Whatever you’ve heard about Eric Clapton, there’s a reason behind it. Whether it’s the great things, like his incredible talent as a guitarist and musician, or the negative things, like addiction to drugs, alcohol, and trouble with women. Whatever it is that you heard about the superstar musician, let it be known that it all comes from a complicated early life. The man, for those who don’t know, was raised in a complex family situation.
But the point of this article, aside from telling the true story of Eric Clapton, is to show how he managed to turn his personal struggles into art. He took his pain and channeled it into his music. From his relationship with Patti Boyd to his addiction to drugs and alcohol to the death of his son, Clapton has learned a lot about life. And it’s worth knowing his history to understand who he has become.
This is his story…
Eric Clapton was born and raised in England by two pretty old parents and grew up with an older sister named Patricia. By the time he reached the age of nine, his whole world was turned upside down. Why? Because he found out that the people he always knew as his parents were actually his grandparents. And his “sister” Patricia? Well, she was his mother.
As you can imagine, it was a strange way for the young boy to enter puberty. The story goes like this: Patricia Molly Clapton became pregnant with Eric at the young age of 16 after a brief encounter with a 24-year-old Canadian soldier named Edward Walter Fryer, who was stationed in Britain during the tail end of WWII.
As a way for the young soldier to earn extra cash, Fryer would play piano and sing at clubs around Surrey, the area he was stationed in. It was actually something that he had been doing for a living since the age of 14 after he ran away from home. In Surrey, in 1944, Fryer performed at a small pub where he met Patricia Clapton.
It proved to be a fateful night as she later became pregnant with their future superstar son. But in those days, in 1940s Britain, there was a real social stigma attached to having a child born out of wedlock. Not to mention the difficulties for a 16-year-old girl in raising a child. Patricia’s mother and step-father, Rose and Jack, agreed to raise the baby as their own, which meant telling him that he was their son and his mother was his sister.
Patricia was just 16 years old when she gave birth to Eric in a bedroom of her family home in Ripley, Surrey, on March 30, 1945. Now, this might be a little confusing but stay with me. Patricia’s step-father’s last name (Clapp) was different than her own (Clapton), and this could have tipped people off that Eric was not the son of his grandparents. But Eric was given the last name Clapton, which was really the last name of Patricia’s birth father, Reginald Cecil Clapton, who her mother separated from before she married Jack Clapp.
When Eric Clapton was just a few years old, Patricia (who he regarded as his sister) married another Canadian military man named Frank MacDonald. She ended up leaving the house and moved in with him in Canada, for a while, and then in Germany. While she could have chosen to raise Eric at that point, as she also went on to have more kids with MacDonald, she chose not to do and continued to act as Eric’s sister.
One day, when Eric was seven, he overheard his aunt asking his grandmother (who he thought was his mother): “Have you heard from his mum?” The young boy felt completely confused. But it was two years later that his grandmother finally came clean with the secret they had been hiding from the boy since he was born.
We now get to the point when Eric learned the truth. When he was nine years old, Patricia and her husband came by the home for a visit, bringing along his six-year-old half-brother, Brian, and one-year-old half-sister, Cheryl. It was before that family visit that Eric’s grandmother decided to tell the boy what she realized he deserved to know.
Eric Clapton later described that day as he remembers it vividly. By the time Patricia came to visit, Eric was aware that his “sister” was really his mother, and he went up to her and bluntly asked: “Can I call you Mummy now?” He remembers that she seemed shocked and said it was best that he kept calling his grandparents “mum and dad.”
In Eric’s eyes, it was a moment of complete abandonment. And it was this moment that led the future musician down a long and downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, and a search for specific women that he subconsciously hoped would fill the void that his birth mother had left in him. His book, ‘Eric Clapton: The Autobiography,’ is all about how the absence of his mother led him to look for her in other women.
But we’ll get to that soon…
Although the young Eric was told the truth about who his real mother was, he still remained with his grandparents, and he and his mother kept playing the roles of brother and sister. When it comes to his father, however, as fate would have it, Eric never got to meet him. His mother told him nothing, and his grandmother only gave him the man’s name.
