Music/Popular Culture

Hey, Cream fans: Eric Clapton might be dead, but Jack Bruce is doing just fine

By Patrick Vecchio

The endorsement:

title or description

A lot of music fans—a lot—lost sight of Jack Bruce after Cream disbanded. That’s too bad, because he has had one of the most prolific careers in rock since then, not to mention jazz and other genres. The list of virtuoso musicians he has played with is endless, as is the list of bassists he has influenced. No small number of people who know their ways around their fretboards claim Bruce is the best rock bassist ever.

On this blog, I take shots at older musicians who keep performing in public well past their primes. Well, Jack Bruce is 69, and he’s still got it. He’s lost a bit of the top end of that magnificent voice, but as a bassist, he remains head-shakingly unparalleled.

The album pictured above is a $7 download from several online vendors. It’s worth every penny. He doesn’t simply play verbatim versions of his work. I’m listening as I type this to “Spoonful,” covered by Cream on Wheels of Fire. This version is laden with horns and includes a trombone solo. Trombone? Spoonful? You bet.

On their debut album in 1970, the band Mountain covered a Jack Bruce song, “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” and made it their own. In fact, it probably was Mountain’s best song ever. The vocals of Felix Pappalardi, who had produced Cream, and the fat, tasty guitar of Leslie West were perfect for their harder version of Bruce’s song (from his 1969 solo debut, “Songs for a Tailor”).

On his “Big Blues Band” CD, though, Bruce reclaims the song, and it is a stunning thing to hear. If you’re a fan of Cream and the classic rock genre, buy this album. It will not disappoint.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture

30 replies »

  1. Hi, Megan. Thanks for the comment. Clapton is dead, artistically speaking. A few other S&R-ers kicked that idea around in the comments to my recent post about The Who’s announcement of an upcoming U.S. tour.

  2. Well, I wouldn’t say Eric Clapton is dead, that’s a bit to far in my opinion, but he sure lost fire.

    Following on Cream he did beatiful things, but a lot different from Cream and a lot more conservative, opposite to Jack. In this sense Cream was indeed a crosroads. I think he’d got his ass kicked a little bit too much in Cream by those two maniacs beside en behind him and that he didn’t want that no more. :)) But this ass-kicking pushed him to heights he didn’t reach before, nor after his Cream period, so in this sense, I agree.

    And about Jack I feel more or less sad the same way, although for complete different reasons. I disagree with you that “he remains head-shakingly unparalleled” as a bassplayer. These days we have ‘some’ more guys, who can do the trick and a lot better. Ik think his singing is still very good, considering his age, but his bassplaying lost a lot of quality, which was already the case about twentyfive years ago. And let’s not forget he had to kick some habits too, which always leaves traces.

    But I will always have a lot of respect for the guy, who also inspired me as a bassplayer. In his Cream days, he was indeed unparalleled. In his hottest days he was one of the two oriniators in pop-rock. The other one was John, and I don’t have to tell you WHO I mean. 🙂

    Thanks for your article. Rein. (From Holland.)

  3. Patrick. Why you are saying he is dead even artistically? and Jack is not? If Eric artisticcaly is dead so the rest dead dead. you are dead as a writter.You could wash his boots. Have a respect for guy who got 50 plus concerts a year. His guitar is weak or his voice?

    • Lucas: a) the editor wrote the smartassed headline, not Patrick. b) If you’d like to know why the author feels as he does about Mr. Clapton, you might try reading the post linked and the comment thread where it’s all explained nicely.

  4. Wuf, thanks for reading and commenting. West and Bruce formed a power trio with Corky Laing, the drummer from Mountain, and they cleverly called themselves West, Bruce & Laing. Their first album (of three), Why Dontcha, was their best, and contains some sick playing from Bruce. I have the CD and will drag it out about once a year for a listen. Their cover of Eddie Boyd’s “Third Degree” is the highlight of the album.

  5. Rein, thanks for reading and commenting. As you probably have noticed, I love the topic of rock ‘n’ roll, particulary from the “classic” era.

    I appreciate your comments on Bruce’s playing. The last thing I’m going to do is get into an argument about bass playing with a bassist. I’m not a musician; you are. I’ll just say I think he still sounds pretty damned good, and he’s the guy I still compare rock players to.

    And yeah, that Entwistle fella was pretty good too.

  6. Lucas, thank you for reading and commenting. I think Clapton’s voice has aged well; just go back and listen to “Four Until Late” from Fresh Cream and compare it to his more recent stuff.. But I think he has too readily accepted a position as an Elder Statesman of rock. The Eric Clapton of the Cream years would have recorded a flat-out classic album with B.B. King if they had done Riding With the King back then. The version the two *did* record, however, is a non-prescription sleep aid.

