Eric Clapton was a legend and one of rock’s greatest guitarists before he ever started making solo records: his albums with the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith influenced generations of guitarists (as did his work with Derek & the Dominoes — but their album came after Clapton’s debut album).
But now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Clapton’s self-titled debut album, we’re celebrating his solo catalog (as well as a few collaborative efforts with a few other legends. From Eric Clapton to Happy Xmas, here are our favorite E.C. solo jams.
Eric Clapton owed a lot to J.J. Cale, who died in 2013. Cale’s laid back bluesy style was hugely influential on Clapton in the ‘70s, and of course, Clapton had massive hits during that decade with Cale’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Clapton and Cale did an album together in 2006, but on ‘The Breeze,’ Clapton assembled an A-list group of guest stars to pay tribute to the man, shortly after his passing. Despite the legends guesting on the album (including Tom Petty and Willie Nelson) “Call Me The Breeze,” a Clapton solo performance, was the highlight.
A song from Clapton’s Christmas album that works all year round; it’s a cover of a soul classic by R&B singer William Bell.
In the ‘80s, Eric Clapton ventured into the world of film scores; he scored the first three ‘Lethal Weapon’ films with composer/conductor Michael Kamel and jazz saxophonist David Sanborn. On ‘Lethal Weapon 3,’ he also contributed a duet with Elton John; Clapton and Elton brought their VH1-leaning A-games, and the song was a #10 hit on mainstream rock radio.
The shows documented on this live album were part of what was billed as his final world tour. Of course, he’s logged many more miles since then. But there was something moving about Clapton ending the shows with Judy Gardland’s 1939 classic from ‘The Wizard Of Oz.’
Eric Clapton started working with Phil Collins for 1985’s ‘Behind The Sun.’ At the time, Collins was one of music’s biggest hitmakers as the frontman of Genesis and as a bona fide solo star, and he brought some of that radio magic to the sessions. But on “Too Bad,” Clapton and Collins seemed to forget about the charts, and played for a late-night juke joint decades in the past. Phil Collins is playing drums here; Chris Stainton plays piano and Donald “Duck” Dunn is on bass, and the four of them made a fine blues combo.
Eric Clapton was one of the artists who were instrumental in bringing the blues to a white audience in the ‘60s, along with the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Everyone acknowledges this. But he also deserves credit for helping expose America to Jamaican reggae music. In 1974-1975, he recorded a bunch of reggae songs, and while this Peter Tosh cover wasn’t the most successful one (we’ll get to *that* song later), “Whatcha Gonna Do” shows his love of the genre. The song features Tosh on guitar and vocals, giving it some added legitimacy. For some reason, it went unreleased for over a decade until it was included on Clapton’s 1988 ‘Crossroads’ box set.
Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy have performed together many times over the decades, but they were never more powerful than when they hit the stage of Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001 at the Concert for New York City. They could have done any number of mournful blues jams (or Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven”), but instead, they went with the full-on swagger of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” (written by Willie Dixon).
In the ‘90s, Curtis Mayfield was as big an influence on Eric Clapton as the blues; you can hear it all over 1998’s ‘Pilgrim’ record. Sadly, when Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he was confined to a wheelchair, so Clapton and R&B star D’Angelo performed in his honor. This delicate and mournful performance of “I’ve Been Trying,” saw Clapton stretching his soprano vocal to the limit to honor a legend.
After the massive success of ‘Journeyman,’ “Tears In Heaven” and ‘Unplugged’ Clapton reconnected with his blues roots on ‘From The Cradle,’ an album of blues covers. He sounds loose and relaxed on Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down”; he’s having a blast and so are we.
Clapton’s funky take on this 1980 Stevie Wonder hit features Curtis Mayfield’s former bandmates in the Impressions on backing vocals. Clapton’s singing is great here, but longtime bass player Nathan East’s playing really stands out.
After two albums inspired by R&B and pop, Clapton reconnected with the blues on ‘Me and Mr. Johnson,’ an album of Robert Johnson covers. Led Zeppelin popularized this song with their cover, but Clapton’s sticks a bit closer to the original (even as he’s using a band, and Johnson, of course, recorded solo acoustic). Nearly anything on ‘Me And Mr. Johnson’ and the accompanying EP, ‘Sessions For Robert J” could have made this list, but “Traveling Riverside Blues” was a definite highlight.
