Guitarist, singer, songwriter
“I think I’m probably the 50th [best guitarist] if anything,” Eric Clapton told Rolling Stone. If he’s not the best, he certainly is the most modest. It would be hard to come up with five, much less forty-nine, better guitar players than Clapton, especially when dealing with the blues. “Yes, that’s what I do best. That is really my personal style,” he said in The Guitar Player Book. From the Yardbirds to Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and various backup bands, Clapton has played styles as diverse as heavy metal, pop, sweet love songs, and even reggae. But, throughout a career that has spanned nearly 25 years, he has always remained true to his blues roots. “If I’m put into any other kind of situation, I’d have to fly blind,” he told Dan Forte in The Guitar.”In the blues format I can just almost lose consciousness; it’s like seeing in the dark.”
Clapton was born illegitimately in Ripley, England, on March 30, 1945. His mother left him to be raised by his grandparents, Rose and John Clapp, when he was a small child. He was brought up thinking they were his parents until his real mother returned home when he was nine years old. The family pretended that his mother was his sister, but he soon found out the truth from outside sources. “I went into a kind of… shock, which lasted through my teens, really,” he said in Musician, “and started to turn me into the kind of person I am now … fairly secretive, and insecure, and madly driven by the ability to impress people or be the best in certain areas.”
Around this time Clapton began hearing American blues musicians like Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy. He was knocked out by the sound and took up the guitar trying to emulate them. Soon he discovered a few friends that were also into this mysterious music from the States and they formed their own clique. “For me, it was very serious, what I heard. And I began to realize that I could only listen to this music with people who were equally serious about it,” he told Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer. “And, of course, then we had to be purists and seriously dislike other things.”
The seventeen-year-old was soon playing folk blues in coffee houses, and in 1963 he joined his first band, the Roosters. They stayed together for only a few months before Clapton moved on to Casey Jones and the Engineers, which lasted an even shorter period. By then Clapton had begun to hear some of the electric blues that were coming into England, and he switched over from acoustic. “Hearing that Freddie King single (’I Love The Woman’) was what started me on my path,” he said in Rolling Stone.
Word began to spread around town about the hot new guitarist, and in late 1963 the Yardbirds asked Clapton
For the Record…
Name originally Eric Patrick Clapp; born March 30, 1945, in Ripley, Surrey, England; illegitimate son of Patricia Clapp; raised by grandparents, John and Rose Clapp; married Patti Boyd Harrison March 27, 1979 (divorced, 1988); children: (by Lory Del Santo) one. education: Expelled from Kingston College of Art, 1962.
Professional musician, 1963—. Guitarist with The Roosters, 1963, Casey Jones and the Engineers, 1963, The Yardbirds, 1963-65, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, 1965-66, Cream 1966-68, Blind Faith, 1969-70, Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, 1970, and Derek and the Dominos, 1970-71; solo artist, 1974—. Has also appeared in motion pictures, including “Tommy” and “Water.”
Awards: Recipient of Melody Maker magazine’s World’s Top Musician award, 1969; winner of Guitar Player magazine’s Readers’ Poll in rock category, 1971-74, in overall category, 1973, and in electric blues category, 1975, and 1980-82; co-winner of Grammy Award for album of the year, 1972, for The Concert for Bangla Desh; co-recipient (with Michael Kamen) of British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for original television music, 1985, for “Edge of Darkness.”
Addresses: Office –67 Brook St., London Wl, England. Record company —Warner Bros., 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
to join their band, replacing Tony “Top” Topham. With the Rolling Stones’ popularity verging on worldwide, the Yardbirds took over as houseband at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. The group specialized in rave-ups: driving music that starts low and steady, building to a frentic climax before dying down and then repeating again. Clapton was developing his chops on the bluesier numbers and was also gaining a loyal following.
Band manager Giorgio Gomelsky nicknamed him “Slowhand” at this time in reference to his fluid and speedy playing and also as a pun to the slow hand clapping Clapton received whenever he broke a string on stage. The band was becoming anxious to cash in on the success of other British bands like the Beatles and decided to record more commercial material, which Clapton was totally against. “Single sessions are terrible. I can’t take them at all,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner. “No matter what the music is like, it’s got to be commercial, it’s got to have a hook line, you’ve got to have this and that and you just fall into a very dark hole.” Clapton’s disgust during the “For Your Love” recording coupled with an embarrassing session with Sonny Boy Williamson (the bluesman said that Englishmen didn’t know how to play authentic blues) prompted him to leave the Yardbirds in 1965. “For Your Love” became a hit for the band, as Clapton figured it would, and he was replaced by Jeff Beck, and later by Jimmy Page, whose style was more compatible with the band’s.
