Eric Clapton: The Life and Legend of Slowhand

Eric Clapton biography
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Nick Wille, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Eric Clapton is an English guitarist, singer, and songwriter, who is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

Clapton primarily plays in the rock and blues genre and has been a part of some of the greatest rock bands of all time, such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos.

Clapton is also well-known for his collaborations with other great musicians such as George Harrison, J.J. Cale, and B.B. King.

Early Life

Eric Clapton was born on 30th March 1945 in Ripley, Surrey, England.

Clapton’s father, Edward Walter Fryer, was a soldier from Quebec, Canada. His mother, Patricia Molly Clapton, was only 16 years old when she gave birth to Clapton.

Before Patricia gave birth to Clapton, Edward was enlisted for the war, after which he returned to Canada.

Clapton was raised by his grandparents, Rose and Jack. He grew up believing that his grandparents were his actual parents and that Patricia was his older sister.

A few years later, Patricia married another Canadian soldier and moved to Germany, leaving Clapton behind with his grandparents.

Early Interest in the Guitar

On his 13th birthday, Eric Clapton was gifted an acoustic Hoyer guitar which was made in Germany.

He tried learning how to play it for a short period of time but found it extremely difficult. He quickly lost interest and gave up. However, two years later, after being influenced by blues music, he picked it up again and began playing consistently.

Clapton practiced for long hours by listening to blues records and trying to learn the chords by playing along. He would record his practice sessions with the help of his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and listen to them over and over again until he finally got it right.

Early Gigs

In 1961, Eric Clapton, aged 16, left Hollyfield School and enrolled at the Kingston College of Art.

A year later, he was dismissed from college as he showed no interest in art. It was clear that his sole passion and interest lay in music. By then, Clapton had become so good at playing the guitar that he began to get noticed for his skills.

In 1962, Clapton, aged 17, began performing as a duo with fellow blues enthusiast David Brock. The two of them played in pubs in and around their hometown in Surrey.

The same year, Clapton joined his first band, an R&B group called The Roosters. He stayed with the band until August 1963 and then went on to do a seven-gig stint with Casey Jones & the Engineers.

The Yardbirds

In October of 1963, Eric Clapton joined the blues-influenced rock and roll band The Yardbirds.

During this period, Clapton was deeply influenced by the Chicago blues and by leading blues guitarists such as B.B. King, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy. Using these influences, he formed his own distinctive style, quickly becoming one of the most talked-about and admired guitarists in the British music scene.

The Yardbirds soon developed a large and loyal cult following. They began touring across England with the American Blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson.

It was during this time that Clapton acquired the nickname Slowhand, a reference to the slow handclap of the audience while they waited for Clapton to change his guitar’s broken string on the stage.

In December 1964, The Yardbirds performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, making it Clapton’s first performance there. He would eventually go on to perform over 200 times at the Hall.

In March 1965, The Yardbirds had their first hit For Your Love, which was written by the songwriter Graham Gouldman. Because of the tremendous success of the song, The Yardbirds drifted toward a more pop-oriented sound.

But Clapton was not in favor of this change in the musical direction of the band. He was devoted to the blues genre and did not care much about commercial success.

Clapton soon left The Yardbirds due to these differences. He suggested Jimmy Page as his replacement, but Page declined the offer, instead suggesting his friend Jeff Beck for the role. Beck accepted the offer.

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers

In April 1965, Eric Clapton joined the blues-rock band John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which was led by John Mayall.

Though the band was not able to produce a radio hit of their own, they were hugely influential to blues musicians in England and British rock in general. They laid down the foundations of British blues music.

At some point in its existence, the band had as members some of the most famous English blues musicians of the time, such as Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green, and Clapton himself.

Clapton briefly left the band to collaborate with other musicians, only to join back again a few months later. Upon his return, he earned a reputation as the best blues guitarist in the British blues and rock scene.

In July 1966, Clapton left the band for good. The same month, the band’s most influential album, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (also known as The Beano Album), was released.

Clapton’s playing style on the album began to attract worldwide attention.

