Characters of the Month – Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, the story of a friendship in music

MAY (by Alessandro Vailati)

It was really difficult to grieve the unexpected loss of Jeff Beck, one of the artists who most made my soul chords vibrate in the live performances I was fortunately able to attend. Especially the “Together and Apart” shows in London in 2010 paired with Eric Clapton, with a dreamy Moon River emotionally interpreted by the two and the performance at the Vittoriale in 2018 remain indelible moments in my life as a live music fan. Seeing so many people commemorate him in the days following his passing made me feel less alone and realize how great and important the artistic legacy he left behind was. However, the most immense emotion I felt was learning about the tribute hosted in May by his friend Slowhand, who, in an informal chat on the You Tube channel Real Music Observer, revealed another touching backstory, become reality today!

«Last year we recorded our own studio version of Moon River, in memory of concerts together a decade ago. Jeff was great from his beginnings with the Tridents, and he hasn’t stopped being that way in his last period. A few months ago, during my European tour, if I was feeling a bit down I’d go and look up his recent live shows on You Tube, even those of the day before, and that would give me a boost, he was always so unpredictable! Now we will do a tribute that will be like a Crossroads Festival, as a show in his honour has to be done with the best. We’re going to try to live up to it, also because it’s impossible to replicate it, to imitate it, the great thing is that we’re playing for a noble purpose, it’s a charity show, it will be our way of telling him “Thank you for everything, Jeff…” »

An indescribable emotion, hearing these notes, after what happened. And, now in a few days, it will be time to pay homage to him at the legendary Royal Albert Hall.

From Jeff Beck official Facebook page

We at MusicPhilò, as fans and enthusiasts, also wish to give glory to one of the greatest guitarists, to thank him for his Art. A Beauty that will remain forever, and soothe that sense of loss within the heart. And there could be no better way than to remember how Jeff and Eric were bound together by the music they loved and shared, from old Irish folk to the beloved blues. A music that also bound them inextricably in friendship.

«Sitting in yesterday, watching it slip away today. Isolation. Fading like photographs, reminding us nothing ever lasts.» <<<Excerpt from A Thousand Shades, Ozzy Osbourne ft. Jeff Beck>>

The last time we see the names Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck mentioned within the same work, before the surprise of 12 May 2023, is for this stirring album by Ozzy Osbourne, Patient Number 9, released in September 2022, although the two legendary guitarists do not play on the same track.

But the poignant song quoted above seems prophetic, ‘Nothing ever lasts’, and Beck‘s passing on a sad January day detaches us once again from yesterday, from what was history, or rather the revolution created with the advent of the British blues and which had them as its putative fathers, in the early sixties, the beginning of everything. And it was also the beginning of a beautiful story of friendship and rivalry, with the former always ready to blissfully stifle the latter. Mutual esteem and a different style of interpreting music and life have never kept them apart, on the contrary, they have made their collaborations precious and every time their paths have crossed, something has been born that will never fade like old photographs, but will keep the past and present united to build a future, to give eternal inspiration to any girl or boy who, in any part of Creation, passionately wants to pick up a guitar and make their way in this magical world.

«I call it universal music and it is a brotherhood. Guitarists are not in competition with each other. In sport you compete, but in music you complete each other.» <<<Carlos Santana>>

There are images, films, recordings, official and unofficial, that certify and qualify the relationship between the two British artists, and reviewing some of the most significant ones it is difficult not to be moved, such is the intensity created by their music together. Two men so different and yet so equal, who found salvation in the blues and the guitar, the cure to their inner anxieties, and became inseparable from their instrument, later experimenting with every genre, following different itinerary, but always finding the time to cross paths in the winding journey of life and stimulating routes of art, creating beauty and inspiring each other.

The first moment when Jeff and Eric‘s paths intersect is very peculiar and does not portend the possibility of a good and constant future relationship. In fact, Clapton angrily leaves the Yardbirds, guilty of abandoning the purism of the early days in order to achieve commercial success, and Beck takes his place, maintaining a high standard of guitar playing and benefiting from the celebrity achieved by the group, throwing the now ex-member into jealousy. It was 1965, and Slowhand, nevertheless convinced of his choice, embarked on a path full of collaborations with the greatest artists of the blues scene and beyond, both British and American.

