Blind Faith was either one of the great successes of the late 1960’s, a culmination of the decade’s efforts by three legendary musicians–or it was a disaster of monumental proportions, and a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the business of rock at the close of the decade. In actual fact, Blind Faith was probably both.
By any ordinary reckoning, the quartet compiled an enviable record. They generated some great songs, two of them (“Sea of Joy”, “Presence of the Lord”) still regarded as classics 30-plus years later; sold hundreds of thousands of concert tickets and perhaps a million more albums at the time; and they were so powerful a force in the music industry, that they were indirectly responsible for helping facilitate the merger of two major record companies that evolved into Time Warner, before they’d released a note of music on record. And they did it all in under seven months together.
Blind Faith’s beginnings dated from 1968 and the break-up of the Cream. That band had sold millions of records and eventually achieved a status akin to that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Cream’s internal structure was as stressful as it was musically potent, however, as a result of the genuine personal dislike between bassist-singer Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, which occasionally overwhelmed the respect they had for each other as musicians, leaving guitarist-singer Eric Clapton to serve as mediator. After two years of service as a referee, spent all the while in an unremitting spotlight, the public seemingly hanging on every note he played, Clapton was only too happy to leave that situation behind.
The initial spark for Blind Faith came from Clapton and Steve Winwood, whose band Traffic had split up in January of 1969, amid acrimonious disputes over songwriting and direction. Winwood at age 20 was some three years younger than Clapton, and had emerged as a rock star at 17 as a member of the Spencer Davis Group, spending three years as their lead singer on a string of enviable r&b-based hits. His concerns were musical–he wanted to work with the best musicians, and wanted to experiment with jazz, which led him to leave the Spencer Davis Group and form Traffic, which proved riven by egos nearly as strong as the members’ musical impulses. The January 1969 break-up would be the first of several temporary splits in the band’s line-up.
The two musicians had long admired and respected each other — they shared an enthusiasm for and dedication to the blues, and complimented each other in the sense that Clapton’s work was more oriented toward Mississippi Delta blues and its urban descendants, while Winwood came out of more of an r&b sound and had the voice to make that work, and both were interested in experimenting in a group situation without any pressure. It had even occurred to Clapton during the months of Cream’s disintegration that the addition of a fourth member on keyboards might have stabilized the band, in terms of both its music and its internal dynamics.
As it turned out, nothing could have saved Cream, but he looked up Winwood anyway after the band’s demise, in late December of 1968, and the two found that they genuinely liked working together. The notion of forming a band took shape as an eventual goal during jams between the two that lasted for hours. At one point, Clapton even considered forming another trio, between himself and Winwood and a third member as drummer. These ideas took a sharp, new, more immediate turn when Ginger Baker turned up to sit in with them in January of 1969. The results were impressive to all concerned, and the drummer was eager to be let into the group they were planning.
Clapton found himself in a personal bind, having promised Baker on Cream’s demise that they would work together on their next project, but he was not looking forward to reuniting with him just nine weeks after the old group’s final show, with all of the expectations that their link-up would engender from outsiders. Apart from his resentment at being the buffer between Baker and Bruce, Clapton had felt straightjacketed in Cream, required by the demands of fans and, by extension, the record company, to write, play, and sing blues-based rock in a certain way; and he’d also felt trapped in the band’s experimental departures from blues. Winwood, who failed to appreciate the dangers that Clapton saw or the seriousnness of the guitarist’s resistance, finally persuaded him, largely on the basis on the fact that Baker’s presence only strengthened them musically, and that they would be hard put upon to find anyone his equal.
They began working out songs early in 1969, and in February and March the trio was in London at Morgan Studios, preparing the beginnings of basic tracks for an album, which began seriously taking shape as songs at Olympic Studios in April and May under the direction of producer Jimmy Miller. The music community was already onto the link-up, despite Clapton’s claim that he was cutting an album of his own on which Winwood would play. The rock press wasn’t buying any of it, knowing that Baker was involved as well, and then the promoters and record companies got involved, pushing those concerned for an album and a tour.
What’s more, they were offering more money than ever, for what seemed, from a business standpoint, a very good reason. Beginning with the Disraeli Gears album in 1967 and running thru Wheels of Fire in late 1968, Cream had been virtually a money-machine for their record labels, music publishers, and concert promoters alike. Their break-up had been a blow to the music business akin to the death of a top performer; it was hard for their record labels, Atlantic in America and Polydor in Europe, or the promoters prepared to book their tours, who or what could replace them on the ledger books. (It was true that Atlantic had at least one other major blues-rock iron in the fire at the time, in the guise of a new band called Led Zeppelin, but in early 1969 no one yet had an inkling of precisely how big that quartet was going to become).
Thus, the idea, coming along just three months later, of Eric Clapton reuniting with Ginger Baker and performing with Steve Winwood, who was, himself, a major star in England, was like a resurrection. And given a new bite at the apple, the record labels were salivating as they opened their checkbooks to write out big advances, and every concert promoter who could tried to get in on the money to be made, offering huge sums for the chance to profit from a tour by such a band.