Clapton first experienced this song when Elton opened a U.S. tour for Derek & the Dominoes; decades later, Clapton recorded this cover, infusing the gospel jam with a bit of New Orleans funk, and made it bluesy. It was yet another great reminder of Clapton’s ability as a song interpreter.
Four years after Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down in an on-stage accident, some major stars (Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Phil Collins) paid tribute to the man on this album. Clapton’s version of “You Must Believe Me,” featuring Nile Rodgers of Chic on rhythm guitar, was one of the album’s highlights, and an underrated song in Clapton’s repertoire.
This song, co-written by Clapton and Will Jennings, was overshadowed by *another* Clapton/Jennings collaboration on the same album (that would be a ditty called “Tears In Heaven”). But this song should have been a pop smash, and is another underrated gem in a catalog filled with them.
It was clear that on ‘Journeyman,’ Clapton was swinging for the fences, and it worked: over two decades into his career, he was more popular than ever. But he made sure to represent his early rock and roll roots among the pop hits with the album’s closer, a roof-raising Bo Diddley cover.
You can argue all day over what Eric Clapton’s best guitar solo is. But the best kazoo solo on an Eric Clapton album is easily this one! There were a lot of heavy moments in Clapton’s “Unplugged” session, but this lightened things up and was one of the album’s many highlights. Fans of ‘MTV Unplugged’ might have been familiar with this song, as Paul McCartney recorded it at his ‘Unplugged’ a year earlier.
‘The Last Waltz’ (1978) When Eric Clapton presented the Band at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, he said that he basically broke up Cream after hearing the Band. He also admitted that when he went to visit “Robbie [Robertson] and the boys” at their studio, “I really sort of went there to ask if I could join the Band! Only I didn’t have the guts to say it!” But he had his chance to jam with them at their final show, giving a glimpse of how great a Band with Clapton would have been.
Wherein Clapton steps aside and gives the mic to Buddy Guy. For the most part, Clapton ditched super-long epic jams after he dissolved Cream, but here, he and Guy stretch this Willie Dixon classic out past the 10-minute mark, and it still leaves you wanting more.
One of many songs that Jerry Lynn Williams wrote for ‘Journeyman’ (although in his autobiography, Clapton claims that he actually co-wrote all of those songs with Williams). This one was squarely aimed at the pop charts, and the recording was sweetened by backing vocals by Daryl Hall. Somehow it didn’t make a big pop impact, although it reached number four on the mainstream rock charts.
By the ‘90s, Clapton had evolved as an artist and he was far removed from the Cream guy who piled on the distortion and inspired generations of hard rock guitar players. But the title track to the 1993 Jimi Hendrix tribute reminded everyone how nasty and funky he could get. He collaborated with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson on this track, reminding fans that they were a fierce rock band before they helped to create disco (sadly, it was the last time the three played together).
It’s another break on the pop-heavy ‘Journeyman’ where Clapton reconnects with his roots. Clapton covered a number of R&B hits in his days with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but by the late ‘80s, he had enough grit in his voice to bring gravitas to this 1958 Ray Charles ballad.
In 2008, former Blind Faith bandmates Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood reunited for a tour; of course, they played Blind Faith songs, but as the band only released one album, that gave time for other songs. Besides songs from the Derek & The Dominoes and Traffic catalogs, there were three Jimi Hendrix covers. On “Voodoo Chile,” Clapton sings lead for just the first 20 seconds or so, handing the mic to Steve Winwood for the remaining 16 minutes(!) of the song. As previously mentioned, since leaving Cream, Clapton hasn’t been big on lengthy jams, but when he goes there, he makes it count. Their version of the song would make Hendrix proud (fun fact: Winwood played Hammond organ on the original).
The first song and lead single from ‘Journeyman,’ the Jerry Williams-written song kicked off the album’s campaign properly, getting played on MTV and VH1 and topping the mainstream rock charts.
This song, a duet between Clapton and Marcy Levy (the two co-wrote the song as well), has one of Clapton’s catchiest riffs. Clocking in at eight minutes, forty-five seconds, it’s one of his longer studio jams, and it might have been a hit had it been cut down a bit. But rock radio loved it anyway, and it’s one of Clapton’s best rock songs of the ‘70s.
