Most of us would be content playing guitar as well as Eric Clapton during his Cream years. But Clapton was yearning for more as an artist. He left Cream in search of his creative destiny, and while he failed to find it in Blind Faith, he felt the right path beneath his feet when he struck up a friendship with Mississippi native Delaney Bramlett and joined Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Bramlett loved Clapton’s playing, of course, but encouraged E.C. as a songwriter and singer. Bramlett even produced Clapton’s first solo album, 1970’s elegant and thoroughly song-oriented Eric Clapton.
Ultimately it was Clapton’s songcraft and singing that elevated him to iconic status as an individual performer, and sometimes relegated his playing to the sidelines — much to the chagrin of his six-string oriented fans. Through the decades Clapton has continued to change, shift and evolve as a tunesmith. Here are 10 classic Clapton songs that plumb different aspects of his songwriting:
• “Let It Rain”: Although this tune closed 1970’s Eric Clapton, it wasn’t released as a single until 1972, to capitalize on the success of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla.” Co-written by Delaney and Bonnie, and showing the shadow of George Harrison in its guitar tones, “Let It Rain” is a graceful composition created under various influences.
• “Bell Bottom Blues”: Clapton followed his solo debut with Derek and the Domino’s enduring Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, and “Bell Bottom Blues” is the only tune on the double-disc set that Clapton penned by himself. It’s the first example of him writing directly from his heart. Like “Layla,” the song springs from his then-unrequited love to Pattie Boyd, who was married to his friend Harrison. She’s asked Clapton to bring her back a pair of bell-bottom jeans from the States. “Bell Bottom Blues” was cut before Duane Allman joined the sessions, so the solos are all Clapton, once again evoking Harrison.
• “Layla”: Jim Gordon gets a co-writer credit, but his contribution is this tune’s piano coda. This time Allman was present, inspiring Clapton’s collaborative instincts and pushing Clapton to transform a tune originally written as a ballad into a riff-rock classic.
• “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?”: If there’s a spirit guide to the Layla album — at least the blues tracks — it’s Freddie King. ES-355 and Les Paul Gold Top legend King wrote the set’s “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” which inspired Clapton and Allman’s most visceral dueling, and his influence pushes up the intensity of this track that Clapton co-wrote with keyboardist Bobby Whitlock.
• “Wonderful Tonight”: Slowhand in 1977 recharged Clapton’s career, reaching number two on Billboard’s top albums chart and dominating FM radio. And with “Wonderful Tonight,” Clapton revealed that he had mastered the art of crafting a smash pop ballad on his own.
• “Same Old Blues”: Clapton has long been conflicted about his departure from his blues textbook for the more sustaining world of pop music, and 1985’s “Some Old Blues” from Behind the Sun was an early effort to return to his foundation. This simple composition remains a testimonial to his ability to effortlessly create a platform for bringing on the amplified lightning and thunder.
• “Old Love”: Co-written with Robert Cray, “Old Love” again evoked Clapton’s blues roots, but showed his dexterity at tempering those with a soulful pop sensibility. Its album, 1989’s Journeyman, reached number one on the charts and Clapton won a Grammy for his vocal performance on the song — forever proving the days of guitar heroism alone we long behind him.
• “Tears in Heaven”: With help from songwriter Will Jennings, Clapton once again tapped his personal pain for music in 1992 — this time the loss of his young son Conor. The arrangement reflects his depth and maturity as an artist, drawing on a gentle weave of acoustic and electric instruments to create a sad lullaby, unlike anything he’d written to date.
• “My Father’s Eyes”: Clapton’s own description of this song from 1998’s Pilgrim says volumes about his mastery as a songwriter: “I tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood.”
• “Reptile”: The title track from Clapton’s 2001 album displays his reflective intelligence once more, paying tribute to his late uncle. Writing about reality is far more difficult than it seems.