Clapton worked with his grandfather for a time, doing construction work. A popular myth has Clapton locking himself in his room with nothing but his guitar for a year, but actually he went and stayed with his friend from the Roosters, Ben Palmer, for a month. “I was all screwed up about my playing,” he said in Rock 100. “I realized that I wanted to be doing it for the rest of my life, so I’d better start doing it right.” Clapton devoted his playing to pure blues, and by the end of 1965 John Mayall recognized the talent and asked him to join the Bluesbreakers. By then Clapton had formed his own style, which borrowed from the traditional masters, yet was easily recognized as something special.
Gene Santoro commented in The Guitar: “The boy had it all. The characteristic hesitations and syncopations, the punching buildups toward chord changes, the lilting phrases punctuated by bent blues notes tumbling into abrupt finishes that accent the power and beauty of the line, the sure-fingered variety of attack, the breathtaking reaches up to the twelfth fret and beyond, the heavy sustain, the flawless timing—it must have been difficult to be a guitarist listening in the audience without being overwhelmed completely.”
Clapton was becoming much more than an underground hero. The blues revival of the 1960s was in full swing and the group’s album debuting the 21 -year-old sensation, Bluesbreakers, went all the way to number 6 on the English pop charts. The now-famous slogan, “Clapton is God,” began appearing on subway walls in England and guitarists everywhere were searching for the key to his magical sound. By 1966 Clapton was growing weary of the strict diet of Chicago-style blues the band was playing and decided to form a new band with former Bluesbreaker bass player Jack Bruce (Clapton was replaced by Peter Green and Mick Taylor, who went on to join Fleetwood Mac and the Stones respectively).
Cream, the new band, also included virtuoso drummer Ginger Baker, whom Clapton originally thought “was just too good for me to play with, too jazzy,” he said in Rock 100. Although the three improvised a la jazz, the sound was pure rock and blues, played in a manner which has become synonymous with today’s heavy metal. As Charley Walters wrote, “The formula was easy and deceptively limiting: start off simply, explode into a lengthy free-for-all, and end as begun. The brilliant moment occasionally surfaced, but self-indulgence was the general rule.” The group released four albums, which contained some live cuts in addition to the studio tracks. Clapton’s guitar set-up established the sound for future rock and rollers: “Two 100-watt Marshalls. I set them full on everything, full treble, full bass and full presence, same with the controls on the guitar,” he said in Rolling Stone.
With psychedelia and the Vietnam War happening, Cream epitomized the times and rode a crest of success. While the fans just couldn’t get enough guitar licks, critics like Jon Landau had had more than enough. Landau cited Clapton as the master of the blues cliche in one of his Rolling Stone reviews, and it struck home. “The ring of truth just knocked me backward; I was in a restaurant and I fainted,” Clapton told Palmer. “And after I woke up, I immediately decided that that was the end of the band.” Cream played their final performance at London’s Albert Hall in November 1968.
A few months later, Clapton and Baker joined forces with Steve Winwood and Rick Grech to form the first super-group, Blind Faith. Amidst media hype and little rehearsal time, the group played their first gig; a free concert in front of 36, 000 fans at Hyde Park in London. Their planned 24-hour tour of the United States proved to be too much too soon and they broke up in January of 1970 with only one album under their belt.
During the tour Clapton converted to Christianity, which was an unusual move at a time when most of his contemporaries were exploring Eastern religions. He was unhappy with the adulation Blind Faith received, feeling that it was unwarranted. He felt the opening act, Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, were playing the type of music he could relate to, so he joined them. Delaney pushed Clapton to develop his singing and writing skills during his stint as a sideman with them. In 1970 he released his first solo album, Eric Clapton, with the help of Delaney and Bonnie and their band. Afterwards, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock asked Delaney for a raise and he fired them.
Clapton seized the opportunity and picked them up for his own band, Derek and the Dominos, adding Jim Gordon on drums. Clapton befriended Duane Allman while recording in Florida and the guitarist was asked to play with them. The collaboration had an enormous impact on Clapton’s style, and the twin guitars produced some of the finest music in rock and roll. “I think what really got me interested in it (slide guitar) as an electric approach was seeing Duane take it to another place,” he told Forte. “No one was opening it up until Duane showed up and played it a completely different way. That sort of made me think about taking it up.” Clapton formed the Dominos and wrote the songs as a way of reaching a certain woman he yearned for: ex-Beatle George Harrison’s wife Patti. The song he wrote for her, “Layla,” is “perhaps the most powerful and beautiful song of the Seventies,” according to Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh. Patti stuck by her husband though, causing Clapton to lose his faith and to start on a path of self-destruction. The Dominos were already heavily into drugs, which eventually caused their breakup, but Clapton was now using heroin as a means of easing his emotional pains. “Not Patti herself, as a person, but as an image, she was my excuse. That was the catalyst, a very big part of it,” he told Ray Coleman in Clapton! “It was a symbol, my perfect reason for embarking on this road which would lead me to the bottom.”
