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); married Melia McEnery (a graphic artist), January 1, 2002; children: (second marriage) Julie Rose, Ella Mae; (with model Yvonne Kelly) Ruth; (with model Lori Del Santo) Conor (deceased). Education: Attended Kingston College of Art, 1962. Addresses: Record company-- Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.

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."

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 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.

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 barbiturates. 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.

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. (The group finally planned to reunite for dates at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2005, with a possible tour to follow.) Clapton 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."

Clapton continued to release new recordings throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2000 he released a Grammy-winning album with B. B. King, called Riding with the King, and in 2001 Clapton was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He continued to tour to sold out audiences, including a triple concert bill at Madison Square Gardens in June of 2001. In 2004, Clapton released a tribute to bluesman Johnson called Me and Mr. Johnson. All the tracks were songs originally performed by Johnson and reinterpreted by Clapton. That same year, he used his music to benefit others. He auctioned off several guitars, including a Fender Stratocaster nicknamed Blackie that he used in live shows in the 1970s and 1980s, to benefit Crossroads Center Antigua, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center supported by Clapton. Blackie sold for nearly one million dollars to Guitar Center, a U.S. music instrument retailer chain.

by Simon Glickman

Eric Clapton's Career

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.

Eric Clapton's 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 BanglaDesh, 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; Grammy Award, best traditional blues album, 1994, for From the Cradle; Emmy Award, outstanding cultural program, 1995, for In the Spotlight; Grammy Award, best male pop vocal, 1998, for "My Father's Eyes;" Grammy Award for best traditional blues album, for Riding With The King (with B.B. King), 2000; Stevie Ray Vaughan (Allegro) Award, 2000; Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2001; named Commander of the British Empire, 2003; numerous gold and platinum records.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 1, 2005: Clapton and his wife, Melia, welcomed the birth of their third daughter. She joins Julie, 3, and Ella Mae, 2. Source: Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2005, p. 18.

Further Reading


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