Clapton breaks out and changes the course of English rock
Having quit The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton was soon enlisted into the prestigious ranks of keyboard/singer/harmonica extraordinaire John Mayall, who had by the mid-sixties become something of an institution on the British blues scene. Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Peter Green and Mick Taylor had all at one time or another been members of his band, but it is Clapton’s tenure that is often best remembered.
Released in 1966, John Mayall & The Blues Breakers has sometimes been regarded as not just one of the best English blues records ever made, but also one of Clapton’s finest too. That the album title includes ‘with Eric Clapton’ is evidence not only of the guitarist’s by then considerable reputation, yet confirmation of Mayall’s belief in his young protégé.
By now Clapton had switched from a Telecaster to a Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp, thus radically altering his sound in the process. The reason for such a switch in instruments was due to his admiration of Freddie King, who used a Les Paul. In this way Clapton was hoping to emulate the blues guitarist’s exact tone.
In just three days, Mayall and his Blues Breakers cut the majority of tracks at Decca Studios in London, something which would be considered as monumental today, but back in 1966 was fairly common place. And despite the sheer variety of material, it is Clapton’s presence which dominates from beginning to end.
On “All Your Love,” the album opener, one can hear the distinct and unique quality in Clapton’s playing, paying tribute to Otish Rush, but of course in his own way, by turning up the volume to create an almost one man wall of sound. The bluesy shuffle of Freddie King’s “Hideaway” gets a brisk workout; followed by a couple of Mayall originals, “Little Girl” (Clapton cheekily borrows the main riff from Howlin’ Wolf’s “44 Blues”), and the Sonny Boy Williamson inspired “Another Man.”
The Clapton/Mayall co-write “Double Crossing Time” is the kind of slow blues Eric would revisit time and again throughout his later life, while Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is given a lively interpretation (marred only by Hughie Flint’s extended drum solo). But it isn’t all Eric’s show. Mayall’s extremely emotive voice is a perfect match for this sort of music, as displayed on the brassy “Key To Love,” the harmonica driven “Parchman Farm,” and “Have You Heard,” a performance that features some stinging lead breaks from Clapton.
Eric makes his singing debut on Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” a far cry from his cover of the legendary bluesman’s “Crossroads” just a couple of years later with Cream. No apparently Jimi Hendrix was quite a fan of this album, and listening to “Steppin’ Out” it’s not difficult to imagine why. Little Walter’s “It Ain’t Right” ended side two of the original vinyl, finding Mayall yet again wailing away on his harmonica like a native of Chicago.
Not long after this LP came the famous “Clapton is God” graffiti finding its way around London, no doubt inflating Clapton’s ego beyond what it already was. But that’s OK, because Blues Breakers is a very fine record indeed. And if you want more, then the 2CD remaster is the one to get. Packed with previously unreleased recordings, including live tracks culled from the BBC, along with rare studio cuts featuring Jack Bruce, it is the ultimate edition of this classic album.