The addiction forced Clapton to take a three-year hiatus after the Dominos, performing only at the 1971 Bangladesh concert and at the 1973 Rainbow Concert (arranged by Pete Townshend of the Who as a means to get Clapton back into circulation). He eventually underwent electroacupuncture treatment successfully and spent some time on a farm in Wales relaxing and working. After his recovery, Clapton stated in Rolling Stone that “the thing about being a musician is that it’s a hard life and I know that the minute I get on the road I’m going to be doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s just that kind of life.” Manager Robert Stigwood booked Clapton into a Miami studio for the recording of his comeback LP, 461 Ocean Blvd. One of his finest to date, it includes “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Mainline Florida,” two tunes that Clapton still performs in concert.
Clapton eventually won Patti and the two were married in 1979. He wrote one of his most requested and popular songs, “Wonderful Tonight,” for her and it appeared on his Slowhand album. Clapton has continued releasing solo albums (14 to date) and playing on other artists’ records. His fans still cry out “Clapton is God” at his concerts and they’re still waiting for him to cut loose on his guitar like he did with Cream, but he refuses to revert back to that style. Another reason Clapton plays less guitar is fear. “I lost confidence because I thought I’d done it all…. That’s why I didn’t play as much lead guitar on those albums in the Seventies. I was very, very nervous that I’d said it all,” he told Rolling Stone. Even though he had kicked heroin, Clapton’s obsessive behavior led him to another vice, alcohol. Oddly enough, he kicked that too, at the same time his Michelob beer ads began to appear on television.
He has also done work in films, appearing in Ken Russell’s “Tommy” and the movie “Water.” He also scored “Lethal Weapon” and the British television series “Edge of Darkness.” In 1983 the three former guitarists from the Yardbirds, Clapton, Beck, and Page, were reunited at the ARMS benefit concert for musician Ronnie Lane. And while Clapton’s 1980s albums seem to be heading back to his older style of playing of committment and passion, there is talk of a Cream reunion (Clapton and Bruce jammed at a New York club in 1988). His 1986 tour to promote August featured Phil Collins on drums and a four-piece band, his smallest since the 1960s.
His personal life is still unsteady, as he and Patti were divorced in 1988 after Clapton fathered a child by Italian actress Lory Del Santo. But to fans, critics, and fellow musicians his music remains the primary focus. An excellent summary of his career thus far can be found on the 6-LP package Crossroads, which was released in 1987 and reached number 1 on Billboard’s compact disc chart.
Composer of numerous songs, including “Badge,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Hello Old Friend,” “Lay Down Sally,” “Layla,” “Strange Brew,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Watch Out for Lucy,” “Wonderful Tonight.” Co-wrote (with Michael Kamen) musical score for British television series “Edge of Darkness”; wrote musical score for motion picture “Lethal Weapon.”
With the Yardbirds
Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds, Fontana, 1964.
For Your Love, Epic, 1965.
With John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
Bluesbreakers, Decca, 1966.
Fresh Cream, Atco, 1966.
Disraeli Gears, Atco, 1967.
Wheels of Fire, Atco, 1968.
Goodbye, Atco, 1969.
Cream Live, Atco, 1970.
Cream Live 2, Atco, 1971.
With Blind Faith
Blind Faith, Atco, 1969.
With Derek and the Dominos
Layla, And Other Assorted Love Songs, Atco, 1971.
Derek and the Dominos—Live In Concert, RSO, 1973.
Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, RSO, 1973.
461 Ocean Boulevard, RSO, 1974.
There’s One In Every Crowd, RSO, 1975.
E.C. Was Here, RSO, 1975.
No Reason to Cry, RSO, 1976.
Slowhand, RSO, 1977.
Backless, RSO, 1978.
Just One Night, RSO, 1980.
Another Ticket, RSO, 1981.
Money and Cigarettes, Warner Bros., 1983.
Behind the Sun, Warner Bros., 1985.
August, Warner Bros., 1986.
Crossroads, Polygram, 1987.
Has also appeared as a sideman on numerous albums, including The Beatles [The White Album] (on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), The Concert For Bangla Desh, The Last Waltz, and Stephen Stills.
Coleman, Ray, Clapton!, Warner Books, 1985.
Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grossett & Dunlap, 1977.
