English musician Eric Clapton has had one of the most enduring and successful careers in Rock, spanning early years as a Blues-obsessed guitar “God,” a middle period as a laid-back, FM-radio hitmaker, and his latter years as an elder statesman beloved by Classic Rock fans. When lists of the best Rock guitarists are compiled, Clapton is unfailingly near the top; he’s also the only musician to be inducted three times into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; as a solo artist and as a member of Cream and of the Yardbirds.
Clapton was born just as the Second World War was ending. His mother was only 16 and his father was a married Canadian soldier who’d been stationed in England during the war. He was raised by his grandparents, believing that his mother was his sister. When he learned the truth at age 9, it was a defining moment in his life, causing him to become moody and distant. As a teen, Clapton channeled his intensity into the guitar, spending long hours playing along with Blues records. Soon he was performing on street corners and in pubs.
In 1963 he joined the Yardbirds, a Blues-Rock band that had recently taken over the Rolling Stones’ position as house band at London’s Crawdaddy Club. The first hit single Clapton played on was the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” but he quit shortly after, unhappy with the Pop direction the band was taking. He joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and it was during his tenure with the band that Clapton developed a reputation as England’s top guitarist.
Clapton left the Bluesbreakers when he was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to join Cream, a trio with bassist Jack Bruce. By combining elements of Blues and Rock with 60s psychedelia and some of the improvisational freedom of Jazz, Cream was one of the first bands to find a contemporary way to present the Blues. The group’s influence was substantial, but amid drug use and infighting, Cream disbanded in 1968.
Almost immediately, Clapton co-founded Blind Faith with Baker, Steve Winwood, and Rick Grech. Often called Rock’s first “supergroup,” the band released an eponymous album that went to No. 1 in the U.S., but disbanded shortly after a tour, due in part to Clapton’s growing dissatisfaction with the role of “guitar hero.”
Eschewing the spotlight, Clapton worked as a sideman, touring with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and playing on recordings by George Harrison, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Aretha Franklin, and others. Recorded with members of Delaney & Bonnie’s band, Clapton’s self-titled solo debut was released in 1970 and received strong reviews and lots of airplay, especially the single "After Midnight.”
Influenced by the song-based, ensemble approach of the Band’s Music from Big Pink, Clapton formed the band Derek and the Dominos with Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Jim Gordon on drums, Carl Radle on bass. The band’s sole album, 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, is regarded by many critics as Clapton’s highest accomplishment; however, it sold only moderately. By this time Clapton was using drugs and drinking heavily and the band broke up after an aborted attempt to record a second album.
For the next three years Clapton was lost in heroin addiction. He emerged in 1974 with 461 Ocean Boulevard, which featured a cover of Bob Marley’s "I Shot The Sheriff." A worldwide hit, it helped to expose Reggae, and Marley in particular, to a wider audience. Clapton cemented his status as a top-selling solo artist with 70s hits like “Lay Down Sally,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “Promises,” and “Cocaine.” By the 1980s Clapton was regarded as something of an elder statesman, and spit his time between his own work and collaborations with artists like Sting, Phil Collins, Elton John, and old friend George Harrison.
One of Clapton's most poignant and successful songs, "Tears in Heaven," was written in reaction to the accidental death of his four-year-old son Conor. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in 1991. In 2004, he recorded Me and Mr. Johnson, a tribute to Delta Blues singer Robert Johnson. The following year, Clapton reunited with Bruce and Baker for a handful of Cream shows in London and New York.