The first, published blues music was ‘Dallas Blues’ in 1912, but the blues predates that by at least 20 years and possibly a great deal more. The first recordings of blues music were made for research purposes and have since been lost along with any record of the precise where when and why. Blues seem to have arisen in the period after the emancipation of slaves in the USA and some aspects of the music, such as blue notes, seem to originate (not surprisingly) with the music of Africa. In other ways there was originally little difference between ‘blues’ and ‘country’ as they grew up together in the early part of the 20th century, yet ‘blues’ was identified with black musicians, while ‘country’ was predominately white. It seems strange then that while the blues is steeped in the culture of the American deep South, one of the most famous blue guitarists is a white guy from the UK, Eric Clapton.
American blues made the transition to the UK largely because of black American soldiers who were stationed in the UK during the second World War. In 1958 Muddy Waters played electric blues for the first time in Britain to shocked audiences, unaccustomed to the amplified electric sound and heavy beat. Many were captivated and while the cultural differences could not have been greater, British Blues was born. The Rolling Stones even took their name from a Muddy Waters song, ‘Rollin Stone’.
Co-incidentally 1958 was the year Eric Clapton got his first guitar. Born in Ripley in Surrey and brought up my his grandmother, Clapton found the guitar difficult and nearly gave up, but he enjoyed listening to blues music on his tape recorder and spent a lot of time practicing to get the chords right. He left school in 1961 and went to art college, but only lasted a year. In 1962 he asked his grandparents help to buy an electric guitar, (a Gibson ES-335 clone) Already it was clear that music, not art was his major interest. He began busking and performing in pubs with a friend, then when he was 17 he joined a band called ‘The Roosters’ while supporting himself by working as a bricklayer.
In 1963 he joined another group called the Yardbirds and began to create an original sound and style, heavily influenced by blues music. Although the Yardbirds were successful their first major hit was not a blues song and in protest Clapton left to join John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and then in 1966 he formed Cream. Cream disbanded in 1968.
Throughout this time, he was searching for a distinctive, ‘bluesie’ sound. In the early 60’s Eric Clapton played a Fender telecaster but he changed this for a 1960 Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amplifier. When he left the Bluesbreakers to form Cream, his Les Paul was stolen, but he continued to play guitars of that type until 1967 when he obtained a 1964 Gibson SG which he later had painted in psychedelic colors for a tour. The Gibson SG was one of the major components of the distinctive sound Clapton created during those mid to late 60’s. The ‘woman tone’ as other musicians have called it, is a distorted sound partially created by turning the guitars amplifier up full and the tone down to one or zero.
By 1970 Eric Clapton was a superstar. He formed Derek and the Dominos and went on to record the album ‘Layla and other assorted rock songs’. The inspiration was Clapton’s attraction to George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, who was also the inspiration for Harrison’s beautiful song ‘Something’. To say this relationship was complicated is something of an understatement. Patti Boyd was a model and had married George Harrison in 1966. Eric worked on several projects with George and apparently fell in love not only with Patti but with Paula her sister. So much so that in 1970 Paula moved in to his home, but she wasn’t alone. Eric had another girlfriend, Alice Ormsby Gore, daughter of Lord Harlech, the former British Ambassador to Washington. She and Eric had announced their engagement in 1969.
When Eric wrote Layla, Paula immediately knew who it was about and walked out, but Patti would still not leave her husband. This together with the albums lack of success sent Clapton into a depressive spiral fuelled mainly by heroin. He sank and became a recluse, rarely leaving his house and took Alice, who was 17, with him. Alice and Eric stayed together for five years, but when, with the help of Alices family, Eric managed to break his heroin habit, he ended their relationship. Alice died in poverty from a heroin overdose in 1995.
With the help of Pete Townshend (of ‘The Who’) he picked himself up and made a come back. Heroin was replaced by alchohol. Patti left George and by 1974 Eric had a new sound and was a composer as well as a guitarist. In 1979 he married Patti Boyd and in the 1980’s he began another career, music for film and TV, such as ‘The Hit’ (1984) and the score for BBC’s mini-series Edge of Darkness. In 1982 he ws admitted to Hazelden Treatment Enter in Center City Minnesota for treatment for alcoholism.
After this he produced two albums with Phil Collins, but perhaps because Patti Boyd was unable to have children, Clapton had a number of affairs and at least two children, Ruth (in 1985) and Connor in 1986. Eric and Patti Boyd were divorced in 1988. In 1991 Connor fell from a 53rd floor window and was killed. Eric poured his grief into a song called ‘Tears in Heaven’ and that year received six Grammy awards for the song and his album ‘unplugged’ where he played acoustic guitar.
Clapton made more albums throughout the 90’s and in 1999 worked on an Album with the legendary BB King. In 2000 he was inducted into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the third time. To date he is the only person to have been inducted three times. In 2002 he married Melia McEnery with whom he already had a daughter, Julie. Ella followed in 2003 and Sophie in 2005. This was the inspiration for the song ‘Three Little Girls’ on his 2006 album The Road to Escondido.
In 2004 Clapton returned to the blues with a vengeance with two albums of music by Robert Johnson. In 2005 a reunited Cream played concerts in the Royal Albert Hall and in 2007 the rights to his official memoirs were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair for four million dollars.
These days Eric Clapton plays a custom made 000-ECHF Martin from CF Martin and Company and is regarded as one of the most influential guitarists of all time. His song ‘Layla’ is viewed as one of rock music’s great love songs and his solo on ‘Crossroad Blues’ one of the greatest live rock solos ever. Yet in 1958 when he got that first, steel stringed guitar, he found it hard to play. He had to persevere, to practice, and he did. How about you?