Born today in 1945, Eric Clapton grew up in a small village in depressed postwar England. As a child, he learned that the elderly couple raising him were not his parents but his grandparents. His real father had abandoned him at birth and gone home to Quebec. His “older sister” was in fact his mother, but she had already remarried and left the country, too.
In his misery, Clapton had plenty of company. The war had left many English families fatherless. National morale plummeted as the empire disintegrated, the economy faltered, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation loomed.
By the bleak early ’60s, Clapton had taken up the guitar and joined the blues subculture, a small tribe that sought solace from the woes of modern Britain in music from a different country, an earlier generation, and another race — a unique folk genre developed by African Americans in the rural Deep South between the world wars.
Disdaining what they regarded as the artifice of rock and jazz, Clapton and his peers heard in the blues the purest possible distillation of human pain and beauty. Like musical archaeologists, they vied to unearth old and obscure records, audially tracking the blues from smoky bars in Chicago and St. Louis back to the juke joints and bayous of the Mississippi Delta. They listened intently, striving to unlock the musical secrets of forgotten and long-dead bluesmen in an endless quest for authenticity.
Relentlessly rehearsing, Clapton honed his blues chops with a steady blue-collar work ethic rooted in his humble origins. “Clapton is God” graffiti — testament to his guitar prowess — began to appear around London, but his devotees had to pay attention, because their idol changed groups often. Slowhand quit the Yardbirds after just 18 months, disgruntled because the band ditched blues for pop in emulation of the Beatles. He spent 15 months (on and off) with fellow purist John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers, with whom Clapton learned to compose (“Bernard Jenkins”) and sing (“Ramblin’ on My Mind”).
In the summer of 1966, Slowhand joined Cream, a “super group” of ringers. With Clapton, ace bassist Jack Bruce and badass drummer Ginger Baker comprised an epic power trio whose output ranged from psychedelic rock (“Sunshine of Your Love”) to pop (“Badge”) to the blues, including two fine Robert Johnson covers: “From Four Until Late” and “Crossroads.” Bruce and Slowhand shared lead vocal duties, so Clapton built confidence as a singer.
After three years, Clapton grew tired of playing “maestro bullshit” with Cream and resumed his quixotic quest for musical authenticity, careening erratically among projects and genres. After perpetrating acid folk-rock fusion with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith (“Presence of the Lord”), he cut a soulful solo album (“After Midnight”), and then formed a band called Derek and the Dominoes, with whom he recorded the beautiful, sprawling, immortal “Layla.” Inexplicably, producer Tom Dowd left on the cutting room floor this brilliant rendition of “Mean Old World” which — like “Layla” — featured Slowhand playing with the brilliant Duane Allman.
Since 1974, Clapton has recorded as a solo artist. He helped popularize reggae with his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” but the best track from 461 Ocean Boulevard is “Motherless Children,” pitting tragic lyrics against the jaunty menace of wicked slide guitar over a rousing blues-rock beat. Later in the ’70s, Slowhand dabbled successfully in country with “Lay Down Sally” and “Promises.”
After a prolonged slump, Clapton came back strong in the mid-’80s, settling into a steady groove with the pop-friendly “Forever Man” and his finest album, August (1986). Although marred in places by a dated ’80s sound, the LP includes standout tracks like the scorching “Miss You,” the elegiac “Holy Mother,” and “Tearing Us Apart,” a satisfying duet with Tina Turner. The big hit, though, was “It’s In the Way That You Use It,” the theme to an undistinguished Paul Newman-Tom Cruise film.
Clapton’s popularity peaked in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He cashed in with several beer commercials, an excellent 4-CD boxed set called Crossroads, a relatively uninspired pop offering (Journeyman) and several big live albums, including a notable performance on MTV Unplugged featuring a radically reworked “Layla.”
Since then, Slowhand has faded into relative obscurity. He has cut several nostalgic albums, including collaborations with JJ Cale and BB King, reunions with Cream and Winwood, and loving tributes to Cale and Robert Johnson. His finest recent recordings include “Gotta Get Over” and “Lies.”
