This two-LP compilation was a crucial factor in the development of Eric Clapton's solo status at a time when the artist himself was incapacitated by drug problems -- a fact that was not widely known to the public at that time. And it was not only a revelation in terms of the guitarist's career, covering the years 1964 to 1970 by weaving together tracks from Clapton's various bands -- the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and Derek & the Dominos -- but it was also the first compilation of its kind in rock music. Never before had a collection aimed at a rock audience focused on a single musician working across time in a wide variety of group contexts and music styles and idioms, and drawn from a multitude of labels. That sort of profile was well known in jazz circles, but wholly new as a commercial venture in rock -- and, in a somewhat ironic twist, History of Eric Clapton was sufficiently successful to pave the way for the release eight months later of Duane Allman: An Anthology, devoted to the work of Clapton's deceased Derek & the Dominos stablemate (including the repetition of "Layla" which, by then, was a huge hit). Its success was a turning point for Clapton, whose already considerable international fame achieved critical mass in the wake of this release (especially in the United States), as well as for rock music, which suddenly seemed to be taken a lot more seriously by casual listeners, and record labels and producers. As for the revelations contained herein, they seemed boundless at the time -- even the one Yardbirds track that was featured, "I Ain't Got You," easily the most primitive and straightforward track on the album, was something new to most listeners, especially in America, as the latter song had only previously been available on two very poorly selling American compilations and a budget U.K. collection. And from what was then the other end of his career, the "Tell the Truth" jam was a serious vault raid of a sort previously unknown in rock music, and helped to make this a priority acquisition, even for those listeners who had followed Clapton's career religiously (as in "Clapton is God," a piece of graffiti common in London in the mid-'60s). The stuff in between those two poles was also new to most casual listeners, and diverse enough, between the stylized blues of John Mayall's band and the psychedelic-tinged work of the Cream, so that it only stimulated interest in the guitarist's entire catalog. And what's even more astonishing to consider, in retrospect, is that the 11 songs represented here only went two years deep into Clapton's actual solo career -- there was still a lot more to come, although ending, as this set did, with "Layla" by Derek & the Dominos was a fortuitous choice; the original Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album had passed largely unnoticed when issued in 1970, but this compilation gave that earlier album's title song a new lease on life, especially on AM radio, turning it into a Top 10 hit which, in turn, revived interest in the original album and sent it soaring up the charts well over a year after its original release. Curiously, the U.S. and U.K. versions of History differed slightly -- side one, track three of the U.K. version was "Tales of Brave Ulysses," a killer Clapton original recorded by the Cream in 1967; whereas on the U.S. version, that track was replaced by "Tribute to Elmore," a mid-'60s Elmore James homage by Clapton and Jimmy Page, part of a group of jams featuring Clapton, Page, and Jeff Beck, recorded by Page and later released without the knowledge or approval of the other guitarists. Today, with its essential tracks, rarities, and previously unreleased studio jam on "Tell the Truth," plus liner notes, History looks like the prototype for the box set retrospectives of the '80s and '90s (which were, in turn, spearheaded by the Clapton Crossroads four-disc set and its mega-platinum success, not quite two decades after this set). In 1972, the latter defined Clapton and helped save his career. And it still doesn't make a bad summation of his best work.
AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder