A night with Eric Clapton and Cream.

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 (J. Geils Band was the opener at 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.


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9 Comments

  1. From what I've read about Clapton and Cream there may have been more than prayer goin on that night. Wasn't Clapton busted that year?

  2. Wow! What an experience! Thank you for Rememberance of Things Past. How long were you on the road with your band? I'm sure your book will have antedotes of this time. I hope so! Regarding your various studies, is it as if all things converge? I too have had quite a divergent awesome path to business.

    Various experiences enrich leadership abilities and enable connection with others on various levels. Performance also enables this connection. The minute I step onto the stage, I feed off of the energy of others and they feed off of me. This creates a kind of dialgoue.

    Performance experience helps in various ways in business. I hope that your book will address this on some level in your upcoming book.

  3. Stephen, I believe Clapton was arrested with the Buffalo Springfield in Hollywood around that time for possession. (Whoda' thunk?)

    Judith, I played with that band of ex-Yalies for two years, but I played with about a dozen bands in my career - all interesting examples of "business teams." Yup, my book will contain lots of anecdotes from those days - including what NOT to do if you want to be successful as a team.

  4. Cream were extraordinary musicians but were an extraordinarily dysfunctional band. They barely spoke to each other.

  5. It’s true that Clapton, Bruce, and Baker didn’t get along with each other – especially Bruce & Baker, who had some bad blood from their previous time together with the Graham Bond Organisation. Even at their NY reunion in 05 Bruce & Baker were going at it. The guys DID seem a little tense backstage on that night in 1968, but after their “bonding” ceremony in the dressing room they were pretty inspired.

    But all the great rock bands had personality and artistic conflicts – the best example being the Who. Daltrey and Townshend STILL have problems with each other but they continue to make great music together. The trick is CONTAINING the conflict and CAPITALIZING on it – which great business teams (e.g. the most creative product development teams) figure out a way to do.

  6. Well actually...Cream had a preference for bonding over bonging, but everybody had their drug of choice. (Present company excluded OF COURSE.) Though I was no boy scout, I was just getting into TM in those days, which probably kept me out of serious trouble.) But I plan to do a future post on the subject. Illicit drug use was ubiquitous with rock bands then, but IMHO it pales in significance to the widespread abuse of over-the-counter drugs by the population at large today. Meanwhile some of the most health-conscious (and chemically free) individuals I know today are rock band alumni from the 60s & 70s.

  7. I too was at the concert for the 2nd half. I was a Junior in high school at the time. That Wednesday night I sneaked out of my house, grabbed a bus at the Branford green, and arrived in New Haven some 30 minutes later. i had no ticket, but waited a short while until intermission, and begged a departing Yale student for his ticket stub. Too my surprise he graciously surrendered it, and I was in. The talent assembled was probably lost on me, and I remember being keen to observe Ginger Baker's physical state, as he was rumored to be in dire shape due to heavy amphetamine use. The memory plays tricks but I seem to recall Clapton being stage right and Jack Bruce stage left, with Ginger in the back sweating profusely as he played the drums at a terrific pace. Afterwards, I caught the last bus home and my parents were none the wiser about my whereabouts. I guess it was my first real rock concert. So sorry to hear about Jack Bruce's recent death.

  8. Great story, Russell! Yeah, Jack was a great one.

    My memory was Clapton was stage left (on the right from the audience's perspective) and Bruce stage right, with Baker in the back between them. Baker was pretty emaciated, with eyes popping out of his head.

    The more I read about the squabbles between Bruce and Baker the more amazed I am that they ever joined up to begin with. They were at each others' throat in The Graham Bond Organization and just continued it with Cream. Both were cantankerous fellows. And as leader of the band Bruce could piss people off.

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