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Behind The Beat

How Eric Clapton, Who Once Quit A Too-Pop Band, Became A Celebrated Pop Star

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Charles Sykes
/
Invision/AP Photo
Eric Clapton performs at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, April 14, 2013 in New York.

The Yardbirds released their first hit record, “For Your Love,” 50 years ago. It was 1965, the year British rock invaded American pop music culture. 

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"For Your Love"

The guitarist in The Yardbirds was Eric Clapton, who actually quit the band because they had a pop hit. At age 20, Clapton was already a blues purist and had no interest in being in a pop band.

Like most British rock bands at the time The Yardbirds began as a blues band. Jethro Tull was actually a blues band when they first started. So were The Moody Blues, The Who, The Rolling Stones — they all started as blues bands. Here’s Clapton with The Yardbirds in 1963 doing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”:

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"Smokestack Lightnin'"

When Clapton left The Yardbirds in 1965, he went to a band that was known for playing more traditional blues, John Mayall’sBluesbreakers. Here’s Clapton and The Bluesbreakers with their 1966 version of Freddie King’s “Hideaway”:

hideaway.mp3
"Hideaway"

Within a couple a years after leaving The Yardbirds because they were too pop, Clapton found that playing pure blues with The Bluesbreakers was too confining for the kind of guitar playing he was experimenting with.

Right about that same time, Clapton saw Buddy Guy perform in England. Buddy Guy was just playing with a bass player and drummer, and that gave Clapton the idea to start his own trio with bass player Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. The band was called Cream. Here’s Eric Clapton with Cream from 1968 doing a very electrified version of the Robert Johnson tune “Crossroads”:

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"Crossroads"

Between his work with The Bluesbreakers and with Cream, Clapton essentially defined blues-rock. And virtually all other forms of rock stem from that — hard rock, metal, southern rock, you name it. So ironically enough, the guy who quit The Yardbirds in 1965 for being too pop eventually became one of the most successful pop artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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