    The main problem I have with E.C. stems from the fact that I’ve seen Jeff Beck at close range twice in the past three years. Those were the two most expensive tickets I’ve ever bought, and they were worth every penny. But I saw Clapton four times over the years and got, at best, an adequate return for my money. Adequate. Average. Acceptable. When I saw Beck, he made the hairs on my arm stand up. Whenever I saw Clapton, I never had any compunctions about leaving the show early so I could beat the traffic. Beck and Clapton’s history will forever be intertwined because they both were Yardbirds. But only one of them still has the fire.

  7. Patrick – have you read Clapton’s autobio? I recommend it highly. Doesn’t excuse some of what you perceive as shortcomings over the latter decades, but does offer some good insights.

    As for Jack, I wrote quite a while back that he’s one of my masters. Now, off to buy myself some new tuneage… 🙂

  8. Hi, Jim. My guitar-slinging nephew has the Clapton book. I want to read it, and Bruce’s book, and Baker’s book, to see the similarities and differences.

    If you wind up buying the new Bruce, and if you think of it, I’d be interested in your take on it. Given his bass playing, his chops on other instruments, his songwriting and his singing, I think he was/remains among the very best talents of his times. And I seem to remember you saying on LJ once that you used to warm up on “Crossroads.” Everybody listens to E.C. when they hear that song, but Bruce is fkng amazing, and for once, Baker doesn’t overplay.

  9. Patric. I saw lot more Clapton concerts than you and 1 with J. Beck (Together). The problem with Beck for me is I don’t understand him. He is so much flashy player with his “tricks” n guitar. But on the end of the day when I close my eyes Clapton music and his playing is so much better to me. Listen If Clapton wants he could show to a lot of guys like you and even to Beck how good and fast and acurate he could be.He does not have to.He changed but always he could play the blues like no other. With so much passion and melody. FDid you hear Double Trouble from the concert with S Winwood? Or I shot the sheriff from the Crossroads concert ? I saw a lot of energy in his concerts and feeling.And I belive Clapton could choose some more instrumental songs (like Beck) and show some fire but he doesn’t want to.You don’t think he lost his guitar talent, do you? He is diffrent person than Beck and little diffrent taste. And I like his taste so much batter.

  10. Lucas, I was a Clapton fan for a long, long time, and I don’t think any of us will realize what a true legendary figure he is until he’s dead and we stop to consider his body of work and his life in their entirety. His solo on “NSU” from the first Live Cream record is among the finest eight or nine minutes of guitar improvisation I’ve ever heard. And his playing on the original version of “Crossroads,” from Wheels of Fire, is as tasty as it gets.

    Has he forgotten how to play guitar? Of course not. And maybe seeing him in concert is where we hear his full fire. But I gave him four different shots to wow me live, and he didn’t—and this was back when I was a true Clapton fan. In fact, the first time I saw him I walked out on him because he was sloppy drunk—and he said so before he even started playing. Over the years I spent lots of money on his records, but to me, it reached the point where it all sounded the same.

    As you conclude, it’s a matter of taste. And it would be a dull damn world if we all liked the same thing.

    But I hate to end this conversation on such a conciliatory note, so: Did I mention that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s CD In Step is the equal to *anything* Clapton ever recorded in the studio?

    • EC has talked in recent years about the decline in his playing ability, which he attributes directly to age. He talks in one interview about listening to stuff he did just a decade earlier and realizing that he simply can no longer play those notes in that way.

      This is perfectly logical. 60 year-old fingers don’t move like 25 year-old fingers. That others seem to standing up to age better is great for them, but perhaps they’re the exceptions to the rule.

  11. Sam, thanks for the additional information on E.C. I still place him in the “legend” category, but he’s lost a step to his left.

    I think this is one of the reasons I like the new Jack Bruce album so much. To my ears, his fingers still work fine, and his technique is broader than it was with Cream; one moment he’s playing way down on the fretboard, and next moment he’s providing that fat bottom for the band to rest on. I don’t know how long he’s been playing a fretless bass, which he does on this album, but it’s giving him room to explore a lot of “between” notes, if you will. He is a much more mature and richer player than he was earlier in his career.

    Yesterday I got a little worried that maybe I was overrating this disc because I’ve always been a fan, but I’ve got some killer headphones and went back to the CD last night with the intention of listening just to his playing and singing (which is hard to do, because he’s got a fabulous band). He’s still got it. When the full breadth and depth of his career are considered—when you consider his singing, his songwriting, his talent on much more than the bass, the superb musicians he has worked with and the varying genres in which he has played—there are few artists (if any) who can match his accomplishments over the past 50 years.

    I wish our friend Jim Booth would weigh in on this last comment, and, of course, I’m interested to hear any suggestions you might have about musicians whose careers can match Jack’s.

