Personalities | Eric Clapton | Yardbirds to Legend | Guitar Heroes

The most famous living guitarist in the world, Eric Clapton’s career has passed through an extraordinary series of highs and lows during his long reign as a guitar hero. He has also experimented with numerous stylistic changes, but has always returned to his first love, the blues.

A love child born in 1945, Clapton was brought up by his grandparents, whom he believed were his parents until he was nine. He started playing guitar at the age of 13 and in 1963, after playing in a couple of South-London bands, joined The Yardbirds, establishing his reputation on the rough and ready Five Live Yardbirds (1964). He quit The Yardbirds in 1965 after recording their first hit, ‘For Your Love’, and joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton (1966) is still regarded as one of the seminal blues guitar albums, characterized by the fierce, sustained notes that Clapton created using controlled feedback.

Before the album was released, Clapton left to form Cream with fellow virtuoso musicians Jack Bruce (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums). Their jazz background was the perfect foil for Clapton’s blues and the band became superstars as a result of three albums – Fresh Cream (1966), Disraeli Gears (1967) and Wheels Of Fire (1968) – and a series of American tours. But within two years, the band was worn out and Clapton subsequently hooked up with another virtuoso, ex-Spencer Davis Group and Traffic keyboard player and singer Steve Winwood, to form Blind Faith, which also included Baker. Unfortunately, Blind Faith (1969) could not live up to the hype surrounding the group, and they split after one American tour.

Clapton sought refuge in Blind Faith’s support group, Delaney & Bonnie, who helped him record his first solo album, Eric Clapton (1970) and then provided him with the musicians for his next group. Derek & the Dominos recorded one incandescent album dealing with pain and unrequited love, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970). Here, Clapton was joined by guitarist Duane Allman, and the band toured Britain and America before imploding in a maelstrom of drug use.

Clapton was left with a heroin dependency, and after appearing – just – at George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh (1971), he retreated from view for the next three years, apart from one shaky show at London’s Rainbow Theatre. He returned, clean and rejuvenated, with 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974), a major worldwide hit album that introduced the then-unknown Bob Marley through Clapton’s version of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, a No. 1 hit in the US. He also broadened his skills from guitar hero to songwriter, notably on Slowhand (1977) with ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and ‘Lay Down Sally’. Extensive worldwide touring helped maintain his popularity, but by the end of the decade, another dependency, alcohol, was hampering his playing.

By 1983, he was sober again, and Money And Cigarettes (1983) and Behind The Sun (1985) confirmed his return to form. His appearance at Live Aid...

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