Eric Clapton was once “god,” the best rock and blues guitarist on the planet, adored by fans of his time with John Mayall, Cream, Derek and the Dominos and then his solo career.
Now, aside from the recent nonsense of joining in with Van Morrison in a petulant wail against pandemic restrictions, and touting unscientific and dangerous claims about fertility against vaccines, he is a figure who seems to divide blues fans.
This is clear whenever you see something about him posted on blues-related social media – the negative reaction can be visceral. There’ll be those who won’t even bother to read this article and will simply react to the mere suggestion that Clapton’s Unplugged could be a classic blues album.
Others will take a more considered approach to Clapton, understanding his lifelong obsession with the blues and the contribution he made to the genre during the 1960s when the genre was in steep decline in the United States because of the rise of pop, rock’n’roll, soul and R&B. That was B.B. King’s view, who said that he and Clapton had been friends since they met in the 60s and that Clapton “plays blues better than most of us.”
The album the two made in 2000, Riding with the King, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album, shows two men in love with the blues, their music making flowing effortlessly off each other. And, of course, the admiration was not one way, Clapton thanking King “for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave to me as a player over the years,” and hailing Live at the Regal as the album which got him started with the blues.
Clapton was also very close with Muddy Waters, whom he described as “the father figure I never really had” and his greatest influence. His playing was also deeply influenced by Robert Johnson, who amazed him with his guitar chops and singing. “There were very few people on record who sounded like they were singing from the heart,” said Clapton, “there’s no comparison, this guy’s got finesse. His touch was extraordinary. Which is amazing in light of the fact that he was simultaneously singing with such intensity.” Clapton’s 2004 album, Me and Mr Johnson plays tribute to his lifelong fascination with Johnson.
So, given the association Clapton has had over the years with the greats in the blues Pantheon and their high opinion of his blues contribution, it’s hard to understand how he gets dismissed so readily by some blues fans. Clapton himself has said of his commitment to the blues, “I recognise that I have some responsibility to keep the music alive.”
All that said, on to Unplugged as one of our “Great Blues Albums.”
Playing his Martin 000-42 acoustic guitars, and accompanied by a small group of musicians, including Andy Fairweather Low and Chuck Leavell, Clapton performed the songs for a small audience in England in 1992 at a particularly emotional time for him. His four-year-old son Conor had died four months previously after falling from his 53rd floor apartment. Tears in Heaven – clearly not a blues song in form, but arguably in content – was one of the fourteen songs on the original album, which became 20 in the 2013 remastered version.
The album won three Grammys at the 1991 awards and became the bestselling live album of all time, and Clapton’s bestselling album, selling 26 million copies worldwide. It was released in August 1992 to wide critical acclaim and revitalized Clapton’s career.
The bulk of the setlist consists of traditional blues, including Big Bill Broonzy’s Hey Hey, Robert Johnson’s Malted Milk and Son House’s Walkin’ Blues. Songs from Jimmy Cos, Lead Belly, Muddy Water, Bo Didley, and Robert Cray, along with a couple of Clapton originals complete the set. One of these is an acoustic version of Layla which works surprisingly well.
Clapton breathes new life into these songs – his version of Jimmy Cox’s depression era song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out has become something of a definitive version, his Walkin’ Blues with its cool slide guitar recalls Robert Johnson’s version, and Muddy Waters Rollin’ and Tumblin’ still rocks as an acoustic number.
Although the blues songs here are all cover versions of old blues songs, aside from the fact that the album just sounds so good, the significance of the album is the effect it has had on acoustic blues music. Subsequent to Unplugged, during the 1990s, you see artists like Keb’ Mo’, Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Guy Davis all seeming to come to prominence. For sure, these and other great artists whose music was based on acoustic guitar had been plying their trade for some time before that – some for a long time, reaching back to the 60s – and had a loyal following. But Clapton’s Unplugged brought blues music – and acoustic blues – to a much wider audience and got a new generation of fans interested in these other artists and then also beginning to listen to the original artists as well.
Testimony to that is conversations I’ve had recently with professional acoustic artists who hail Unplugged as being formative in their awakening to the blues.
Plus, Unplugged stands the test of time. It’s an album anyone can listen to and hear a modern interpretation of the blues that is not dated and is hugely enjoyable. Purists may prefer that everyone listens to Lead Belly or Bill Broonzy, but for everyone else, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is their way into appreciating the blues.