Evans, Tom, and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars: Music, History, Construction, and Players From the Renaissance to Rock, Facts on File, 1977.
The Guitar Player Book, by the editors of Guitar Player magazine, Grove Press, 1979.
Kozinn, Allan, and Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar, Quill, 1984.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony Books, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Interviews, by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, St. Martin’s Press/Rolling Stone Press, 1981.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and Jon Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Shapiro, Harry, Slowhand, Proteus, 1984.
What’s That Sound?, edited by Ben Fong-Torres, Anchor Press, 1976.
Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1987.
down beat, March, 1987.
Guitar Player, July, 1980; December, 1981, January, 1984; July, 1985; January, 1987; December, 1987; July, 1988; August, 1988.
Guitar World, September, 1983; March, 1985; January, 1986; March, 1987; April, 1987; June, 1988; January, 1989.
Musician, November, 1986.
Rolling Stone, June 20, 1985; August 25, 1988.
—Calen D. Stone
Guitarist, singer, songwriter
Solo Career and Substance Abuse
At the 1993 Grammy awards ceremony, Eric Clapton barely had a chance to sit down. He received six trophies over the course of the evening for his single “Tears in Heaven” and for the album Unplugged. It was something of a valedictory for the veteran musician, who has been a star in the pop music firmament since the mid-1960s and who has weathered an astonishing number of tragedies and hardships—drug addiction, alcoholism, romantic disaster, and the deaths of several loved ones—during his career. Through it all, however, he has maintained a singular grace and a devotion to the emotional truth that music can convey. As B. B. King, a pioneer of electric blues guitar, said of Clapton in Rolling Stone, “You know it’s the blues when he plays it.”
Indeed, Clapton’s lifelong musical love has been the blues, and his life has often been the stuff of which the blues are made. Clapton was born illegitimately in Ripley, England, as World War II drew to a close. His mother left him to be raised by his grandparents, Rose and John Clapp, when he was a small child. He was brought up thinking they were his parents—until his real mother returned home when he was nine years old. The family pretended that his mother was his sister, but he soon found out the truth from outside sources. “I went into a kind of... shock, which lasted through my teens, really,” he told Musician, “and started to turn me into the kind of person I am now... fairly secretive, and insecure, and madly driven by the ability to impress people or be the best in certain areas.”
Caught the Blues
As an adolescent, Eric first heard the sound of blues music from the United States and felt a profound and immediate connection to it. The “shatteringly intimate” voice of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson—as Clapton described it in a Rolling Stone interview—and, later, the electric blues of Muddy Waters and others motivated him to pick up the guitar; by his teens he was playing in coffeehouses. He joined groups called the Roosters and Casey Jones and the Engineers before finding his way into the Yardbirds in 1963. That ensemble became a sensation for its guitar-fueled, bluesy rock, but Clapton left the Yardbirds after it became clear that greater success would come from pop hits like “For Your Love” rather than the heavy blues to which he was devoted.
Clapton first attracted real attention as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Even then, Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer noted, “he played the blues authentically, with a genuinely idiomatic feel.” By this time the
For the Record…
Born Eric Patrick Clapp, March 30, 1945, in Ripley, Surrey, England; son of Patricia Clapp; raised by grandparents John and Rose Clapp; married Patti Boyd Harrison, March 27, 1979 (divorced, 1988); children: (with model Lori Del Santo) Conor (deceased). Education: Attended Kingston College of Art, 1962.
Played with bands the Roosters, Casey and the Engineers, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and Derek and the Dominos, 1963-73; solo artist, 1974—. Appeared in films Tommy and Water.
Selected awards: Named world’s top musician by Melody Maker, 1969; Guitar Player readers poll, best in rock, 1971-74, overall, 1973, and electric blues, 1975 and 1980-82; Grammy Award for album of the year, 1972, for The Concert for Bangla Desh, and 1988, for best historical collection and best liner notes, for Crossroads; six Grammy awards, including album of the year and song of the year, 1993, for Unplugged and “Tears in Heaven”; multiplatinum album (six million) for Unplugged, 1993; numerous gold and platinum records.
Addresses: Record company —Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
guitarist had worshippers—for whom the now-famous London graffito “Clapton is God” formed the only gospel—and they would multiply after he began to perform and record with his next group, the legendary power trio Cream. With bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Clapton helped take rock in a new direction: Cream fused weighty blues with psychedelic rock and jazzy improvisation. The result, as many critics have observed, laid the groundwork for much of the progressive rock and heavy metal that would follow. Clapton wrote the music for Cream’s all-time greatest hit, “Sunshine of Your Love”—inspired by his first attendance at a performance by guitar shaman Jimi Hendrix—and recorded a rollicking live version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”; both tracks have become “classic rock” standards. Clapton referred to Cream in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview as “three virtuosos, all of us soloing all the time.”