It was all impossible to resist. In May, the final version of the band came together with the addition of Rick Grech, a talented musician but hardly a star, on bass. A member of the band Family (which he abandoned in the middle of their U.S. tour), Grech took the bassist’s spot in the new group in preparation for going out on the road. By then the group was known as Blind Faith, a slyly cynical reference that reflected Clapton’s outlook on the new group. His doubts might’ve been taken more seriously if anyone had stopped to dwell on the fact that they’d hardly had time to work out any songs beyond those that were going onto the album–at least, none that were not associated with other bands.
Tours were booked, first of northern Europe and then America, with millions of dollars promised for the latter, contracts signed, and advances paid. The band made its debut at a concert in London’s Hyde Park on June 7, 1969, in front of 100,000 fans who’d been primed by weeks of press reports heralding Blind Faith as “super Cream” and their tour as an event akin to the Second Coming.
From that first show, there was trouble over the split between the adulation accorded the band and Clapton’s misgivings over the quality of the group’s work. A perfectionist by nature, he reportedly left the stage at Hyde Park shaken over the ragged quality of the show they’d given, while 100,000 people roared with approval over their performance. He could already see the same pattern that had made his stay with Cream utterly enervating as a musical experience re-emerging with Blind Faith–the fans could cheer all they wanted, but he had musicianship to care about and worry over, and it was a lousy show. The tour had already been booked, however, and there was more involved than Clapton’s musical sensibilities to consider. And, in a sense, maybe the promoters knew more than Clapton did–it turned out that all the quartet had to do was show up to please the crowds that they found.
Unbeknownst to Clapton as he pondered going out on the road with an unprepared, under-rehearsed band–and it would have boggled his mind had he known–on the other side of the Atlantic, the hype surrounding Blind Faith had already affected a much bigger part of the record industry than any aspect of the group’s impending tour ever would. In early 1969, Warner-Seven Arts, previously known as the Kinney Corporation (a company that made millions in the parking garage business), was in the process of acquiring record companies. Under the guidance of their president, Steve Ross, they’d already bought Warner Bros. studios, which included Warner-Reprise Records, and had arranged to purchase Atlantic Records late in 1968.
Ross knew, however, that Atlantic was worth acquiring only if its president, founder, and chief guiding personality, Ahmet Ertegun, stayed with the company–but Ertegun, a true music enthusiast as well as a superb businessman, wasn’t convinced that he wanted to work for a corporate owner. He’d founded Atlantic with his brother and a partner, and liked being his own boss and calling the musical shots as he’d seen them, rather than reporting to anyone else.
Ross saw his investment in jeopardy and scheduled a meeting with Ertegun to try and convince the man to stay on. The problem for Ross was that Atlantic was practically a part of Ertegun, and Ertegun was almost as much an artist as a businessman, all of which was part of the secret of his success in holding together a team of creative production and engineering geniuses like Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, not to mention the stable of artists they worked with.
A few nights before the meeting, he’d been at home when his teenage son passed through with a friend, who’d heard that Ross was in the process of buying Atlantic Records. The friend had started telling Ross about how hot Atlantic Records looked to be, and about the break-up of the Cream; he enthused over Clapton’s hook-up with Winwood and Baker, and the notion being floated in the press of the Blind Faith tour and album, the latter to be released by Atlantic, and how every rock listener in America was just waiting to grab up that album and pay to see the group.
Ross, who was of an age that made him part of Vaughn Monroe’s or Patti Page’s audience, hadn’t a clue what the teenager was talking about, and knew nothing about Cream, Clapton, or Blind Faith. As he later recounted it, however, when he met with Ertegun, the matter of Blind Faith came up in the conversation, as Ertegun was trying to explain what Atlantic was involved in musically. Ross saw his opening and tried his best to run with it, desperately attempting to recall, as he stood there talking, everything that his son’s friend had told him about the Cream, Clapton, Baker, and Winwood, even though he knew nothing of the music involved. Ertegun, who was at least impressed with Ross’s attempt to communicate with him about music, agreed to remain with the new management of Atlantic, which prospered in the 1970’s and 1980’s under his guidance even more than it had in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thus marked the beginning of what soon became Warner-Elektra-Atlantic and, most recently, Warner-EMI Records.
The brief Blind Faith tour of northern Europe in June of 1969 went well. These were out-of-the-spotlight events in small clubs, before serious audiences that were there to listen to music–northern Europe had (and has) a long tradition for offering this kind of audience, which allowed bluesmen of lesser stature than Clapton et al to earn decent livings playing in that part of the world.
From there, however, they moved on to the United States, making their debut at Madison Square Garden on July 12 in front of more than 20,000 people. A riot developed when fans charged the stage, only to be repulsed by the police; in the half-hour melee that ensued, Ginger Baker was clubbed on the head by a policeman who thought he was an interloper, and Winwood’s piano was destroyed. The environment and that sort of passion placed the group in a ridiculous situation–in truth, they didn’t sound that good and they knew it, and the nature of sound systems in 1969 destroyed whatever panache they might’ve brought to their performance, as an under-rehearsed group; yet audiences roared and demanded more music, and rioted at their shows.
