The most famous gig Clapton held before Cream was as guitar foil to John Mayall in the supremely influential British band the Bluesbreakers. It was there that Clapton was tagged “god” and played his role in the canonization of the Gibson Les Paul Standard. But everybody knows about the Bluesbreakers and their famous eponymous “Beano” album, right? After all, Clapton’s interpretations of “Steppin’ Out” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway” became litmus tests for the era’s up-and-coming blues pickers.
But what about his other less well known gigs as a supporting player, which range from stints with the Beatles, in formative roots-rock bands, alongside psychedelic gurus and in an electronica project — and still continue to this day? There’s a lot more to Clapton than blues, “Layla” and ’80s beer commercials, as this list of 10 of his most distinguished gigs as a sideman attest:
• The Beatles: That’s Clapton sparring with George Harrison on The White Album’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” In 1969 the other Beatles contemplated asking him to replace Harrison to complete Let It Be, because tensions between the group’s guitarist and his ‘mates had become so severe. And after the Beatles ran out of gas as a group, Clapton joined John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band, contributing to the group’s without-a-net Live Peace in Toronto album. In the 2000s he regrouped with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, playing on their solo discs as well. And of course Clapton was Harrison’s foil for 1970’s majestic and sprawling All Things Must Pass.
• Delaney & Bonnie: Clapton’s fascination with American roots music had grown well beyond blues by the time Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s band opened for Clapton and his cohorts in Blind Faith in 1969. The next year Clapton joined their band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and hit the road. In 1970 the release of the live document On Tour With Eric Clapton, thanks to the use of Clapton’s name, handily increased Delaney and Bonnie’s fan base and profile. Clapton used his time in the group to explore other forms of music from the American south, like country and soul, as well as his beloved blues. And the gig introduced Clapton to Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle, who would morph into his bandmates in Derek and the Dominos. Delaney also became the co-writer and producer of Clapton’s first solo album, Eric Clapton, in 1970.
• Music From Free Creek: This super-session double-LP was the invention of producers Earle Doud and Tom Flye, who were convinced that they’d make a hit by calling together an A-list of rock star friends that included Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Dr. John, Delaney Bramlett, Jeff Beck, Todd Rundgren, Keith Emerson and others. Unfortunately Clapton, Beck and Emerson were all on different sessions, but Clapton’s pairing with Dr. John — both supporting singers who’ve since slipped in obscurity — on three tracks is a notable meeting of roots music giants. Due to contractual obligations, Clapton was billed as “King Cool” for the original release.
• Waylon Jennings: Yes, in 1978 Clapton played on several tracks by the granddaddy of Outlaw Country. The occasion was the overlooked White Mansions, a concept album — essentially an “un”-rock opera — that looks at the Civil War through the eyes of three white southerners whose stories were connected by Jennings in the role of “the Drifter.” There is a slight chance some marijuana was smoked during the making of this trippy album, which cracked the country music Top 40 at number 38.
• Buddy Guy & Junior Wells: Clapton put himself in the service of this revered Chicago blues duo as payback on the 1972 release Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues. Much of Clapton’s stinging, single-note attack can be traced back to classic Guy recordings like 1968’s A Man and the Blues and Guy’s earlier sides for Chess Records, where he displayed a clean, saber-like tone. Clapton played second guitar and co-produced alongside the giants Tom Down and Ahmet Ertegun. Although the sessions were reportedly chaotic and difficult, the results are quite good. Clapton would join Guy in the studio again, for 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues and Guy’s 2008 Grammy winner Skin Deep.
• Roger Waters: After Pink Floyd – or at least Roger Waters — called their band quits for the first time, Waters tapped Clapton as guitarist for his 1984 concept album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. The disc suffers from the same self-absorption that makes The Final Cut, the last project featuring the original post-Syd Barrett line-up of Pink Floyd, a mere testament to Waters’ confusion about his personal issues, but it’s less inner-directed and Clapton gets to open up not only on guitar but guitar synthesizer.
• Buckwheat Zydeco: Clapton met Stanley Dural, the Louisiana keyboard king who goes by the pseudonym “Buckwheat Zydeco,” at an all-star jam on stage in London in 1987, where Dural traded volleys with the master guitarist on Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos hit “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad.” A year later Clapton took Dural’s invitation for an in-studio rematch, adding burly guitar to the song on Buckwheat Zydeco’s 1988 release Taking It Home. The pairing temporarily gave Dural, who also opened dates on Clapton’s “25th Anniversary Tour” in 1987/’88, and the zydeco genre a higher profile.
• Taj Mahal: Clapton and this great American bluesman have been crossing paths since the 1960s, but their most notable musical intersection is on 1996’s Mahal album Phantom Blues, where Clapton supports the gravel voiced multi-instrumentalist on “Here In the Dark” and “You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling,” the latter a tune associated with another of Clapton’s deepest blues influences, fellow Gibson playing legend Freddie King.
• Carlos Santana: “The Calling” is a battle of ’60s guitar “gods,” with Santana and Clapton trading lead and supportive rhythm on the track from Santana’s mega-comeback album, 1999’s Supernatural. Hard-core fans of both legends will want to invest the $1.29 it takes to download “The Calling Jam” from the expanded “Legacy Edition” reissue, which captures both guitarists playing it heavy on the song’s theme.
• TDF: This is one of Clapton’s hippest collaborations, because he’s playing outside of his box. Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Simon Climie pressed Clapton into service for an electronica/dance album as the one-off TDF, an abbreviation for Totally Dysfunctional Family. Their sole 11-track disc Retail Therapy was issued in 1997 and includes “Seven,” which marked the second time B.B. King’s performance of “How Blue Can You Get” was sampled, following Primitive Radio Gods’ hit “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” by a year.
Read about Clapton’s part in the Harrison-Clapton 1957 Les Paul Standard "Lucy” here.