From John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers, to the power trio with Cream, to Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos and the beginning of a solo career. Even Beck, after various experiences and his ‘group’ with Rod Stewart, began to release albums under his own name, as well as the truly remarkable one as Power Trio together with Bogert & Appice.

Photo by Dezo Hoffman

It should be emphasized that the two had already known each other before their official partnership in the early 1980s ‒ in this regard, the date of 3 May ’66, when Eric joins the Yardbirds during the encore and duets with Jeff remains to be framed ‒ and had cultivated a shared passion for the blues, from its acoustic roots with Son House and Robert Johnson to the electric blues of the Chicago scene.

«Buddy Guy hit me right away, as soon as I had a chance to hear him in the mid-sixties. I immediately adored his youthful vigour, his maniacality and his comedy. He has exquisite timing and is delightfully off-key at times. That’s what I find so fascinating. I remember talking about it with Eric (Clapton) and Jimmy (Page): “Have you heard this stuff?”» <<<Jeff Beck>>

Buddy Guy is their favourite and together they meet him on his UK tour, as well as concurrently attending Jimi Hendrix‘s London performances, happy and admittedly a little upset to have an admirer and competitor overseas. So when Clapton gets married in ’79, it is normal to have Beck at his party, along with ¾ of the Beatles, some of the Rolling Stones and various other celebrities. Their passions, mutual admiration and, at times, the desire for a bit of a challenge helped to keep alive a relationship that found its outlet during the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball benefit shows in 1981, at the Theatre Royal in London, where on the evenings of 9, 10 and 12 September the two virtuosos crossed guitars for some classics from their repertoire and to accompany the many stars present.

Smooth as silk, Cause We Ended As Lovers, Crossroads and Further On Up the Road, marked by the typical trademark of these incredible characters, who don’t fail to reappear for an encore, with the entire ensemble present at the event, to perform the Dylan-written classic from The Band, I Shall Be Released.

Smiling and proud of each other, they exchange ‘solos’ with respect and admiration, and their cooperation becomes even more profound two years later, when Eric, devastated by the terrible illness that debilitated his friend Ronnie Lane, actively participates with Jeff in the ARMS Concerts, organized by producer Glyn Johns to raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis research.

Photo by Jimi Crowley

The success of the operation increased the number of show dates, from England to America, and made it possible to have superstars of the stature of Winwood, Wyman, Cocker and Jimmy Page, who although not in perfect psychophysical condition, in an extraordinary course and historical recurrence, plays Layla together with the other two former Yardbirds guitarists. Epic and epoch-making moment.

Early in the following decade came the release of Damn Right, I’ve got the Blues (1991), an album that relaunched Buddy Guy‘s career, an opportunity to return as a duo on Early in the Morning, one of the gems of the record, although Beck would have more space on Mustang Sally, also on that album. In ’93, Eric and Jeff can’t miss in one of the most successful and particular tributes to Hendrix, Stone Free: the former handles the title track with vigour and audacity, while the other performs on Manic Depression, with Seal on vocals. In the same year, they were guests together with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Albert Collins in a special gala evening full of artists of all genres at the Apollo Theater in New York City, but one of the high points of their crossover was at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004, which would be repeated for all the other editions. Cause We Ended As Lovers ‒ Beck’s classic composed by the mutually adored Stevie Wonder ‒ for a series of futile reasons does not appear on the usual DVD summarizing the best moments of the kermesse, but it is chilling and, thanks to the professionally filmed footage that can be seen, is fortunately available to all: a Masterpiece.

Surely the passing of the years offers serenity, wisdom and the desire to enjoy the most important things, the most relevant friendships. So, after they both participated in the Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played album and shared a meeting with Queen Elizabeth in March 2005, during an event She hosted to honour the music industry, Beck came up with the idea in November 2007 to invite Eric as a special guest at Ronnie Scott, a venue where he is doing a series of shows. In an assorted setlist that ranges from jazz to fusion, touching on rock, R&B and a bit of soul, even landing on pop territories, there is also room for a couple of pure blues pieces. Little Brown Bird and You Need Love leave even an amused Jimmy Page stunned by the magnificence of the performance, hiding in the audience and enjoying the show like a commoner.

