Eric Clapton plays Traveling Riverside Blues by Robert Johnson. Eric Clapton covered this song, along with several other Robert Johnson classics, on his 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson.
Eric Clapton is quite possibly one of the most widely known, blues musicians to ever strum soul-stirring lick on his guitar. With chart-topping, award-winning hits like “Tears in Heaven,” and “Layla.” Being ranked second on The Rolling Stones list of 100 Greatest Guitarist of all time and fourth on Gibson’s list of Top 50 Guitarist. Despite all of his success, the respect of peers and the blues community, when speaking of great musicians from across the pond his name seems to constantly be overshadowed by more commercial artist such as the Beatles and grandiose rock bands like The Rolling Stones.
Eric Clapton first entered the realm of international stardom as a member of the Yardbirds, a three-maned group of individuals that would all go on to be recognized as guitar greats. Prior to this, his grew up as a quiet, but intelligent English boy gifted in art and music. His talents were so highly esteemed that he was able to attend the Kingston college of Art. This was short-lived, however, as Clapton would ultimately be expelled using class time for guitar playing rather than as it was intended to be spent working on designs for stained-glass projects. Perhaps it was fate, for during this time Clapton was able to spend a significant amount of time exploring blues.
After being introduced to the blues by African-American soldiers stationed in Europe during the second World War, Britain began to develop its own Blues sub-culture. By the early 1960’s what was once an obscure subculture had reached the mainstream as was dominating radio, clubs and influencing would be musicians such as the young Clapton. No longer in school, Eric Clapton was able to spend his days working a blue collar gig and spend his nights sitting in with various small-time Blues acts. This culture that birthed such notable acts as The Who and The Rolling Stones also launched the careers of the Yardbirds.
Success with the Yardbirds was almost instant. With live performances with the group, Clapton was able to carve out what would be his identifiable trademark on the guitar. By slowly bending the strings with such force and duration that he could distort the pitch of the note to heightened, slow cry. A technique that often resulted in the breaking of guitar strings that he would replace live on stage as the audience slowly clapped, from this, he earned the moniker “Slowhand.” The group went on to achieve, what would quite possibly be its greatest Clapton-Era success, the release of “For Your Love.” With success came controversy within the group. Clapton a blues purist decided to part was with the group as they looked to move in tandem with acts that would make up the “British Invasion” of internationally popular commercial rock and pop acts.
Upon leaving the Yardbirds, Clapton continued to gain notoriety with a stint with the Bluesbreakers and with a personal fan base that had reached such a level that a now famous graffiti artist sprawled the Islington Underground with the spray-painted words, “Clapton is God.” Despite his growing stardom, he would find direct completion from the success of acts coming out of the United States, primarily the great Jimi Hendrix. Clapton had just joined the British supergroup, Cream and at a performance, they were joined by none other than Hendrix himself. The experience left a lasting impression on Clapton and shaped Cream’s new direction as a more jazz-influenced, psychedelic band with improvisation weaved into performances and recordings. It was a success. They would go on to record “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Crossroads,” and “White Room”
Soon as with many rock bands, particularly of the “free love” the 1960s and 70s, drugs and alcohol took their toll on the group and Clapton in particular. Although he would continue to write, record and perform he began to struggle with addiction and relationship struggles. Simultaneously with a landmark solo performance on The Beatle’s George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the release of what is widely regarded as his greatest work, “Layla,” Clapton was slowly withdrawing from the public limelight.” Clapton would spend the next few decades coming in and out of the public eye. At times making appearances and low-key tours alongside B.B. King, Tina Turner, The Who, Stevie Ray Vaughn and others and then retreating to obscurity where he continued to battle addiction and personal tragedy. In the 90’s he experienced one of the greatest tragedies of his life, the accidental death of his four-year-old son. While in a New York city apartment the boy had fallen from the window of a 53 story building. It was after this horrific accident that he released one of his most widely known songs, “Tears in Heaven” on the Rush soundtrack.
Clapton has continued to write, record and perform while maintaining a very private personal life. It wasn’t until recently that it was announced that he has been battling peripheral neuropathy. It is a nerve-damaging disease linked to alcoholism that causes intense pain throughout the body when such tasks as guitar playing are attempted. In an interview, he discusses his condition as well as the potential it has to end his music career.
The various tragedies that Eric Clapton has had to endure along with focus he has placed on combating addiction, may have allowed a bit more attention to be drawn to other acts that remained in the public eye throughout their career. However, few musicians have attained the level of professional success that he has. The winner of multiple Grammys, BRIT awards, AMAs, Billboard awards. Three-time Hall of Fame inductee. Recognition as one of the greatest guitarist to ever grace the stage. A number of chart-topping singles as well as gold and platinum albums. Eric Clapton is and will always be one of the greatest Blues musicians of all time.