Fryer died of leukemia in 1985, long before Clapton ever found out anything about him other than his name. It wasn’t until 2007 that Clapton learned more about his father, thanks to a Montreal journalist named Michael Woloschuk. The journalist had tracked down Fryer and his family. And as it turns out, Fryer actually fathered a number of children.
Clapton learned more than he ever knew about his father, all at the age of 62. What he learned was that Fryer, other than the fact that he was a soldier, was a traveling musician who played the piano and saxophone, and also sang for a living. Fryer was married several times during his traveling days and had several other children.
Biographers were also under the impression that Clapton’s father never even knew that he had a famous musician son. And if he did, he simply never mentioned it to any of his friends and family. Throughout Clapton’s life, he struggled with the repercussions of his father’s absence, as well as his mother’s rejection. Apparently, his song “My Father’s Eyes” was inspired by his longing for a paternal bond. Clapton once explained: “I never met my father. And I realized that the closest I ever came to looking into my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes.”
Clapton has always been introverted and quiet, but discovering the truth of his family dramatically changed his personality. He became moody and distant, with his grades dropping as well. One thing that remained unchanged throughout these years, however, was Eric’s passion for art and music. At age 13, he found his calling.
He grew up in a musical home. And both nature and nurture joined hands to create a future musician. Other than the fact that his birth father was a musician himself, he was raised in a home where Rose, his “mother,” played the piano. He was mesmerized by the sight and sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis, who would perform “Great Balls of Fire” on TV. So for his 13th birthday, Eric asked for a guitar.
His first-ever guitar, a Hoyer, was cheap and difficult to play. At first, the instrument had only intimidated him because of how painful it was to play. But when he began attending art school, he gave the guitar another try. It was while studying at the Kingston College of Art that Eric took to playing the guitar seriously.
It wasn’t until he was 16 that Eric discovered the blues. At that point, he picked up the instrument again, and not before long, playing guitar became his main hobby. In 1962, he bought an electric guitar and began playing blues with his friend David Brock in Surrey pubs. Then, in true addict fashion, his obsession and overindulgence in his new passion resulted in him getting thrown out of college.
As Clapton got more and more into the guitar, he cared less and less about school. As a student, he was hardly turning in any work to the point where the school eventually kicked him out. Clapton didn’t really care, though, as because by this time, he became a full-blown guitar enthusiast. And he knew that he was going places.
During the day, he worked for his grandfather to pay the bills. But by night, he did what any young aspiring musician would do: he joined a band. Clapton’s first group was called the Roosters, and their musical union lasted less than a year. Not long after that, Eric caught up with an old art school friend, Keith Relf, and a fellow blues enthusiast, Paul Samwell-Smith.
Soon enough, Clapton was slinging the guitar as a member of the group, The Yardbirds, which became a popular band that was known for combining American blues and British rock. Clapton spent 18 months with The Yardbirds, gaining himself lots of fans. The band had followed the trail of the Rolling Stones, even earning a residency at the same Crawdaddy Club that the Stones played at.
Clapton then moved on to become the lead guitarist for the Bluesbreakers. By then, his name was known and big enough that some anonymous fan spray-painted the phrase “Clapton is God” in graffiti in a subway tunnel. This was basically the genesis of a meme that still lives on today. By 1966, Clapton joined Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce to form the famous band Cream, the British rock trio that became a worldwide phenomenon.
Clapton’s membership in Cream gave him a chance to develop his vocals. But the life of Cream was short-lived and only lasted until 1968. Despite the short amount of time, the band had a huge influence on rock music. Clapton didn’t just mindlessly copy his musical heroes, he instilled the blues with his own creativity and basically broadened the genre.
Clapton then formed a band called Blind Faith in 1969 with Steve Winwood, Baker and Rick Grech. But that was also short-lived as they broke up after just one album and one tour. Clapton then joined Delaney & Bonnie and Friends for a little while before releasing his first solo album in 1970. That’s when he put together yet another band.
