With Eric Clapton’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist on March 6, 2000, he became the first musician to have been inducted three times.
He was first honored as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992, then with Cream in 1993 and finally as a solo artist in 2000. While his stints with the groups were relatively brief – he stayed with the Yardbirds only a year and a half, and Cream lasted barely two years – Clapton has been a solo artist for three decades, beginning with the release of Eric Clapton in 1970.
Even Derek and the Dominos, the short-lived quartet that cut the classic Layla...and Other Love Songs in 1970, was less a band of equals (à la Cream) than a Clapton-piloted project that bore his highly personalized stamp. As a solo artist, Clapton has brought his singing and songwriting to the fore while maintaining his stature as rock’s preeminent guitarist. Demonstrating a remarkable resilience, Clapton has managed to establish himself as a vital, hitmaking presence in every decade.
Eric Clapton was born in the British village of Ripley in 1945. His mother was only 16 years old, and his father was a Canadian soldier who was based in England during World War II. Because his mother was so young, his grandparents adopted him and raised him. He grew up in a musical household. His grandmother played piano. When he was 13, he got his first guitar. Inspired by such artists as Freddie King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, he began focusing on the blues. Then, in early 1963, Clapton joined his first group, the Roosters. After that group broke up, he joined Casey Jones and the Engineers. Then, in October of that year, he was asked to join the Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds’ 1964 concert recording, Five Live Yardbirds, announced Clapton’s talent as a fiery blues stylist adept at the group’s trademark “rave-ups.” In 1965, John Mayall asked the budding star to join his group, the Bluesbreakers. He appeared on the remarkable 1966 recording Bluesbreakers – John Mayall with Eric Clapton. During his yearlong tenure with Mayall, Clapton earned the nickname “Slowhand” and inspired the scrawling of “Clapton Is God” graffiti around London. Next he joined fellow Mayall alumni Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream, a trio that proved equally adept at lengthy blues improvisations and arty, blues-based psychedelic pop.
In 1969, Clapton and Baker teamed up with Steve Winwood of Traffic and Ric Grech of Family to form the band Blind Faith. The group made its debut at Hyde Park in London that June and released one album. After that came a brief alliance with American roots-rockers Delaney and Bonnie. This led directly to Clapton’s first solo album, Eric Clapton, which exhibited some newfound emphases. ("Betcha didn’t think I knew how to rock and roll,” he sang in “Blues Power.") Clapton drew from the pool of musicians who played on Eric Clapton in forming Derek and the Dominos, which found him joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon. The double albumLayla...and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) became one of the cornerstone rock records of the Seventies. Clapton became addicted to heroin during this period, and a second Derek and the Dominos album was begun but never completed as he became ever-more reclusive.
A January 1973 comeback concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre re-introduced him to public performing, but his solo career really commenced in earnest a year later with 461 Ocean Boulevard. Recorded in Miami, it was influenced by the mellower likes of J.J. Cale and Bob Marley. Striking a chord with the public, 461 Ocean Boulevard topped the album charts in 1974. Meanwhile, Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” originally by Bob Marley and the Wailers, helped introduced reggae to a mass audience. Working with a steady band that included guitarist George Terry, Clapton pursued a mellow, song-oriented course that accentuated his husky, laid-back vocals. His Seventies output, including such albums as There’s One in Every Crowd (1975) and No Reason to Cry (1976), has been largely underrated and is ripe for rediscovery. Clapton again struck commercial paydirt in 1977 with Slowhand, a strong set that included Clapton’s definitive version of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” and the Number Three hit “Lay Down Sally.”
Clapton remained a prolific artist throughout the Eighties, releasing a live double album that reached Number Two (Just One Night), cutting two albums (Behind the Sun andAugust) with Phil Collins as producer, and launching his own label, Duck Records, in 1983, with one of his stronger studio efforts, Money and Cigarettes. In January 1987, he undertook the first of what would become an annual series of multi-night stands at London’s Royal Albert Hall. In 1992, his career received a major boost from his appearance on MTV’s Unplugged series. Returning to his roots on the heels of that acoustic folk-blues set, Clapton next cut a long-promised blues album, From the Cradle (1994). Throughout the Nineties, he continued to amass hits – no mean feat, given the shifting musical climate – including “Tears in Heaven,” a memorable elegy for his late son Conor; “Change the World,” a beatbox-driven collaboration with R&B artist/producer Babyface that won a Grammy for Record of the Year, and “My Father’s Eyes,” a ballad from his 1998 album Pilgrim.
In 1998, Clapton, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, opened the Crossroads Centre, a medical facility for substance abusers, on Antigua. Since then, he has organized four Crossroads Guitar Festivals to benefit the center. The first was held in 2004 in Dallas. He has also done two in the Chicago area, in 2007 and 2010, and one at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2013. The festivals feature an amazing array of guitarists.
Clapton has also continued to record and tour on a regular basis. In 2004, he issued two albums of Robert Johnson songs, Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J. In 2012, he released Clapton, which featured a mix of cover songs and originals. The album was a hit in both the U.S. and the U.K. His latest album, Old Sock, was released in March 2013.
Now in his fifth decade as a solo artist, Eric Clapton remains a relevant, creative force in popular music. To celebrate his 50th anniversary as a performer, Clapton toured the U.S. and Europe from March to June 2013. He has won 18 Grammy awards over the course of his career, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at Number Two on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.