After two albums produced by Phil Collins, Clapton moved on to Russ Titelman for ‘Journeyman.’ But Collins joined him on this song, playing drums and singing backing vocals. Clapton co-wrote the song with Mick Jones of Foreigner, also no stranger to radio hits, and Clapton said that it was Jones who suggested a “Badge”-like guitar break in the song (which comes at the three-minute point). The song came through, topping the Mainstream Rock Songs chart and winning a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance.
Clapton had a lot of success with covers in the ‘70s, so you’d be excused if you thought that the country shuffle “Lay Down Sally” was someone else’s song. In fact, Clapton co-wrote it with Marcy Levy (see “The Core,” #27) and rhythm guitarist George Terry. Not only was it a number three pop single, it also hit #26 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Much like “Lay Down Sally,” this is a laid-back mellow jam that isn’t about fiery guitar playing; it’s more like Jimmy Buffett than Jeff Beck. The acoustic tune was something of a precursor to his ‘Unplugged’ success, over a decade later.
Decades after scoring huge hits with “Cocaine” and “After Midnight,” Clapton teamed up with the man who wrote those songs, country-bluesman J.J. Cale, for a full album as a duo. Clapton rarely addresses politics in his songs, but in this jam (written by Cale, as is much of the album), the duo sing “When the war is over/it’ll be a better day/But it won't bring back/Those poor boys in their graves,” it’s more of a statement of fact than a protest anthem.
Clapton never leaves the blues far behind: even in the midst of his country and reggae influenced laid back ‘70s era, he could still cook on a blues tune, as he does on this Otis Rush classic. And yes, Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band after this song.
Eric Clapton and B.B. King’s collaborative album felt like it was years in the making, and it was great that Clapton shared his platform with his idol (Clapton was a much bigger draw in 2000 than King was). But the album felt a bit polite. The title track, a cover of a John Hiatt song, was a hoot, and it holds up to both men’s catalogs.
Clapton’s first album for Warner Brothers Records, 1983’s ‘Money And Cigarettes,’ was a commercial flop (note that none of the songs from that album made this list, or even came close). So the record label recruited Phil Collins to produce the follow-up, ‘Behind The Sun.’ “She’s Waiting,” co-written by Clapton and Collins’ occasional collaborator Peter Robinson, got decent play on rock radio and is easily one of his best ‘80s jams.
This sweet, whimsical acoustic based tune doesn’t get the love that some of Clapton’s mellow ‘70s jams do, and that’s a shame.
Written for Clapton by Jerry Williams, this was the lead single from ‘Behind The Sun,’ and it was a top 40 single. It also topped the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, successfully breaking him out of his ‘Money and Cigarettes’ slump. Clapton rarely plays songs from this era, but he performed “Forever Man” as a duet on his tour with Steve Winwood in 2008.
Of the many intimidating aspects of playing the blues, one of the most intimidating is: how do you write new songs that hold up with what’s been done before by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker? This song, which Clapton co-wrote with Robert Cray (who plays guitar on the track) feels like a blues classic in its own right.
A decade before Guns N’ Roses made this Bob Dylan song a huge rock hit, Eric Clapton put his spin on it, giving it a bit of a reggae tilt, in line with some of his mellower ‘70s material.
‘There’s One In Every Crowd’ isn’t Clapton’s strongest album, and it definitely doesn’t hold up to the previous two, but -- as is often the case -- Clapton finds his inspiration in the blues. The album’s highlight is this Elmore James cover.
‘Journeyman’ has an embarrassment of riches, and we might argue that it’s Clapton’s strongest solo studio album. One song that never got the love it deserved, though, was this Jerry Williams-penned blues-gospel jam. It’s “adult” in all the right ways: it wasn’t a song that necessarily screamed “put me on VH1!” But it was a song that a younger man probably couldn’t have credibly sung.
Recording ‘No Reason To Cry’ at the Band’s Shangri-La studios is probably as close as Clapton got to joining the Band. This song is a duet with the Band’s bassist/singer Rick Danko, who co-wrote it with Clapton. They performed it at ‘The Last Waltz,’ although it was cut from the film and soundtrack.
It’s a testament to Clapton’s underappreciated songwriting ability that he wrote a beautiful love song inspired by the excessive amount of time that he had to wait for his date to get ready to go out. It was a top 20 hit and is probably Clapton’s most played song at weddings.
