Interviews


Eric Clapton


Occupation: Guitarist, Musician
Date of Birth: March 30, 1945
Place of Birth: Ripley, England, U.K.
Sign: Sun in Aries, Moon in Scorpio
Relations: Ex-wife: Pattie Boyd Harrison; kid: Conor (deceased)
Education: Expelled from Kingston College of Art

 

IN the late '60s, one of the most prominent pieces of graffiti seen in London and New York was "Clapton is God." Over 30 years later, the stalwart guitarist and singer continues to hold the initiated enthralled, and a fair share of his present-day fans weren't even born when those words of worship were emblazoned on public edifices. Clapton's meandering and groundbreaking musical career has been punctuated by extreme personal hardship and tragedy. Through the emotional truth of his music, he has sought refuge and release from the suffering of drug and alcohol addiction, personal relationships gone awry, and the deaths of several loved ones.

Born illegitimate in Ripley, Surrey, Clapton was left by his mother to be raised by his grandparents, the Clapps, when he was a toddler. (Clapton was told that his grandparents were his birth parents, and that his mother was his sister  the truth of his parentage was divulged when he was 9 years old.) As an adolescent, Clapton glimpsed the future when he tuned in to a Jerry Lee Lewis appearance on British television. Lewis's explosive performance, coupled with young Eric's emerging love of the blues and American R&B, was powerful enough to ignite a desire to learn to play guitar. He commenced studies at the Kingston College of Art, but his intended career path in stained-glass design ended permanently when the blues-obsessed Clapton was expelled at seventeen for playing guitar in class. He took a job as a manual laborer and spent most of his free time playing the electric guitar he persuaded his grandparents to purchase for him.

In time, Clapton joined a number of British blues bands, including the Roosters and Casey Jones, and eventually rose to prominence as a member of the Yardbirds, whose lineup would eventually include all three British guitar heroes of the sixties: Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. The group became a sensation for their blues-tinged rock, as did the budding guitar virtuoso Clapton, who earned the nickname "Slowhand" because his forceful string-bending often resulted in broken guitar strings, which he would replace onstage while the crowd engaged in a slow hand-clapping. Despite the popularity of the band's first two albums, Five Live Yardbirds and For Your Love, Clapton left in 1965, because he felt the band was veering away from its bluesy bent in favor of a more commercially viable pop focus. He joined John Mayell's Bluesbreakers almost immediately, and in the ferment of that band's purist blues sensibilities, his talent blossomed at an accelerated rate  he quickly became the defining musical force of the group. "Clapton is God" was the hue and cry of a fanatic following that propelled the band's Bluesbreakers album to No. 6 on the English pop charts.

Clapton parted company with the Bluesbreakers in mid-1966 to form his own band, Cream, with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. With this lineup, Clapton sought "to start a revolution in musical thought . . . to change the world, to upset people, and to shock them." His vision was more than met as Cream quickly became the preeminent rock trio of the late sixties. On the strength of their first three albums (Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, and Wheels of Fire) and extensive touring, the band achieved a level of international fame approaching that of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and Clapton became even more almighty in the minds of his fans. In fact, the "Clapton is God" gospel contributed largely to Cream's disintegration  the band had always been a three-headed beast of warring egos, and their intense chemistry, exacerbated by the drug abuse of all three, inevitably led to a farewell tour in 1968 and the release of the Goodbye album in 1969.

Early in 1969, Clapton united with Baker, bassist Rick Grech, and Traffic's Steve Winwood to record one album as Blind Faith, rock's first "supergroup." In support of their self-titled album, Blind Faith commenced a sold-out, twenty-four-city American tour, the stress of which resulted in the demise of the band less than a year after its inception. Clapton kept busy for a time as an occasional guest player with Delaney & Bonnie, the husband-and-wife team that had been Blind Faith's opening act during their tour. A disappointing live album from that collaboration was released in 1970, as was Clapton's self-titled solo debut. That album featured three other musicians  bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, and drummer Jim Gordon  from Delaney's band, and yielded a modest pop hit with Clapton's version of J.J. Cale's "After Midnight." The collective proceeded to baptize themselves Derek and the Dominos, and commenced recording Clapton's landmark double album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, with the added contribution of slide guitarist Duane Allman. An anguished lament of unrequited love, "Layla" was inspired by a difficult love triangle between Clapton, his close friend George Harrison, and Harrison's wife Pattie (she and Clapton eventually married in 1979 and divorced in 1988).

Unfortunately, personal struggles and career pressure on the guitarist led to a major heroin addiction. Derek and the Dominos crumbled during the course of an American tour and an aborted attempt to record a second album. Clapton withdrew from the spotlight in the early seventies, wallowing in his addiction and then struggling to conquer it. Following the advice of the Who's Pete Townshend, he underwent a controversial but effective electro-acupuncture treatment and was fully rehabilitated. He rebounded creatively with a role in the film version of Townshend's rock opera, Tommy, and with a string of albums, including the reggae-influenced 461 Ocean Boulevard, which yielded a chart-topping single cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff."

Some critics and fans were disappointed by Clapton's post-rehab efforts, feeling that he had abandoned his former guitar-heavy approach in favor of a more laid-back and vocal-conscious one. Just One Night, Clapton's galvanizing 1980 live album, reminded devotees just exactly who their guitar hero was, but unfortunately, this period marked Clapton's critical slide into a serious drinking problem that eventually hospitalized him for a time in 1981. He experienced a creative resurgence after reining in his alcoholism, releasing a string of consistently successful albums  Another Ticket (1981), Money and Cigarettes (1983), Behind the Sun (1985), August (1986), Journeyman (1989)  and turning his personal life around. Though some say Clapton never regained the musical heights of his heroin days, his legend nevertheless continued to grow. That he was a paragon of rock became more than apparent when Polygram released a rich four-CD retrospective of his career, Crossroads, in 1988; the set scored Grammy awards for Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes.

In late 1990, the fates delivered Clapton a terrible blow when 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. A few months later, he was dealt another cruel blow when Conor, his son by Italian model Lori Del Santo, fell 49 stories from Del Santo's Manhattan high-rise apartment to his death. Clapton channeled his shattering grief into writing the heart-wrenching 1992 Grammy-winning tribute to his son, "Tears in Heaven." (Clapton received a total of six Grammys that year for the single and for the album Unplugged.) In 1994, he began once again to play traditional blues; the album, From the Cradle, marked a return to raw blues standards, and it hit with critics and fans.

Now past the 50-year mark, Clapton shows no signs of slowing down: in February 1997 he picked up Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance Grammys for "Change the World," from the soundtrack of the John Travolta movie Phenomenon. The following year, he released the long-awaited Pilgrim, his first studio album of primarily original material since 1989's Journeyman; the bluesy effort contains some of the best vocal performances of Clapton's long and winding career. Already a double inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream, a third nod as a solo artist came for the legendary guitarist in 2000.

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