In the early days of Eric Clapton’s career, his name meant one thing and one thing only: guitar god. With every new group he joined, he left a string of unforgettable riffs in his wake.
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As time rolled on and he began sharing the spotlight with such rock deities as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, he began to incrementally distance himself from the flashy lengthy solos of his youth and instead focused his efforts on becoming a frontman himself.
Whether you prefer the behind-the-scenes, guitar-soloing Clapton or the Bluesy rock n’ roller Clapton, one thing’s for sure – Clapton has reached the top of the rock n’ roll hierarchy and continues to inspire today.
Let’s take a deep dive into Clapton’s career and pick out a few key moments that made his name along the way.
10. Clapton Becomes a Yardbird
Throughout the ’60s, Clapton lent his guitar prowess to a number of bands – never staying in one place for too long. In 1963, he joined the English rock outfit The Yardbirds, clinching his first taste of success in music.
During his tenure with the group, he played on a number of breakthrough tracks, including the bluesy “I Wish You Would” and “Good Morning, School Girl.” Clapton left the group abruptly on the same day as the release of their first Top 10 hit “For Your Love.” Though his run with the group didn’t last long, it did wonders for launching his career.
9. Clapton Joins Cream
Following a stint in Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Clapton joined another rock outfit, Cream, and developed a keen taste for psychedelia. Clapton stayed with the group throughout their entire career, but they too were short-lived.
Across their six albums, the group secured a number of hits, most notably “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” – both of which see Clapton deliver iconic, wiry guitar lines.
8. Clapton Plays on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
As the Beatles worked on their now-iconic self-titled album (better known as The White Album), tracks penned by George Harrison were quickly being left behind due to the songwriting behemoth that was the Lennon/McCartney partnership. One Harrison track that did make the cut however was the wistful “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Clapton, who had long praised Harrison and developed a friendship with the group, was asked to overdub lead guitar for the track – an offer he initially refused saying, “nobody ever plays on Beatles records.” He was eventually convinced, overdubbing the song’s sprawling guitar solo on “Lucy,” a Gibson Les Paul that was a gift from Harrison himself.
In his 2007 autobiography, Clapton recalls Lennon and McCartney being “fairly non-committal” to the song while he knew Harrison was happy because “he listened to it over and over in the control room.”
7. Clapton Lays it all Bare With “Layla“
As Clapton formed yet another group in 1970, Derek and the Dominos, he penned one of the most famous songs of his entire career, “Layla.” The song was inspired by a forbidden love Clapton had for George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd (who eventually went on to marry Clapton). The title was inspired by a classic Persian unrequited love story titled Layla and Manjun, which perfectly mirrored the relationship between Boyd and Clapton.
The song, featuring one of the most unforgettable guitar licks from Duane Allman, didn’t do so well when it was originally released as part of the group’s debut album but went on to skyrocket when it was re-released as a single in 1972.
6. Clapton takes on Bob Marley
In 1974, Clapton traded in Bob Marley’s Reggae for soft rock on a cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” as part of his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Much to his surprise, Clapton’s version did leaps and bounds above Marley’s version upon its release – claiming the No. 1 spot on the charts.
Despite its success, Clapton didn’t think he did Marley justice with his rendition. When it came time to pick tracks for the album, he didn’t think “I Shot the Sheriff” should make the cut. “I just knew we weren’t doing it right,” he wrote of the recording sessions. Eventually, he went along with the release anyway, scoring another famed track.
5. Clapton takes on Acting in Tommy
Though Slowhand is known pretty much exclusively for his unparalleled guitar technique, he did foray into the acting world with a role in the satirical film, Tommy. Based on the Who’s 1979 rock opera of the same name, the film is about a psychosomatically deaf, mute, and blind boy who becomes a pinball champion and religious leader.
Clapton played the preacher in the film, delivering a gospel-driven performance of “Eyesight to the Blind” with an electric guitar in tow. Clapton starred alongside Roger Daltrey, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, and Jack Nicholson.
4. Clapton Joins The Band for their “Last Waltz”
As The Band took their final bows in the Martin Scorcese–directed film The Last Waltz, they brought along a handful of famous friends to bid them farewell – among which was Clapton himself.
Clapton joined the rock outfit for a pair of songs – his own “All Our Past Times” and the blues classic “Further on Up The Road.” During the performance, he took on lead guitar duties and sang through the song alongside Robbie Robertson.
3. Clapton Writes “Tears In Heaven”
Following the tragic death of his four-year-old son, Conor, Clapton wrote the poignantly somber “Tears in Heaven.” Clapton gave one of his most famed performances with the song during an MTV Unplugged performance in Berkshire, England.
Clapton stopped performing the track in 2004 saying, “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs. I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now. They probably just need a rest and maybe I’ll introduce them for a much more detached point of view.”
2. Clapton Takes a Ride with The King
To celebrate his Blues roots, Clapton released a collaboration album with B.B. King in 2000 taking on some of the King’s best tracks, including “Ten Long Years,” “Three O’Clock Blues,” “Help the Poor,” “Days of Old” and “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer.”
The duo shared vocal and guitar duties across the album, trading verses and picking up on guitar lines where the other left off. The album is a stunning testament to the Blues icon who inspired Clapton’s personal sound.
1. Clapton Gives Fans Nothing But the Blues
Clapton’s lifelong love affair with the blues continues in his latest release, Nothing But The Blues – a live album that features performances recorded in 1994 during a show at the Fillmore in San Fransico. The live performances bring a younger Clapton into 2022, highlighting his unmatched ability to roll through a guitar lick.
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