On August 16th, 1969, three anointed stars of the music world released the first—and ultimately only—album from rock’s first true supergroup, Blind Faith.
Featuring Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood–and, a few months later, Ric Grech–the band had all the eyes of the music world squarely on them, as Blind Faith’s debut was easily one of the most anticipated moments in the then-young history of commercial rock and roll. At the time, no one would know how quickly the promise of magic to come would turn into a tale of wasted potential, even though the writing was on the wall from the beginning.
Eric Clapton would eventually come to be deified as one of the most celebrated rock guitarists of all time. His insane focus on practice caused him to get kicked out of school, forcing him to earn a living by busking for change on the streets at age 17. Around that time, he joined his first band, and barely two years later he joined what was to be the band for British blues guitar players, The Yardbirds. His brief tenure in the band preceded Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page‘s stints playing the six-string in the band, but it made it clear Clapton was a guitarist to watch.
The Yardbirds – “For Your Love”
[Video: The Yardbirds – Topic]
Clapton left The Yardbirds the day “For Your Love” was released, quickly joining, quitting, and subsequently rejoining John Mayall‘s band The Bluesbreakers. It was fairly obvious to sharp-eyed members of the music scene at the time that Clapton was not one to put down roots in any single musical situation. He wanted to play the blues, to follow the muse that drove him, and was dead set on doing it his way. When drummer Ginger Baker invited him to join his new band, Cream, with former Bluesbreaker cohort Jack Bruce lined up to play bass, he quickly agreed.
Baker had gained fame through his explosive gigs with The Graham Bond Organisation. A student of one of the great British jazz drummers, Phil Seamen, Baker brought aggressive energy, a rarely-seen double bass drum setup, and an ability to blend genres. The Graham Brand Organization was a hit on the club circuit, as fans returned nightly just to see what fresh hell Baker was going to unleash from his drum stool.
Eventually, Baker tired of the interpersonal politics in The Organisation and began to think about forming a band that was comprised of only the best possible players. Though he often quarreled with his bassist in the Brand Organization, Jack Bruce, he recognized his immense talent on his instrument and his confident and powerful singing voice. A plan began percolating in Baker’s mind, and a search for a guitarist who fit his vision began and ended with Eric Clapton.
The trio of Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton each brought an immense level of skill and personal dedication to Cream. Expectations from within and without were, understandably, incredibly high. In their three short years of existence, Cream changed the course of rock and roll history as we know it today, and their legacy stands tall.
Though not always the case, quite often people of exceptional talents also end up having issues with ego and pride, and that was sadly true in the case of the members of Cream. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce had a rivalry and distaste for each other from their previous project, and Clapton was dismayed at the pair’s inability to see eye to eye.
Cream – “Sunshine Of Your Love” – 11/26/68
Recognizing that Cream was damaged beyond repair, they announced their decision to break up and booked a farewell tour to give their fans one last chance at seeing them in action. Clapton, Bruce, and Baker remained on good terms, and Clapton even went so far as to promise Bruce that, if he ever played with one of them again, then he would insist on the other being there as well. However, it was a promise he was soon to break, as his jam sessions with old friend Steve Winwood would lead to the formation of yet another star-studded collaboration project.
As young as age 6, Steve Winwood knew he wanted to make music. He spent his years glued to the radio, absorbing endless hours of swing and Dixieland jazz and R&B. His father worked in foundries by day, but by night would play in a variety of big bands and small jazz combos and he encouraged his sons to play. The young Winwood quickly became known as a prodigy, capable of playing almost any instrument. Winwood first performed on stage at the age of 8, and by 14 he was scoring his first hits with The Spencer Davis Group.
Spencer Davis Group – “Gimme Some Lovin”
During his time with The Spencer Davis Group, Winwood first met and befriended Clapton, as the two performed during a one-off recording session as Powerhouse. Though nothing much came of those sessions, the two remained friends and stayed in contact. Soon after, Winwood met drummer Jim Capaldi, guitarist Dave Mason, and fellow multi-instrumentalist Chris Wood, and, after an electrifying initial jam, decided to start a band. Traffic was born from those early collaborations, though its initial life would be short-lived, with Winwood leaving the band just two short years later.
