In the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos, as well as through his prolific solo work, guitarist Eric Clapton has continually re-defined his own version of the blues. From the start, he caught audiences' attention with his fiery, adventurous and precise playing. In late Sixties London, his worshippers advocated the slogan, "Clapton is God," a phrase that originated with a now-famous piece of graffiti spray-painted on a London Underground. Over the next four decades, Clapton did little to dampen that reputation and was named number four in Rolling Stone's 2003 list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."
Born in Ripley, Surrey, England, on March 30, 1945, and raised by his grandparents after his mother abandoned him at an early age, Clapton grew up a self-confessed "nasty kid." He studied stained-glass design at Kingston Art School and started playing the guitar at 15. Two years later he began joining groups. He stayed with his first band, the early British R&B outfit the Roosters (which included Tom McGuinness, later of Manfred Mann and McGuinness Flint), from January to August 1963 and frequently jammed in London clubs with, among others, future members of the Rolling Stones. Clapton put in a seven-gig stint with a Top 40 band, Casey Jones and the Engineers, in September 1963. He joined the Yardbirds later that year and stayed with them until March 1965, when they began to leave behind power blues for psychedelic pop.
Upon leaving the Yardbirds, Clapton did construction work until John Mayall asked him to join his Bluesbreakers in spring 1965. With Mayall, he contributed to several LPs while developing the blues runs that would draw his cult of worshipers. Also with Mayall he participated in a studio band called Powerhouse (which included Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood); they contributed three cuts to a 1966 Elektra anthology, What's Shakin'. Clapton left the Bluesbreakers in July 1966 and cut a few tracks with Jimmy Page, and then with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker he formed Cream. There, Clapton perfected his virtuoso style, and Cream's concerts featured lengthy solo excursions, which Clapton often performed with his back to the crowd. During his tenure with Cream, Clapton contributed lead fills to the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and appeared on Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money.
When Cream broke up in November 1968, Clapton formed the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith with Baker, Winwood, and Rick Grech. During their only U.S. tour, Clapton embraced Christianity, which he has given up and reaffirmed periodically ever since. As a corrective to Blind Faith's fan worship, Clapton began jamming with tour openers Delaney and Bonnie, later joining their band as an unbilled (though hardly unnoticed) sideman. Clapton's activities also included a brief fling with John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, playing on Live Peace in Toronto, 1969.)
Clapton moved to New York later that year and continued to work with Delaney and Bonnie through early 1970. With several members of the Bramletts' band, and friends like Leon Russell and Stephen Stills, whose solo albums Clapton played on, he recorded his first solo album, Eric Clapton, which yielded a U.S. Number 18 hit with the J.J. Cale song "After Midnight." The album marked Clapton's emergence as a lead vocalist, a role he continued to fill after forming Derek and the Dominos with bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon, and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, all former Delaney and Bonnie sidemen. The Dominos' only studio album, the two-LP Layla (Number 16, 1970), was a guitar tour de force sparked by the contributions of guest artist Duane Allman. The title track, an instant FM album-oriented rock standard (and a Top 10 hit two years later), was a tale of unrequited love inspired by Pattie Boyd Harrison (wife of ex-Beatle George), whom Clapton eventually married in 1979; they divorced in 1989. Clapton toured on and off with the Dominos through late 1971, but the group collapsed due to personal conflicts, most of which, Clapton later claimed, were drug-or alcohol-induced. Over the following two decades, Derek and the Dominos would prove to be one of the most star-crossed groups in rock: Allman died in a motorcycle crash in October 1971; Radle died of alcohol poisoning in 1981; Gordon was convicted of murdering his mother and imprisoned in 1984.
Clapton sat in on albums by Dr. John and Harrison, who enticed Clapton to play at the benefit Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971. Depressed and burdened by a heroin habit, Clapton retreated to the isolation of his Surrey, England, home for most of 1971 and 1972. With the aid of Pete Townshend, he began his comeback with a concert at London's Rainbow Theatre in January 1973. Supported by Townshend, Winwood, Ron Wood, Jim Capaldi, and others, Clapton released tapes from the ragged concert on album in September 1973. By the time his Number One album 461 Ocean Boulevard came out in 1974, he had kicked heroin for good.
In the 1970s Clapton became a dependable hit-maker with the easygoing commercial style he introduced on 461 — a relaxed pop shuffle that, like J.J. Cale's sound, hinted at gospel, honky-tonk, and reggae while retaining a blues feeling but not necessarily the blues structure. Playing fewer and shorter guitar solos, he emphasized his vocals — often paired with harmonies by Yvonne Elliman or Marcy Levy — over his guitar virtuosity. He had hits with a cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" (Number One, 1974) and originals "Lay Down Sally" (Number Three, 1978) and "Promises" (Number Nine, 1979). His albums regularly sold in gold quantities; Slowhand and Backless were certified platinum.
