Eric Clapton - Biography

By David Downs


Prolific English blues rock guitarist, singer, and composer Eric Clapton is among the most famous living musicians in the world. Beginning in the mid-'60s with acts like The Yardbirds and Cream, Clapton's Robert Johnson-influenced blues guitar style earned him massive, world-wide fame for tracks such as “Layla.” He already had the nicknames “God” and “Slowhand” by the time he released his solo LP Eric Clapton (1970 – Polydor) in 1970. Growing substance addictions barely slowed his growth amid landmark release 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974 – Polydor) and its number one reggae hit, a cover of Bob Marley's “I Shot the Sheriff.” He collaborated with Bob Dylan and The Band on No Reason to Cry (1976 – Polydor) before Slowhand (1977 – Polydor) introduced the world to “Wonderful Tonight” and “Cocaine” (a J.J. Cale cover). In the late '70s and early '80s, Clapton battled heroin addiction and alcoholism while releasing several records including Behind the Sun (1985 – Warner). August (1986 – Reprise) became Clapton's biggest seller in the U.K. to date and the hit “It's In The Way That You Use It” was featured in the 1986 Tom Cruise film The Color of Money. Clapton composed the soundtrack to the 1991 film Rush and hit new heights with his live album Unplugged (1992 – Reprise), which earned him three Grammys for “Tears in Heaven.” His collaboration with B. B. King called Riding with the King (2000 – Reprise) found even higher acclaim. Clapton is the first in history to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – once as a member of the Yardbirds, once as a member of Cream, and as a solo performer. He has also won or shared in eighteen Grammy Awards in total.


Eric Patrick Clapton was born on March 30, 1945 in his grandparents’ home in Surrey, England to a 16-year-old mother and a 24-year-old Canadian soldier who was stationed in England during World War II. Before Eric was born, his biological father returned to his wife in Canada. Clapton's grandparents raised the boy as their son and he grew up believing that his mother was actually his sister. Eric’s mother, Pat, eventually married and moved away from her son to Canada and then later to Germany. At the age of nine, he learned the truth of his parentage when his mother returned to England with his six-year-old half-brother for a visit. The event scarred the quiet, artistic child who would never do as well in school again.


By 1958, rock and roll was exploding and Clapton asked for a guitar for his 13th birthday. At age of sixteen, Clapton went to art school but was expelled for lack of interest in his work. Instead of doing his homework, he was playing and listening to Freddie King, B. B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and Robert Johnson. He was very interested in the way guitar could simulate the human voice. In 1962, Clapton asked his grandparents for an electric guitar and began busking around Richmond, Kingston, and the West End of London. The following year, Clapton joined his first band, The Roosters, and then Casey Jones and The Engineers. By day, he worked construction jobs. In October of 1963, Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith recruited Clapton to join The Yardbirds after hearing of his reputation on the pub circuit. He played with them for 18 months, earned his nickname “Slowhand,” and appeared on their first albums Five Live Yardbirds (1964 – Columbia) and Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds (1966 – Hallmark). Their commercial hit “For Your Love,” drove Clapton to quit the band in search of real blues music.


In 1965, Clapton joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. His exposure with this band earned him the famous graffiti on the wall of London’s Islington Tube Station: “Clapton is God.” Clapton left the Bluesbreakers in July of 1966, and formed the massively influential power blues group Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Fresh Cream (1966 – Polydor), Disraeli Gears (1967 – Polydor), and Wheels of Fire (1968 – Polydor) made Clapton a household name in both England and America. Cream broke up in 1968 and Clapton then founded Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Rick Grech. The band dissolved after one album, the self-titled Blind Faith (1969 – Polydor). Clapton next toured as a sideman with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Delaney Bramlett encouraged him to sing and compose. The Bramletts’ backing group and an all-star cast of session players (including Leon Russell and Stephen Stills) helped Clapton record his first solo album during two brief tour hiatuses. His solo debut Eric Clapton, released in 1970, served up the unexpected hit cover of J. J. Cale's “After Midnight.”


Also in 1970, Clapton formed Derek and the Dominos with members of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, and recorded Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970 – Polydor), which is a concept album based on Clapton’s unrequited love for George Harrison’s wife, model Patti Boyd. Rock classic “Layla” first appeared on this album, but the song only hit 91 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart the first time around.


Heroin, cocaine and whiskey became staples of the group's diet and on September 18, 1970, the lifestyle claimed the life of Clapton rival Jimi Hendrix. Other bad news would follow as guitarist Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Clapton's bass player Carl Radle would later die from alcohol and narcotics in 1980. Drummer Jim Gordon, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, later murdered his mother with a hammer during a psychotic break and was sent to a mental institution for life.


When the Dominos broke up, Clapton retreated into three years of heroin addiction. In 1972 he won his first Grammy for The Concert for Bangla Desh (1971 – Capitol) and in 1973 he kicked heroin, performing two shows organized by his friend Pete Townshend from The Who. The concerts turned his career around and in 1974, 461 Ocean Boulevard demonstrated Clapton as a gifted vocalist and composer. The album hit number one on the Billboard Pop Albums chart with the hit “I Shot the Sheriff” becoming the second cover of his to do remarkably well. Clapton finally won over Harrison's wife Pattie that year and a steady output led to 1977’s Slowhand.  The album charted at number two on the Billboard Pop Albums and features the singles “Lay Down Sally” and “Wonderful Tonight.” The live album Just One Night (1980 – Polydor) hit number two on the Billboard Popp Albums chart while Another Ticket (1981 – Polygram) yielded the hit singles “Catch Me If You Can,” “I Can't Stand It,” and “Rita Mae.” Clapton struggled with a new addiction to alcohol and he entered rehab for the first time in 1982.


