I must be strong, and carry on

Ever since I was about 14, I’ve felt a strong bond with Eric Clapton, and that kinship has only increased over the years since.

EricClapton 1968When I heard him play those amazing electric guitar passages on the great songs by Cream, I knew I wanted to learn guitar.  I persuaded my parents to buy me a hollow body electric, and I took lessons in the hope that I could someday play like him.  Alas, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have the dexterity to be a lead guitarist, so I revised my dreams and started strumming a 12-string acoustic instead, and that suited me fine.

But I kept listening in awe as Clapton continued churning out incredible recordings as part of Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, and then throughout a solo career that has spanned nearly 50 years and included 25 studio albums, a dozen live LPs and numerous collaborations.

He and I also share a heartfelt appreciation for blues music.  Clearly, his passions have run far deeper, pushing him on to become one of the premier blues guitarists of his time, while I am merely a devoted follower.  As Clapton himself put it, “It’s difficult to explain the effect that the first blues record I heard had on me, except to say that I recognized it immediately.  It was as if I were being reintroduced to something that I already knew, maybe from another earlier life. For me, there is something primitively soothing about the blues.”

Bluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_ClaptonIt was Clapton’s early recordings that got me hooked on the blues.  His performance on Freddy King’s “Hideaway” on “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1966) still floors me to this day.  And that’s only one of probably a hundred tracks on which he shows unparalleled chops on smokin’ fast blues and smoldering slow blues alike.

Mayall, regarded as The Godfather of the British Blues revival, described Clapton this way:  “When it came to blues, there was nobody like him. He knew the history of it, the background of it, had the emotional feel for it, and the technique to express it.  And my band gave him the freedom to let loose.  And it’s truly incredible what he has accomplished since those days.”

In 2007, Clapton released his autobiography, entitled simply “Clapton,” and I bought it right away.  I was profoundly moved by it because he laid bare so much of his personal life, which has been riddled with traumatic, life-changing events and inner demons with which he has struggled mightily.

In particular, his addiction to heroin in the early ’70s and then alcohol for many years after that came close numerous times to making him another rock music casualty.  Instead, in the late ’80s he successfully recovered and, in the process, became a positive role model for countless others.  In 1998, he established the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, which quickly evolved into an internationally renowned addiction rehabilitation facility.  To increase awareness of the potential for recovery, and to directly aid those who needed treatment, Clapton initiated the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of benefit concerts featuring some of the finest musicians in the business.  Festivals in 1999, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 were all recorded for CD and DVD packages, all as fundraising efforts for the Antigua center.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I have learned a great deal from Clapton’s example, and I now look up to him for his inner strength and humility, in addition to his musicianship.

This month, Showtime premiered an extraordinary documentary called “Eric Clapton:  Life in 12 Bars,” which builds on the revelations of his autobiography, offering 0_0_3452596_00h_1280x640previously unreleased archival footage and new interviews of key people in his life, much of it narrated by Clapton himself.  Even for casual fans, this is fascinating and moving, and I strongly recommend you check it out.

He speaks very candidly about the unspeakable tragedy he endured in 1990, when his ftw-940x-tears_in_heaven1four-year-old son Conor accidentally fell 50 stories to his death from his Manhattan apartment building.  Incredibly, Clapton found a way to turn this anguish into the Grammy award-winning song, “Tears in Heaven,” with its tender melody and heartbreaking lyrics:  “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?  Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?  I must be strong, and carry on…”

He also shares his thoughts on the difficult developments that occurred in his early childhood.  He was raised in a loving, stable household with doting parents, but at age six, he learned that the couple he thought were his parents were in fact his grandparents.  Clapton’s real mother had been only 15 when she gave birth to Eric, and at 17, she moved away to Canada, leaving the boy to be raised by her parents.  If that wasn’t c43deb3e2733ea3484d4dbab402a677c--eric-clapton-rockstarsdisturbing enough for Eric to discover, he then had to endure, at age nine, the return of his mother to England for a lengthy visit, during which she cruelly withheld her affection and dismissed his pleas. “Can I call you Mummy now?” he asked, to which she replied, “I think it’s best, after all they’ve done for you, that you go on calling your grandparents Mum and Dad.”

The enormity of that rejection quickly turned to hatred, anger and resentment that Clapton carried with him for decades afterward.  It negatively affected his schoolwork, his self-esteem, his general attitude, and his ability to maintain any lasting relationships with women.  It also no doubt contributed to his near-fatal immersion in drugs and alcohol.

On a positive note, this terrific angst was what drove him to seriously explore his infatuation with blues music, isolating himself in his room for months on end, listening to, and trying to copy, the works of blues masters like B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.  Clearly, we are all beneficiaries of the single-minded zeal with which he pursued his craft.

