In the late 1960’s, a fairly common bit of graffiti seen in both London and New York read simply, “Clapton is God.” Forty years later, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For guitar fans, March 30, 1945, deserves recognition as an international holiday – the birth of Eric Patrick Clapton. The son of 16-year-old Patricia Molly Clapton, and a 24-year-old Canadian soldier, Edward Walter Fryer, his childhood was probably little different from that of hundreds of other “war babies.” His mother and father were unmarried, and his father returned to Canada before Eric was born. Given the social values of the time, it would have been incredibly difficult for Pat to raise Eric. Instead, her parents, Rose and Jack Clapp, stepped in and raised Eric as their own. Eric was nine before he learned that his “big sister” was actually his mother, a revelation that devastated him.
It’s not surprising that Eric became interested in music. His grandmother played piano, and his uncle was a fan of the big-band music of the era. His mother told Clapton’s official biographer (Ray Coleman) that Fryer was also a gifted musician, playing piano with several dance bands. Clapton’s teachers also noted that he had an aptitude for art.
In the late 1950’s, rock and roll was exploding as a new music genre. Clapton wasn’t immune to its appeal and asked for a guitar for his thirteenth birthday. Within a few years, Eric would be expelled from the Kingston College of Art because he hadn’t submitted enough work – listening to the blues and playing the guitar occupied far too much of his time. The “electric blues” sound of greats like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy captured his interest, and he asked for his grandparents’ help to buy an electric guitar in 1962.
The Early Years
By 1963, Clapton had joined his first band, The Roosters, then moved on to Casey Jones and The Engineers. Music may have been a preoccupation and an obsession by then, but it didn’t pay the bills. Clapton supported himself as a laborer at building sites, working alongside his grandfather, who was a master bricklayer.
Even part-time, Eric was becoming one of the most talked about guitar players on the local pub circuit. In October 1963, Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith recruited him as a member of The Yardbirds. Clapton spent 18 months with the band, recording two albums and gaining the nickname “Slowhand.” But The Yardbirds began moving towards a more commercial sound with “For Your Love”, and Eric left the band.
Clapton joined the Bluesbreakers in April 1965. The group’s almost purist focus on American-style blues suited his musical interests perfectly, but the mix of personalities was volatile. Eric left the band to tour Greece, rejoining on his return. In July 1966, he left Bluesbreakers for good, and teamed up with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form Cream. Cream was together only two years, but those years cemented Clapton’s reputation as rock’s finest guitarist, and elevated him to the status of superstar.
After the break-up of Cream, Clapton founded Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Rick Grech. Their American tour was a disaster, and the group disbanded after only one album. Clapton toured briefly as a sideman with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and issued his self-titled solo debut in 1970. In the summer of that year, Eric formed Derek and the Dominos. Seen now as another classic band, they recorded only one album, and then drifted apart after their American tour.
Clapton’s Solo Career
Since the mid-70’s, Clapton has continued to grow musically, releasing a number of solo albums. He also has frequently shared his talents with other artists, contributing to numerous albums over the decades. He can be heard with The Beatles (he added guitar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), Aretha Franklin, Steven Stills, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sting, Roger Waters, and more. He also has turned his hand to movie scores.
Clapton has not only been prolific, but has received a great deal of critical acclaim over the years. He has either won or shared in 18 Grammy Awards, and holds distinction as the only triple inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of The Yardbirds and Cream as well as a solo artist).
Like many of the music greats of the era, Clapton struggled with – and eventually overcame – a heroin habit in the 1970s. Unfortunately, he replaced his addition to heroin with an addiction to alcohol, and both his personal life and his work suffered because of it. In 1982, he entered the Hazelden Foundation, a rehabilitation center. He relapsed but was able to get back on track, and has been clean and sober since 1987. He has been committed to working with others who suffer from addictions, and in February 1998, he announced the opening of Crossroads Centre, a rehabilitation facility on the island of Antigua. One of its missions is to provide subsidized care for the poorest people of the Caribbean, who cannot afford such care on their own, and Clapton has frequently headed fundraisers to support the foundation providing for that care.