was recorded.

The decision to go with the Strat was almost happenstance. While in a Nashville store, Clapton had found a collection of Stratocasters and bought the lot, giving guitars to Winwood, Townshend and others. It would be his guitar of choice on 1970s hits “Cocaine,” “Wonderful Tonight,” I Shot the Sheriff” and “Lay Down Sally.” It’s the guitar model pictured on the cover of 1977′s Slowhand, 1978′s Backless, 1980′s Just One Night, 1982′s Timeless, 1983′s Time Pieces II, 1999′s Blues and a couple of hits compilations.

After a prolific output in the 1970s and ’80s  — nine studio albums between 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) and Journeyman (1989) — Clapton returned to the blues in the 1990s and tried his hand at a new acoustic format (“unplugged”) with two landmark performances at the start of the decade. The first was a 24-night stand at the Royal Albert Hall with bands of varying sizes — a quartet, a nine-piece and an orchestra along with guest stars — that became the album 24 Nights.

The second was 1992′s Unplugged, recorded for MTV, which landed six Grammy awards for Clapton, including album, record and song of the year. The album would make international hits out of acoustic versions of “Tears in Heaven,” a lament for his deceased 5-year-old son, Conor, and “Layla.”

Since then Clapton has navigated the present with an eye on the past. He recorded an album of blues classics, From the Cradle, in 1994; paired up with B.B. King for Riding with the King in 2000; partnered with “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” composer J.J. Cale on Road to Escondido in 2006; and turned out two all-Robert Johnson albums in 2004. The Cale album won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album; Clapton’s 17th Grammy win.

In a move that surprised everyone, Cream reformed in 2005 for well-received shows in London and New York; he reunited with Winwood in 2008 for a tour that yielded a live album and in 2010 he joined forces with his successor in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, for a short series of concerts.

In February 1998, Clapton announced the opening of Crossroads Centre, a rehabilitation facility for drug and alcohol abuse on the Caribbean island of Antigua. A little over a year later, Clapton auctioned off 100 of his guitars, raising almost $4.5 million for the foundation. One of the guitars, the 1956 tobacco sunburst Stratocaster that was used on “Layla,” fetched $450,000.

Clapton hosted the first Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas in 2004 as a three-day concert event to benefit the Crossroads Centre. A second Crossroads festival was held in 2007, and a third is scheduled for June 26, 2010, in Chicago.

More Hall of Fame Flashback Pieces:

Pink Floyd

Beach Boys

Bruce Springsteen

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