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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March 2005, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Clapton's guitar 'genius' legacy
By Stephen Dowling
BBC News

Blues guitarist and singer Eric Clapton celebrated his 60th birthday on Wednesday, alongside a forthcoming reunion with his old band Cream.

Long before Eric Clapton embarked on a solo career, he was already a genuine rock 'n' roll icon.

Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton was awarded a CBE in 2004's New Year's Honours list
In the late 1960s, as his career with proto-supergroup Cream was in full flight, graffiti in New York and London screamed: "Clapton is God!"

His intricate guitar style became the bedrock of several bands in the late 1960s and early 70s - including John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream and the supergroup Blind Faith.

But while Clapton became a huge star in the late 1960s, his rise to fame did not run smoothly, his career peaking and slumping as he jumped from band to band.


As Clapton reaches his 60th birthday, a revival of his music is long overdue, argues music writer Terry Staunton.

"He's probably as revered as Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney or John Lennon now," says Mr Staunton.

"He has quietly ploughed his own furrow. He hasn't really changed that much, either. The album he released recently, Songs for Robert J, is really not very far removed from the stuff he was doing with the Yardbirds in 1965."

Born in Ripley, Surrey, in 1945, the illegitimate son of a Canadian soldier, Clapton was brought up by his maternal grandparents.

He taught himself guitar after being given an instrument at the age of 14 by his grandfather, copying note-for-note the style of great blues guitarists.

Clapton (r) formed Cream with Jack Bruce (l) and Ginger Baker

He established his reputation during 18 months with the Yardbirds, at the age of 18, earning the moniker "Slowhand" - before honing his blues skills with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers where he earned a second nickname: "God".

Cream, the group he formed with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, propelled Clapton to global recognition, selling more than 35 million copies of their three albums.

Hits included classics such as Sunshine of Your Love, but the group dissolved in acrimony after little more than two years together in 1969.

Similarly Clapton's next band, Blind Faith, a blues rock supergroup he formed with Traffic's Stevie Winwood, Cream's Baker and Rick Grech, lasted less than six months - May to November 1969.

However, band tensions came to a head during a 24-date US tour and they broke up shortly after.

Reggae pioneer

Clapton then formed Derek and The Dominos, with members of the folk group who had supported Blind Faith on tour.

It was while leading them that he penned Layla, a song inspired by a love triangle between himself, former Beatle George Harrison and Harrison's then-wife, Patti Boyd.

He later married Boyd in March 1979, divorcing in 1988.

In the 1970s, Mr Staunton says, it was Clapton who brought an international audience to Bob Marley by covering the reggae star's I Shot the Sheriff - and also invented the genre "white reggae".

"Though bands like The Police and The Clash might not have liked to admit it, they were taking their lead from Eric Clapton," he says.

But for all his success, Clapton's life has not been without its traumas.

He has had to deal with drug and alcohol problems, and the death of his four-year-old son Connor, a death which inspired his mournful 1992 song Tears In Heaven.

Eric Clapton
Clapton won a clutch of Grammys in 1993 when he released Tears In Heaven
But, says HMV record chain spokesman Gennaro Castaldo: "Clapton for the most part seems to have led a fairly exemplary life, and he seems to have avoided many of the controversies iconic rock stars get into.

"I think because Eric is still around, we kind of take him for granted. To be able to celebrate him and shout out about what he's achieved is a really wonderful thing.

"And remember - Jimi Hendrix might not be as iconic if he was still alive today."

Clapton has won plaudits for his guitar-playing but, because he was always honest about its blue roots "he's not attributed with innovation", according to Mr Castaldo.

Drug support

"But Clapton has created wonderful entertaining music for the last four decades, " he says.

Mr Staunton says Clapton's career has been largely scandal-free - save the affair that sparked Layla.

In 1974 Clapton's comments to a Birmingham audience that he supported Conservative MP Enoch Powell's views on immigration - loudly criticised in the music press - meant he did not play in the city for a decade, adds Mr Staunton.

When Clapton played his next show, he made a point of playing with a mostly black backing band.

And, says Mr Staunton, Clapton's experiences as a heroin addict led him to create the Crossroads Centre, a rehab unit in Antigua which opened in 1993.

Clapton has spent a lot of his own money to keep it running, including auctioning the guitar with which he recorded Layla.

After helping organise the benefit concert to raise money for the Boxing Day tsunami and receiving a CBE from the Queen, it is arguably Clapton's time for reappraisal.

Certainly, his 60th year will involve at least one highlight - the first reunion of Cream for gigs at London's Royal Albert Hall in May.


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