    • Sadly, I’m out of my league here. We listen to music for different things, and while I certainly appreciate virtuosity, I have always been more in it for the songs than the playing. Do I respect the hell out of somebody like Zappa or Beck? You betchum. Do I listen to them much? Sometimes, but not nearly as much as I do artists and bands who don’t have enough technical talent to polish their shoes.

      You and Booth and Wufnik and others are different in this respect – you guys know the hell out of the musicianship and you and Wufnik especially are willing to tolerate less in the way of songcraft in your pursuit of chops.

      So I’ll sit over here and enjoy the conversation, even though I fear I have little to contribute to it.

  12. Thanks, Sam. But I don’t follow: “… tolerate less in the way of songcraft.” Does that mean we’re willing to cry bullshit on songs like “Lay Down Sally”? (Can’t resist stirring the Clapton pot.)

    • I’ll stay out of that one, thank you. But to illustrate what I mean by songcraft vs. virtuosity, compare, say, The Beatles to Phish. The Beatles are the greatest rock/pop songwriters who ever lived. But the best player in the band, George, isn’t going to make many greatest guitarists lists. If he does, it’s for influence and style and not because he could trade licks with anybody. I’d say the same about The Edge. He’s arguably the most important guitarist of his generation because he defined the SOUND of early Gen X. But can he stand toe-to-toe with Jeff Beck? Fuck no.

      Phish, on the other hand, can play the pure T hell out of it. I mean, everybody in that band can go. But they couldn’t write a song if their lives depended on it. “Start in G and let’s see what happens” is the antithesis of songcraft.

      My bias is fairly direct. I don’t really care how well you play if what you’re playing is crap. But you and Wufnik, to use the two people I’m contrasting with, will find a lot to admire in bands that don’t worry about song structures if they can play. You guys love improv, for instance. By the same token, I know that people who cherish musicianship have little time for some of the artists I love because, frankly, their playing isn’t anything special.

      At the core, I guess it’s a philosophical argument. Should the song serve the virtuoso impulse or should the playing serve the song?

  13. O Yeah!!! To Samuel last sentence. And Patric check Clapton’s fingers at Tribute to R. Johnsonson Love in Vain or nice solo from last Crossroads with BB King ” Thrill is gone” Music to me is not Formula 1. And you saing his voice is weaker this days. 95% people say is opposite.I like his voice thru his whole carreer. Please check ” Autum leaves” from his last album.?

  14. Lucas, c’mon, man: I said Clapton’s voice has improved with age, and there are a zillion other guitarists I could listen to if speed were all I was concerned with. It’s as if you either didn’t read my post No. 13 above or read it and chose to ignore the conciliatory tone I tried to strike.

    End of discussion, as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Clapton, dead artistically? WTF? He should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame not only three but six times!! Yard Birds, Blues Breakers, Cream, Blind faith, Derek and the Dominos, and for his solo work! Who else has had this body of work? I suggest you listen to his album Play the Blues with Wynton Marsalis!

  16. Blind Faith? Seriously? Blind Faith was Steve Winwood’s band. Clapton was lucky to be along for the ride.

  17. Jesus, I forgot to thank you for reading and commenting on my post. One more thing that comes to mind besides Blind Faith being Steve Winwood’s band, not Clapton’s: How can you suggest Clapton’s work with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers be worthy of a Hall of Fame induction when Mayall himself hasn’t been inducted? As for Derek and the Dominoes, there’s a *huge* disconnect between the live album and “Layla,” which to me shows Duane Allman’s huge influence on the studio work. As good as “Layla” is—and I’m amore unimpressed with it than most—suggesting Clapton deserves a separate H of F induction for a single album is more than a bit of an overstatement.

  18. I’ve seen Beck many times and Clapton an awful lot. I’ve seen them play together. You are comparing apples and oranges. Beck is a technician. A master student of the guitar. Clapton is a bluesman who also plays rock and roll, among other genres. You want to corner Clapton as a one-type performer. Your examples are all 40+ years ago when the playing and the times were different. Yea, we all wish Clapton, the Stones and the Beatles were still knocking out the sounds of our youth. But they aren’t. Most are 70 or near 70 if they aren’t dead already. No one is sounding like they used too. Yes, Beck still is amazing but he has never been a popular player among the public.

    I would suggest you read Clapton’s Bio. It will answer a lot of your concerns about his playing styles. And yes I said styles plural. He has covered a lot of territory as a guitar god and has had many influences. Buddy Holly, Don Williams, The Tulsa Sound.. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and the list goes on and on… Clapton wants to be remembered as a Bluesman. I think he could care less being remembered as Rock Royalty.