Derek and the Dominos was another fleeting band and broke up after one album. Tragedy followed the group throughout its brief period of existence. During their recording sessions, Clapton was devastated by the news of Jimi Hendrix’s death. Then, when the recording of a second studio album was underway, a real clash of egos took place.
Clapton walked out and essentially disbanded the group. But let us be thankful for the group’s contribution to music (as we are for the others, don’t get me wrong) because it was in this time period and in this band that we were given the groundbreaking song, ‘Layla.’ Clapton wrote that song during a stormy love affair that he found himself involved in.
Clapton fell in love with the wife of his close friend George Harrison. Her name was Patti Boyd. In the 1960s, Clapton formed a close friendship with Harrison of the Beatles. And it didn’t take long for Clapton to break the most important rule of any friendship. He couldn’t help but become infatuated with Boyd. His unrequited love for her was so intense that it influenced his music.
Hence the song Layla. She also inspired him to write, “Wonderful Tonight.” In an interview with Rolling Stone later on in both of their lives, Boyd elaborated on the battle that took place between Clapton and Harrison. It basically started when Clapton drunkenly confessed to her husband: “I have to tell you, man, that I’m in love with your wife.”
Obviously, that sort of statement to your best friend about his wife doesn’t generally go over well. It caused a serious rift between the two and even on their marriage. At one point, both ego-driven musicians performed a “rock duel” for Boyd’s affections. For the most part, and in the beginning, Boyd refused to leave her husband.
At that point, his musical success wasn’t curing the pain in his life. If anything, it might have even made it worse and made him spiral down further. As Clapton was becoming a star, he became addicted to heroin. The despair of not being with Boyd drove him to hide away in his mansion, spending three years sinking deeper and deeper into his heroin addiction and wallowing in his sorrows.
Boyd’s reason for rejecting Clapton was in part due to his heroin dependency. During the time that Boyd and Harrison’s marriage was falling apart (mostly because of Harrison’s serial cheating), Clapton saw the opportunity and the light at the end of the tunnel. He kicked heroin to the curb and made his move with Boyd.
With the permission of Harrison (who was already on his way out), Boyd and Clapton became a real couple – to many people’s surprise. Five years later, the two got married in 1979. But their relationship wasn’t the paradise that Clapton had envisioned. There were a few reasons. For one, Clapton’s sobriety wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He just swapped heroin for alcohol and was drinking two bottles of brandy every day.
Secondly, both Clapton and Boyd wanted children, but they just couldn’t conceive despite the consistent trying. And finally, Clapton’s infidelity is what sank the ship. In 1986, Clapton had an affair with an Italian model named Lory Del Santo. To add salt to the wound, Boyd found out that Del Santo was pregnant with Clapton’s son. All the ingredients for divorce were coming together.
It was also around this time that Clapton’s affair with Yvonne Kelly, a studio assistant, became apparent, Kelly also became pregnant and eventually gave birth do their daughter named Ruth. This pregnancy was actually kept secret for many years. Anyways, it’s only natural that Boyd had enough and left him. She went on to become a traveling photographer.
Clapton’s four-and-a-half-year-old son, Conor, was the product of his affair with the Italian model and actress, Lory Del Santo. In 1991, in a tragic turn of events, the boy fell out of an open window in a high-rise condominium in New York where he was living with his mother. While New York law requires window guards in buildings, a 1984 ruling exempted condos.
This meant that it was up to the building owners to decide whether or not to have safety devices installed. Sadly, Conor had to pay the price for such an ill-conceived decision. The New York Times reported that the accident happened during a visit from the housekeeper. She had opened the six-by-four window to clean it. Conor wasn’t in the room, but she was unable to prevent the boy from “darting past” before it was shut.
Clapton didn’t live with Del Santo and Conor, but he was in New York at the time. In fact, the night before the accident, he took Conor to the circus for an outing that was later honored in the song “Circus.” Clapton told Ed Bradley in a 1999 interview with 60 Minutes that wanting to be a good father to his son was what inspired him to get sober.
“When he was born, I was drinking, and he was really the chief reason that I went back to treatment because I really did love this boy,” he said. “I thought, ‘I know he’s a little baby, but he can see what I’m doing, and I’m tired of this.'” But once his son died, he was thrown off-kilter. In the immediate aftermath, he coped by throwing himself into his music.
