Eric Patrick Clapton was born on March 30, 1945 in Surrey, England to 16 year old Patricia Clapton and Edward Fryer, a Canadian soldier who was shipped off to duty before Eric was born and never returned. He received a guitar at the age of 13 and from that point Clapton immersed himself in music, taking his first steps towards becoming one of rock’s greatest and most influential musicians. He first achieved notoriety when he joined The Yardbirds in 1963, exhibiting an innate connection with the Chicago blues styles of Buddy Guy, Freddie King and B.B. King. It was at this early point in his musical career that he was given the nickname “Slowhand.” According to Yardbirds rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, Clapton would often break his light gauge strings while playing live and remained onstage to replace them. The English audiences would wait out the delay by doing a “slow handclap.” Clapton said the actual nickname was coined by filmmaker/songwriter Giorgio Gomelsky who intended it as a pun because he thought Clapton’s playing was incredibly fast and the slow clapping offered stark contrast. As The Yardbirds elected to pursue a pop oriented sound, Clapton, bent on reinventing the blues, left to join John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers in 1965. His stay with Mayall was short lived and his reputation as a master guitarist garnered worldwide attention, enough so that someone was inspired to spray paint a wall at Islington Underground station with the words, “Clapton is God.”
In 1966 Clapton was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to play in one of rock’s first supergroups along with Jack Bruce on bass. It was during his years with Cream that Clapton not only exposed himself to American audiences, but also refined his skills as a singer/songwriter. Cream’s influence on rock music was massive. Their approach of blending infectious melodies with Clapton’s heavy blues phrasings forged a new genre and an insatiable demand for blues rock took the world by storm. By 1968 Cream dissolved due to acrimony between Baker and Bruce. Clapton was also so deeply affected by a harshly critical concert review by Rolling Stone that he lost motivation to play with the band. It was during this period that he formed a close friendship with George Harrison and co wrote “Badge,” a rock classic and also a powerful foreshadowing of the new musical territory he would soon be exploring as a solo artist.
In 1969 he joined Baker, Stevie Winwood and Ric Grech to form Blind Faith. They released one stunning album and Clapton began touring with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett who encouraged him to develop his songwriting skills and familiarity with Americana. Heavily influenced by the music of J.J. Cale, Bob Dylan and The Band, Clapton moved further from his familiar blues territory and began exploring the full range of American musical forms. Many of his early solo albums were fueled by his passion for the overall feel of American traditional music, a sound that diminished his role as a virtuoso guitarist and highlighted his refinement as a songwriter. Clapton could have continued to dominate the world spotlight with his extraordinary guitar wizardry but instead chose to focus on musical form and embraced a less glamorous role as a composer of folky country inspired songs. With the intention of counteracting the “star” cult faction that had begun to form around him Clapton formed a band in 1970 culled from Delaney & Bonnie and Friend’s former rhythm section that included keyboardist/singer Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon. Most notably, Clapton was able to lure Duane Allman to provide the magic of his slide guitar playing skills. The result, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, one of the cornerstones of classic rock music, combined Clapton’s polished songwriting skills with masterful musical arrangement. The music, vibrant with the synergy shared between Clapton and Allman, was hauntingly inspired by Clapton’s mad passion for George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd. All of those factors merged and culminated in one of the finest albums ever created. Layla is generally recognized as the apex of Clapton’s artistic achievement. He gives free reign to his stunning prowess as a guitarist and combines it with superior songwriting that stands as eternal testament to the ultimate potential of rock inspired by blues and Americana.
Today Eric Clapton reaches the age of 71 but there is a distinct air of timelessness that surrounds him, the direct result of his unity with the music he has so passionately shaped and created for over 50 years. He is quite possibly the greatest rock musician of all time and will always exist in our hearts and souls as Slowhand. Happy Birthday Eric Clapton!