Eric Clapton was due for a vacation after successfully kicking heroin during 1974. But his trip to Miami was far from a holiday. Instead, the guitarist took to Criteria Studios and recorded his acclaimed album 461 Ocean Avenue, named after the rental home in which Slowhand resided while taking advantage of the Florida sun.
The climate comes out in Clapton's work, ten tracks ranging from bright blues rock to, well, "Let It Grow." The album has continued to gain acclaim over the years, promoting a slew of extended rereleases, but upon its 40th anniversary Music Times is looking back and ranking the ten original tracks on the classic album.
10) "I Shot The Sheriff"
We'll start this list off by rubbing Clapton fans the wrong way. Slowhand and many a blues rocker before him littered their albums with new renditions of classics (half of 461 Ocean Boulevard applies) but those tracks have typically fallen out of popularity by then, whereas Bob Marley's original version had only been out a year before Clapton covered it. "Sheriff" is a great song on both albums, but Clapton was just riding on the reggae legend's legwork. The vibe is appropriate however.
09) "Mainline Florida"
The closing track suggests that Clapton was looking to go out hot, and he whips out all the rock 'n' roll tricks to do it. Backing vocals, the hammond organ and of course the headliner's guitar all break down into one last jam. Problem lies in that "Mainline Florida" breaks away from the established tone of the record, case in point being Clapton's use of a talk box during his outgoing solo. Peter Frampton maybe...but not on this record. We'd be curious to see this track open the album with "Motherless Children" closing, a reversal of roles.
08) "Willie and The Hand Jive"
Part of featuring upwards of five covers on your album is finding a new approach to each. Unlike with "Sheriff," Clapton switches direction dramatically on his version of Johnny Otis's "Willie and The Hand Jive." As you would expect, the original "Hand Jive" is a rock 'n' roll call to the dance floor. Clapton introduces the track with a touch of shuffle in his riff but the laid back tone of the album ends up translating to a more mournful vibe. A shot of energy could have opened this track up without derailing the album's sound.
07) "Give Me Strength"
One of three originals written by Clapton himself, "Give Me Strength" gets us started with the choice cuts on 461 Ocean Boulevard. The tune is slow and quiet but that doesn't steal from the soulful approach of the performer. A Hammond organ plays faintly enough—not to distract from, but rather to lift—for Clapton as he calls out for divine assistance. A classic example of the guitarist writing a song as if from the perspective of his blues heroes, live from another era.
06) "Please Be With Me"
Another original ballad, this one written by Charles Scott Boyer. Much of the album inherently sounds like sunlight but "Please Be With Me" was meant for a hammock at sunset versus under the hot Miami rays. Although strictly acoustic, Clapton maintains the blues vibe by working his dobro guitar into the latter half of the track, ending more emphatically than he began.
05) "Get Ready"
Clapton may have been God by the time he left Cream but that was only with his guitar. It took years for Slowhand to get fully comfortable with his voice and that's evident throughout 461 Ocean Boulevard. Although we came mainly to hear him play guitar, it's nice when Yvonne Elliman swings by to offer her strong vocals alongside Clapton's during "Get Ready." This is another original written by Clapton, and again the duo gets the ball rolling and continues to upshift until the end of the track.
04) "Let It Grow"
"Let It Grow" is easily the black sheep on 461 Ocean Boulevard. Clapton's aforementioned low vocal volume lends an ominous feeling to the acoustic verses of the track when it suddenly leaps into a hook full of flower children encouraging the listener to let love grow "in the sun, the rain, the snow." It's hokey, but deliciously so, perhaps thanks to the counterbalance of light and dark from verse to chorus. The strings that enter the track as it begins its last stand only set the track farther apart from the album's other offerings. Perhaps we should give that talk box another shot...
03) "Steady Rollin' Man"
Clapton has long had a fascination with Robert Johnson, the most legendary (literally) of bluesmen. Just look at his 2004 tribute album Me and Mr. Johnson. Thanks to his appreciation of the icon's work, Clapton has never tried to change up Johnson's originals too much. He had one of the greatest successes of his career with his rollicking cover of "Crossroads" while with Cream and he doesn't see fit to alter the formula here. "Steady Rollin' Man" certainly rolls steadily, allowing the guitarist to interject flashy accents in between lines and have some fun.
02) "Motherless Children"
We've already lamented Clapton's choice to slow down Otis's "Willie and The Hand Jive." Now we're forced to make a somewhat hypocritical observation considering our enjoyment of "Motherless Children," a Blind Willie Johnson standard that discusses just that titular topic. Does the upbeat approach to the song make sense? No. Nor does the approach to "Crossroads" for that matter but we still love it as an audience. "Children" seems built to close out the album—again like "Crossroads" at a Clapton solo concert—ending as hot as it opens, even including a segment of closing bass and drum notes as if closing a concert.
01) "I Can't Hold Out"
The frequent use of the dobro guitar throughout 461 Ocean Boulevard helps aid the notion that this is a "southern" album. Clapton's take on "I Can't Hold Out" transports us to a smoky Chicago lounge however. Although the change of scenery doesn't disrupt the pace that the guitarist has set thus far for the album. The song is obviously a tribute to Elmore James' version, and Slowhand brings the cool for his strutting solos, accompanied tastefully with a backing Hammond organ.