Think what you may about the wobbling icon status of Eric Clapton but one cannot deny his command of the guitar. For a time, in one of London’s hardest rocking districts, spray-painted across a bridge were the words: “Eric Clapton is God”. A bold claim, of course, but it was a direct reflection of the Cream and Blind Faith man’s huge contribution to music in England and the rest of the world. Clapton, alongside the aforementioned acts as well as Peter Green and the rest of the rocking set, was one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues in London, a movement which would lead to the swinging sixties and all the rock greatness that followed.
With other artists, like The Yardbirds and Jimmy Page, Clapton became a bastion for the blues in good old Blighty. When records were at a premium and the chance to see an American blues hero only came around once in a blue moon, it took considered and curated dedication to be a fan, meaning Clapton is a true aficionado on the subject. So who would he call his favourite blues guitarist of all time?
It’s a question that has likely been levelled at Clapton behind closed doors on several occasions. Despite never giving a concrete answer to such a question, Clapton has shared his admiration for many blues guitarists over the years. However, there is one man who is widely considered not only his favourite but, as Clapton once said, “The father figure [he] never had”. Of course, we’re talking about Muddy Waters.
A true hero of the genre, Muddy Waters can be seen as the direct inspiration for countless acts in the 1960s boom of creativity. Notably, The Rolling Stones took their name from a Waters song after Brian Jones was asked the band’s name and only had a Waters album to hand. Later, the Stones would saddle up alongside the hero to provide a searing rendition of ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go‘. Clapton was equally as enamoured by the guitarist naming him, alongside Big Bill Broonzy, as one of the most influential men in his life.
However, he wasn’t the first person to introduce Clapton to the blues, that accolade goes to Derek McCulloch, AKA Uncle Mac, who hosted a kids TV show in the 1950s and ’60s. Despite usually leaning on the classic childhood songs in his show, every now and then, McCulloch would drop in a blues tune, speaking with NPR, Clapton remembered: “I don’t know what this guy was on; I can’t imagine how it would get snuck in, whether it was his taste or someone else’s, his wife, who knows?”.
“It got to me on a level that nothing else did. I got what they were trying to do,” said Clapton of the artists that followed his discovery. “I think the purity of what they were trying to do undercut everything else that you could hear on the radio. Aside from great classical music or great opera, there was a seriousness about it that none of this other music had.”
There was one man that trumped every performer though, and that was the great Muddy Waters. “Muddy was there at a time when, really, the music was getting to me. I was really trying to grasp it and make something out of it,” Clapton noted. Waters’ song ‘Honey Bee’ would act not only as a great song for Clapton but an opportunity to improve his own playing: “It was a hook to me. And I made this as a sort of milestone for me, for my learning capabilities,” Clapton said. “If I can get that, I’m one rung up the ladder. And I did, finally, manage to do it one day, and I thought, well, you know, I think I can probably do this.”
The two men became close friends and although Clapton never asked Waters for technical tips, though he “wished” he had, he admitted that Waters was “the father figure I never really had”. It’s easy to see how Clapton could take the very essence of Waters’ work and transform it into his own style. There are countless artists Slowhand loved and be inspired by, “I would take the bits that I could copy from a combination of the electric blues players I liked, like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry,” but there’s only one that would shape Clapton’s life for decades.
Watch Eric Clapton perform ‘Standing Around Crying’ with Muddy Waters below.