He continued his mainstream success in the early Eighties, releasing another Top Ten hit, "I Can't Stand It," from Another Ticket (Number Seven, 1981), and forming his own label, Duck Records. During this period, Clapton made frequent appearances at major benefit concerts. As the decade progressed, his singles veered closer to balladry than blues, and he produced a string of hits, including "I've Got a Rock 'n' Roll Heart" (Number 18, 1983) and "Forever Man" (Number 26, 1985). In 1985 he separated from his wife, Pattie, and went into rehabilitation to overcome the alcoholism that had replaced his heroin addiction over a decade earlier. The next year Italian actress Lori Del Santo gave birth to Clapton's son, Conor.
Clapton continued to tour and record; 24 Nights captured his 1990–1991 concert series at London's Royal Albert Hall, which since 1987 has become an annual event. Guests on the album include Jimmie Vaughan, Phil Collins, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, and Robert Cray. He had spent the better part of the past two years on the road, and in August 1990 his agent and two members of his road crew died in the same helicopter crash that claimed Stevie Ray Vaughan. On March 20, 1991, his four-and-a-half-year-old son Conor died after falling 50 stories from a window in his mother's Manhattan apartment. A maintenance worker had left it open by mistake. Clapton was staying at a hotel mere blocks from the apartment when the tragedy occurred. The following year he made public service announcements warning parents to protect their children by installing gates over windows and staircases.
After a period of seclusion, Clapton began to work again, writing music for Rush, a film about drug addiction. In March 1992, almost a year after Conor's death, Clapton taped a segment for MTV's Unplugged series, the soundtrack of which peaked at Number Two in 1992 and included a reworking of "Layla" (Number 12, 1993) and "Tears in Heaven" (Number Two, 1993), the latter written for his son. That year he was nominated for nine Grammy Awards and won six, including Album of the Year for Unplugged and Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, for "Tears in Heaven." In early 1993 Clapton and his former cohorts in Cream, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, reunited to perform three songs at the group's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Clapton was inducted as a solo artist in 2000. In 1994 Clapton released an album of pure electric blues, From the Cradle, which topped the charts. The double-platinum album became the best-selling traditional blues recording in history.
Two years later Clapton returned with another career milestone. The single "Change the World," produced by R&B mastermind Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds for the soundtrack to the John Travolta film Phenomenon, became Clapton's highest-debuting single, hitting Number Nine in its first week (it peaked at Number Five pop, Number 54 R&B, and Number One Adult Contemporary). The guitarist also dabbled in electronica, recording with keyboardist Simon Climie as the duo T.D.F.; its 1997 release Retail Therapy was little more than a curiosity. The next year Climie also collaborated on Pilgrim, Clapton's first studio album of mostly original material since 1989. With a focus on slick, R&B-flavored pop, the album got mixed reviews from critics but charted well (Number Four) and produced a hit in the ballad "My Father's Eyes" (Number 26 pop, Number Two Adult Contemporary). Another track, "She's Gone," reached Number 19. The subsequent tour was sponsored by luxury car manufacturer Lexus, which employed Clapton for a 30-second commercial performing "Layla" as pop-up script called attention to similarities — such as "effortless shifting" — between Clapton and the car.
On June 24, 1999, Clapton auctioned off 100 of his guitars at Christie's with the proceeds going to support the Crossroads Centre on Antigua, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility that he founded in 1998 to help the people of the island where he had been comforted after the loss of his son. In 2000 Clapton joined forces with one of his heroes, blues guitar legend B.B. King, to record Riding With the King, which featured several vintage King numbers. Reptile (Number Five, 2001) returned Clapton to the rock sound of his early solo career. He married Melia McEnery, a Los Angeles woman over 30 years his junior, in 2002; the couple have three daughters. In November 2002, Clapton put together and acted as MC for a Royal Albert Hall tribute to the recently deceased George Harrison, one of Clapton's closest friends.
With 2004 came Me and Mr. Johnson, an album-length tribute to the blues master Robert Johnson, Clapton's all-time musical idol. The following May, Cream reunited for a series of shows in London (Royal Albert Hall) and New York (Madison Square Garden). That August, he released a new solo disc, Back Home (Number 13, 2005). In November 2006 he collaborated with longtime musical friend J.J. Cale for The Road to Escondido (Number 23, 2006). In 2009, Clapton joined the Allman Brothers onstage at the Beacon Theatre to help celebrate the band's 40th anniversary, performing several jams including "Layla," the song that he and the late Duane Allman helped make a rock classic with Derek and the Dominos.
In 2007 the guitarist published his autobiography, Clapton. That year, a Canadian journalist tracked down the family of the father Clapton never knew — about whom he sang in "My Father's Eyes." Edward Walter Fryer had been a Canadian soldier who left the UK — and Clapton's mother, Patricia Molly Clapton — after the war. It turned out that Fryer was a pianist and saxophonist who had married several times, fathered many children, and never knew before his death in 1985 that his son was one of the most famous guitarists in the world.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.