As a means to cope with his loss, he delved deep into his music. This period resulted in, most notably, the new songs in the soundtrack of the 1991 movie ‘Rush,’ including “Tears in Heaven.” And it was that song, inspired by the immense grief of his loss, which became the Grammy-winning hit ballad. Clapton spoke about the meaning of the song.
“It asked a very pertinent question… Because I don’t really know. I have a belief in a higher power, but I don’t really know whether – most of those old religious things say, ‘See you over there.’ And you think, ‘Really? How do you know?’ And the song asked that question. And I’m always wondering whether we meet people again. I think what works about that song is it’s a question. That doesn’t offend anyone. It’s asking for help. It works for people. It’s a great way to communicate, asking for help.”
The death of his son and his work that resulted from it led Clapton down a more positive path. It sparked a career resurgence that hasn’t wilted since. Clapton explained once in an interview, “I think it won’t make sense to me for maybe another ten years. You know when you can look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s why I did that.’”
“Someone once pointed out to me that the time I began taking heroin really heavily coincided with the death of my grandfather. Back then, I didn’t equate the two at all. The same could be said about the death of my son in 1991, and me getting into the weirdest relationships for the rest of the 90s before I met my present wife,” Clapton explained. “I never saw a connection until recently.”
A 2007 article from The Daily Mail featured an interview with then 62-year-old Eric Clapton (he’s now 74), which took place in the office of his house in Chelsea. At that point, he had just written his autobiography. “When I think about the book now, I think why didn’t I explore that? What I didn’t really explore was my fear of rejection and where that came from.”
It was the early feeling of rejection from his mother that spun his life into a downward spiral. His life became revolved around addiction. He was addicted to women, drugs, and alcohol. Clapton said how he was close to his “mother” Rose Clapp. But he didn’t choose women who were strong and selfless like she was.
According to Clapton, he would chase after women that were more like his mother: with beautiful but cold looks. For him, it was all about the chase. “As long as I was aware that at some deep level, this person wasn’t really interested in the relationship, then I was comfortable.” It’s Psychology 101 – he would find a woman like his mother and make her love him because he got rejected by the first one.
And so his life was spent searching for that woman to give him the unconditional love and care that his own mother never gave him. Clapton’s most famous relationship was with Pattie Boyd, and he admittedly manipulated her away from Harrison, was in love with her if his life depended on it, and then ultimately rejected her.
Boyd told her side of the story in her own autobiography, in which she pretty much punishes him for what he did. So how did he feel about it? “What I saw was all blaming. I was drunk or stoned. She knew who I was and what condition I was in.” In his autobiography, he wrote about his pathetic attempt to manipulate her by threatening to take heroin if she wouldn’t leave George.
But in his typical fashion, by the time Boyd was ready, it was too late. He just wanted to know that she wanted him back. Pattie spent years longing for a baby and went through IVF treatment only to find out about Clapton’s affair with the Italian model, Lori Del Santo, and the fact that they were expecting a child. Clapton doesn’t blame Pattie for anything that went wrong; he only blames himself.
But when he read something from Pattie’s book in a newspaper, he was taken aback. “When I saw the headline, “Eric Clapton’s drinking killed my marriage,” it brought it all back to me – that fear and anger and self-loathing.” The person interviewing Clapton then pointed out something to Clapton that really caught him off guard.
When she mentioned that he might have been so obsessed with Boyd because she had the same name as his mother, his jaw dropped. “You know that never occurred to me?” Clapton remarked. “One is Pat, and the other is Pattie.” Both women are named Patricia. When things were going well in their marriage, he called Pattie by her nickname, Nell. Since she was Pattie with George, he needed something to make her special to him, and Nell was his aunt’s name.
“She became Pattie again when we fell out. Nell was a term of endearment.” But his gaze was elsewhere. In 1984, when he was married to Pattie, Clapton started a year-long affair with Yvonne Kelly, a studio assistant from Doncaster. She became the mother of his daughter, Ruth. Somehow, he hid Ruth’s existence up until his divorce from Pattie five years later.
