Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What: Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography (Broadway Books, 2007)

Why: The story of a musical entrepreneur who has always focused on what he does best and left the business side to capable partners.

This time of year—late summer with its dry, windy and sun-drenched weather—always takes me back to one particular moment in my life. Late summer…1974…I’m hanging out with pals at the Minnesota State Fair, near the Grandstand, within earshot of the KDWB booth. We’re talking AM radio here. Back then, FM was for late night album-oriented listening (KQRS was the station of choice for that purpose). AM radio ruled the airwaves with repetitive playlists that drove sales in 8-track or vinyl format (or, if you were a real audiophile, cassette or even reel-to-reel).

In this moment in time, I can clearly hear the song blasting from KDWB’s speakers. Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s reggae anthem “I Shot the Sheriff” had quickly risen to the top of the charts (as had the album on which it was featured, 461 Ocean Boulevard), and it was everywhere that summer.

Little did I know at the time that this represented a successful comeback for Clapton, to whom rock god status had already been ascribed in the late 1960s by fans who regularly spray-painted the slogan “Clapton is God” all over London underground stations. But in the intervening years, Clapton’s productivity had become erratic as personal struggles occupied much of his time.

All of this I learned from his memoir, Clapton: The Autobiography, which records Clapton’s rise to fame and fortune—as well as much of the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll we have come to expect from this genre. Particularly interesting are passages involving the business acumen of Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and mentor not only to Clapton but also to a host of others, including Led Zeppelin, whose 2007 one-off London reunion concert was held solely for the purpose of raising funds for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund.

On the whole, though, it seems that Clapton himself does not spend much time thinking of the business side of things, and is content to let others attend to this side of his career. The most we discover is that Clapton himself considers music “an industry that abounds with hustlers and faceless corporate entities.” He is content to do what he does best, and surrounds himself with others who capably manage his brand and market his product. Maybe no different than so many skilled entrepreneurs who recognize their strengths (even if none of them is playing guitar like Clapton) and surround themselves with individuals who are most skilled in areas where they aren’t as strong.

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