Clapton’s friend Bob Dylan was often hanging around at Shangri-La studios during the making of the “No Reason To Cry’ album. Dylan offered Clapton an unreleased song called “Seven Days,” which Clapton declined (Ron Wood ended up recording it). But Clapton did record Dylan’s “Sign Language” with Dylan’s help. Wood contributes guitar to the song, as does the Band’s Robbie Robertson.
First performed on ‘MTV Unplugged’ (but not included on the album), Clapton revisited the song on his next studio album, the slickly produced ‘Pilgrim.’ After the tragic 1991 death of his four year old son, Conor, Clapton began reckoning with his own life. “My Father’s Eyes” deals with Clapton’s own father, who he never met. The song features some of Clapton’s best lyrics and demonstrates that when he’s inspired, Clapton is an A-list songwriter.
Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert, which took place at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1992, was filled with highlights, but Clapton had one of the very best moments with his take on one of Dylan’s angriest breakup songs.
The R&B-tinged song for the soundtrack of the John Travolta film ‘Phenomenon’ paired Clapton with R&B superstar Babyface. It was a powerful combination, and the song’s impact dwarfed that of the film that it came from: “Change The World” won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammys.
A year after the Quiet Beatle passed on, a massive tribute concert in his honor was staged, with Clapton as the musical director. Clapton, of course, played the guitar solo on the Beatles’ original version of the song. Watching Clapton and McCartney -- both of whom loved Harrison, but had complicated relationships with him -- backed by a band that included Ringo Starr on drums, was incredibly powerful and a fitting tribute.
For many Americans, this was their introduction to reggae music. Recorded one year after Bob Marley’s original version, Clapton’s cover was one of his biggest hits, topping the pop charts. Apparently Clapton’s band -- which included guitarist George Terry -- had to convince him to record the song.
One of Clapton’s most enduringly popular solo jams, he stuck pretty close to the original J.J. Cale version of the song. Clapton, of course, had pretty well-documented issues with substances, giving this song a dark subtext. Clapton hasn’t always performed it at his concerts over the years and when he does, he adds the lyrics “that dirty cocaine.” Clapton’s feelings on drug use are clear: he has put tons of money, time and effort into his Crossroads Centre rehabilitation facility in Antigua.
So, we’ve avoided Clapton’s solo versions of his classics from his prior bands here. But we’ll make an exception for the “unplugged” version of the Derek & the Dominoes classic “Layla,” as it was so radically different from the original. The “unplugged” version slows down the iconic riff and eliminates Jim Gordon’s epic piano solo that closes the song. There are few other instances of such an iconic song getting such a successful second life: the original “Layla” is one of the most popular songs in rock radio history while the acoustic one was a number 4 pop hit, leading ‘Unplugged’ to sell over 20 million copies worldwide, making it Clapton’s most successful album.
Like “Cocaine,” “After Midnight” was a J.J. Cale cover. But unlike “Cocaine,” which stuck closely to Cale’s original arrangement, Clapton’s “After Midnight” was way more upbeat than Cale’s. It became a signature tune for both artists. Cale told British magazine ‘Mojo’ when he heard Clapton’s version on the radio in his car, he pulled over to the side of the road in shock. “I'd never heard anything of my own on the radio before.” He’d probably hear a lot more over the years, with this song, as well as “Cocaine,” not to mention Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover of “Call Me The Breeze.”
After Blind Faith dissolved, Eric Clapton briefly joined Delaney & Bonnie, the group who opened on Blind Faith’s tour. He then worked with members of the band on his solo debut; “Let It Rain” was co-written with Bonnie Bramlett and was built around a clean, distinctive “Badge”-like guitar riff. Concise and catchy but with great guitar playing, it set the tone for Clapton’s greatest solo songs.
The deceptively gentle song was shocking when Clapton fans first heard it. It was acoustic, it didn’t sound like the blues, it was really unlike anything he’d ever done. Also, he was speaking more frankly about his life than he ever had before: the song was inspired by the tragic death of his four-year-old son, Conor. Such a personal song seemed like an odd choice for a film soundtrack. But like the best songs, it’s clear enough so that you know what it’s about, but vague enough that it could apply to everyone’s life. So even though it doesn’t have Clapton’s signature guitar heroics, it’s a blues song because we feel his pain, every time we hear it. As a songwriter, it’s his finest moment.