Here’s another way to tell whether you should be reading this blog: whether you can sketch the general history of Cream and Blind Faith. (Sure you can.) But before Cream and Blind Faith, there was another British supergroup involving some of the same people. Odds are good that you’ve never heard of them.
In early 1966, Elektra Records planned to release a blues compilation album featuring stuff it had in the can already. Acts included the Lovin’ Spoonful (four tracks cut before the band signed with a different label and got famous), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (five tracks), Al Kooper (one track with a lineup that would eventually become the Blues Project), and Tom Rush (one track). Producer Joe Boyd wanted to include a hitherto-unsigned British blues band, but couldn’t find a good one. At that point, Paul Jones of Manfred Mann suggested forming an all-star band. Eric Clapton was the obvious choice for lead guitarist. Jones (harmonica) and Jack Bruce (bass) came over from Manfred Mann. Steve Winwood signed on from the Spencer Davis Group to sing; so did drummer Pete York, although Ginger Baker of the Graham Bond Organisation was the first choice. The piano player was Ben Palmer, who had previously played with Clapton and Jones and was well-known in British blues circles, if not to the public at large. The band was christened the Powerhouse.
While members of the Powerhouse were familiar to many British rock fans, none was especially famous in America. Manfred Mann had been a success, but American fans who could name a member besides Mann would have been rare. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton’s current band, was unknown here; the Spencer Davis Group wouldn’t burn up American radios with “Gimme Some Lovin’” for nearly a year. Besides, Winwood, York, and Jones all appeared under assumed names to avoid contractual conflicts. (Winwood was billed as “Steve Anglo.”) So the Powerhouse, together or separately, would have meant practically nothing to American listeners.
The band now known to history as Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse cut four songs, three of which were released on the Elektra compilation, which was titled What’s Shakin’. All three have since been anthologized elsewhere. “I Want to Know” was remixed for History of Eric Clapton in 1972. The original mix was on a 1971 Winwood compilation and on the 1995 Winwood box set The Finer Things. It’s got the feel of a jam, with Winwood and Bruce harmonzing raggedly on the vocal. “Crossroads” was also anthologized on the Winwood box. This version, sung by Winwood, brings the R&B where the famous Cream recording does not. (On the Winwood box, both “I Want to Know” and “Crossroads” are credited to Clapton, which strikes me weird.) “Steppin’ Out” was part of the Bluesbreakers’ repertoire and would later become part of Cream’s. It’s the best of the three, with Clapton ablaze. All anybody remembers about the fourth track is that it was a slow blues. No title, no tape anywhere, except maybe a forgotten vault at Elektra.
Although Clapton and Winwood are said to have discussed forming a group around this time, nobody involved in the Powerhouse really intended it to be a permanent arrangement. (It left so little impression on Clapton that he didn’t mention it in his autobiography.) At the time, Clapton, Bruce, and Baker were already rehearsing as Cream and would begin making history that fall. But the age of the supergroup actually began in the first blush of the London spring that same year, with a bunch of musicians famous within a small circle, about to become famous everywhere.