And Speaking Of Key To The Highway . . . .

This YouTube clip of Eric Clapton performing the song with the Allman Brothers Band — in recognition of Duane Allman, one of the essential members of Derek and the Dominos — is pretty darned good.  But then, I could listen to Eric Clapton play just about anything and still be a happy camper.

Slowhand Is 65

Today is Eric Clapton’s 65th birthday.  When I heard that as I drove to work this morning, it made me stop for a moment — and then the memories of all of the Eric Clapton music I’ve heard and loved came roaring into my mind and I was sucked back to my teenage years and the right rear bedroom on the second floor at 2440 Buckley Road in Upper Arlington, Ohio.

You see, I’ve loved Eric Clapton’s music since I finally got my own room as a teenager.  In that room I had a cheap stereo system with two tiny, blue felt-covered, plastic speakers that I mounted on the wall (poorly), and on that cheap system I played Eric Clapton’s records constantly and at maximum volume.  I had several double-record greatest hits albums — one called, I think, History of Eric Clapton and another called Clapton’s Greatest Hits — as well as what I still think is the greatest teenage boy air guitar album ever made:  Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.  Clapton’s career had a hiatus of sorts after that legendary album, then he came back with 461 Ocean Boulevard and a terrific live album called E.C. was Here.  I bought and played and loved all of his records then, and I continue to love his stuff now.  Clapton helped to introduce me, and no doubt entire generations of music fans, to blues music, which he played faithfully yet with his own indelible stamp.

Clapton, who was known to some as Slowhand, had an amazing career by the time he was 30.  As a kid he played with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers and the Yardbirds, and then he formed two of the earliest rock “supergroups,” in Cream and Blind Faith.  He played with the Beatles on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and George Harrison wrote Here Comes the Sun in Clapton’s garden.  By 1970 Clapton was the quintessential guitar hero who set songs alight with incredibly fast, liquid guitar chords that hit you deep in your gut.  He collaborated to extraordinary effect with Duane Allman on the Layla album, played on The Band’s The Last Waltz, has performed and recorded with a variety of blues greats and countless other rock artists, and has continued to make terrific acoustic and electric music up until the present day.  His concerts — and I was privileged to see him perform once, in upstate New York in the ’70s — are legendary for the quality of their music.  His official website reports, incidentally, that he will be in concert again this summer in Europe.

It’s hard to pick my favorite Clapton songs.  There are so many of them — Cream’s extraordinary Crossroads and massive, pounding Sunshine of your Love, the delicate recording of Can’t Find My Way Home by Blind Faith, Let it Rain, Farther on up the Road and Drifting Blues from E.C. was Here, the excellent and note-perfect Worried Life Blues and many other songs from his The Blues double-CD set, his acoustic Layla on MTV’s Unplugged, and a number of songs on his recent CD with J.J. Cale, The Road to Escondido.  For my money, however, the crowning achievement of his career was the Layla double album and his astonishing playing with Duane Allman — on Layla, on Have You Ever Loved a Woman, on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, and, most brilliantly, on the 9-minute, 41-second opus, Key to the Highway, a sinuous conversation back and forth between Clapton’s alternately sharp and ragged guitar and Allman’s slide, each trying to top the other in inventiveness and craft.  I think it is one of the great rock recordings ever made.

It’s really kind of stupid for someone like me to write about Clapton, because his music says so much more than words can.  And so, in honor of E.C.’s birthday, here is a more fitting tribute — a video of a 2001 acoustic performance of Key to the Highway:

The Best American Band: The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band

What would The Allman Brothers Band have accomplished had Duane Allman not been killed in a tragic motorcycle accident, only two-and-a-half years after the band was formed? In that short period, the Band recorded what is arguably the best live album ever recorded — At Fillmore East. The Band invented southern rock, helped to reintroduce the blues to a mainstream audience, and was one of the best jam bands of the era. (And, to top things off, Duane Allman collaborated with Eric Clapton as part of Derek and the Dominos on the classic double album Layla and Other Love Songs, which includes the fabulous guitar duel Key to the Highway, one of my all-time favorite songs.)

Listening to their music now, it’s not hard to see why the Band was exceptional. Duane Allman is one of the few artists in rock history who had a uniquely identifiable sound, with a rich, boozy slide guitar full of timeless American blues influences. Gregg Allman added the organ and raspy, throaty, angst-filled vocals that were perfectly suited to the Band’s blues-oriented repertoire. (Listen to Whipping Post or Dreams if you don’t believe me.) Add to that formidable twosome Dickey Betts — one of the best rock guitarists in his own right — and an excellent rhythm section, and you had a Band that was stunningly tight. The Fillmore album is filled with great songs, like Stormy Monday, One Way Out, Trouble No More, and Statesboro Blues, and all of those songs were recorded in only two days of performances! As I said, who knows what the Band could have accomplished given where it was after only a short time together? Consider, for example, how long the Beatles had played together, in Liverpool and Hamburg and elsewhere, before they recorded Rubber Soul and Revolver and Abbey Road.

I think the Allman Brothers Band presents a very strong case to be considered the best American rock ‘n’ roll band, ever. The trustworthy Ipod is filled with many of their songs, including such classics as Ramblin’ Man, Midnight Rider, Jessica, One Way Out, Dreams, Whipping Post, Little Martha, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Statesboro Blues, and Trouble No More.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!