The documentary also spends time addressing the well-known story of how Clapton fell 57971_uxb5mSomdCgyq-FF_31873madly in love with Pattie Boyd, who happened to be the wife of his friend George Harrison.  This unrequited love for an unavailable woman agonized and tortured him, spurring him to write what became his signature song, “Layla,” with its poignant lyrics of frustration and longing:  “I tried to give you consolation when your old man had let you down, like a fool, I fell in love with you, turned my whole world upside down, Layla, you’ve got me on my knees, Layla, I’m begging, darling please, Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind…”

A few years after he emerged as a brilliant virtuoso of the electric guitar, Clapton was persuaded by producers, managers and peers to cultivate his singing voice, and to start writing songs as well.  “I was reluctant because I didn’t fancy myself much of a singer,” he said.  “There were much better vocalists in the groups I was in, guys like Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood.  On one of the first songs I wrote, ‘Presence of the Lord’ from the ‘Blind Faith’ album, Steve felt I should sing it, but I just wasn’t ready, so I insisted he do it instead.  But slowly I started giving it a go, and I found I enjoyed it, especially when I was singing songs I had written myself.”

On classics like “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power,” “Let It Grow,” “Bell Bottom Blues” and “Layla,” all songs he wrote or co-wrote, his plaintive vocals add such emotional depth to the recordings that it’s nearly impossible to imagine them sung by anyone else.

EricClaptonThere’s no denying that the music Clapton made in the ’70s and early ’80s, both in the studio and in concert, was often sloppy and uninspired, due to his raging alcohol abuse at that time.  He freely admits this in the Showtime documentary:  “I used to do crazy things that people would bail me out of, and I’m just grateful that I survived.  But the music got very lost.  I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t really care. I was more into just having a good time, and I think it showed…  I would say I also deliberately sold out a couple of times by agreeing to record songs that the record label thought would do well, even though I didn’t like them very much.”

In the years since he got clean in the late ’80s, Clapton’s love for the blues never wavered.  f7e2c3b44db14a9a90bd4f2927e4e2beHis multi-platinum, Grammy-winning “Unplugged” album in 1992 is dominated by acoustic versions of blues tunes like “Before You Accuse Me,” “Old Love,” “Hey Hey” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”  In 1994, he released “From the Cradle,” an album of nothing but electric covers of hard-core blues numbers.  In the 2000s, Clapton offered “Me and Mr. Johnson,” a collection of covers of Delta blues giant Robert Johnson’s repertoire, and “Riding With the King,” a Grammy-winning traditional blues collaboration with the late great B.B. King.  Indeed, every album he has released in the last 20 years has included at least a handful of blues tunes.

But as he has aged, Clapton has often chosen a mellower path, writing and singing lovely Clapton2010Coveracoustic guitar-based songs like “Change the World” (from the 1996 film soundtrack for “Phenomenon”), “My Father’s Eyes” (from 1998’s “Pilgrim”), R&B-flavored tunes like “One Track Mind” (from 2005’s “Back Home”) and gospel tracks such as “Diamonds From the Rain” (from 2010’s “Clapton”).  Even as far back as his popular “461 Ocean Boulevard” LP in 1974 (which included his only #1 single, a cover of Bob Marley’s reggae hit “I Shot the Sheriff”), Clapton began dialing back the incendiary guitar solos in favor of a more nuanced technique.  Although this sometimes alienated his longtime fans, it gained him a new audience that embraced the lighter touch and the forays into non-blues genres.

Most recently, he has even taken to covering creaky old standards from the 1930s and 1940s like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” and “Goodnight Irene.”  As you might expect, you’ll find both charming successes and embarrassing failures among these selections.

eric-clapton-story-rolling-stone-fricke-207343e1-9728-499f-8868-ca85db26c081The older I get, I too find myself preferring calmer, more melodious music, so I enjoy his more recent recordings perhaps more than most Clapton fans.  I’ve been playing his solo records continually over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve discovered some great tracks I guess I overlooked the first time around which are worthy of your attention:  “Spiral” from “I Still Do” (2016);  “Angel” from “Old Sock” (2013);  “Everything Will Be Alright” from “Clapton” (2010);  “Danger” from “The Road to Escondido,” his 2006 collaboration with J. J. Cale; and the title track to “Back Home” (2005).

clapton-bigBut I must confess I still return again and again to Clapton’s brilliant ’60s catalog.  There’s simply nothing like the mind-blowing, improvisational live performances of “Crossroads” and “Spoonful” or the studio recordings of “White Room” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” from Cream’s #1 “Wheels of Fire” LP.  I’m also a sucker for the amazing 2005 Cream reunion package “Live at Royal Albert Hall,” where the famed trio offer impressive remakes of their anthems, and 2009’s “Live at Madison Square Garden,” which captures Clapton and Winwood’s reworking of classic rock material on their successful 2009 tour.

