If you’re looking to get into the blues, start with this album right here. Eric Clapton‘s famous show for MTV’s Unplugged is, at least in my experience, the most accessible blues album ever. (Seriously.) Clapton summons a lot of his heroes here, playing passionate renditions of classics by blues men Muddy Waters (“Rollin’ & Tumblin'”), Jimmy Cox (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), Big Bill Broonzy (“Hey Hey”) and Bo Diddley (“Before You Accuse Me”). Of course, it wouldn’t be an Eric Clapton concert without a Robert Johnson song, and he performs two of them, “Walkin’ Blues” and “Malted Milk.” But as anyone familiar with this concert knows, Clapton debuts a tune here that comes from as much pain and heartache as any of the blues songs he covers. On March 20, 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor fell out of the window of his New York apartment on the 53rd floor, and he wrote the song “Tears in Heaven” in response.
And while the sentimentality of “Tears in Heaven” can border on cloying sometimes, it succeeds on sheer sincerity, which is an admirable feat considering its tender subject matter. Few tragedies are more horrific than a parent losing his or her child, and Clapton’s willingness to touch such a hurtful wound is commendable. Also of major note is Clapton’s presentation of a new version of “Layla,” one of the greatest songs of all time, which charted at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the only instance I can think of where one of the greatest songs ever has an alternate version that’s about as popular as the original. (“Tears in Heaven,” it should be noted, was also popular, peaking at #2.) In fact, considering that Derek and the Dominos‘ Layla album failed to sell even one million copies and Unplugged went diamond, it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Unplugged version is more popular than the original.
Anyone who has ever gotten into the blues has likely started with Clapton. He’s had a long career in rock & roll, with many phases, but the blues has always been a constant in his ever-evolving equation. On just about every album he’s ever done, he’s covered blues songs — some famous, some not so famous. He covered John Lee Hooker‘s “Boom Boom” with the Yardbirds on , Freddie King’s “Hideaway” with John Mayall, and both Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Spoonful” and Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (styled “Crossroads”) with Cream on the Wheels of Fire album, and that’s just a sampling of his work from the ’60s. You sort of have to be a certain age to really appreciate the blues, since you just don’t have an idea of the forms of things until you’ve had a proper amount of exposure.
It’s why clichés work on the young and naive, and it’s why business-minded corporations produce “art” that’s full of them. In the case of movies, for example, I think it’s sad that good romantic comedies just don’t get made anymore — every single one of them is the exact same thing. As an aside, I was startled a few years ago when my sister-in-law told me she likes that about them. I learned an important lesson when she told me that: not everybody sees movies for the same reasons. When I watch a movie, I want there to be something new about it, otherwise it’s just a waste of my time. Not everybody wants that. Most people just want something that will entertain them for two hours.
Of course, with music it’s no different. Most people want to hear music they’re used to hearing, or in other words, what they already like. Most aren’t interested in hearing something new, and that’s just the way it is. And that’s what artists have to struggle with, since art is only appreciated by the very few. Despite being the foundation of rock & roll, most people really don’t appreciate the blues, but Clapton manages to take the blues and present it in the most accessible manner ever on Unplugged. Yeah, there were a couple of hit singles, but it’s still basically a blues album, and the fact that it sold so extraordinarily well is just plain cool. I thought I would add this portion from Clapton’s autobiography about the Unplugged album:
Russ produced the album of the show and [manager Roger Forrester] was like an expectant father hovering over the project, while I was fairly dismissive, saying that I thought we ought to put it out as a limited edition. I just wasn’t that enamored with it, and as much as I’d enjoyed playing all the songs, I didn’t think it was that great to listen to. When it came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my career, which goes to show what I know about marketing. It was also the cheapest to produce and required the least amount of preparation and work. But if you want to know what it actually cost me, go to Ripley, and visit the grave of my son. I think that’s also why it was such a popular record; I believe people wanted to show their support for me, and those who couldn’t find any other way bought the album.