Cream disintegrated in 1968; the band’s chemistry was intense from the beginning, and substance abuse by all three members rendered that intensity intolerable. Their farewell performance at London’s Albert Hall has become a touchstone of rock folklore. The guitarist had in the meantime become close to Beatle George Harrison; Clapton co-wrote the late Cream hit “Badge” with him and had played a memorable solo on Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for 1968’s The Beatles, known colloquially as “The White Album.” Clapton’s relationship with Harrison, though tempestuous, would be a constant throughout his life. (He would also play live with ex-Beatle John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band). Clapton and Baker joined keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech in forming another supergroup, Blind Faith. That band broke up after an album and a tour, and Clapton was never satisfied with its performance, though songs like “Presence of the Lord” and “Can’t Find My Way Home” are widely regarded as classics more than two decades later.
Solo Career and Substance Abuse
Eric Clapton, the guitarist’s first solo LP, hit record store shelves in 1970. He recorded the album with his friends from Delaney and Bonnie, the group that had opened for Blind Faith on its tour. Even as he honed his singing and songwriting, however, and publicly declared his commitment to Christianity, Clapton fell under the sway of two very demanding substances: cocaine and heroin. With addiction bearing down on him, Clapton formed another short-lived but powerful group, Derek and the Dominos. The band recorded a passionate double-length album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; it featured the superlative guitarist Duane Allman, whose work challenged and inspired Clapton to new heights. “Layla,” a driving, anguished rocker about Clapton’s unrequited love for Harrison’s wife Patti, became one of the enduring anthems of the 1970s. Debilitated by rampant drug abuse and road fatigue, the group disbanded before making another album. Clapton was further devastated by the subsequent deaths of Allman, in a motorcycle accident, and Hendrix, from an overdose of barbituates. The idea of dying this way “didn’t bother me,” Clapton confessed to Rolling Stone years later. “When Jimi died, I cried all day because he’d left me behind.”
The early 1970s were especially difficult for Clapton, though he thrilled his fans again with the highly publicized all-star Rainbow Concert, which yielded an album. For the most part he lived a reclusive life; it wasn’t until 1974 that he quit heroin and put out a new album, the highly successful 461 Ocean Boulevard. The record, which featured Clapton’s hit version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” set the mood for much of his work during the next decade or so: relaxed and rootsy. Subsequent albums, like 1977’s Slowhand, suggested Clapton was settling into a comfortable musical middle age; beneath the laid-back surface, however, storm clouds were gathering. Clapton had moved from heroin addiction to alcoholism and would struggle with it for several more years. “Drink is very baffling and cunning,” he told Musician retrospectively. “It’s got a personality of its own.”
Clapton married Patti Boyd—who had divorced Harrison some years earlier—in 1979, and the two struggled to make their relationship work for nearly nine years; during much of that time alcoholism was wreaking havoc on Clapton’s health. In 1981 he was forced to cancel a tour due to a severe ulcer; as a result he scaled back his drinking and thus improved his musical fortunes. He played a memorable benefit performance with fellow ex-Yardbirds guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in 1983 and, over the next few years, released the variously regarded albums Money and Cigarettes, Behind the Sun —which contains the hit “Forever Man”—and August.
Also during the 1980s, Clapton provided the scores for the Lethal Weapon films and the British television film Edge of Darkness. Polygram’s 1988 release of the four-CD hits package Crossroads provided exhaustive evidence of Clapton’s massive contribution to rock music; the collection garnered Grammy awards for best historical album and best liner notes. Yet the same period saw what Entertainment Weekly called the “sad sight” of Clapton appearing on TV beer commercials, playing his version of “After Midnight”; it scarcely need be added that many found the choice of Clapton as a pitchman for such a product uncomfortably ironic.
In 1988 he and Patti Boyd divorced. By then Clapton had a son, Conor, whose mother was Italian model Lori Del Santo, and had for the most part turned his life around. His 1989 album Journeyman was quite successful, and his status as a rock institution was assured. The next couple of years, however, would bring him perhaps the most horrendous blows of all. First, esteemed blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and Clapton road crew members Colin Smythe and Nigel Browne—all close friends of Clapton’s—were killed in a helicopter crash in August of 1990. Vaughan had himself recovered from alcoholism and was in peak form and on his way to major, widespread success at the time of his death. “There was no one better than him on this planet,” Clapton noted in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview. Yet Eric and his whole crew—with whom Vaughan had been touring—voted to go on with the tour. The next show, he said, was an ordeal, but “it was the best tribute I thought we could make—to carry on and let everybody who was coming to see us know that it was in honor of their memory.” Performances at Albert Hall were recorded and released on the 1991 collection 24 Nights.