In short, I never tire of Clapton.  He has achieved so much on so many records for so many years, and he has soldiered on in the face of so much personal adversity.  His songs, his vocals, and especially his scintillating guitar work have always kept me coming back for more, and he rarely disappoints.  He is an inspiration and a true blues rock legend.  But you probably already knew that.

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Here’s a Spotify playlist of the Clapton songs I’ve mentioned above, along with others I think you’ll enjoy.  There are some rare gems like “She Rides,” which is the same song as “Let It Rain” but with a different set of lyrics, and a hard-to-find live version of The Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad.”

Rock on!

 

 

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Do it if you can, harmonica man

“The harmonica is the most voice-like instrument.  You can make it wail, feel happy, or cry.  It’s like singing without words.” — Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite

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Who knew that one of the most expressive instruments in the annals of rock music got its start in ancient China?

Have you ever heard of the sheng?  Me neither.  As one of the first free-reed wind instruments ever devised, it happens to be the precursor of the harmonica, also known as the mouth harp, or French organ, or blues harp.

The harmonica, as we know it today, was invented in Germany in the early 1800s.  It maxresdefault-10migrated to America in the 1850s and, because of its relative simplicity and affordability, was quickly adopted and widely used in American folk music.  Almost anyone could play a harmonica, almost anytime or anywhere.  Indeed, even Abraham Lincoln was known to keep one in his pocket.  He once said, “Sometimes I think I’m happiest when I’m sitting on my porch playing my harmonica.”

By the 20th Century, the harmonica became an important part of country-western music, and the blues, and folk music.  It should probably come as no surprise that when rock and roll arrived in the mid-1950s, the harmonica came along for the ride.

Whether it’s played in a slow drawl or a frenetic double-time, the mouth harp can create a musical mood unlike any other instrument.  It’s suitable for a gentle acoustic arrangement or a rockin’ blues band at full tilt, and the best mouth harp players are capable of handling both environments.

In the Spotify playlist at the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of the work of the artists who have been rated as the best harmonica players of the past 50 years.  Let’s take a look at who they are:

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Little Walter

Delta bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy WatersJames Cotton and Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs set the standard and forged new trails in the use of the harmonica in classic ’50s and ’60s blues tracks like “Bring It On Home,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Mean Ole Frisco,” “Key to the Highway” and “Roller Coaster.”  They went on to inspire dozens of up-and-coming mouth harp artists like Britain’s blues titan John Mayall, and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds, and Chicago blues wunderkind Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson.

King of the jazz harmonica players was the great Toots Thielemans, the Belgian-American who performed and recorded with everyone from Benny Goodman to Quincy Jones.  You can also hear his work on such well known pop pieces as the 1969 “Midnight Cowboy” soundtrack theme and the 1984 Julian Lennon hit “Too Late for Goodbyes.”

Meanwhile, in Nashville, harmonica greats like session wizard Charlie McCoy were in high demand, inserting expert harp solos on many dozens of tracks by the leading artists of the day, from Johnny Cash and Buck Owens to Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Folk music may be the genre through which the harmonica reached the widest audience, bob-dylan-play-guitar-harmonicathanks to Bob Dylan, who was inspired by the harmonica playing of the Memphis Jug Band, Woody Guthrie and John P. Hammond.  Beginning in 1962, Dylan used a harmonica mounted on a neck rack, which allowed him to play it and an acoustic guitar simultaneously.  Many of his early anthems — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — showcased prominent (albeit rudimentary) harmonica passages.  Dylan continued to use harmonica selectively in the ’60s (“I Want You”), the ’70s (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and the ’80s (“Every Grain of Sand”) as well.

“The harmonica is now the world’s best-selling instrument.  You’re welcome.” — Bob Dylan, 1964

257a93422d1929d3302748dfe0376924Over in England, a Liverpudlian named John Lennon took notice of the harmonica, particular the way Dylan used it.  Prior to The Beatles’ arrival on American shores, the band’s debut single on the British charts was “Love Me Do,” which put Lennon’s harmonica front and center.  And the band’s next hit single, the #1 “Please Please Me,” also featured the harmonica in key moments of the arrangement.  In the 1964 smash film “A Hard Day’s Night,” Lennon’s mouth harp completely dominates the recording of “I Should Have Known Better.”  Later, on his solo albums, Lennon occasionally added a harmonica lick here and there (“Oh Yoko” on the “Imagine” LP).

Musical-Genius-stevie-wonder-36838745-389-394In Detroit, a blind child prodigy named Stevland Morris had wowed the key people at Motown Records, who dubbed the 12-year-old “Little Stevie Wonder” because of his multiple talents.  Said Wonder many years later, “I never imagined I’d ever meet (Motown chief) Berry Gordy.  When I did, he told me, ‘You know, your singing’s okay, but I like your harmonica playing better.’”  Sure enough, his first appearance on the charts in 1963, an amazing live performance called “Fingertips,” was a tour-de-force that stressed his harmonica abilities over his vocals.

