When this article was suggested I jumped at the chance to write it. I am after all a huge Eric Clapton fan. After contemplating it a little though some fear and dread started to set in. What did I get myself into…? How do I sum up a career that spans over 50 years and by my count when you throw in all the guest recording work that he has done has appeared on well over 350 different recordings…? No matter what I do there are so many songs that are “classics” that someone is going to be upset that I left “Wonderful Tonight” off the list. This truly looks like an impossible task. This could be a top 25 list easily. With all that in mind, I tried to avoid covers of someone else’s songs. Which for a blues-based musician is difficult, since it ruled out amazing albums like “From the Cradle” or “Me and Mr. Johnson”. Trying to stick to songs where he had a key role in the writing of the song, which could have been just providing a truly memorable guitar solo for it, also ruled out classics like “I Shot the Sheriff”, “Cocaine”, “After Midnight”, “Crossroads,” and a lot more. I set myself a goal of songs that his contribution was paramount or critical to the song. And yes… I left “Wonderful Tonight” off the list.
Here are the Top 10 Eric Clapton songs.
10. “Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek and the Dominos (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970 & 24 nights, 1991)
Layla is a treasure trove of material written by Eric. In this case, Duane Allman had not yet joined the group when they recorded “Bell Bottom Blues.” A slow blues that paints a picture of a man who desperately wants to keep a relationship going. You can hear the anguish in his voice as he describes their fight. Bobby Whitlock who received a co-writing credit on this song 40 years later, claims that this was not written about Pattie as was the rest of the album. Eric started writing it well before they entered the studio. He claims that it was actually written about a girl that Eric met in France after recording Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. While the version on Layla is good, Eric improved on the song when he added an orchestra during one of his residencies at the Royal Albert Hall.
9. “Sunshine Of Your Love” – Cream – (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
There is a blues base to this song with some of the ’60s psychedelia mixed in. The story is that it started out based on a bass line by Jack Bruce after a trip to see Hendrix play in London. Later both Clapton and lyricist Peter Brown added to the song. The atypical tom-tom drumming for a rock song that emphasizes 1 and 3 instead of the typical 2 and 4 gives the song a unique groove. Eric even squeezes in a reference to the pop standard “Blue Moon” during his solo. The song really gets special though when the three members of the power trio play take it out for an extended drive live. When they all start soloing at the same time it is a mixture of chaos that only a couple of virtuoso musicians could pull off. For many, this is the track that took Eric from guitar hero to God.
8. “Layla” – Derek and the Dominos – (Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
The wall of guitars from Clapton and Duane Alman hooks you right off the start with that riff and if that does not do it for you then the most heartfelt vocal performance in rock should seal the deal. Some of the best songs ever written deal with loss or heartbreak and unrequited love and this album is jam packed with them. At the time this album was recorded Eric was inspired by George Harrison’s wife, Pattie. Clapton was having an affair with her and was tormented because he was good friends with George. This album eventually sealed the deal and Eric ended up with Pattie. Clapton was all deep down the well of drug and alcohol addiction at the time, but he entered the studio and spilled his heart and guts all over the best songs of his career. “Layla” which is the centerpiece of this album and was inspired by the Arabic poem Layla and Manjun. Clapton felt it was a corollary to their situation. You see Layla and Manjun were forbidden to be together by their families much like Eric could not be with Pattie. Duane Allman provides some emotional almost crying slide work and Clapton whose impassioned singing and guitar playing have never been better does the rest.
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7. “Presence Of The Lord” – Blind Faith (Blind Faith, 1969)
We will slip another song inspired by Pattie Harrison in between songs from Layla. Clapton explained in the fascinating documentary, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017) that the song’s line “I have finally found a place to live” is about his love for Patty. After Cream fell apart Clapton teamed up with Ginger Baker, Rich Grech and Steve Winwood for the short-lived Blind Faith. This is Clapton’s only contribution to the self titled album. With strong songs like “Had to Cry to Today” and “Sea of Joy” alongside it, it is hard to pick a standout song from the album. However, Presence of the Lord makes its case when it starts out with Winwood’s Soul/Gospel influenced signing over his R&B electric piano. At this point, it is nothing like Cream at all, and then suddenly at 2:20 during the bridge, Eric steps on the gas and his wah-wah pedal at the same time and reminds you that this was a rock group.
6. “Easy Now” – (Eric Clapton, 1970)
You can make the argument that this could be the best song on this list if it was not criminally underrated at the time. From a song writing standpoint it very well might be the finest song Clapton has ever written. Music historian Marc Roberty describes it as “a very underrated love song” that he finds “far more sincere” than Clapton’s more famous love song “Wonderful Tonight.” This song is proof that it does not have to rock to be a great song.
5. “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” – Derek And The Dominos (Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
The album is full of songs about heartbreak and unrequited love after all Clapton was having an affair with Harrison’s wife Pattie and was tormented because he was good friends with George. The tempo of the first half of the song makes it clear that this is not some sad song about lost love. This song is filled with lots of frenzied guitar solos; the best of them is probably the 45 second stretch only 1:15 into the song. Combine that with Duane’s counter points and it is a simply wonderful rollicking song.
4. “Got to Get Better in A Little While” – Derek And The Dominos – (In Concert, 1973)
Again, we are going to go back to the well that is probably one of Eric’s most creative periods. The song was played live in concert and then was recorded in the studio after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for the planned release of a second Derek and the Dominos studio album which never happened. Instead, the song first appeared in a live version on the 1973 live album In Concert. The studio version was not released until 1988 on Clapton’s career spanning Crossroads box set and even then, it was just an unfinished jam. Finally, in 2010 for the deluxe, 40th-anniversary edition of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs—Bobby Whitlock was asked to finally complete “Got to Get Better in a Little While” so it could be included on the expanded album.
3. “Badge” – Cream – (Goodbye, 1969)
Rumor has it the song got its name from Eric misreading “bridge” upside down on L’Angelo Misterioso’s, who is actually George Harrison but credited as such because of contract issues, notebook while writing the song during a late-night songwriting/jam session. Unlike anything else in Cream’s catalog, there is clearly a lot of George’s influence on this song but when Eric lets the solo fly at the bridge it is simply amazing. This song is a study in a songwriter’s ability to build tension and then release it when Eric’s solo work breaks out during the bridge.
2.“The Core” (Slowhand, 1977)
After a few commercial disappointments, 1977’s Slowhand with tracks like “Cocaine” and “Wonderful Tonight” was a bit of a comeback album for Clapton. The highlight of the album though is a hidden gem of an almost-nine-minute-long duet with Marcy Levy. With its killer riff it could have easily been single if they could have edited it down. There is even a rare appearance of a sax solo by Mel Collins. This song helped everyone at the time remember Eric’s guitar hero chops with probably the best solo in a long time after the laid-back 70s work.
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1.“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Beatles – (White Album, 1968)
Eric and George Harrison wrote a lot of material together and while he might not have an official credit on this track his contribution of the lead guitar work for it made it into a monumental track for the Beatles. Legend has it that frustrated by his bandmate’s opinion of the song George invited Eric to stop by the studio and play. He then proceeded to overdub the lead work in one take. In order to lay down something that stunning he had to have participated in the development of the song with George previously. There is a point in the solo break where Eric’s use of vibrato literally makes his guitar sound like it is crying. Simply a stunning piece of work.
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“My Father’s Eyes” -(Unplugged, 1992)
“I Wanna Make Love to You”
B Side to Before You Accuse me – Later released on the Crossroads, 1988 box set.