From Blind Faith To Derek And The Dominos: 16 Pivotal Months In Eric Clapton’s Career

[Includes Video] Where’s Eric! is currently celebrating the legacy of Derek And The Dominos and the 40th Anniversary Layla Editions with a series of exclusive feature articles and news. The forthcoming issue of Where’s Eric! Magazine (#42) will also get in on the Layla action with a series of special articles as well. First up in the series was an interview with Bill Levenson, who compiled the anniversary editions. Now, freelance writer Dean R. Owen takes a look at 16 pivotal months in Eric Clapton’s career. Dean was 14-years-old when he sat in the fifth row for the Derek and the Dominos concert in Berkeley, California.

From Blind Faith To The Dominos: 16 Pivotal Months In Eric Clapton’s Career
How Delaney Bramlett and Bobby Whitlock Transformed the Guitarist into a Singer and Songwriter, and He Transformed Them.
By Dean R. Owen

The crowd in the Berkeley Community Theater is anxious. The stage is dark, but a dim light behind one of the amplifiers illuminates the head of a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Immediately, 3,000 people erupt in screams and applause.

With the stage still pitch-black, the drummer slaps a rim shot and begins riding a cymbal. The guitarist launches into a playful “wah-wah” introduction. Then the bassist falls into line. Finally, the organ player joins in with a teasing interplay off of the guitarist’s bluesy riff.

As the four musicians build their 90-second jam to a crescendo, the spotlight fully illuminates “Brownie,” the Stratocaster, and its owner, Eric Clapton who’s wearing dark glasses and a blue wool cap. More importantly, the British rock icon is doing something he’s never done before in the Bay Area: singing from center stage.

It is November 18, 1970, the local premiere of Derek and the Dominos.

For Clapton, then 25, being the band leader was unprecedented. Unlike his role in previous groups, including the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith, he was emerging into the singer and songwriter that he is acclaimed for today.

The period between August of 1969 and November of 1970, was one of the most pivotal of his career, largely because of the influence of two men. Delaney Bramlett and Bobby Whitlock transformed Clapton, and, in some ways, he transformed them.

“My solo career really began there,” Clapton writes of his collaboration with Bramlett in his 2007 New York Times best-selling autobiography, Clapton. “I’ll never be able to repay Delaney for his belief in me. He saw something I had stopped looking for in myself.”

Clapton first encountered Bramlett’s music early in the summer of 1969. He enjoyed the Southern rock-gospel influences he heard, and reportedly insisted that the group, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, join Blind Faith on its first – and only – U.S. tour in July and August.

That enjoyment flourished during the ill-fated tour; he found solace, comfort and inspiration from the Bramletts.

“We were young and we were having fun,” recalls Delaney’s widow Bonnie Bramlett, now 66, in a recent interview from her home in Nashville. “The ‘supergroups’ – Cream, Blind Faith – they worked him to death. He saw a light at the end of the tunnel and it was us.”

When the tour ended in August, instead of returning to the UK, Clapton traveled to the Bramletts’ home in Sherman Oaks, California for a few weeks. Delaney mentored the guitarist, nurturing him to develop his singing and song-writing talents. The two formed a pact: Delaney & Bonnie and Friends would tour the UK and Europe with Mr. Clapton as a sideman, and Delaney would produce an album for Clapton.

Those shows, some of which included Beatle George Harrison, led to a live album, On Tour, recorded in Croydon, England December 7th, 1969, and released in June 1970. In 2010, Rhino Records released a four-CD set that includes three complete shows and portions of two others, far more than the nine songs on the original LP.

Back in Los Angeles, Clapton, the Bramletts and their “friends,” including Stephen Stills, Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge, recorded his first solo album, Eric Clapton, which includes J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” a standard Clapton often still performs in concert.

Bramlett admonished Clapton to use his God-given singing talents.

“Delaney told Eric, ‘I didn’t go down to no crossroads to get these chops, you didn’t go to no crossroads,’” Ms. Bramlett says. “’Those are a gift directly from God and only God can take them from you.’”

The group celebrated the completion of the record with a month-long tour of the U.S, closing with four shows, February 19-22, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Admission was $3.00 (US) for four bands, each of which played two sets. The band’s final set featured Clapton and Bramlett exchanging solos on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” a Clapton “signature.”

After his tour with Delaney and Bonnie, Clapton returned to his estate, Hurtwood Edge, in Surrey near London.

Delaney died December 27, 2007, but if alive today, how would he describe his influence on Clapton?

“He would say that Eric did way more for us than we did for him,” Ms. Bramlett says. “If you see some of the footage of the live tour, you’ll hear Eric singing, ‘I Don’t Know Why.’ Listen in the background, and you’ll hear Delaney pumping the words because Eric got scared. You’ll hear Delaney saying, ‘I’m here brother.’ And you’ll see Eric looking to the left, and you’ll see Eric smiling such a sweet, ‘I’m safe now’ smile.”

Clapton soon returned to his estate Hurtwood Edge, in Surrey County near London. A few months later, Whitlock’s random phone call would lead to the band that would place Clapton front and center, as well as the recording of not one, but two of rock music’s landmark albums.

