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Book Review: Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History by Chris Welch

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In 2007, guitar legend Eric Clapton finally issued his autobiography, simply titled Clapton. While critics and fans argued as to how deeply he delved into his storied life, Clapton did reveal his struggles with drugs and alcohol and his complicated love life. Clapton enthusiasts wanting more insight and criticism should look elsewhere, but Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History by Chis Welch provides a fond look back at the rock star’s astounding career. What it lacks in thoroughness it makes up for in numerous photographs of guitars and other memorabilia, and it does serve as a succinct overview of Clapton’s life and work.

Welch, a past Melody Maker (which merged with NME in 2000) features writer, Eric Claptonfirst met Clapton in 1964 when he was a member of the Yardbirds. The two forged a friendship that lasted throughout the 60s, and Welch displays unabashed admiration for the guitarist throughout the book. In his introduction, Welch states that he drew most of the book’s material from “my own encounters and past conversations.” Indeed, many Clapton quotes derive from past Melody Maker articles. However, a complete bibliography would have been helpful in determining the original sources. Written from a personal perspective, Welch guides the reader through the various phases of Clapton’s career, from the Yardbirds to Cream to the solo years. Longtime fans will already know most of the stories, although Welch’s stories about jamming with Clapton add charm to the oft-told tales.

The true star of Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History remains, as the title suggests, the numerous photographs. While very few photos of Clapton’s childhood are included, his tenures with his various bands, his solo tours, and his many collaborators are well represented. Rare concert shots, promotional photographs, and reproductions of original 45s adorn the pages. Some of the most interesting memorabilia involves concert posters. The 1960s are unparalleled in poster art, and various fliers promoting Cream performances contain incredible graphics. Amusingly, a few posters list the band as “The Cream.” Even advertisements from canceled shows are pictured here.

To provide a complete overview, Welch also includes an illustrated discography up to 2010’s Clapton album. Hardcore Clapton fans would have also appreciated a catalog of his many songwriting collaborations and guest appearances on others’ albums, although that may merit a separate book. Welch also spotlights key Clapton records, providing very brief critical analyses of the works. Those looking for in-depth criticism should look elsewhere, but casual fans would find this guide to essential Clapton albums useful.

Not surprisingly, many Clapton fans are also guitar enthusiasts. Welch does not neglect this audience; he includes close-up photographs of the guitarist’s many instruments. While the pictures are indeed gorgeous, paying appropriate homage to the magnificent guitars, gear heads will find the descriptions lacking in detail. Those looking for extensive information such as listed in Andy Babiuk’s Beatles Gear might be disappointed in the brief snippets about each guitar. But seeing Clapton’s beloved black Fender Stratocaster “Blackie,” its paint chipping and peeling from years of use, is an enjoyable experience (along with my personal favorite, the 1988 cherry red Eric Clapton Signature Fender Stratocaster).

The attractive black, blue, and gold hardcover featuring three key photos of Clapton make for a high-quality coffee table book. Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History is a loving tribute to a unique, highly influential artist, and should appeal to casual and longtime fans alike. While rock journalist Welch may not provide many critical insights, his essays and many photographs do just what the title says—provide an illustrated history of a rock legend.

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