No city has more connections to Eric Clapton than Tulsa. Though he hasn’t performed here much, there have been many sightings of him over the years, from the streets of Bixby and Jenks to the parking lot of The Magician’s Theater.
The stinging tone and fluid licks of The Yardbirds “I Ain’t Got You” showcased a precocious Clapton when he was only 19 years old. Who is this kid?
In 1970, Clapton was on tour with Blind Faith and the opening act was Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; a band which included Tulsans Leon Russell, Carl Radle, and Jim Keltner. Several were also involved with George Harrison and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Their whole band backed up Eric on his first solo LP that year, and two of them, Radle and Bobby Whitlock continued with Eric in Derek & The Dominos. Clapton’s first solo album’s breakout hit was Tulsan J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight”
Clapton was derailed by heroin for a while. He emerged again with Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert in 1973, with Tulsa’s Jimmy Karstein on drums. He replaced heroin with alcohol and battled the booze until his first sobriety in 1983. Surprisingly, in a couple of years he re-recorded a slow version of “After Midnight” for a Michelob commercial. In 1987 he sobered up for good.
After the Rainbow Concert he decided to form his own group again. Radle suggested adding Tulsa mates Dick Sims and Jamie Oldaker. Marcy Levy, who was playing around Tulsa then, also joined. This group began with 461 Ocean Boulevard and stayed together for most of the seventies.
Clapton also recorded other songs by Tulsans Jim Byfield “Little Rachel” and Richard Feldman “Promises”. Many of his 80s songs, such as “Forever Man” were written by Jerry Lynn Williams who lived atop Concharty Mountain in Leonard.
On this current short tour, there is a Tulsan in the band, Walt Richmond. Richmond is best known as piano man of The Tractors, but he also toured with Bonnie Raitt and Rick Danko of The Band.
Clapton is the only triple inductee into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, as a member of The Yardbirds, Cream, and as a solo artist.
One reason for his artistic endurance is his growth and reinvention of himself. It is an ironic arc that he quit The Yardbirds when they started veering away from blues toward pop, and he lost some of his guitar fans with the release of some rather saccharine material in the eighties.
In 1985 a drifter and musician Edward Fryer died, never knowing that he was the biological father of Eric Clapton.
Clapton has returned to the blues with From The Cradle in 1994 and Me & Mr. Johnson in 2004. Blues is close to his heart, though he does cover a lot of ground through adult pop, straight up rock and roll, and the laid back Tulsa country-rock feel exemplified in his collaboration with Cale on The Road To Escondido.
He reveres Cale not only as a musician, but just for the kind of man he is. While Cale has avoided the spotlight, he in turn respects Clapton for his ability to accept fame and adjust to it.
Clapton recently did some concerts with his old rival Jeff Beck. Beck didn’t know they were rivals, but Eric expected The Yardbirds to collapse without him, and was disgruntled to see them become even more popular with Beck on guitar. Sure, many technical young guitar-slingers can imitate both of them, but these guys are originals. They each have their own sound and style.
I asked Jamie Oldaker once, when Clapton was doing so much pop, if Eric could even still play. He certainly wasn’t playing much on his records. “Oh, yeah. When we play live he can still pour on the coals and make your hair stand up.”
Few artists have had a more checkered career, and fewer still are able to keep a career going for nearly fifty years. Clapton probably never expected this when he picked up his first guitar at age 13 back in 1958.
Recommended: ”Eric Clapton” – first solo LP, and “Crossroads” – box set retrospective from 1989.