Cream

After leaving John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to play in his newly-formed band Cream, which Baker had co-founded with Bassist Jack Bruce.

Together, the three of them became one of the earliest Supergroups.

It was with Cream that Clapton first began to develop as a singer and songwriter, even though Bruce was the primary vocalist and songwriter of the band.

The band had its first official performance at the National Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor. They soon became famous for their high-volume blues jamming and extended solos during their live shows.

Clapton’s Growing Reputation

By 1967, Clapton’s reputation had grown to a whole other level. Fans of blues rock in the UK had started portraying Clapton as Britain’s greatest guitarist of the time.

His playing style and virtuosity had even inspired the now-famous slogan Clapton is God, which was spray-painted on a wall in Islington by an admirer.

During this period, Eric Clapton was almost unanimously regarded as the best blues guitarist in Britain.

The Arrival of Jimi Hendrix

On 1st October 1966, Chas Chandler of The Animals brought a certain Jimi Hendrix to the London Polytechnic at Regent Street, where Cream was scheduled to perform. It was during this performance that Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton first met.

Hendrix asked Clapton if he could play a couple of songs. Clapton agreed. Halfway through Cream’s set, Hendrix took to the stage and performed his own version of the Howlin’ Wolf song Killing Floor.

Hendrix’s performance shook everyone in the audience as well as Clapton himself. Clapton would later remark that Hendrix’s performance had changed his life.

The arrival of Jimi Hendrix in London completely shook the blues-rock club circuit. Top musicians of England such as Pete Townsend, members of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and Clapton himself, attended the early club performances of Hendrix.

First Tour of the United States

Eric Clapton first visited America while touring with Cream in early 1967.

In March of that year, the band performed a nine-show stand at the RKO Theater in New York. And in May, they recorded their second studio album Disraeli Gears in New York.

The songs on the album varied from hard-rock to lengthy blues-based instrumental jams. The album also had many elements that made Cream famous. It had Clapton’s searing guitar licks and lines, Baker’s powerful and polyrhythmic jazz-influenced drumming, and Bruce’s fluid and prominent bass playing and soaring vocals.

Cream’s Commercial Success

Barely two years since its inception, Cream had become a commercial success in Europe and the US, selling millions of records and playing shows throughout these regions.

The supergroup was quickly gaining legendary status with its emphasis on musical virtuosity and lengthy jazz-style improvisation sessions. Their songs such as White Room, Sunshine of Your Love, and Crossroads became hit singles in the US, topping the charts.

Eric Clapton was already being referred to as a guitar legend by his admirers on both continents, and Cream was considered one of the greatest bands of the time.

The Breaking Up of Cream

Despite the band’s great success, tensions were rising between Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.

Bruce and Baker frequently came into conflict, eventually leading to the group breaking up in November 1968.

Cream’s fourth and final studio album Goodbye was released in February 1969, after the group had split up. The album included three tracks that were recorded live and three that were recorded in the studio.

The farewell album reached No. 2 in the US and No. 1 in the UK.

Friendship with George Harrison

Eric Clapton and George Harrison had first met when the Beatles shared a bill with The Yardbirds (of the Clapton years) at the London Palladium. They soon became close friends.

In 1968, Clapton played the lead guitar solo on Harrison’s song While My Guitar Gently Weeps for the Beatles’ White Album.

The two of them would go on to collaborate with each other on several occasions. They wrote the song Badge together, which was included as a track on Cream’s final album.

Clapton also played the guitar on Harrison’s debut solo album Wonderwall Music (1968), the first of many Harrison solo records with Clapton on guitar. Although, due to contractual obligations they were not always able to credit each other for their contributions to the albums.

Clapton and Harrison would even go on to perform live together on many occasions as each other’s guests.

Blind Faith

In early 1969, Eric Clapton helped found another supergroup called Blind Faith, whose other members Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech were all equally famous and accomplished musicians.

The group’s formation was eagerly anticipated by the music press due to the success of each of the member’s former bands, Grech’s former band being Family, Winwood’s being Traffic, and Clapton and Baker’s being Cream.

On 7th June 1969, Blind Faith debuted before 100,000 people in London’s Hyde Park. They went on to have several performances across Scandinavia and a sold-out tour in the US.