    As for his technical abilities today compared with Jack Bruce…. You should listen to the Cream Boots from the 2005 MSG concerts. Bruce is barely alive in those concerts and Clapton is carrying them all. Bruce’s voice has been long gone while many consider Clapton’s old man voice to be better than ever.

    Great people become legends because of their entire body of work. Not because they are simply good at a point in time. Jack Bruce might be a great bassist and wrote some classic rock hits. But it doesn’t make him a legend. Same goes for Beck. On the otherhand, Clapton is a legend.

  19. Hi, Dave. Thank you for reading and commenting. You make some excellent points.

    I think there’s something to be said about your “apples and oranges” point, but less than your think. You say I’m trying to buttonhole E.C. as a one-type player while also saying Beck is a technician. I suggest you listen to Beck’s last release, Emotion and Commotion, to hear a guy who is as capable as E.C. is at putting feeling into a song without being a pure technician. And, although these examples are dated, they remain valid because he continues to cover songs like “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a takeoff on a song by Mingus). Those songs are not examples of someone who relies on technology.

    To say “nobody is sounding like they used” to is true with Jack Bruce’s voice, and I agree with you that Clapton is a much better singer than he was, say, on the early Cream stuff. But in terms of playing, the new Jack Bruce (recorded just five months ago) reveals him to be a bassist who still is to be reckoned with. If anything, his technique has grown over the years. Neither of those examples if 40+ years old.

    You say great people become legends because of their entire body of work, not because they are simply good at a point in time. This statement reflects no small degree of unawareness of the entire body of Bruce’s work. For you to dismiss Beck as a legend is curious at best and shows a narrow definition of “genius” at worst. Is Bruce a legend? Certainly not. Is Clapton a legend? Most certainly. But as I said earlier, each time I saw Clapton in concert, I never was wowed. Same with his work; I quit at “Reptile” because I didn’t think I was getting my money’s worth.

    I started listening to Clapton back in ’71, Dave, and he was a guitar hero for me for decades—long before I even began listening to Beck. But my perspective on E.C. as a blues player changed drastically after I began to listen to Hendrix: check out his solos on “Red House” on the newly reissued “Hendrix in the West.” As blues solos, they are unparalled, unmatched. But I still remained an E.C. fan.

    One more thing: You comment on Clapton’s fluidity in multiple genres. Richard Thompson could play rings around Clapton is any of those genres, and he is an artist whose playing continues to improve. As for the songwriting part of their art, Thompson wins by a knockout early in the fight.

    Again, thanks for your comments, Rich. I enjoy this kind of back-and-forth.

  20. Patrick

    I appreciate your comments. I stand by my earlier statements. One note, I did call Beck a technician. But I also called him a master. I do respect his abilities and I think from a technical point of view he is better today than Clapton. But if I were to pick today which artist I would pay to watch; it’s Clapton hands down. He delivers soul with his playing while others deliver music. For me, I need the soul but I can respect the music playing of others.

    Thanks for the give and take. Any others want to join in on this subject?

  21. Patrick. I was at Clapton concert (together with Beck). After Beck part Clapton came and after I shot the sherriff they gave him so much applause. It was like 3 times more “wow” than entire Beck concert. Why? Tell me Why? and accoustic playing compare Beck to Clapton is like day and night. Calpton is day. 90% people prefer Clapton 10% Beck. You are in 10% group beacouse you are diffrent. You know I respect Beck but his playing for more than 40 min is painfull to my ears.End of discusion.And don’t ever say Clapton is dead musically.Do think twice.

    • As I suggested earlier, there’s an apples/oranges thing going on. In brief, Clapton wrote songs that lots of people like. And he was a great player once upon a time. Now, his technique has eroded – HE says this – while some of his contemporaries have resisted the withering effects of age better.

      But those songs endure. And Beck, an awesome player, was never an alpha-level pop/rock songsmith. So what I said before: people who value PLAYING and virtuosity are going to tend one way while those who care more about the songs are going to tend the other way.

      Arguments about who’s the greatest are usually arguments about criteria in disguise.

  22. Hello again, Lucas. OK: I won’t say Clapton is dead musically. Instead, I’ll say he’s dead artistically.

  23. Sam is right: Beck certainly isn’t the songsmith Clapton is. Beck has never come close to writing a song like “Badge,” for instance. I’m sure he’s written a bunch of other prolific songs, too—I’m just too lazy to pull out my CDs and look. There’s been a lot of songwriting sludge from Clapton over the years, too. But Sam’s point is true when he says Clapton has written a host of songs that people like.

    I don’t know how often I have to say this: I was a fan of Clapton for decades, not years. He could do no wrong in my book. And even something as recent as his prominent sideman role on Robbie Robertson’s How to Become Clairvoyant reminds me of what I used to like so much about him. But lately, to my ears, Clapton has been more filler than killer.