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Happy Birthday, Eric Clapton! Here Are 12 of His Greatest Performances

Born March 30, 1945, Eric Clapton is considered by many critics and pundits to be the greatest living rock guitarist of all time. Living may be the key word here, given that Clapton held Jimi Hendrix in awe. Clapton recorded Hendrix's song "Little Wing" a mere week before his friend died, and he was reportedly devastated by Hendrix's passing. Likewise, rock may be the other major distinction, because by Clapton's own admission, his chief influences were blues guitarists like B.B. King, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. 

Regardless, there are few musicians who achieved as much acclaim and drew as much reverence as Clapton. Little wonder that during his early tenure on the London music scene, he was referred to as "God" in the graffiti scrawled on building walls. (His other popular nickname was "Slow Hand," not because of his speed fingering the frets but rather because when he broke a string during an early set, he made the audience wait patiently while he restrung his guitar.) 

Still, Clapton's mostly eschewed that acclaim; during his tenure with the Yardbirds, he bemoaned the band's decision to veer away from their blues roots and venture toward a more pop-oriented approach. He traded that gig for a stint in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, a purist outfit that foresaw Clapton's later efforts that had him wholly immersed in the blues.

It would seem that Clapton might have changed his mind about being a rock hero when he formed Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, an ensemble that was lauded as the first actual supergroup and one of the most influential ensembles of all time. Despite a brief two-year life span that produced four albums, they set a standard in terms of music and musicianship that numerous artists still aspire to today. Later, his stature was further affirmed with his participation in another all-star ensemble, Blind Faith, the aptly named band that garnered both hype and hurrahs thanks to the charter membership of Clapton, Baker, and Traffic's Steve Winwood. 

Notably, Clapton's the only musician to ever become a three-time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, thanks to his tenure in Cream and the Yardbirds as well as his prodigious solo career. Add to his credits the various mega all-star benefits, spectacles, and significant events that Clapton's loaned his presence to -- The Concert for Bangladesh, the Tribute to George (Harrison), the Band's Last Waltz, and Roger Waters' Wall concerts, to name but a few. 

From the early '70s, when he played with Southern rockers Bonnie and Delaney's touring band and then ventured out on his own at the helm of Derek and the Dominoes, he has released 20-plus albums on his own. 

Clapton has remained an indelible presence, an artist respected by his peers and one who can be counted on to boost the stature of any musical gathering. He's had his setbacks -- battles with drugs (heroin), booze (postheroin), fumbles (he famously praised Enoch Light, a British politician known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric), womanizing (he courted pal George Harrison's wife Patti, although the two somehow managed to remain friends), and personal tragedy (his 4-year-old son, Connor, died after falling from the 53rd-story window of a Manhattan apartment building) -- but through it all, Clapton has remained resilient and at the top of his game. 

It's nearly impossible to single out every great moment in Clapton's career, but here are a dozen performances that not only epitomize his brilliance but also remain moving and memorable. 

"For Your Love" 
A huge hit for the Yardbirds, it provided the young crew-cut Clapton with his first taste of chart success. Ironically, he began to rue the fame it ushered in, and as a result, his participation was reluctant at best. Shortly thereafter, he left the band to enlist in the Bluesbreakers. 

"Sunshine of Your Love" 
Cream's signature song -- and their biggest chart hit -- it utilizes a compelling riff that's as captivating today as it was some 45 years ago, when it was composed. Although the bulk of the track was penned by Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown, Clapton wrote the bridge that binds the track together. 

His solo, with its heavy emphasis on the wah-wah pedal, was a key moment when it came to defining his style. Clapton later admitted that the opening notes were "borrowed" from the first bars of  "Blue Moon." 

A key track on the live portion of the double disc set Wheels of Fire, it gave Clapton the opportunity to return to his roots while revisiting an archival composition from seminal bluesman Robert Johnson. In so doing, Clapton demonstrated how a vintage track might be reinterpreted as a contemporary classic. 

Given his reticence to sing, Clapton's vocals also help this song stand out, as does the fact that it demonstrated early on his ability to take a cover song and make it his own. Equally definitive examples would come later when he took "Cocaine" and "After Midnight," both by J.J. Cale, and "I Shot the Sheriff," penned by Bob Marley, and made each an intrinsic staple of his repertoire. 

"White Room" 
Also included on the Wheels of Fire album, "White Room" derived its intensity from a searing Clapton solo, another example of how he was able to amp up the drama and actually make it intrinsic with the song. 

Cowritten with George Harrison (who played on the track under the nom de plume "L'Angelo Misterioso"), the song's title was actually an accident. In scribbling his notes on paper, Harrison had written he word bridge to designate that point in the song where the verse connects with the chorus. Clapton misread it as "Badge," and the name stuck. "After that, Ringo walked in drunk and gave us that line about the swans living in the park," Harrison later recalled. 

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" 
Clapton later returned the favor during the sessions for the Beatles' so-called White Album, creating the defining solo that embellished the emotion in the song's lyric. At first, Clapton was reluctant to participate, citing the fact that it was rare to have an outside contributor on a Beatles album. Still, his part made all the difference, especially when comparing it to the bare-bones acoustic version heard on the Beatles' Anthology set. "It made them all try a bit harder," Harrison surmised. "They were all on their best behavior." 

"Presence of the Lord" 
Clapton's stand-out composition on the sole album by Blind Faith, it begins as a humble gospel ballad and then abruptly shifts gears into a stirring rocker once his remarkable solo kicks in. A devout Christian, he wrote this song as a genuine testament to his faith and devotion. 

"Bell Bottom Blues" 
One of the standouts from Derek and the Dominoes sole studio set, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, it doesn't get as much play as the more heralded title track. Yet, given the anguish in Clapton's impassioned delivery ("Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you/Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back"), it remains one of the most riveting performances of his entire career. 

"Let It Rain" 
A blistering solo highlights one of Clapton's most compelling melodies. Taken from his eponymous solo debut, it features many of the musicians he had become acquainted with through Bonnie & Delaney's superb touring band, several of whom he'd later recruit for Derek & the Dominoes. A sturdy performance from first note to last, it finds Clapton at his most commanding and compelling. 

"Further On Up the Road" 
Clapton's guest turn on the Band's 1976 swansong performance, The Last Waltz, provided further affirmation of his core belief in the blues and the transformation power of his interpretive skills. 

"Wonderful Tonight" 
Written for wife Patti Boyd, this is Clapton's most tender love song and a preferred first dance choice at many a wedding as well. 

"Tears in Heaven"  
Cowritten with lyricist Will Jennings, the lyric reflects a father's grief and an attempt at consolidation following the tragic and unimaginable loss of Clapton's son Connor. As poignant today as it was when it was released, the heartbreak inherent in the song tapped into the sentiments of everyone who heard it. No wonder, then, that it's one of Clapton's most honored songs, the recipient of three Grammy Awards and the MTV Video Music Award for Best Male Video of 1992.

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Lee Zimmerman

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