Their first and only studio album Blind Faith was released in August 1969. The album topped the charts in the UK, Canada, and the US.

It consisted of six songs, one of which was the hit Can’t Find My Way Home. It also included the song Presence of the Lord, which was the first song solely credited to Clapton.

In October 1969, Blind Faith officially split up, barely seven months after its inception.

Musical Collaborations after Blind Faith

After Blind Faith split up, Eric Clapton began touring as a sideman for Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, founded by Delaney Bramlett and his wife Bonnie. This move allowed Clapton to relax, freeing him from the limelight for a while.

During this time, he also performed as a member of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and played the lead guitar on Lennon’s second single Cold Turkey.

Bramlett encouraged Clapton in his singing and songwriting. And with the help of Delaney’s backing group and session players, Clapton recorded his first solo album titled Eric Clapton during two tour hiatuses.

Delaney not only co-wrote six songs with Clapton but also produced the album. And Bonnie co-wrote Let it Rain with Clapton.

During this period, Clapton also collaborated with other musicians such as Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, Dr. John, and Billy Preston. He also recorded The London Howlin’ Wolf sessions along with Howlin’ Wolf, Starr, Winwood, and members of the Rolling Stones.

Derek and the Dominos

By 1970, Eric Clapton was fed up with the star cult faction that was forming around him. In order to escape this, in the spring of 1970, Clapton assembled a new band that included Delaney’s former rhythm section.

George Harrison had also participated in the band’s first session. Around this time, Clapton met and became infatuated with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. But his feelings were not reciprocated and she spurned his advances.

Clapton’s unrequited affections inspired most of the material for their only studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The album included extensive contributions on lead and slide guitar from Duane Allman and was released in November 1970 as a double album.

Even though the album did receive some critical acclaim, it did not enjoy immediate commercial success.

In March 1972, two years after the album’s release, the love song Layla, a tale of unrequited love inspired by Clapton’s infatuation with Pattie Boyd, made the top ten in the UK and the US, becoming one of the most famous songs of Clapton’s career.

The album was a defining achievement of Clapton’s career.

In late 1971, Derek and the Dominos split up just before they could complete their second studio album.

After the band’s dissolution, Clapton stopped recording and touring in order to attend to his heroin addiction.

Personal Struggles

In the 1970s, even though Eric Clapton was enjoying great success in his career, his personal life was spiraling downward.

He was in a phase where he was addicted to alcohol and drugs. These addictions were made worse by his unrequited feelings for Pattie. He was still infatuated with her but could do nothing about it.

Clapton withdrew from recording and touring, isolating himself in his Surrey residence.

This effort at rehabilitation resulted in a long hiatus of almost three years from recording and touring. The hiatus was only interrupted by his performance at the Concert for Bangladesh, which was a pair of benefit concerts organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in August 1971 in New York.

Clapton’s Return

In January 1973, Pete Townsend of The Who organized a comeback concert for Eric Clapton at the Rainbow Theater in London. The concert was called Rainbow Concert and it was intended to help Clapton overcome his addiction.

By 1974, Clapton had begun living with Pattie Boyd. He was no longer using heroin but continued to drink heavily.

The same year, Clapton assembled a low-key band and recorded his second studio album 461 Ocean Boulevard, released in July 1974.

The songs on the album are more compact and include fewer guitar solos. The most famous song from the album was the cover version of Bob Marley‘s I Shot the Sheriff, which became Clapton’s first No. 1 hit in the US since Layla two years ago. The cover brought a lot of attention and awareness to reggae and to the music of Bob Marley among a wider audience.

The album topped various international charts and sold more than two million copies.

Subsequent Solo Albums and Collaborations

In March 1975, Clapton’s third studio album There’s One in Every Crowd was released.

The album was recorded almost immediately after 461 Ocean Boulevard, featuring a similar style. But it did not enjoy much commercial success.

The album was originally named The World’s Greatest Guitar Player (There’s One in Every Crowd) but was later changed as they felt that its ironic intention would be misunderstood.