Whitlock, barely 22, contacted his mentor, Steve Cropper, the guitarist and producer, best known for “Green Onions,” the Booker T and the MGs hit. On Cropper’s suggestion, he called Clapton and, with Cropper paying the airfare, arrived a few days later on Clapton’s doorstep with a couple of shirts, two extra pairs of jeans and about $150.

For the first time publicly, Cropper reveals why he suggested Whitlock visit Clapton.

“I knew I was witnessing a star, someone with a ton of talent and drive for the future,” Cropper says. “… So I suggested he go to England. I knew Jimi (Hendrix) had done it and felt Bobby had what it would take to impress the labels over there… Clapton was a bit shy and Bobby was just the opposite, I think Clapton learned a lot from Bobby… They definitely learned from each other.”

Whitlock planned to stay only for a week or two.

“It started simple, cup of tea and talking,” Whitlock says in an interview two months ago from his residence in Austin, Texas. “We got to know each other before we picked up guitars.”

Getting acquainted led to jamming and, as Whitlock recalls, “everything evolved naturally… our souls met.”

Two additional “friends” joined them: drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Radle. Within a few weeks, songs familiar to Clapton fans, such as “Anyday” and “Tell the Truth” began to take shape. "It was during this period that I learned what little I do know about writing songs, and most of that I learned from Bobby Whitlock,” Clapton writes in the foreword to Whitlock’s book, A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography, published earlier this year by McFarland Publishing.

“It’s all to do with persistence and relentlessness. My inherent attitude is, ‘If it doesn’t come out easily in one go, it’s probably not worth bothering about.’ But Bobby would want to go over and over our ideas until something materialized.”

The four spent a few weeks playing music and consuming cocaine, brandy, vodka and sleeping pills, when Harrison contacted Clapton, asking to “borrow” him and his new housemates to help on an album. In May, the four converged on Abbey Road Studios, and joined to back up the former Beatle on All Things Must Pass, a six-time platinum LP.

One month later, Derek and the Dominos – Clapton, Whitlock, Gordon and Radle – hit the road, not performing in 20,000-seat arenas, but rather in clubs throughout the U.K. Their sets included songs from Clapton’s solo album, which was released that month.

Whitlock compares his support behind Clapton’s vocals to a spotter helping a weight-lifter. It “was an invisible weight that I took off of him as being the lead singer,” says Whitlock. “When I was singing behind him and often trading off with him… it lifted him up.”

Whitlock remarked that the four performed “like an engine.”

“There was no worry about what the dynamics were,” he says. “It was not just the expertise of each musician. It was the whole creative flow. It was one continuous magic moment.”

The essence of that magic is the two-album set Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs recorded over several sessions in August, September and October, 1970 at Criteria Studios in Miami with Duane Allman’s immense contributions on slide guitar. Produced by Tom Dowd, who first worked with Clapton on Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the album and its title song often are heralded as classics in rock music history. Commemorative editions of the LP are being released this March, marking its 40th anniversary.

One can see the vocal interplay between Clapton and Whitlock on “It’s Too Late” from The Johnny Cash Show taped in early November in Nashville. That performance is the band’s only TV appearance, and was filmed 13 days before the show in Berkeley, California.

A faint haze of marijuana and tobacco smoke is hovering below the theater’s ceiling by the time drummer Jim Gordon finishes his captivating drum solo, and Clapton and Whitlock join in for the final refrain on “Let It Rain.”

Minutes later, the four men acknowledge the audience’s standing ovation, and with a brief “Thank you” and wave, Eric Clapton walks off with “Brownie.”

After the band’s performance the following evening, it would be three and a half years – and after his victory over a grueling battle with heroin addition – until Clapton returned to Northern California for two shows at the Cow Palace. With Radle the remaining “Domino” holdover, the group now was “Eric Clapton and Friends,” with the star attraction as lead singer and songwriter. Front and center.

[Dean R. Owen was 14-years-old when he sat in the fifth row for the Derek and The Dominos concert in Berkeley. He is a freelance writer and resides near Seattle, Washington.]

Territories outside of North America, including the U.K., saw the release of all digital and physical 40th Anniversary editions the week of 21 March. All versions will be released in Canada on 29 March. The U.S. will see staggered release dates beginning 29 March. On that date, all digital versions, the single CD remaster, and the two LP vinyl will be available at all music retailers. Additionally, Best Buy will have the double CD deluxe edition as an exclusive available online and in their stores from that date. Four weeks later, on 26 April, the super-deluxe box set hits the streets and all U.S. retailers will then have the double CD set available as well.

Don’t forget … even the forthcoming issue of Where’s Eric! Magazine (#42) will be getting in on the Layla action with a series of exclusive articles on Derek And The Dominos and their classic album. Want to know more about Where’s Eric! Magazine and learn how to subscribe? CLICK HERE’s online Derek And The Dominos / Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs Celebration will continue through 26 April, so keep checking back for more exclusive articles. Here’s what you may have missed so far:

Layla: Forty Years On – Listen To The Radio Special On The WE! Website
New Derek And The Dominos 7" Single For Record Store Day 2011
Layla’s 40th: The Where’s Eric! Interview With Bill Levenson
Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs: 40th Anniversary Editions Due This Month (with preview video animation)


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