Traffic – “Dear Mr. Fantasy”
Winwood and Clapton’s sessions in 1968 came at a time when both were distraught with their own bands and looking for a new musical outlet. Ginger Baker had dropped by a few times, and Winwood saw the potential in those sessions. He worked hard to persuade Clapton to form a new band with the pieces that were in play. Clapton was reluctant, with his promise to Baker and his bad memories of the break up of Cream, but eventually agreed. With an official press announcement on February 8th, 1969, Blind Faith was born.
The music press was beside themselves upon hearing the news. Expectations for the group were sky-high, and deservedly so. Cream had only just broken up, after being a true commercial juggernaut. Winwood was a beloved name, scoring hit after hit. With bassist Ric Grech joining in May of 1969, the quartet began writing and recording in earnest.
In a move that was a clear nod to their massive star power, the band decided their first gig would be a free show in London’s Hyde Park. The show would draw 100,000 curious fans on a hot early June day, for an hour-plus set of new and cover material that confirmed this band had truly arrived.
Clapton did not share the crowd’s enthusiasm, thinking the band had fallen short of the high goals he had set for Blind Faith musically. He was reluctant to tour until they had the proper seasoning, but, with recording deals already inked, he had no choice. Blind Faith booked a tour of small clubs in Scandinavia while finishing its debut album before heading to the United States to start its major tour at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, a new problem began to cause troubles for the band: a lack of material.
Even with the cover songs the bandmembers had added, Blind Faith was barely able to play an hour’s worth of material and found themselves drawing on their respective former bands’ catalogs for songs to thicken out setlists. Suddenly, Clapton found himself playing the same Cream songs he had come to dislike, for the same ravenous mobs of fans. Worse still in the minds of the musicians, the older material was getting a better reception than the newer songs.
Regardless, the band’s first and only record, Blind Faith, was released on August 16th, 1969 to chart-topping success, and demand for the band dramatically rose. Blind Faith’s first tour grew longer and longer, and Clapton saw his chance to get back home from the road quickly dwindle.
Another major controversy was caused by the cover the band had chosen for their album cover, which featured a topless prepubescent girl holding a shiny chrome objet d’art that had phallic connotations. Even in the ’60s, this was pushing the boundaries of propriety. In those days, without the instant resources for information and connection, rumors spread more wildly, and several unsavory ones swirled around the girl in the photo. She had been sacrificed to the devil. She was the band’s personal sex slave. She was the illegitimate daughter of one of the band members.
In fact, she was a known young suburbanite who had, in fact, with her parent’s permission, signed a modeling release. None of this helped the band win any fans among their record label, who scrambled to replace the image on subsequent printings. The photo was taken by Bob Seidmann, a friend of Clapton’s who had worked with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Though Seidmann defended the shot on artistic merits, the media wasn’t listening.
Sadly, all the attention to the cover distracted listeners from the incredible music the band had laid down. There’s no denying the band hadn’t fully gelled as a unit on the album, but the sheer level of talent more than made up for what the band lacked in rehearsal. The Blind Faith album, with its seminal hit “Can’t Find My Way Home”, was filled with inspired blues musicianship, with clear signs of what had originally caused Winwood to bring these players together.
Between the music and the album controversy, the stress clearly took a toll on Clapton, and his interest in the band quickly waned. As he paid less and less attention to Blind Faith, the other members could clearly see the writing on the wall. After their last tour date in August, the band returned home. Two months later, the band issued another press release, this one far less joyous than the one earlier that year. Blind Faith was done.
A subsequent re-release in 2001 featured outtakes and a few bonus tracks that made the loss of Blind Faith even more acute to fans. It seems obvious in retrospect that these four driven, fearless players would not long be able to hold their creative egos in check, but they were blinded by the prospect of what could be. They placed their faith in the music uniting them strongly enough to lift them above interpersonal issues, but in the end, it was not to be.
The concept of “supergroups” has always looked tantalizing on paper. You bring the best of the best together, and surely magic will follow, right? In practice, however, it seems that people who quickly rise to the top don’t often work well with others. It’s been tried again and again to varying degrees of success, and decades later none has ever burned hotter or brighter than Blind Faith…nor faded as fast.
Blind Faith – “Can’t Find My Way Home”
[Originally published 8/16/16]