Shortly after playing the Fairfield Halls in South London as part of the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival Sonny Boy Williamson met the Yardbirds at a gig, around the time Eric Clapton replaced guitarist Top Topham in the original line-up of the band. When the European tour of the Folk Blues Festival was over the Delta blues legend returned to the UK and played with the Yardbirds at Richmond’s Crawdaddy club in early December 1963 (The Yardbirds had replaced the Rolling Stones as the house band). The Yardbirds, with their teenage guitar prodigy Clapton, he was eighteen at the time, and the hard drinking, hard living Sonny Boy were an impressive combination in the hot sweaty club.
The Yardbirds first single in June 1964 was a cover of Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘I Wish You Would’, after which their output was a mix of Blues and straightforward pop material. Amongst their recorded Blues were Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’, Eddie Boyd’s ‘Five Long Years’ and Elmore James’ ‘The Sun is Shining’.
It was the release of their third single, ‘For Your Love’ in March 1965 that was the catalyst for Clapton to quit the band to be replaced by Jeff Beck. Clapton then joined the UK’s premier pure blues outfit, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Mayall was already over thirty years old and having first learned to play the guitar he switched to the piano, inspired by hearing Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons records. By the time he was 17 he was already playing the Blues in Manchester with a group. After enrolling at art school he then served in the British Army in Korea from 1951 to 1954. Back at art school Mayall formed the Powerhouse Four, continuing to play after he graduated. Mayall moved to London, encouraged by Alexis Korner, to take advantage of the capital’s buzzing blues scene.
In 1963 he formed the Bluesbreakers, a band with probably more line-ups than any other in the history of modern music. Spotted by a Decca staff producer, Mike Vernon, who persuaded the label to sign the band. The band’s first single, ‘Crawling up the Hill’ coupled with ‘Mr. James’, was released in April 1964. Playing bass with Mayall was John McVie, and by the time Clapton rejoined the band, having hitch-hiked to Greece during the summer, in October 1965 Hughie Flint was filling the drum stool.
At Clapton’s first session they cut a single for the Immediate label, produced by Jimmy Page. In March 1966 John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers recorded the brilliant album, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton at Decca’s Studios in West Hampstead, North London. It’s affectionately known as the Beano album as it features Clapton reading the British comic on its cover.
The album comprises of band originals, mostly written by Mayall and blues classics and features Clapton playing a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar and Marshall amplifier, having swapped it for his Fender Telecaster and Vox AC30 amplifier. Among the covers are Otis Rush’s ‘All Your Love’, Freddie King’s ‘Hideaway’, Robert Johnson’s ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’ and Little Walter’s ‘It Ain’t Right’; Clapton even references the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ on their version of Ray Charles’s ‘What I Say’.
The album was released on 22 July 1966 and proved the breakthrough that Mayall was seeking when it made No.6 on the UK album charts. Clapton meanwhile had quit the Bluesbreakers even before the album came out, he was replaced by Peter Green, and he and Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce formed Cream and had their first official gig at the 6th annual Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival, despite not even having named their band…the rest is history.
Just above Eric’s name is the band Bluesology; at the time this included a young Reggie Dwight in the lineup… better known to us as Elton John.