Stevie-WonderIn fact, it was only the tip of the iceberg, as Stevie Wonder emerged as one of the finest harmonica players of his age, from his ’60s hits like “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life” to ’70s staples like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Too High,” “That Girl” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”  Just as important were his many guest harmonica solos on the recordings of others, like James Taylor’s “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun is Down” (1976), Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (1982), The Eurythmics’ “There Must Be an Angel” (1985) and Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” (1991).

In the rock music world, the harmonica has been a celebrated component of some of the genre’s biggest names:

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Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player and lead vocalist, was also a virtuoso on harmonica, as heard on the 7-minute live recording “Traintime” from their #1 LP “Wheels of Fire.”

Steve Miller plays a mean harp on such vintage tracks as 1968’s “Living in the U.S.A.”

On The Doors’ blues stomper, “Roadhouse Blues,” that’s The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian chipping in with a great harp solo.

Mick Jagger offers some mean licks on “Midnight Rambler,” the great Rolling Stones track from 1969’s “Let It Bleed” (as well as the live “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” LP).  The Stones also invited the great blues harps man Sugar Blue to contribute to monster hits like “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue.”

Robert Plant belts out some earthy blues harp on early 1969 Led Zeppelin songs like “I Can’t Quit You Babe” and “Bring It On Home,” as well as on the seismic 1971 track, “When the Levee Breaks.”

Ozzy Osbourne shows his harmonica chops on Black Sabbath’s debut LP on the heavy metal classic “The Wizard.”

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John Mayall

The aforementioned John Mayall must be singled out for his incredible mouth harp work on the 1969 song “Room to Move,” the most well-known of dozens of harmonica-laden songs in his voluminous catalog.

Allan Clarke, co-founder and lead vocalist of The Hollies, also played harmonica, which was featured most famously on their Top Ten hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz of J. Geils Band is widely praised as a ferocious mouth harp player, and you can hear him wailing away on studio and live versions of tracks like “Lookin’ for a Love,” “Homework” and especially “Whammer Jammer.”

Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers had a way of making a harmonica sound like a locomotive chugging down the tracks, which came in very handy on the group’s 1973 #1 hit “Long Train Runnin’.”

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Neil Young

Neil Young‘s early work is full of songs that feature his aw-shucks brand of harmonica, from the #1 hit “Heart of Gold” and CSN&Y’s “Helpless” to deep tracks like “Out on the Weekend” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”

Billy Joel won his claim to fame as the Piano Man, but on that same 1973 song, it was Joel himself who provided the telltale harmonica part that helped catapult the song to legendary status among ’70s anthems.

 

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Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen added harmonica parts to his songs as early as on his 1973 debut album (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”) and his classic “Born to Run” (the intro to Thunder Road”).  Later, harmonica was critical to his arrangements for the title track on “The River” and throughout his spared-down LPs like “Nebraska” (1982) and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995).

 

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Kim Wilson

Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds is still among the Top 20 harmonica players mentioned when such lists are compiled.  Check out his playing on such tunes as “I Don’t Care” and “Look at That, Look at That” from the group’s 1986 album “Tuff Enuff.”

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith surprised many when he contributed harmonica to the excellent song “Cryin'” from the group’s 1993 LP “Get a Grip.”

John Popper of Blues Traveler emerged as one of the top harmonica players of the ’90s, especially on incredible tunes like “Run-around” and “Hook” from their Top Ten LP “four” (1994).

Tom Petty added the harmonica parts to his song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the 1994 “Wildflowers” album.

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Because harmonicas are inexpensive and portable, many people without much musical talent have picked them up and tried to play them without success.  (Perhaps you have a friend or family member who has done this!)  Their lame results have caused the harmonica to suffer some undeserved belittlement as a serious musical instrument, lumping it in with the kazoo and the recorder.  This is unfair…but it has sparked humorous cartoons like the ones below:

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And then there are one-liners like:  “I play the harmonica…but the only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast, and stick it out the window.” — Comedian Steven Wright

 

A little-known fact about the harmonica is its healthcare benefits.  Because of the sucking and blowing of air required to make it work properly, the harmonica has been used in pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help patients regain lung capacity.  How many instruments can make that kind of claim?

Let us conclude by praising Tom T. Hall, award-winning country singer-songwriter, who in 1983 came up with “The Harmonica Man,” which told the story of an old man who longed for, bought, and eventually died holding a harmonica he’d seen in a storefront window:  “An old man stood and stared into the music store window, and he saw a sorta harmonica lyin’ there in the sun, he thought of the music the harp could be playing, he closed his old eyes and he started to hum… Well, he bought the harmonica and he took it on home, with his youth all behind him and livin’ alone, he soon learned to play it as pure and as cool as any great master musician could do…”