A few days later, the phone rang in Swallow’s office. ‘Hello, it’s Eric here. That dance of yours - I’ll do it.’ After recovering from the shock and his suspicion of a practical joke, Swallow asked how much he wanted as a fee to appear.
‘Nothing, but there’s just one thing. It’s got to be strictly under the counter,’ Eric answered. This puzzled Swallow, ‘because in my business, "under the counter" means a hefty back-hander, if you know what I mean. But I quickly discovered that what Eric meant was that he wanted no publicity at all.’ Clapton and his manager were so insistent on this that they told Swallow that if a newspaper got advance news, he would not do the show. It went ahead.
Eric even rehearsed at the village hall for two days in the week before the concert; he took a great interest in how much money could be expected, and how it would help re-equip the Cranleigh Cottage Hospital; and he brought an old friend, guitarist Ronnie Lane, formerly of the Faces. The music was laid-back, the hall packed with 350 people, ardent Clapton fans at the front, and soberly suited Round Tablers at the rear. Pattie Clapton and Katy Lane, flouncing around in scarlet and black French dresses and white petticoats, did an impromptu can-can which prompted the locals to dance and Eric to christen the ladies ‘The Harlots’. Eric hit his musical peak with a great blues, ‘Alberta, Alberta’, his stylish instrumental phrases evoking a call-and-response technique between his superb vocal and his guitar. He was in a loose mood for the whole evening, feeling no pressure. The night raised £1000 for the hospital and was described by Eric as a ‘good ‘un’. The mood of the evening was summed up after Eric and Ronnie Lane had harmonized on ‘Goodnight, Irene’, like a pair of mates fresh out of the local boozer. The audience joined in. As Eric left the hall, a young fan shouted out: ‘Eric, do "Layla" or we won’t have you back again!’ It was the one song Eric didn’t feel like doing that night.
The big arenas around the world are important ‘career moves’ in pleasing the people, but major artists like Eric always yearn for the intimacy of the clubs that first generated their love of playing. Eric became immersed in blues jam sessions at Gary Brooker’s Parrot Inn. Gary played piano and brought along some distinguished musicians, including saxophonist Mel Collins, violinist Darryl Way and guitarist Mickey Jupp, for evenings which were dedicated to blues music. ‘We had a hundred and fifty people in at £1 a head, food included,’ says Brooker. ‘The amplification was small and Eric sat down behind the pillar and seemed at his happiest. It sounded very similar to what a little Chicago club might have been years ago.’ The tunes, too, rekindled Eric’s deepest affections: golden oldies by the Coasters and Chuck Berry and Elmore James material.
The Parrot Band, as it has become known, played half a dozen nights at the pub before Eric decided a sense of style was called for. It was just like the scruffy old days with the Yardbirds. He phoned Brooker and asked what uniform they should wear that night to replace the casual look that was gaining too much ground. An air of formality was essential, Eric said, and he would wear a white dinner jacket and a black bow tie. That night, almost in return for their professionalism, they decided that the profits from their work should not go entirely to charity. They each earned £50, and the face of Eric Clapton was alight at the sight of the ready cash.
The Parrot sessions are still alive in the minds of the musicians; Eric and Gary hope to organize at least one each year. It’s the camaraderie of pub life, as well as the music, that strikes at Eric’s heart. ‘Real people,’ he says simply. He greatly prefers it to the private-aeroplane-and-limousine life of world tours. On the road in the US, he once became so cynical about the similarity between the journeys, the cities and the halls, that when people asked where the next night's show was he had a set reply: ‘Anywhere in America.’
After his world tours of such anonymous, massive stadiums, Eric enjoys the earthiness of the final venue of all his British concerts. This always has to be at the 1500-seater Guildford Civic Hall, a few miles from where he was born and from where he now lives. The Guildford finale is very much a case of the meteor returning to earth, with his mother Pat, grandmother Rose and other local people cheering from the balcony. As a regular appearance for a player of his stature, it is a unique tradition and, with the vibrations of the occasion strong in his mind, Eric often plays his most breathtaking solos.
The 1970s had provided a turbulent but rich harvest for Clapton the musician. But at the end of the decade, his survival instinct told him there was a need for change. He said goodbye to the American musicians and replaced them with some of Britain's most respected players: session men Henry Spinetti (drums) and Dave Markee (bass), Gary Brooker on keyboards, and Chris Stainton (keyboards).
The new band's formation coincided with Eric's hard-drinking period but even through his bleariest alcoholic haze, Clapton knew that while he liked all the men individually, and they deserved no individual criticism, they rarely united with him to form a 'happening' band. And as a complement for his own work, they were bereft of blues feeling.
The first 'British' album was the live Just One Night, recorded at the famous Budokan in Tokyo. The sound of thousands of young Japanese chanting Eric's name made for a great atmosphere, and the sort of welcome Eric has grown to love from that country. ‘Lay Down Sally' was as contagious as ever, with Eric's playing carrying stacks of gusto, and Albert Lee broke out on 'If I Don't Be There By Morning', along with some great keyboard work from Stainton on 'Worried Life Blues'. A devastating solo by Eric on 'Blues Power’, one of his most descriptive songs, was followed by ‘Ramblin' on My Mind', a tremendous version of ‘Cocaine', with the crowd chanting the chorus and ‘Further Up the Road’. By now, Eric's voice had matured into a rich, bluesy and natural instrument; his rendition of Sleepy John Estes's ‘Floating Bridge' on the follow-up album, Another Ticket, was exceptional, as was most of his vocal work from then on. This was the first and, as it turned out, the only studio album from the all-British band. It was competent but disappointing: ‘I Can't Stand It’ and the meaningful title track were strong enough and Eric excelled on a Muddy Waters song, ‘Blow Wind Blow’. It was a craftsmanlike album but lacked personality. Deep personal change was imminent for Eric: Another Ticket as a title was a tongue-in-cheek jibe at a friend who was constantly asking for ‘another ticket’ for his concerts. As a pointer to Eric’s future, the phrase was just as ominous.
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