Eric Clapton's Top 10 Greatest Blues Recordings, Part 2 - by J. Blake

Posted on 9/21/2010 by J. Blake

(New York, NY)

As we count down the days to Eric Clapton’s new album, CLAPTON, we are once again looking back at some of his achievements as a blues artist.

Last week I began a list of the “Top 10 Greatest Officially Released Clapton Blues Recordings of All Time.” This week I complete that list with the “Top 5.” Compiling such a list was extremely difficult and painstaking. Clapton’s career is immense and he has made hundreds of blues recordings. I apologize if your favorites haven’t made the list.

5. “Gambling Woman Blues” [from FREDDIE KING 1934-1976 (1977)] Before he was “riding with the king”, Clapton was jamming with “The Texas Cannonball.” Only a handful of recordings exist featuring both Clapton and Freddie King trading off, but the ones that do are all amazing. A live recording of “Further On Up The Road” may be the most popular, but this studio performance of “Gambling Woman Blues” is without a doubt the best. It’s slow and long. Freddie’s voice is booming and his give and take with Clapton is, at times, breathtaking. The recordings slow fadeout on tasty riffing leaves you wanting more. It’s beautiful.

4. “Long Distance Call” [from Hubert Sumlin’s ABOUT THEM SHOES (2005)] Clapton is featured on two tracks of this Hubert Sumlin studio effort and though the album’s cover of the Willie Dixon penned “I’m Ready” is great, it is Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” that really shines. The “sound” of this recording is loud and full. Clapton’s vocals are unrestrained and both he and Sumlin deliver some wonderfully raw guitar work. It has an energy that rarely manifests itself on contemporary blues albums and it may be the single most authentic blues recording Clapton’s career.

3. “Key To The Highway” [from Derek & The Dominos’ LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS (1970)] Despite the monumental rock status of the “LAYLA album”, it happens to feature some of the best blues of Clapton’s career. Much has been made of Clapton and Duane Allman’s chemistry on the album’s cover of Freddie King’s “Have You Ever Loved A Woman?” and a later released studio outtake of “Mean Old World”, but at a whopping 9 minutes and 41 seconds, electric guitar blues does not get much better than the duo’s impromptu jam on Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway”. The spontaneity of this recording fuels it with a wonderful energy as the two guitar titans push each other to magical heights. Clapton’s vocals are loose and his inability to resist whooping and hollering as Allman rips into the slide, really adds a beautiful and exciting dimension to this recording.

2. “Crossroads” [from Cream’s WHEELS OF FIRE (1968)] Considered by many to be Clapton at his absolute best, this late-60s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues” has been revered and copied by bands and guitar-slingers since its release in 1968; for proof just listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s note for note cover on 1976’s ONE MORE FROM THE ROAD or almost any bootleg from Van Halen’s 2007/2008 tour.

In a bit of irony, Clapton told Mojo Magazine in 1998 that much of his lead work on this live recording was “wrong”, claiming he was playing on the “off beat”. Never the less, it remains one of the most cited examples of his guitar-greatness to date. It is also worth noting, that when compared to other (bootleg) recordings of Cream performing this song (or the original 1966 studio version by Eric Clapton’s Powerhouse), this particular version is exceptional. Its energy is light-years beyond most other versions and the speed and clarity of Clapton’s fret-work is astounding.

1. “Hard Times” [from JOURNEYMAN (1989)] Though JOURNEYMAN contains its fair share of 1980s drum machines and synthesizers, it also features some of the most soulfully mature music of Clapton’s career…up to that point. Among the highlights of the album is a slow jazzy/blues number from the Ray Charles catalogue titled “Hard Times.” The tone of Clapton’s Stratocaster is amazing as it tastefully dances around the arrangement and an all-star horn section, made up of Ray Charles Orchestra alumni and living jazz legends, adds the perfect amount of flavor and texture to the recording. It is a marvelous and subtle display of exceptional musicianship all around, but the significance of this recording does not lie in what is being played. It lies in what is being sung and how Clapton is singing it.

By 1989 Clapton was no stranger to the blues and he had built his career on a well-deserved reputation as an extraordinary blues guitarist and blues interpreter, BUT as a vocalist he had always been a young white British guy singing the blues, as opposed to a “blues singer.” He had always sung with feeling and from the heart, but his vocals often lacked the self-confidence and (especially) the maturity to pass as absolutely authentic. It is with this recording of “Hard Times”, that listeners can hear Clapton truly coming into his own as a blues vocalist and bluesman. His delivery is controlled, self-assured and undeniably heartfelt. The lyrics ring true, in away that they never have before, coming from his lips; the lips of man (at that time) approaching middle-age with a bit of life experience under his belt. It is a beautiful recording, a heart-wrenching performance and I brilliant prelude to both 1992’s UNPLUGGED and 1994’s FROM THE CRADLE.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: Yardbirds Interview & Concert Review

Thanks and keep reading American Blues News and also check out Media Wah Wah for more of this writer’s thoughts and opinions about Movies, Music, TV & More.

Copyright © 2010 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

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