Along the way, Clapton laid down some outstanding session work for the Beatles (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”), the forgotten supergroup Free Creek (“Road Song”), Buddy Guy & Junior Wells (“A Man of Many Words”), Christine McVie (“The Challenge”), Phil Collins (“I Wish It Would Rain Down”), Taj Mahal (“Here in the Dark”), Santana (“The Calling”), and others.
(Warning: No matter how much you like Clapton and Pink Floyd, avoid The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. On that 1984 solo album, Roger Waters squandered an all-star cast of musicians by enlisting them in a criminal conspiracy against the human ear and spirit. It demonstrates the unwisdom of granting any artist total creative control, and explains why — without the good taste and musical inventiveness of David Gilmour — Waters has always fallen short outside of Floyd.)
Professional and financial success gave Slowhand little relief from the blues. Drug and alcohol addiction dogged him for decades, wreaking havoc on his messy personal life. The awkward anguish of pining for his best friend’s wife inspired “Layla.” Ultimately, Pattie Boyd left George Harrison for Clapton, but he physically abused her in drunken rages and ultimately dumped her. By the mid-’80s, Clapton began groping toward sobriety, a process that took a full decade to achieve. In 1991, he lost his four-year-old son to a tragic accident; the unfathomable agony of burying Conor inspired “Tears in Heaven” and inspired him to complete his journey toward sobriety. Having conquered his addictions, Slowhand settled into a new marriage and family.
Recovering from racism took much longer.
Despite his deep appreciation for African-American musical culture, Clapton drunkenly spouted racial slurs onstage in Birmingham, England, in 1976, while endorsing a notoriously nativist Tory Member of Parliament:
“Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch’s our man. I think Enoch’s right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking… don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country. What is happening to us, for fuck’s sake?”
“Keep Britain white” was a slogan of the UK’s Fascist National Front.
Inebriation is no excuse for this disturbing diatribe. Alcohol merely removes inhibitions, amplifying one’s personality and prejudices. This is who Clapton was in 1976: a wife-beating racist.
Less famous musicians promptly called him out in NME, the British equivalent of Rolling Stone: “Come on Eric…. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R’n’B?”
Later that year, Slowhand callously laughed off the whole thing:
“I thought it was quite funny actually. I don’t know much about politics. I don’t even know if it would be good or bad for him [Powell] to get in. I don’t even know who the Prime Minister is now…. I just don’t know what came over me that night. It must have been something that happened in the day but it came out in this garbled thing…. I thought the whole thing was like Monty Python. There’s this rock group playing onstage and the singer starts talking about politics…. It’s so stupid. Those people who paid their money sittin’ listening to this madman dribbling on and the band meanwhile getting fidgety thinking ‘oh dear’…. I don’t even know what sparked it off.”
He followed this disingenuous non-retraction with some disparaging remarks about Arabs.
Clapton paid no professional price for his his bigoted Birmingham blunder. Nor did David Bowie, who lauded Hitler and Fascism around the same time.
Bowie soon renounced those views, but Clapton remained stubbornly nativist. In 2004, while promoting an album of Robert Johnson covers, Slowhand lapsed into denial (“There’s no way I could be a racist. It would make no sense”) while affirming his anti-immigration stance. He praised Powell as “outrageously brave” in 2004 and deemed him still “relevant” in 2007. Clapton: The Autobiography (2007) dishonestly downplayed the Birmingham incident.
Confronted with footage of his remarks in 2018, Slowhand approached contrition: he expressed “disgust” with himself and correctly labeled his comments as “chauvinistic” and “fascistic,” but then backpedaled a bit: “I was so ashamed of who I was, a kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make sense. Half of my friends were black, I dated a black woman, and I championed black music.”
Also in 2018, Clapton more frankly conceded he was “an ignorant racist bigot,” and acknowledged how similar prejudices fueled the push for Brexit. Having “conquered his demons,” now “rescued by music,” Slowhand voted Remain.
Like all of us, Clapton remains a work in progress.