April 10 marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the more memorable events of my life. On that Wednesday evening in 1968 my rock band opened for Eric Clapton's Cream at Yale's venerable Woolsey Hall in New Haven.
Cream, the hottest supergroup on the scene, featuring the most critically acclaimed rock guitarist on the planet, was the envy of every pop musician I knew. Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Ginger Baker on drums were considered, well, the cream of the crop.
To add to their reputation, their latest single, "Sunshine of Your Love," had become a top forty hit. (It was one of those propitious moments when quality musicianship was rewarded with commercial success.)
My own band, The Morning—a local psych-folk-rock band composed of four Yale students and legendary Greenwich Village singer Randy Burns—was given the opportunity to open for these British demigods and we jumped at the chance.
Oddly, what I remember most from that night was Cream kicking us out of the dressing room and locking the door prior to their own performance. It was widely known they weren't getting along with each other at this point, so I figured they were conducting a group therapy session.
But when they emerged ten minutes later, with eyes bulging out of their sockets, they looked so...enraptured. Clearly they had been holding a prayer meeting! Having been spiritually fortified, Clapton, Bruce, and Baker promptly put on an inspired (and frenzied) display of musical virtuosity in front of a sold-out house, knocking out classics such as "Spoonful," "I'm So Glad," and "Crossroads" at ear-bleeding volume.
It was probably the loudest musical performance ever in the home of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, but no one complained. (If there was a complaint nobody would have been able to hear it.) I think the audience quickly forgot about our opening set, though I recall that night being a turning point in my social life. It was such a great show that no one protested the high ticket prices ($3.00).
During that month, influenced by career opportunities such as this, I made the momentous decision—along with my band mates—to leave academia. While an undergraduate, I had been immersed in New Testament Greek at the Divinity School, as well as a number of philosophy and religion courses, and I was beginning to wonder what the hell I'd do with a classics or philosophy degree. Meanwhile Rock & Roll U (especially in 1968) was offering a more stimulating curriculum. It was no contest.
Within a few months our group was performing in New York City, Berkeley, and Los Angeles with many of our idols, including Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Smothers Brothers, Taj Mahal, and Alice Cooper.
The Morning went on to have a good run as an "almost famous" band before breaking up a year later (we were co-billed with the J. Geils Band for our farewell gig)—propelling us individually into even more interesting musical careers.
But I never looked back, except to reminisce about that April night when we got to share the stage with Eric Clapton and the best live rock band in the world. Even if they did throw us out of their prayer meeting.