It was that way along the entire tour, seven weeks across the United States and Canada ending in Hawaii, marred by particularly angry confrontations between fans and police in Los Angeles. Even as they made their way across the country, the band was questioned about why Clapton seemed to be placing himself on the periphery and giving center-stage to Winwood, who was far less well known in America at that time. The band’s repertory also seemed very light, their new material–even allowing for the inevitable Ginger Baker drum solo on “Do What You Like”–amounting to barely an hour’s worth of music. The way the band had been marketed, the requests for performances of earlier hits by each of the star members, especially Clapton and Baker’s work with Cream, were inevitable, and the group obliged them.
Clapton was now trapped in a kind of “mega-Cream” situation, only worse–there hadn’t been any riots at the trio’s shows–and seemed as though he’d rather have been somewhere else. To him, it must have seemed as though he’d sold his soul to the Devil; there was no backing out on the tour, just enduring it, and hoping that when the smoke cleared the monetary reward would mitigate the miseries he’d suffered. Where the music they were playing should have been the highlight, it was a chore and an obligation. He did find a haven in music along the tour, but not Blind Faith’s–one of the opening acts was a country- and blues-based rock act called Delaney & Bonnie, who had a fun, freewheeling approach to performing and a surprisingly soulful sound. He began spending more time hanging out with them than with the members of Blind Faith, listening to what they were doing and enjoying it, and comparing notes on the blues with Delaney Bramlett.
Blind Faith’s tour ended on August 24, 1969. By that time, the self-titled album–which ran into controversy over its cover, of a topless pre-pubescent girl, and was repackaged in America with a photo of the group–had been out for almost a month, and had already sold more than half-a-million copies in America alone, hitting No. 1 on the charts in England and America. The money was rolling in to all concerned even as they realized that the album showcased one of the fundamental flaws in the band’s conception. There was very good music on Blind Faith, but there wasn’t a lot of it–barely 40 minutes’ worth, which was hardly a body of music worthy of a international-class act. It was a good album, but those six songs didn’t constitute a repertory, much less a defined sound.
In a more logical sequence of events, the group would’ve spent more weeks rehearsing, and played some more small gigs in England or northern Europe, perfecting their sound and working out material. They would’ve had time to become a group, with the debut album issued in the midst of that; and then prepared a second LP, recorded and ready to go when their international bookings began, shows for which they would’ve had at least a dozen songs that they could claim as their own.
Instead, the logic collapsed like a row of dominoes falling: Baker joining, which got the press excited about a reconstituted Cream, which raised the stakes and the pressure for an immediate tour and an even more immediate album. In the end, Blind Faith was like a baby removed too soon from the womb and asked to grow and thrive.
The group returned to England amid alternate rumors of a UK tour or a break-up. By October, what was already a forgone conclusion to the members became official–there would be no second Blind Faith album, not from the studio or even a live album (though a couple of live tracks surfaced on the 1995 Steve Winwood retrospective set The Finer Things), nor any release of the film they’d made of the Hyde Park show.
Blind Faith ultimately proved too little and too much all at once. The band had left its members a bit shell-shocked, Clapton most of all, but even he had lots of money to show for it (and more coming in, the Blind Faith tour and album helping stimulate sales of the Cream’s old albums as well). He retreated to the safety of Delaney & Bonnie, where he began playing some of the best blues of his entire career; no longer in a leadership position, or expected to step into the spotlight at every turn, he got his wish for anonymity on tour with the group from December of 1969 until early 1970, in the course of which he also met the sidemen–Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and Bobby Whitlock–that would finally give him the kind of safe, anonymous showcase for his work that he’d hoped Blind Faith would be, in Derek & the Dominoes, who did exactly what he’d hoped Blind Faith would do, play small clubs very quietly and work out their music out of the spotlight.
Ginger Baker, however, found the Blind Faith experience to be no worse than a mixed blessing. There’d been little new musical discovery, but the money had been very good, and it had proved that audiences would turn out for an offshoot of the Cream. Additionally, he’d liked working with Winwood and Grech, and decided to try and keep them together. This led to the formation, in late November of 1969, of Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a big-band ensemble whose sound embraced rock, jazz, r&b, folk, African music, and blues.
Winwood and Grech would only remain with that group long enough to play at a pair of shows debuting the band in England during January of 1970. It was understood that, at the behest of Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records (to which Winwood was signed), Winwood was to begin work on a projected solo album and was taking Rick Grech with him, into what would become the Traffic reunion album John Barleycorn Must Die. Meanwhile, the memory of Blind Faith lingered with the album, which became a perennial favorite in Clapton’s, Winwood’s, and Baker’s catalogs. Clapton and Winwood later came to appreciate the record. For all of their musical merits, which were considerable, Blind Faith’s short life-span made them virtually a symbol of the tail-end of the 1960’s and what those years were about: Too much too soon in that overheated cultural, psychic, and business environment, even for the prodigious talents and personalities involved, resulting in a quick burn-out.