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Few guitarists have been as documented, scrutinized, and analyzed as Eric Clapton. Since he burst on the scene with the Yardbirds, Clapton has spent nearly his entire adult life in the spotlight. In Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History, Chris Welch takes us on a visual tour through every aspect of the blues god’s long career and unearths some rare photographs and memorabilia that will make even the most jaded Slowhand aficionados take notice.
Rather than sounding like an overzealous fanboy, Welch discusses Clapton’s career like an insider offering you a peek behind the curtain. This is because Welch had a front-row seat during the ’60s British-blues explosion. As an editor for UK music magazine Melody Maker in 1964, he was given the dubious assignment of discoverying why the Yardbirds secretly hoped their new single, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” wouldn’t catch on. After that initial interview, Clapton took a liking to Welch and often included him in his band activities. Welch even attended Cream’s first rehearsal. Welch’s unique perspective gives the book a sense of authority and keeps the focus on music rather than Clapton’s personal dramas over the years.
In contrast to similar tomes, Welch does a great job of giving credit to the axes that helped shape Clapton’s sound. Throughout the Yardbirds chapter, you can see Clapton wielding everything from a Tele to a dot-neck Gibson ES-335—even a Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 during a TV appearance in 1964. A special spread is devoted to the “Beano” guitar, which Clapton played through a Marshall JTM45 on the John Mayall, and the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album. According to Welch, it was a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard that was purchased in ’65 from Lew Davis’ guitar shop in London. Soon after recording the Mayall album, the guitar was either lost or stolen— depending on who you ask—during a tour of Greece. Of course, both “Brownie” and “Blackie” get their due, given that both Stratocasters were huge parts of Clapton’s career, especially during the ’70s.
The book’s section that covers the era between Blind Faith and Clapton’s solo career is especially interesting. Looking through the pictures, you really get the sense that Clapton was searching for a look, a sound, and a musically fulfilling path. A great photo of him dressed like an extra from Benny Hill and holding a banana as if it were a phone illustrates his humor and willingness not to take himself too seriously.
Nearly every page is plastered with vintage gig flyers, ticket stubs, amazing pictures, and memorable tidbits that will raise the eyebrows of even the most ardent fan. Another memorable shot shows an obviously uninterested Clapton meeting disco stars the Bee Gees at a Copenhagen hotel. Both groups shared a manager, so it seemed (at the time) like an obvious photo op. The information in The Ultimate Illustrated History isn’t particularly revelatory—Clapton’s autobiography would be your first stop for that—but Welch adds many memorable anecdotes about his time in and around Clapton’s world. This is a first-rate read that connects a lot of the dots in the career of one of the most important guitarists of our time, and it does so in a captivating way. For both die-hard and casual fans, this book will be difficult to put down.