Turned Suffering Into Art
Fate dealt Clapton an even more terrible blow a few months later. On March 20, 1991, his son Conor—then four years old—fell 49 stories to his death from a hotel window. “I went blank,” he told Rolling Stone. “As Lori has observed, I just turned to stone, and I wanted to get away from everybody.” With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the support of friends like Rolling Stone Keith Richards and Genesis leader Phil Collins, he managed to take a devastating crisis and transform it into art. The song “Tears in Heaven,” described by People as “his sweet, sorrowful lullaby to Conor” and first recorded for the soundtrack to the film Rush, also appeared on Unplugged, an album culled from a live acoustic performance on MTV. The set features a delicate rendering of “Layla” as well; both songs became massive hits and pushed Unplugged into the Top Ten of the Billboard album chart.
Clapton was all over the musical map in 1992 and 1993. He reunited with his old mates from Cream for a blistering reunion set at the banquet commemorating the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite the power of the performance, he downplayed rumors of a reunion album or tour. He also presided over an intimate night of the blues at his now-traditional Albert Hall concert, disappointing some fans by completely avoiding his hits. Rolling Stone’s David Sinclair concluded that the guitarist “may be this year’s most exalted superstar, but no matter how the trophies stack up, the man still has a mean case of the blues.”
The trophies certainly stacked up at the Grammy awards presentation—Clapton won six of the nine statuettes for which he was nominated—and it seemed clear that Grammy voters and fans wanted both to compensate him for his crushing recent experiences and to thank him for a quarter century of memorable music. Clapton’s strength and poise in the face of tragedy, noted David Browne of Entertainment Weekly, “was optimism incarnate. In a simple unassuming way, it said that if he could get through this mess, then so could we.” As Clapton told Palmer of Rolling Stone, “I try to look on every day now as being a bonus, really. And I try to make the most of it.” He added, “The death of my son, the death of Stevie Ray, taught me that life is very fragile, and that if you are given another twenty-four hours, it’s a blessing. That’s the best way to look at it.”
With the Yardbirds
Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds, Fontana, 1964.
For Your Love (Includes “For Your Love”), Epic, 1965.
With John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
Bluesbreakers, Decca, 1966.
With Cream; on Atco except where noted
Fresh Cream, 1966.
Disraeli Gears (includes “Sunshine of Your Love”), 1967.
Wheels of Fire, 1968.
Goodbye (includes “Badge”), 1969.
Cream Live, 1970.
Cream Live 2 (includes “Crossroads”), 1971.
Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream, Polygram, 1983.
With Blind Faith
Blind Faith (includes “Presence of the Lord” and “Can’t Find My Way Home”), Atco, 1969.
With Derek and the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (includes “Layla”), Atco, 1971.
Derek and the Dominos—Live in Concert, RSO, 1973.
Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1973.
461 Ocean Boulevard (includes “I Shot the Sheriff”), RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1974.
There’s One in Every Crowd, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1975.
E.C. Was Here, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1975.
No Reason to Cry, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1976.
Slowhand, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1977.
Backless, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1978.
Just One Night, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1980.
Another Ticket, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1981.
Time Pieces: The Best of Eric Clapton, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1982.
Times Pieces II: Live in the Seventies, RSO/Polygram/Polydor, 1982.
Money and Cigarettes, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1983.
Behind the Sun (includes “Forever Man”), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1985.
August, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1986.
Crossroads, Polydor, 1988.
Journeyman, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1989.
24 Nights, Warner Bros./Reprise, 1991.
Unplugged (includes “Tears in Heaven” and “Layla”), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1992.
The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles, Capitol, 1968.
The Concert for Bangla Desh, 1972; reissued, Capitol, 1991.
The Last Waltz, 1976; reissued, Warner Bros., 1988.
Lethal Weapon (soundtrack), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1987.
Lethal Weapon II (soundtrack), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1990.
Lethal Weapon III (soundtrack), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1992.
Rush (soundtrack; includes “Tears in Heaven”), Warner Bros./Reprise, 1992.
Commonweal, March 13, 1992.
Crawdaddy!, November 1975.
Entertainment Weekly, February 19, 1993.
Guitar Player, July 1985.
Musician, May 1992.
People, March 1, 1993.
Rolling Stone, October 17, 1991; October 15, 1992; April 15, 1993; April 29, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Reprise Records media information, 1992.