In his book, he comes off as very hard on himself, almost as though he wants to punish himself. But Clapton said, “Not at all. I would put it differently. I would prefer to think that I took responsibility for myself.” And with the death of his son and the feeling of “absolute devastation,” he learned to let himself feel. “I am an emotional guy, and I think I’ve learned how to be emotional in the moment.”
Clapton said how learning to feel in the moment is a way for him to not relapse. This was after a lifetime of trying not to feel. He didn’t want to go back to a life of addiction. And he chose not to relapse for the sake of his son. He wanted to have a meaningful life and give to other people. Clapton’s mother passed away in 2000.
She had been diagnosed with cancer but refused to accept the fact that she was going to die. Before she passed, she told him that she loved him. But it didn’t matter because he never felt loved by her. Only after she passed away was he able to be in a real relationship. “Interestingly, it wasn’t long after she died that I bumped into Melia, who’s now my wife.”
After a long history of rocky relationships, death, and addiction, Eric Clapton’s life improved tremendously in the past few decades. Ever since 2002, he’s been happily married to an American named Melia McEnery. The two met in 1998 when Clapton, then 53, met the 22-year-old administrative assistant in Columbus, Ohio.
It was at a party that was being thrown for him after a performance. They quietly dated her for a year and went public in 1999. On January 1, 2002, they got married at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Clapton’s birthplace of Ripley. They went on to have three daughters: Julie Rose, Ella May, and Sophie Belle. He is also a grandfather. Isaac Eric Owen Bartlett was born to his eldest daughter, Ruth.
Despite the newfound stability in his life and marriage, in the last few years, Clapton has been hit by a problem he had previously avoided: his health. Not too long ago, in 2016, he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, which is a disease that many musicians fear. The symptoms, including numbness, shooting pains, and a lack of coordination.
Those are all things any guitar player and singer would hate to experience. And because he is experiencing neuropathy in his legs, as opposed to his hands, leads people to think that his ailment might have been caused by years of alcohol abuse, and not from the physical strain of performing music.
Though such a diagnosis would be tough enough, there was an article in Time magazine from 2018 that reported how Eric Clapton was also experiencing hearing loss – yet another harsh reality that faces many lifelong musicians. After everything he has been through, the musician can’t help but be realistic about his future.
He explained: “This particular condition I’m living with isn’t necessarily going to get better.” The truth is that he has indeed slowed down on doing big public performances. But that doesn’t mean that he’s planning on retiring anytime soon. Throughout his life, music has gotten him through almost everything, and he intends to keep going as long as he possibly can. A little bit of degenerative hearing loss is not going to stop him…yet.
Anyone who knows addiction knows fully well the heavy, eternal burden of horrible things that have been said or done when he or she hit rock bottom. Long before Clapton turned his life around, he bottomed out for all of the public to see. At a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England, the totally inebriated Clapton blurted out a racist and xenophobic (against other countries) rant.
“England is for white people,” were his words. The scene was so controversial that it actually hurled forward the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement. Popular musicians from the UK held concerts with anti-racist themes. To this day, Clapton is deeply ashamed of that outburst. He owned up to his past racism and publicly apologized many times over the years.
Clapton told Rolling Stone, “I just have to face the guy that I became when I was fueled on drugs and alcohol. It’s incomprehensible to me, in a way, that I got so far out.”
So if you’re curious as to just how bad his substance abuse was. I can tell you this: it was worse than you might realize. NPR said how Clapton spent about $16,000 on heroin EACH WEEK. Even when he replaced heroin with alcohol, Clapton was unwilling to accept his addiction and tried to ignore the problem. At one point, he was so drunk during a performance on stage that he simply had to lay down because it was the best he could do.
In 2007, Clapton looked back on that incident, saying, “The thing about that kind of addiction that’s pretty funny, on reflection, is that I always thought, ‘I’m handling this. I can handle it. I can stop anytime. I just don’t want to stop right now.” It was the birth of his son that made him look at his life. He didn’t want his son to see him drunk. By the next year, he finally realized he needed treatment and checked into rehab. He has been sober ever since.