In August 1975, a live album by Eric Clapton titled E.C Was Here was released. The album was recorded live during a series of performances in 1974 and 1975.

During this period, Clapton was back to recording and touring regularly. For his fourth studio album, No Reason to Cry (1976), Clapton collaborated with The Band and Bob Dylan.

Slowhand

On 25th November 1977, Slowhand, the fifth studio album by Eric Clapton was released.

The album is titled after Clapton’s nickname and is one of his most critically and commercially successful albums. It included two hit singles, Wonderful Tonight and Lay Down Sally, and a cover of J.J. Cale’s song Cocaine.

The album ended up on several international music charts and also received numerous awards and recording certifications.

Collaborations in the 1980s

In 1984, Eric Clapton performed on Roger Water’s solo album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, and also participated in the supporting tour. From then on, the two of them have remained close friends.

In July of 1985, Clapton performed at the Live Aid Concert at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, along with Phil Collings, Shaun Murphy, Marcy Levy, Tim Renwick, Chris Stainton, Jamie Oldaker, and Donald Dunn.

In March 1985, Clapton’s ninth studio album Behind the Sun was released. The album was his first collaboration project with Phil Collins, who co-produced it and also played on some of the tracks. It contains hits like Forever Man and She’s Waiting.

In November 1986, Clapton’s tenth studio album August was released. The album was mostly produced by Phil Collins and includes Collin’s trademark horn and drum sound. It became Clapton’s bestselling album in the UK.

For the next two years, Eric Clapton and Phil Collins toured together.

In 1987, Clapton contributed to George Harrison’s album Cloud Nine, where he played guitar on four songs.

In 1988, Clapton played with Elton John and Dire Straits at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute held at Wembley Stadium.

Tragedy

On 20th March 1991, Clapton’s 4-year-old son Conor died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment.

Clapton shattered and devastated. Conor’s funeral was held on 28th March at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Ripley, Surrey.

Clapton’s sadness inspired the song Tears in Heaven, which was co-written with American songwriter Will Jennings. He would later remark that writing the song acted as a healing process for him.

Unplugged Album

In 1993, at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards, Eric Clapton received six Grammys for Tears in Heaven and his unplugged album, which was released in August 1992.

The album sold 26 million copies worldwide, becoming Clapton’s bestselling album, and the bestselling live album of all time.

1995 – Present

Over the years, Eric Clapton has gone on to collaborate with an endless list of illustrious musicians such as Sheryl Crow, Cher, Tina Turner, Sting, Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Ravi Shankar, Roger Taylor, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck, The Rolling Stones, and many more.

Clapton continued to tour and record over the years. However, in February 2013, he announced his intention to stop touring in 2015 due to the difficulties in traveling.

Influences

Eric Clapton has stated that he was deeply influenced by the great blues musicians when he was young. He has often cited B.B. King, Freddie King, Hubert Sumlin, and Albert King as his guitar-playing influences.

He has also singled out Robert Johnson as his most important influence, referring to Johnson as the most important blues musician ever.

Apart from blues musicians, Clapton was also inspired by American singer-songwriter Buddy Holly, whose album The ‘Chirping’ Crickets was the first album Clapton ever bought.

Clapton also admired musicians who played other instruments, such as the Indian shehnai player Bismillah Khan, the American harmonica player Little Walter and Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar.

Legacy

Eric Clapton is regarded as one of the most influential and important guitarists of all time.

He was ranked 2nd in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and 4th in Gibson’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time.

Clapton was a pioneer of blues-rock in the British music scene, changing and revolutionizing the way the guitar was played in England at the time. He brought in the technique and virtuoso in guitar playing, which did not previously exist in England, thereby changing the way an instrument could be used in a song.

Over the years, Clapton has become a British cultural icon, even achieving cult status among his fans and admirers.

Clapton is the only musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on three separate occasions, once as a solo artist, and then as a member of The Yardbirds and Cream.

Eric Clapton has certainly earned his spot in the Mount Rushmore of Rock Guitarists and his reputation of being one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Fortunately for us, Clapton continues to perform to this day, continuing to shower us with his great music.