Born: Eric Clapp; Ripley, England, 30 March 1945
Best-selling album since 1990: Unplugged (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Tears in Heaven," "Change the World," "Layla" (from Unplugged )
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Eric Clapton became one of music's biggest superstars in the late 1960s. He has maintained that status throughout his career despite suffering tremendous personal chaos at many junctures of his life. Although successful in a variety of musical styles, Clapton keeps returning to the blues, a musical form that inspired him from the onset and seems to mollify the up-and-down circumstances of his life.
Clapton grew up in post–World War II Ripley, England. At nine years old, he discovered that his parents were, in fact, his grandparents; that his sister was actually his mother, and that his brother was his uncle; and that his mother had turned the newborn Clapton over to her parents after giving birth at age sixteen following an affair with a married soldier. The emotional fallout from the discovery of his illegitimate birth fueled Clapton's insecure and enigmatic behaviors throughout his life.
Clapton Is God
As a preteen, Clapton enjoyed all music but was exhilarated by the blues. He received a guitar from his grandparents at thirteen and practiced so obsessively that it interfered with schooling. Clapton finally dropped out of Kingston College of Art in 1962 to pursue music professionally. He joined the Yardbirds in 1963. They recorded two albums before Clapton fled the pop-driven band (fellow guitar icon Jeff Beck replaced him) to immerse himself in the blues with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Soon he impressed critics and fellow musicians alike with his blues-rooted, imaginative guitar improvisations, swelling his popularity. The worshipful phrase "Clapton is God" became a standard chant at live performances and commonly appeared as graffiti. Clapton left Mayall after a year and formed the power trio Cream, with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, in 1966. Egos clashed from the start and their substance abuse was rampant, but Cream managed to last until 1968. They produced some of rock's most prolific songs, including "Sunshine of Your Love" and "White Room."
After Cream Clapton fleetingly jumped in and out of various band formations leaving behind a scattered trail of classic songs and albums. Clapton played for a short time with close friend and Beatle George Harrison. In addition, he journeyed with another Beatle, John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band. Clapton joined Traffic's Steve Winwood and formed Blind Faith in 1969. Blind Faith recorded one album and enjoyed a sold-out world tour before breaking up. At that point, Clapton decided to record his first solo album and he chose friends, Delaney and Bonnie, who had backed up Blind Faith, as his playing mates. It spawned the classic "After Midnight" but Clapton left Delaney and Bonnie to form another short-lived, legendary group, Derek and the Dominoes. Here he worked and formed a deep friendship with famed guitarist Duane Allman. His signature "Layla" along with many other dynamic songs came about during this time, as did a heroin addiction. Drugs and an obsessive love affair with George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd, whom he later married, began to consume Clapton. Additionally, he was staggered by the 1971 deaths of Allman and fellow guitar mate Jimi Hendrix. Derek and the Dominoes tried to record again but anguish coupled with drug use left Clapton emotionally paralyzed and he disappeared into seclusion.
He resurfaced three years later, drug-free, and his solo albums 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) and Slowhand (1977) offer a glimpse into his musical eclecticism. They feature the reggae-styled "I Shot the Sheriff" from 461 Ocean Boulevard and the chunky rock of "Cocaine" and easy groove of "Lay Down Sally" from Slowhand. Incidentally, Slowhand is a nickname that still sticks to Clapton from the "Clapton is God" era when the audience would patiently wait for him to change a broken guitar string by clapping in a slow, rhythmic manner.
Although he had kicked hard narcotics, alcoholism debilitated Clapton throughout the early 1980s. He continued to tour, release solo albums, and score soundtracks to the Lethal Weapon films, but his personal life and his health were in a shambles. In 1986 his union with Italian model Lori Del Santo produced a son, Conor, and his tumultuous relationship with Boyd ended in divorce in 1988. Along the way, Clapton received treatment for alcoholism and issues stemming from his disjointed childhood, both of which were destroying his career. In 1990 Clapton emerged in strong physical and mental health and looked forward to becoming an active parent to his son. A four-CD career retrospective, Crossroads (1988), and the roots-oriented Journeyman (1989) were big successes, plus he won his first Grammy Award in 1990 from Journeyman for "Bad Love." The cloud looming over Clapton seemed to be lifting. However, a series of numbing tragedies way-laid this comeback period.
In August of that year, Clapton's close friend and virtuoso guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter accident after the two had performed together in concert. Additionally, two members of Clapton's touring entourage, also his close friends, lost their lives in the mishap. Clapton was devastated. Vaughan, also an alcoholic in recovery, was at the high point of his career. However, there was barely time to grieve. On March 20, 1991, Conor died after falling to the street from a high-rise Manhattan apartment through a window that had been left open accidentally.
