Eric Clapton has been a musical monarch for over a half-century. Rolling Stone deemed him the second greatest rock guitarist of all time (Hendrix is #1, in case you were wondering). He’s a three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his solo career as well as his associations with Cream and The Yardbirds. And Clapton has made an even more profound impact with his public recovery from addiction and the building of his own rehab center in Antigua.
These are profound laurels on which to rest, but he’s also a worker among workers. When Clapton does a rendition of a colleague’s piece he cranks it up to the next dimension and takes a unique approach to someone else’s handiwork. Sample this list of some of his tastiest cover tunes.
Elton John’s “Border Song” (1991)
Elton’s 1970 hit is believed to be about his partner/lyricist Bernie Taupin’s feeling of alienation in the city of London, given his small-town roots. Elton himself wrote the last stanza, tying in a bid for peace and inclusion. Clapton, a long-time fan, felt the need to do a version that was heavy on the brass and served up a bit more swing. In his words, “…I could feel a way of doing it with a horn section in a bluesy kind of way. Everything I have ever heard Elton and Bernie write has moved me, encouraged me, and inspired me.” This is a soul-stirring homage.
Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” (1991)
Jesse Fuller was a renowned folkster, probably best known for his plaintive 1955 “San Francisco Bay Blues,” covered by the best of the best over the years (Janis Joplin, Jim Croce, Paul McCartney, Mungo Jerry, and Richie Havens, among others). Clapton added to the glory with a wildly entertaining cover on his 1991 Unplugged LP. Performed with other musicians, he folds in some jug band and innovative percussion, along with his own acoustic guitar and the best damn harmonica and kazoo breaks ever. It’s the blues, but it’s also a joy.
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Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (1993)
The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration was the double-album release of a momentous 1993 event in Madison Square Garden honoring the 30th anniversary of the emergence of Bob Dylan. Featuring an array of the world’s finest rockers and session musicians, it was an evening of exaltation. And the most searing and mind-bending offering was Clapton’s rendition of “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright.” Dylan’s ode to being cast aside and undervalued in love became a riveting, full-tilt-boogie classic in Clapton’s hands, with full orchestration and one of the most spirited guitar riffs in music history. When Clapton wails “Gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul…”, he generously gives us both.
Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (1970)
Bessie Smith’s 1929 blues classic is a vaudeville-style tune bemoaning the loss of friends when one’s wallet grows thin. A Prohibition-era standard, Clapton was a perfect fit for this tune, given his life-long love of blues king Robert Johnson. On the 1970 double-album Layla and Other Love Songs, he tackles it with his trademark genius and world-weary wisdom. It’s an extraordinary read on an old masterpiece. Clapton also revisits it beautifully in mellow acoustic form on his 1991 Unplugged LP.
Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1974)
Bob Marley and The Wailers had a 1973 hit with this one, written by Marley and always shrouded in some mystery. He considered it a metaphorical song about how injustice breeds injustice and can build up to frightening proportions. Clapton recorded it on his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. Both are beloved classics, but only Clapton’s masterful cover made it to #1 on the charts. Clapton was reluctant to release the hit on his own album, not wanting to disrespect Marley, but the record company prevailed and the rest is history. Fun fact: Disco goddess Yvonne Elliman sang back-up vocals!
J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” (1977)
Low-key but mightily influential in the rock and blues world, the late guitarist J. J. Cale wrote and released his song “Cocaine” one year before Clapton’s cover on the Slowhand album. This time, Clapton toned down the jazz elements and made it a dependable rock & roll classic. Given Clapton’s history as both a one-time drug addict and long-time sober activist, there will always be a tinge of agita around this song, an anti-drug track that might seem at first glance to be a love song to the evil substance. It darkly addresses the nature of addiction and Clapton, in his later live-performance years, inserted the lyrics “ dirty cocaine” in order to remove any doubt of where he stood on the issue.
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Big Mama Thornton/Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1989)
No one can deny that The King will always be most closely associated with his recording of “Hound Dog” – it is the essence of early Elvis. But “Hound Dog” (written by the famous songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller) was first recorded by R&B great Big Mama Thornton in 1952. She topped the charts with her own gritty rendition. Then Elvis came along and made it an indelible classic for himself in 1956. Clapton gives it a whirl on his 1989 album Journeyman, and it’s an excellent addition to the “Hound Dog” canon. Clapton keeps it down, dirty and bluesy, somehow managing to infuse some of Big Mama Thornton’s sassy vibe into this enjoyable cover. A noble interpretation of a great song.
Photo: Musician Eric Clapton performs at The Prince’s Trust Rock Gala 2010 supported by Novae at the Royal Albert Hall on November 17, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)