Any Clapton fan will know that the musician has the nickname “Slowhand.” But do you know why? It’s commonly thought that the moniker was given to Clapton because he played the guitar slowly. But that’s not really the case. The name was given to him because of audiences tended to give him a slow handclap when he would replace his guitar’s strings on stage.
Rather than go off-stage, Clapton was known for standing on stage, replacing and tuning the strings in front of the audience. While he was busy with guitar, the audience would slowly clap or give the good ol’ “slow hand” until he fixed it and was ready to play again. This ended up becoming a common thing with Clapton.
According to Lory del Santo, during her pregnancy, Clapton tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. But he just ended up passing out, and eventually, he regained consciousness. His manager also tried to get Del Santo to abort the baby because he thought Del Santo would try to use their son to extort money from Clapton. But that never happened.
Clapton wrote in his autobiography: “In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink anymore if I was dead. It was the only thing I thought was worth living for, and the idea that people were about to try and remove me from alcohol was so terrible that I drank and drank and drank, and they had to practically carry me into the clinic.”
Clapton’s father, Edward Fryer, was also known to have fathered a woman named Eva Jane, someone who happened to be a huge Clapton fan. And that was before she ever found out he was her half-brother. According to Jane, their dad had an incredible ear for music. He “could sit down and listen to a song and then play it.”
Jane remembers how after he and her mother split up, she remembers being in a hotel room, and she “could go in the bathroom and hear my dad singing and playing in the lounge below. It was amazing. My favorite song he sang was Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. Even to this day, I can hear this song and remember being a little girl and having nice memories of him. There weren’t very many, but the ones I do have are nice.”
Clapton was close friends with Jimi Hendrix. The two were supposed to meet on the night of Hendrix’s death at a Sly and the Family Stone concert. Clapton bought him a guitar, which was rare and made for a lefty (Hendrix usually played right-handed guitars upside down). But Hendrix didn’t show up to meet Clapton that night.
“The next day, I heard that he had died. He had passed out, stoned on a mixture of booze and drugs, and choked on his own vomit. It was the first time the death of another musician really affected me. We had all felt obliterated when Buddy Holly died, but this was much more personal. I was incredibly upset and very angry, and was filled with a feeling of terrible loneliness,” Clapton recalled.
Speaking of other musicians that passed away who were also friends with Eric Clapton… Clapton was one of the last people ever to be with Stevie Ray Vaughan (one of the greatest guitar players of all time). In 1990, Clapton had actually given up his seat on the helicopter that ended up crashing, killing Vaughan. The reason he gave him his seat was because Vaughan wasn’t feeling well.
Clapton didn’t want his friend to have to wait for the next helicopter. If you think that’s insane, then hear this. Amazingly, Clapton was also one of the last people to see Duane Allman before he died. Allman died in a crash, too, but he was on a motorcycle. Moral of the story: don’t hang out with Eric Clapton if you happen to be a famous musician.
Eric Clapton has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. Once was with the Yardbirds, another time with Cream, and then the third time as a solo artist. What it means is he’s the only person to have been inducted that many times. Clapton also played on a number of albums to which he was never credited, like many of George Harrison’s solo albums.
Speaking of a legacy, Clapton has made many efforts to help others afflicted with addiction. In 1993, Clapton became the director of Clouds House, a UK treatment center for drug and alcohol dependence. Clapton also worked for The Chemical Dependency Centre. Both charities then merged to become Action on Addiction in 2007.
Clapton’s life as a father and even a grandfather means his day to day life is dramatically different from most of his years as a musician. He went from a drug-addicted rock star to a sober grandfather. But that’s life, right? Clapton described his surprisingly domestic new life to USA Today: he said it’s a quiet time in the country.
It also sounds like he doesn’t love today’s pop stars. “My girls go to school and meet other kids who will talk about a certain pop star, and that has its own life. What I try to do is redirect by playing in the background or having music in the background — blues, country music, New Orleans jazz, opera, classical. I think it’s important that they hear old music.” Welcome to the new age – and old age – grandpa!