Perhaps this is the most important moment in the history of the two, a spark that unites them even more, and as chance would have it, in 2009 they were in Japan at the same time for a handful of shows. The occasion is unrepeatable and transforms from a marketing strategy into an unforgettable moment: two of the giants of the six-string do their set and then perform on the same stage in a series of songs that intertwine their careers and roots. Each moment of one of their songs invites a different mood, both in terms of rhythmic variety and the variety of sound colours the instruments offer.

The idyll is so successful that a few dates are planned in great detail the following year, the so-called Together and Apart tour, which touches down in the British capital and then flies overseas to New York and Canada.

The Crossroads Guitar of that period ‒ 2010 also saw the release of two important albums in the two men’s careers, Clapton and, above all, that little masterpiece Emotion & Commotion ‒ naturally hosts their duets and Shake Your Money Maker is captured on the event’s DVD, one of the highlights of the show. Beck also participates in the Festival’s other two dates, 2013 and 2019, always displaying an astonishing class and ensemble, and is in fact one of the most anticipated moments of the event.

After three difficult years on a global level, amidst the absurdities of a pandemic and a war yet to be deciphered, 2023 begins in the worst way with the death, in addition to Jeff Beck, of a number of artists who have left an indelible mark on the history of music: from David Crosby to Burt Bacharach, not forgetting Wayne Shorter, Gary Rossington and Ryūichi Sakamoto, to name but a few of the most famous. It was at the British guitarist’s funeral that Clapton met several of the people with whom he began his career in the 1960s: in the sadness of the event, friendships were strengthened, collaborative intentions were renewed (Tom Jones will duet with Eric on an old Freddie Scott R&B hit) and the idea of a tribute was created, which will take the form of two spectacular evenings full of guests and surprises on 22 and 23 May at the legendary Royal Albert Hall.

While waiting to savour the magic of those next few days, the unexpected moments never end when Slowhand takes an affair to heart; in February, as an unsuspected guest of the Jerry Douglas Band during the Transatlantic Session held in London at that time, he sings a traditional Irish tune often played at funerals, an old folk song also taken up by The Dubliners entitled Sam Hall, «a lament for my friend Jeff» and it is recent and welcome that the same one is being played during the acoustic set of the Japanese shows on April. Also in the Japanese land, a beautiful and poignant brand new instrumental, Blue Rainbow, is performed for the first time, probably intended as another heartfelt farewell to Beck, with the white Stratocaster used as a tribute to him.

And so, when deep friendship prevails over rivalry, when mutual esteem overcomes all misunderstandings, moving stories like this can be told, even if one of those people is no longer there and therefore there is no happy ending, and, indeed, every celebration and remembrance only creates a lump in the throat. But the magic of music also feeds on pure concepts like transcendence and eternity, and the epic of two incredible characters continues regardless of physical presence. It is the songs, innovations and inventions of each of them that remain forever, along with the famous phrases that seal a unique relationship and bond, where affection, esteem and empathy go hand in hand with a pinch of irony.

«I think he is one of the most unique guitarists. And the most dedicated. From what I know of Jeff, he either fixes his cars or plays guitar. There’s no middle ground for him.»

«It’s funny how Eric’s character was imprinted in my mind as a real pain in the ass, a force to be reckoned with, a moody, maybe aggressive guy. And I’d never met him before I’d been in the Yardbirds and committed that terrible act. We’d already pissed him off immensely by coming to America before he had a chance to go, and we were selling records ‒ the two goals most rock & roll guitarists would seek ‒ while he was performing in a club with John Mayall for eight people. I thought, well, at least he’s committed to my craft. And then, lo and behold, he comes out with Cream and takes the piss out of us all.»

Unique, goliardic, inimitable!

Photo by Kevin Mazur

Italian Version: link here