In 1984, while married to Pattie Boyd, Clapton began a year-long relationship with Yvonne Kelly. Their daughter, Ruth, was born in 1985 and neither Boyd nor the public would know of it until 1991. Behind the Sun, released in 1985, hit big with the rock tracks “Forever Man” and “See What Love Can Do.” Clapton branched out into film score compositions and Phil Collins entered Clapton's orbit, producing August. The album's first track, “It's In The Way That You Use It,” was featured in the film The Color of Money and hit number two on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. “Tearing Us Apart,” “Miss You,” and “Run” also charted through 1987.


Amid the release of 1989’s Homeboy (1989 – Virgin), Clapton and Boyd divorced after his affair with Italian model Lori Del Santo, who had given birth to their son Conor in August of 1986. George Harrison, Phil Collins, Daryl Hall, Chaka Khan, Mick Jones, David Sanborn, and Robert Cray all collaborated on the stylistically wide-ranging Journeyman (1989 – Reprise), released in 1989, but tragedy befell another friend when fellow guitarist and tour partner Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in August of 1990. That year Clapton won his second Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for the song “Bad Love.”


In March 1991, his four-year-old son Conor died when he fell from the 53rd story window of a New York City apartment. Sober since 1987, Clapton's grief came out in song “Tears in Heaven” (co-written by Will Jennings) on the soundtrack to Rush (1992 – Reprise) and again on the dynamite Unplugged. Slowed down and meditative, the Unplugged version of “Layla” finally found the commercial success it deserved. “Tears in Heaven” became Billboard Hot 100 number two and Unplugged was a smash Billboard 200 number one. The song and the album received six Grammys that year. “Layla” won Best Rock Song,“Tears in Heaven” won Song of the Year, and Unplugged won Album of the Year. “Running on Faith” found more success followed by From the Cradle (1994 – Reprise), an unlikely Blues and Billboard 200 chart number one for which he won another Grammy.


Clapton's 1996 recording of “Change the World” for the soundtrack to the movie Phenomenon became a Billboard Top 40 number one and also won a Grammy. 1998's Pilgrim (1998 – Reprise) nabbed him yet another Grammy for track “My Father's Eyes.” In 1999 Clapton met a 23-year-old store clerk named Melia McEnery in Los Angeles. The two married in 2002. More hits and Grammys led to the B.B. King Collaboration Riding with the King, which was a Billboard 200 number three and Grammy winner as well. Reptile (2001 – Reprise) was also awarded a Grammy and in 2002 Clapton organized a tribute to the late George Harrison – who had died of cancer – featuring Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, and Ravi Shankar. In 2004, his Robert Johnson tribute Me and Mr. Johnson (2004 – Warner) became another unlikely, bluesy chart topper. Also in 2004, Clapton sold his famous guitar “Blackie” at Christie's Auction House in New York for $959,500 to raise funds for a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.


In May 2005, Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker reunited as Cream, while The Road to Escondido (2006 – Reprise) with J.J. Cale earned yet another Grammy. That year Clapton learned through a journalist's research that his father was named Edward Walter Fryer. Fryer was born in 1920 and died in 1985. He was a musician, playing piano and saxophone, and a drifter, who married several times. Fryer had fathered many children and never learned that he was the father of Eric Clapton. In 2010 he released Clapton, and in 2013 his latest, Old Stock.


Clapton has been sober since 1987 and became a Christian. In February of 1998, he opened the Crossroads Centre for drug and alcohol abuse on the island of Antigua. A 1999 auction of his guitars netted almost $5 million for the center. In 2007, Clapton's autobiography Clapton was published.


Throughout his career, Clapton has been a prolific contributor. He added guitar to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on The Beatles (A.K.A. The White Album) (1968 – Apple). He has played with Aretha Franklin, Steven Stills, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Plastic Ono Band, Ringo Starr, Sting, Roger Waters, and with Toots & the Maytals' on “Pressure Drop” from their album True Love (2004 – V2 Records). Clapton had dabbled in film as well, appearing in the 1975 rock opera film Tommy as the Preacher and in Blues Brothers 2000 as one of the Louisiana Gator Boys. His music appears in films like Back to the Future (1985), Goodfellas (1990), Rush (1991), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), and Blow (2001).


Clapton survived what has to be among the most turbulent eras for any musician in history – the late '60s – to become a certified rock deity to millions of people worldwide. His love of blues and breathtaking, virtuosic talent made him a star by the age of 24. It could have been his undoing like it was for many of his peers and fellow musicians, but Clapton survived to recover, grow strong, and enjoy several periods of ever-increasing success. The mainstream music industry that ignored rock in its infancy came to worship and sing the praises of the master player in his 50s. Well into his 60s, Clapton tours, raises funds for worthy causes, and acts as a role model for musicians and those trying to overcome substance dependence worldwide.

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