55 Years Ago: Eric Clapton’s First Band, the Roosters, Breaks Up
Eric Clapton rose to fame while in the Yardbirds, but prior to that he'd been making his name busking in coffeehouses and pubs, both solo and with another guitarist named Dave Brock, in London and his native Surrey.
Then, at 17, he joined his first band, which was called the Roosters. The group was put together by guitarist Tom McGuinness, who had just come off an unsuccessful audition for a horn-based R&B band.
"My girlfriend at the time, who I lost contact with for many years but who I’m now married to, asked how it was when I came off stage," he told the Village Times. "And I said, ‘Oh, it was terrible. I’m in the wrong place.' And she said, ‘Oh, never mind. This is Eric, who I’m at art school with and he loves the blues.' And that’s how I met him! We then had one of those conversations where it just consisted of throwing names at each other: He’d say Jimmy Reed and I’d say John Lee Hooker; he’d say Muddy Waters and I’d say Buddy Guy. So, we knew we were on the same wavelength."
McGuinness then recruited a pianist he knew, Ben Palmer, along with singer Terry Brennan and drummer Robin Mason. As Michael Schumacher reports in Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, they would rehearse at either the Prince of Wales pub in New Maiden or the Wooden Bridge Hotel in Guildford, jamming blues songs by Waters and Howlin' Wolf or rock n' roll songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino.
But they didn't make much of a dent in the growing London blues scene. "The Roosters rehearsed more than we played," Clapton said in his autobiography. "Even though we did a gig every now and then, mostly in upstairs rooms in pubs, it was more about the excitement of meeting like-minded blues people."
It didn't help that the guitarist was still far from polished. "I knew just about enough to be able to play and keep up that end of it," Clapton admitted.
"I'd love to be able to say that the minute Eric picked up a guitar I knew he was a genius," McGuinness concurred. "I never felt that I was in the presence of someone who would turn out to be as good as Eric Clapton."
There wasn't enough work to sustain themselves, and they were having difficulty getting to those rare gigs since Mason was the only one who had a car. So, the Roosters broke up in August 1963, after about six months. "It was a nightmare," Clapton added, "but it was great fun."
Clapton and McGuinness quickly picked up with another band, the Liverpool-based Casey Jones and the Engineers. With them, Clapton got his first experience touring England. But after a month and about seven gigs, the guitarist quit – saying he was unsatisfied with the pop-based material Jones was playing. Shortly thereafter, Clapton reconnected with singer-harmonica player Keith Relf and joined the Yardbirds.
A few months later, McGuinness joined a group that the Roosters had often opened up for, Manfred Mann, as a bass player. McGuinness moved to guitar in 1965 when Mike Vickers left, which paved the way for Jack Bruce. The band broke up in 1969, but McGuinness put together a group of Manfred Mann alumni, minus the band's namesake keyboardist, in 1991 to tour behind their many hits.