Music is an art and a craft. And, for a performing artist it’s an art and a craft that must be practiced; physically, emotionally and spiritually engaged with- if the music is to live and the artist is to grow.
Between the beginning of 1971 and the early part of 1974 Eric Clapton who had become rock music royalty and widely acknowledged as a guitar god after his work with The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, Delaney and Bonnie and Derek and The Dominoes was not practicing his art and craft.
Instead he was holed up in Hurtwood Edge, his luxurious hideaway in rural Surrey, seemingly having abandoned his talent and career in pursuit of the oblivion provided by alcohol and heroin.
As is the way with addicts wasted days became wasted weeks became wasted months became wasted years.
His life and his career was saved from this tragic torpor through a combination of his own everlasting love of the classic blues, his need as a man and a musician to make music again and the insistent promptings of friends like Pete Townsend and fellow Domino Carl Radle.Embed from Getty Images
A demo tape of Bassist Radle, Keyboard player Dick Sims and Drummer Jamie Oldaker jamming together appears to have whetted Eric Clapton’s desire to play again.
He began to imagine a record which would feature his continuing devotion to the blues and his preference for organic, song centred recordings in the style of The Band in contrast to the bombastic pyrotechnics of his Cream days.
It was time to take, ‘Blackie’ his custom made Fender Stratocaster out if its case and strap it on!
So in April 1974, installed in Golden Beach Florida he assembled the above musicians adding George Terry on guitar and Yvonne Elliman on vocals with the redoubtable Tom Dowd sitting in the producer’s chair.
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The result in terms of music history was a record, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ which in my view stands second only to the all time classic, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ in the canon of Clapton’s recordings.
It’s a record, at its heart, where a true bluesman reached out in tender gospel supplication for peace and redemption – a peace and redemption the record seems to find.
When you have hit bottom you learn, whatever you thought in your careless heyday, that no one can ever really stand up alone. You need help. You learn you will have to go down on your knees and ask for help.
You need strength to carry on – especially if you know that your vocation as a bluesman is to live life out on a highway which is always shadowed by tempting snares.
Snares you have fallen prey to before (Lord I’ve done so much wrong) and which you can never doubt you can fall prey to again – perhaps never to recover from.
Somehow, from somewhere, as part of your recovery you will have to find a renewable source of strength; a nurturing relationship between your self, the world and god in whichever form he appears to you. All this is evoked for me by Eric Clapton in this humble hymn.
There is a deeply affecting tenderness in Clapton’s guitar playing and his vocal in this song with superb use of sustain and falsetto. Indeed throughout 461 Eric Clapton meshes his guitar and vocal talents like two well worn hands meeting and supporting each other in prayer.
Eric Clapton through obsessive practice and natural affinity learned and internalised the language of the blues as a teenager so that it became second nature to him.
His extravagantly brilliant playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became the aspirational benchmark for a whole generation of guitar players.
He has, no matter how far from the original source he has sometimes strayed, always eventually returned to the blues for sustenance, rescue and refreshment.
So, searching to rediscover the essence of that calling, in Criterion Studios in 1974 he turned again to the masters who had called forth his own voice as a bluesman and guitar player.
Listen to the majestic, tensile strength of his take on the Willie Dixon/Elmore James blues standard from 1960, ‘I Can’t Hold Out’.
Eric doesn’t try to emulate the scything style of Elmore instead emphasising the tension rather than the release. So that when he does stretch out all you can do is echo his own, ‘Aaal Riiggght’ and ‘Oooh Yeh!’
Lest anyone think that the powerhouse Eric Clapton heard on ‘Layla’ was lying buried in the Surrey woods, never to rise again, listen to the coruscating brilliance of his playing on, ‘Motherless Children’!
Driven on by the relentless rhythm section he demonstrated his signature ability to mine the tropes of the blues guitar he knows and loves so well so that what emerges goes beyond generic statement to become real artistic creation.
This track begs you to cast caution to the winds before jumping on board a runaway train for a ride to the very end of the line!
461 was an artistically and commercially successful record. Eric’s Kingston Surrey by way of Kingston Jamaica take on Bob Marley’s, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ became a US No 1 single and his version of Johhny Otis’, ‘Willie and The Hand Jive’ was also a substantial hit.
But, I’m not going to feature neither here today. Instead I will close with the emblematic, ‘Let It Grow’ which glows with a redemptive penitent fervour that almost always brings tears to my eyes.
At the end of this track and listening to 461 as a whole you can’t doubt that Eric Clapton had definitively rediscovered his mojo and was once again an artist gloriously practicing his craft.
Perhaps, you can never glimpse Paradise until you have spent your allotted time in Purgatory.