It has never required a stretch of the imagination to tie celebrities to addiction. While it can certainly become an unfair stereotype, for many, such as the famed Eric Clapton, it is a truth that developed early in stardom. Whether because of the expectations of a young rock-and-roll guitarist in the 60s or a mechanism used to cope with a difficult childhood or the rigors of life in show business, Clapton fell into the same addiction trap that so many others of that time did. He writes in his autobiography that it took years, embarrassment, relapses and even suicide attempts to reach sobriety and healing.
Early Childhood Influence
Clapton’s childhood was an iconic situation for a mess of emotions. Born into a world at war in 1945 in Surrey, England, Clapton was the only child of a teenage English girl, Patricia Clapton, and a fighting Canadian soldier, Edward Fryer, who was stationed in England. Fryer returned to Canada before Clapton was born. Clapton was raised believing that his grandparents, Rose and her second husband, Jack, were his parents and that Patricia Clapton was his older sister. He and his father, who died in 1985, never met.
Clapton discusses how he felt as if he were an entirely different person when he discovered the truth about his family. With enough to justify years of therapy within that small time frame, Clapton went on a seemingly aimless journey for years, in and out of academies and art schools, lacking the grades and focus to continue, but finding one true passion: playing guitar.
At the young age of 16, Clapton began playing with big-name musicians; he and David Brock joined forces to play the blues for pub audiences in Surrey. It wasn’t long after that Clapton joined his first band, an R&B group known as The Roosters. This was the beginning of a long string of band shuffling for Clapton, who moved on from The Roosters after a year to play with Casey Jones and the Engineers. This match only lasted for seven gigs before he moved on again.
Clapton finally found a fit that lasted for a couple of years with the Yardbirds, a band heavily influenced by the blues. After reaching their first major hits on the British music scene, the band morphed to more of a pop sound that Clapton didn’t like. He left the band in March of 1965. From that point on, Clapton was in and out of bands; he joined The Bluesbreakers then moved to The Glands, back to the Bluesbreakers, and then finally to a newly formed band called Cream.
Cream found rapid commercial success less than two years after the band began. They toured England and America, gaining popularity and fame in the process. Hits like Sunshine of Your Love, White Room, and Crossroads were recorded during this time. It was at this point that all three members of the band became entrenched in drug and alcohol use, and that, paired with tension between the members and a harsh review published in Rolling Stone magazine, led to the group’s disbanding. From this point on, he was in a continuous stream of groups and bands, at times playing on his own as a side act for The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Throughout the 70s, Clapton lost several close friends to tragic deaths, both drug and alcohol related as well as mental illness. By his own admission, Clapton was devastated by the death of Hendrix.
During this time, he fell into heroin addiction, leaving behind touring and recording to live in his private residence in Surrey. It wasn’t until the middle of the decade that Clapton began recovery of his heroin addiction, yet he was still plagued by his alcohol addiction. After partnering with his long-time unrequited love, Patti Boyd, Clapton began a series of solo albums, at times pairing with other artists, such as Bob Dylan, for various releases.
By the early 80s, Clapton admitted to his manager that he was an alcoholic and needed help. The two of them flew to Minnesota where Clapton was checked into the Hazelden Treatment Center. In his autobiography he said that there were times in his life that the only thing that kept him from committing suicide was the idea that he wouldn’t be able to drink alcohol if he were dead. He was observed drinking heavily on the flight to Minnesota for fear that he’d never have a drink again.
When Clapton, often referred to as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, was asked by Larry King in 2007 how he was able to stay sober for over twenty years, he gave the credit to Alcoholics Anonymous. During the interview the star admitted that he still attended regular AA meetings, saying that it would be foolish for him not to do so. It was also during this interview that Clapton blamed his addiction, which he referred to as a full-time career, for his failed marriage to Boyd, as well as his infidelities while married to her. After his second love child, Connor, was born in 1986, Patti left Clapton on the grounds of “infidelity and unreasonable behavior.”
In 1990, Clapton’s son, Connor, suffered a tragic accident, falling from a 50-story apartment window in New York. When the musician retold the story to King, he said he had been sober for three years at the time of his son’s death, and it was a time in which he was tempted to fall back into his addiction, but he remained sober through his grieving process.
Clapton went on to write Tears in Heaven for Connor, followed by a string of hit releases. The 67-year-old legend continues to tour and record music, and is scheduled to tour the United Kingdom in the spring of 2013. To this day, he remains sober and attends AA meetings regularly as part of his continuing recovery.