Cream’s Breakthrough in the US

Here’s another chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

There was a brief moment when Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page crossed paths in a group named the Yardbirds.  Clapton tagged Page as a replacement when he left the group in 1965, and Page brought along Beck.  After more than a few lineup changes, there was nobody left but Page, and he changed the group’s name to Led Zepplin.  Clapton played with John Mayall and the Blues Brothers for about a year, and then teamed up with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce to form Cream.

After touring for much of their first year, Cream released their first album in December 1966.  Two singles that came out in 1967 at least hit the charts in the UK, but I Feel Free reaching #116 was the best they could manage in the US.  Their second album (Disraeli Gears) had its release delayed for months so the record company could completely redesign the album cover; it finally reached stores in November 1967.  The first single from the album was Strange Brew, which performed even more poorly than I Feel Free.  The second single from the album was Sunshine of Your Love, which was released in January 1968.  It managed to crack the top 40 in the US, but after 14 weeks on the charts, it never got any higher than #36.

Sunshine of Your Love managed to reenter the singles charts in July, and that time the record pushed all the way to #5.  Several things seem to have had an impact on the second run.

The group’s third album (Wheels of Fire) was released in July 1968 and was a double album set.  The first album was studio recordings, while the second album was the much more exciting live recordings from live performances at the Filmore in the early Spring.  This album garnered a lot more critical acclaim and proved much more popular than their first two albums, easily topping the US album charts.  This exposure no doubt brought more attention to the group’s earlier releases.

A second factor was the actual single.  While the release in January was edited down to a little more than three minutes, the single in the Summer was the full four-minute cut from the album.

Finally, the single’s performance probably got significant help from an appearance on the Smothers Brothers in May where they did a live version of the song that lasted nearly five minutes.  The first thing I noticed in the video is Eric singing lead on parts of the verses (usually Jack sang lead for everything and Eric merely added occasional harmonies).  I found it annoying that when the song reaches the guitar solo in the middle, we are forced to watch Ginger Baker instead of Clapton playing his guitar, but several comments indicate that it was not unusual for guitar players from that time to try and keep their techniques hidden from other guitarists.  Mostly, however, you cannot miss how impressive the three musicians are…and you can’t help but wish that Cream hadn’t burned out and perished as quickly as they did.

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