Numbed with heartache, a secluded Clapton received an outpouring of love from fellow musicians. He continued to stay sober through Alcoholics Anonymous and used music to channel his sorrow. Clapton wrote several songs about Conor and one of those, "Tears in Heaven," became a hit. The song appeared on the soundtrack for the movie Rush (1991) and was included on his Grammy Award-sweeping acoustic effort, Unplugged (1992). The album, performed live, also features a reworked version of his signature "Layla," and a variety of old blues classics such as "Rollin and Tumblin" and "Before You Accuse Me." The success of the raw Unplugged furthered Clapton's decision to record From the Cradle (1994), an album comprised solely of old blues classics. Recorded live in the studio with almost no overdubs, the album was a huge success and Clapton showed that his electric blues guitar skills were still comparable to his days with Mayall and Cream. Additionally, Clapton was finally gaining recognition for his vocal skills. A reluctant singer, Clapton began focusing on singing in his days with Delaney and Bonnie. He honed his singing in subsequent solo efforts and surfaced as a likable pop voice in mainstream hits "Wonderful Tonight," "Forever Man," "She's Waiting," and many others. Many younger fans, unfamiliar with his "Guitar God" status, primarily consider Clapton a singer.
He scored a Grammy Award in 1997 with the single "Change the World," written by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds for the soundtrack to the film Phenomenon (1996). The song inspired his introspective Pilgrim (1998), an impressive departure from the unprocessed blues of From the Cradle. Driven by rhythm and blues flavorings and techno-electronic influence, Pilgrim presents Clapton's voice as soulful and meditative. The autobiographically styled songs chronicle the mindset of an artist who has endured great pain. The song "Circus" deals with his son's death as does "My Father's Eyes," which also alludes to issues regarding Clapton and his own father, whom he has never met.
When Clapton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 for his work as a solo performer, he became the only performer in music history ever triple honored. Previously he was inducted with the Yardbirds in 1992 and Cream in 1993. Riding with the King (2000)—on which Clapton collaborates with the celebrated "King of the Blues," B.B. King—marked a strong return to the blues. The two bluesmen trade guitar and vocal licks on twelve classics that come mostly from King's repertoire. Riding with the King won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.
Sorrow greeted Clapton again when his uncle Adrian, his mother's brother with whom he was raised, passed away during the recording of Reptile (2001). He dedicated the album to Adrian, whom he had believed to be his brother throughout the early days of their childhood. Reptile serves as a career montage of sorts for Clapton with nearly every musical style that he has played through the years embodied within the fourteen songs. He followed Reptile 's release with a world tour, reportedly to be his last, and chronicled the tour with the live, One More Car, One More Rider (2002).
Although hailed for a lengthy portion of his career as "God," Clapton's understated demeanor suggests none of it. He usually performs dressed in comfortably casual attire with eyeglasses adding to his relaxed and modest manner. The aura is more of a sage survivor who has learned plenty along the way. However, when the spirit moves, usually stimulated by the familiar chug of a twelve-bar blues backdrop, Clapton ascends to the playing that brought about all the worship in the first place.
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends on Tour with Eric Clapton (Atlantic, 1970); Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert (Polygram, 1973); 461 Ocean Boulevard (Polygram, 1974); There's One in Every Crowd (Polygram, 1975); E.C. Was Here (Polygram, 1974); No Reason to Cry (Polygram, 1976); Slowhand (Polygram, 1977); Backless (Polygram, 1978); Just One Night (Polygram, 1980); Another Ticket (Polygram, 1981); Money and Cigarettes (Warner Bros., 1983); Behind the Sun (Warner Bros., 1985); August (Warner Bros., 1986); Journeyman (Warner Bros., 1989); 24 Nights (Warner Bros., 1991); Unplugged (Warner Bros., 1992); From the Cradle (Warner Bros., 1994); Pilgrim (Warner Bros., 1998); Blues (Polygram, 1999); Riding with the King (Warner Bros., 2000); Reptile (Warner Bros., 2001); One More Car, One More Rider (Warner Bros., 2002). With B.B. King: Riding with the King (Duck/Reprise, 2000). Soundtracks: Lethal Weapon: Original Soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1986); Lethal Weapon 2: Original Soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1989); Homeboy (EMI International, 1989); Rush (Warner Bros., 1991); Lethal Weapon 3: Original Soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1992); Lethal Weapon 4: Original Soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1998); Phenomenon (Warner Bros., 1996).
R. Coleman, Clapton!: An Authorized Biography (New York, 1986); E. Clapton with M. Robarty, Eric Clapton: In His Own Words (London, 1995); C. Sandford, Clapton: On the Edge of Darkness (New York, 1999).