Eric Clapton: From the Cradle (Reprise, CD/tape). In principle, an all-blues album from Clapton seems a rotten idea. Why, when he's found a voice of his own in songs such as "Wonderful Tonight" and "Tears in Heaven", would he want to go back to what he was doing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers 30 years ago? The prosecution would say that in 1994 there is no artistic excuse for unrevised versions of such heavily worked classics as Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man" or Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years". It's fine to play these songs at the Albert Hall for an audience that may never have heard the originals, but there doesn't seem much point in laying them down for posterity when Muddy Waters and Elmore James are not only freely available but can be heard on TV ads for jeans and mineral water.
And yet, and yet . . . Clapton's love of the blues is so charmingly earnest that you can't help liking this album, even when his singing is transparently that of a white boy from Surrey still pretending to be a Mississippi sharecropper. What finally validates the album is the quality of the arrangements, with Jerry Portnoy (Muddy Waters's last harmonica-player), the great drummer Jim Keltner and the gritty Kick Horns as vital to its success as Clapton's own searing solos. Within the idiom, the range is broad, the small band switching easily from the skiffle- like lightness of "Motherless Child" and the rural honky-tonk of the eight-bar "How Long Blues" to the grinding wail of "It Hurts Me Too" and the urban shuffle of "Reconsider Baby".
It's disconcerting to find that no black people worked on the album, a phenomenon which appears to perpetuate the old injustice that made millionaires of the Rolling Stones while allowing a Jimmy Reed to die in poverty. But perhaps one should give Clapton the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he did it on purpose, to emphasise the debt owed by his generation of white musicians to the folk who invented the stuff. …