The “Godfather of British Blues,” John Mayall, and his Bluesbreakers had been booked for a three-day run at the Grande starting on October 11, 1968. Mayall had been mentor and bandleader to a number of young British guitar upstarts. These had included Eric Clapton, Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and his most recent hire, nineteen-year-old Mick Taylor.
Clapton and British super group Cream were in the middle their farewell tour, a nineteen-venue, month-long concert sequence with a stop in Detroit on October 12. The band’s career had skyrocketed to dizzying heights since its first appearance at the Grande one year prior. It was so successful that the BBC reported in 1968 that the group had earned more than the “entire British government’s subsidy to the arts.” The band’s July 1968 Polydor release Wheels of Fire was the world’s first double LP ever to go platinum. Cream virtually filled the fifteen-thousand-seat Olympia Stadium that Saturday. The group’s unprecedented popularity raised its Detroit guarantee to $22,000, plus 60 percent of the gross over $40,000. Potential profits and attendance were roughly ten times what the Grande’s 1,500-person capacity could offer.
At the Grande that Saturday night, the local trio Third Power had thoroughly warmed up the audience, and by midnight, Mayall and his group were well into their set. Unlike the previous evening, there was a buzz building in the audience that night. Grande regulars and cognoscenti were aware that Cream and Clapton were playing at the Old Red Barn just down Grand River. At three dollars a ticket, John Mayall was a less expensive option, and some speculated about what might occur, considering the proximity of the two concerts. Just as Saturday turned into Sunday, some noticed Russ Gibb and a companion standing at the top of the stage stairs to the right of the audience. Edging forward from beside the Altec-Lansing speakers, Russ’s guest began to talk to Mayall as he played. The audience began stirring, and some rose to their feet. What they saw was the twenty-four-year-old guitarist from Cream asking permission to sit in with his old mates. Rick Patrny recalled, “I recognized Clapton. I jumped up and started poking the people around me saying, ‘Look it’s Clapton, it’s Clapton’ a number of people told me to shut up and sit down.”
As the music paused, twenty-four-year-old Eric Clapton took the stage for the last time at the Grande. Mick Taylor, falling to his knees, handed Clapton his prized Gibson Les Paul and began to kowtow to the prodigal Bluesbreaker. Patrny recalls that by this point anyone that had dozed off during John Mayall’s set had awoken,
“By this time, everyone was on their feet clapping and cheering. I don’t remember what they played other than that the first piece they played ran on for about 45 minutes. I believe they played one other tune for a few minutes, and then Clapton exited off the stage as magically as he came in. We all stood there awestruck.”
Touring America and playing ballrooms just like the Grande allowed Cream to build its American fan base. Clapton’s encore that night at the Grande, although likely orchestrated by Russ Gibb, was perhaps both a thank-you and a validation of the building’s role in Cream’s success. The group played its final concerts together at London’s Royal Albert Hall on November 25–26, 1968.
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