Supergroups: Cream, Clapton, Credibility

Cream's first album was Fresh Cream

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Definition of SUPERGROUP:  a rock group made up of prominent former members of other rock groups; also :  an extremely successful rock group

First Known Use of SUPERGROUP: 1968

Most rock fans regard Cream as the world’s first supergroup, that is, in the first, primary sense of the word. Such claims are always debatable, of course, but by almost any measure, Cream was the first to rise to the top. Cream was a power trio made up of guitarist Eric Clapton (ex-member of The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers), bassist-singer Jack Bruce (Blues Incorporated, Graham Bond Organization, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Manfred Mann), and drummer Ginger Baker (Blues Incorporated, Graham Bond Organization). Some of those groups may mean little to an American rock fan, but each had a far higher profile in his native England.

Clapton was a virtuoso blues-rock guitarist, Bruce was a top-notch songwriter and powerful singer, and Baker was probably the most innovative drummer of the sixties. They’d all known one another for several years, with various overlapping band memberships in common, or shared jam session experiences. In fact, Bruce and Baker had spent about five years together as bandmates – between their stints in Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization – and yet they couldn’t stand each other. On the other hand, Clapton and Bruce had worked together amicably in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton valued Bruce’s varied talents, and was in awe of Baker’s unmatched technique, and so he wanted to work with both. Somehow, he managed to convince them that they could form a cohesive unit.

Amid frequent fights between Bruce and Baker, refereed by Clapton, Cream stayed together for two-and-a-half years (mid-1966 to late-1968). In that short time, however, they yielded fantastic results. The band quickly rose to standard bearer of the British blues-rock movement, a style that was the dominant influence of late-sixties/early-seventies rock. In Britain, the United States, and throughout the world, their albums flew off the shelves, while their live performances were among the hottest of tickets. At their peak, Cream was in all ways the equal of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They were three superstars in a supergroup (the second definition), but despite their immense popularity, their outsized egos couldn’t be contained in one band. Part of the problem lay in the fact, that Clapton, Bruce, and Baker were musical nomads, destined to go their separate ways eventually, no matter how good the situation. Clapton remains a superstar to this day (more on him shortly), while Bruce and Baker, though their individual outputs have been very impressive, never regained the heights they achieved within Cream.

After Cream, Clapton and Baker immediately became part of another supergroup: Blind Faith. Amid much fanfare, they were joined by singer-keyboardist Steve Winwood (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic) and bass guitarist Ric Grech (Family). Blind Faith released an eponymously-titled album that hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic, went on a much-hyped tour of the United States in the summer of ‘69, and broke up – all in the space of seven months!

Blind Faith quickly crumbled, but Clapton wasted no time in joining Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (one of the supporting acts on the Blind Faith tour). He toured and recorded with D&B&F, then laid down his self-titled solo debut, using that band’s members as his The album cover for Derek & the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.backing musicians. Those musicians – keyboardist-vocalist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, and drummer Jim Gordon – formed the nucleus of Derek and the Dominos, Clapton’s next supergroup project. For a time, on-again/off-again Traffic guitarist Dave Mason was also in the mix. They were joined in the studio by guitarist Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) to record the tracks for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Released in late 1970, the album spawned two classic rock hits: “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues.” Surprisingly, the album was initially considered a critical and commercial misfire, though it’s now deemed a highlight in Clapton’s long, esteemed career, and it soon became one of his best-selling albums. Although sessions commenced for a second album, heavy drug use by several members tore the band apart, never to be reunited.

Ever since Clapton helped define the term, supergroup has been applied countless times to bands whose members have also enjoyed previous success in other groups. Alas, there are really far too many to mention. So, as a partial salute to Clapton, as well as a convenient way of winnowing down the number, I’m going to continue this look at supergroups by restricting it to those bands whose output was limited to just one studio album. Here’s a quick rundown of a few more recent examples, each of whose only original album resides in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library.

Temple of the Dog and its eponymously-titled 1990 album was a tribute to late Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood (who OD’d on heroin) by fellow bandmates Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar). Joining them were Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron. Additional contributions were made by vocalist Eddie Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready, two little-known musicians who would subsequently team with Ament and Gossard to form grunge icon Pearl Jam.

The album cover for Mad Season's AboveMad Season was formed in 1994 as the result of a chance meeting between guitarist Mike McCready (Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog) and bassist John Baker Saunders (The Walkabouts, The Lamont Cranston Band) at a Minneapolis drug and alcohol rehab center. Upon their return to Seattle, they roped in drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees) and started jamming. A little later, they were joined by vocalist Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and were soon recording their debut album, Above, which was released the following year. This all-star lineup of Grunge gods fell victim to drug abuse, however, as Saunders relapsed and died of a heroin overdose in 1999 and Staley died of extended heroin and cocaine abuse in 2002, after years of self-imposed seclusion.

Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and former Phish head Trey Anastasio, Primus bassist-vocalist Les Claypool, and drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police) got together under the name Oysterhead for a one-time gig at the 2000 New Orleans Jazz Fest. Their four-song repertoire was so well-received that they reunited the next year to create an entire album, The Grand Pecking Order. The trio played a brief tour in fall, 2001, then reassembled for a couple more dates in 2006, but haven’t been heard from since.

About a year after vocalist-guitarist (and all-around head honcho) Billy Corgan announced the breakup of The Smashing Pumpkins in late 2000, he and Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin reunited in the alt-rock band Zwan. They were joined by guitarist Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Skunk), guitarist-bassist David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise), and bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle). The group put out one (very good) album, Mary Star of the Sea, before Corgan announced the breakup of that band, as well.

In the years following the breakup of Smashing Pumpkins, it wasn’t just Corgan who found his way into a supergroup. Pumpkins guitarist James Iha joined singer Taylor Hanson (Hanson), bassist Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, Ivy), drummer Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick) and guitarist Josh Lattanzi (Ben Kweller, The Lemonheads) to form Tinted Windows in 2009. Their self-titled album (also 2009) is a celebration of pure, melodic pop/rock.