Eric Clapton is graced with an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues. While the guitarist is well-studied in his craft, it is his innate knowledge of the art form that makes him a true master. Since rising to the top of the pile during the 1960s as one of London’s most gifted axemen, the artist has immersed himself in the work of the blues greats. Such is his fandom, the person he believes is “the greatest in the world” is somebody you may not be quite so familiar with.
Clapton’s musical upbringing is heavily embedded in the Delta blues that rose up from Mississippi. It’s a style that Clapton took to his heart and propagated throughout his pop music career. Equally, he’s never been shy about sharing his appreciation for the guitarists he admires the most, those who laid the foundations of his sound. But, the greatest living bluesman, in Clapton’s opinion, comes from a slightly different setting.
While Slowhand has eulogised over notable names such as Jimi Hendrix or Duane Allman, the best living operator of the instrument is somebody that doesn’t receive their fair share of accolades. Surprisingly, the artist who Clapton was referring to is also a fellow Englishman. For several years, the former Cream man even had the privilege of sharing the stage with him every night after recruiting him into his band in 1979, and his name is Albert Lee.
Lee, a true musician’s musician, was born in Herefordshire in 1943 but grew up in London. Throughout the ’60s, he bundled around groups that littered the capital’s swinging streets and enjoyed success as the guitarist for Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds before forming Heads Hands & Feet.
While people in the belly of the music industry were aware of Lee’s breathtaking brilliance, unfortunately, he’s never been celebrated by the general public in the same way as his contemporaries. He isn’t just a guitarist either, and in 1983, Lee was also the musical director for The Everly Brothers’ reunion, who were another group that he also regularly played alongside.
According to Clapton, there’s nobody in his league. “He’s the greatest guitarist in the world. The ultimate virtuoso. His skill is extraordinary, his ear is extraordinary and he’s gifted on just about every level,” he once quipped, so much so that he hired him as a touring guitarist.
Although Clapton believes that Lee’s talent eclipses everybody else, that didn’t stop Lee from losing his position in Slowhand’s own band in 1984. Reminiscing upon his time in Clapton’s live band, Lee said: “He fired the whole band twice, and I managed to survive a couple of times, so it taught me a lesson. I thought, ‘Well, this may not last forever,’ and sure enough, I got the message that he wanted to make some changes again.”
Despite being thrown out of the group, Lee holds no bitterness towards him, and instead, he is empathetic towards the situation Clapton found himself in as he grappled with addiction. He continued: “He was in a bad way at the time; I don’t think he did very much after that for a little while, but fortunately, he’s put it all back together and he’s doing great now.”
Lee was adept enough to synchronise on-stage with the freewheeling Clapton, and the two were perfectly in-tune with one another, which made their partnership intoxicating. Furthermore, he understood his role as a member of the supporting cast and never tried to overshadow the name on the ticket.