Eric Clapton is among the greatest and most influential guitar players in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked the British icon #2 on its list of the all-time best guitarists, right behind Jimi Hendrix. As a solo artist and a member of bands like The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, the man known as “Slowhand” (and sometimes “God”) has thrilled generations of fans with his righteous bluesy wailing.
In honor of the rock icon's 75th birthday (March 30, 2020), here are 10 things you might not know about Eric Clapton.
1. Eric Clapton had a pretty unusual childhood.
For much of his young life, Eric Clapton believed that his maternal grandparents were his parents. His mother, Patricia, was just 16 when she gave birth to the future rock legend on March 30, 1945. His father was a 24-year-old Canadian soldier stationed in England during World War II. Clapton’s father returned to Canada before Eric was born, and Patricia gave the boy to her parents to raise. She returned for a time when Eric was nine, and to avoid scandal, the family told people she was his older sister. Patricia’s return traumatized Eric, turning him from a model student to a shy, artsy loner.
2. Eric Clapton quit playing guitar at age 13 because it was too hard.
Young guitar students often begin on cheap instruments that are difficult and frustrating to play. That’s why many aspiring rockers quit before they reach Eric Clapton levels of playing (if they ever can). Yet Clapton himself nearly suffered this same fate: He received his first axe, a German-made Hoyer, when he was 13 years old. The steel-string guitar was nearly as big as Clapton was. "It sounded nice, but it was just such hard work, I gave up,” Clapton said. “So I started when I was 13 and gave up when I was 13 and a half.” Fortunately, he picked it up again.
3. Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” has nothing to do with his guitar technique.
Eric Clapton’s nickname “Slowhand” is a strange one for a guy who’s made millions playing blazing guitar solos. You can’t shred like Clapton does without some seriously quick digits. As it turns out, the name dates back to his days with The Yardbirds, a band he joined in 1963 and stayed with until 1965. Clapton often broke strings during shows, and while he changed them, the audience would slow clap. This inspired The Yardbirds's manager Giorgio Gomelsky to come up with the name “Slowhand.” According to Clapton, it was meant to be ironic.
4. Clapton left The Yardbirds right after they released their first hit.
In April 1965, The Yardbirds tune "For Your Love" peaked at #3 on the UK charts. But Clapton wasn’t around to enjoy the success. In those days, Clapton was a blues purist who clashed with Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and manager Giorgio Gomelsky over the group’s increasingly poppy direction. Clapton didn’t like the mostly guitar-free sound of “For Your Love,” and it’s among the reasons he left the group soon after its March 1965 release. Clapton suggested session pro Jimmy Page as his replacement, but the future Led Zeppelin guitar god declined. The gig wound up going to Jeff Beck.
5. Eric Clapton was worshipped as a god (maybe).
In the mid-’60s, the graffiti slogan “Clapton is God” began popping up on walls around London. The phrase became part of the Clapton mythology, affirming his superhuman guitar prowess. While Clapton claimed he never actually saw the messages, he admitted in his 2007 memoir that he was “grateful” for their existence, as they gave him “the kind of status nobody could tamper with.” In 2016, Clapton suggested it wasn’t an anonymous fan behind the vandalism, but rather Hamish Grimes, a man employed by The Yardbirds’ manager to hype up audiences.
6. Clapton once got to play a Beatle for a day.
During sessions for The Beatles, a.k.a. “The White Album,” in 1968, George Harrison didn’t feel like his bandmates were paying enough attention to his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” So on the way to the studio one day, he invited his friend Eric Clapton to come play the guitar solo. Clapton was reluctant—no outsider had ever really guested on a Beatles record—but it all worked out for the best. “I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better,” Harrison said. “Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.”
7. “Layla” was partly inspired by Clapton’s love for George Harrison's wife.
One of Clapton’s signature songs is “Layla,” released in 1970 by the group Derek and the Dominos. Clapton was inspired by two things: the 12th century Persian story The Story of Layla and Majnun, and Pattie Boyd, then-wife of Beatles guitarist (and Eric’s good buddy) George Harrison. “I was amazed and thrilled at the song—it was so passionate and devastatingly dramatic—but I wanted to hang on to my marriage,” Boyd told The Guardian in 2008.
Boyd divorced Harrison in 1977, and two years later, she and Clapton were married. Amazingly, Harrison wasn’t mad—he performed at the wedding with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
8. Clapton’s biggest U.S. hit was inspired by personal tragedy.
In March 1991, Clapton suffered an unspeakable tragedy. His four-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from the window of a New York City high-rise. After a period of seclusion, Clapton worked with lyricist Will Jennings—who’d later co-author Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—to write “Tears In Heaven.” Originally appearing on the soundtrack for the 1991 film Rush, “Tears In Heaven” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Clapton’s best-selling U.S. single. The song also earned him Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year.
9. Eric Clapton is not Sheryl Crow's "favorite mistake."
Much like Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," rumors have swirled for years that Sheryl Crow's 1998 hit "My Favorite Mistake" was written in response to her breakup with Clapton. (The two dated for a couple of years during the late 1990s.) But Crow, who had previously dated Owen Wilson and was once famously engaged to Lance Armstrong, has put those rumors to rest, stating that, "'My Favorite Mistake' is about several people in my life who weren’t very good ideas—but not Eric. I’ve known Eric for over 10 years, and I can’t look at that relationship as a mistake."
10. Clapton is a three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
Eric Clapton was first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, when The Yardbirds received the honor. The following year, he got in as a member of Cream. Clapton’s 2000 induction as a solo performer made him the first (and to date only) artist to be inducted three times.