Eric Clapton hit the London blues-based rock scene in the early '60s, when he was still a teenager. He gigged around southern England with various bands, hung out with old friends like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (then a studio musician), and played with whichever active bands would have him. In '63, he joined the Yardbirds. In '66, after leaving the Yardbirds, he cut a record with John Mayall's Blues Breakers. That album was released in July '66. In December '66, Fresh Cream, the groundbreaking debut album from a new super group featuring Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce, hit shops. Graffiti appeared around London reading "Clapton is God". Though Jimi Hendrix showed up not long thereafter to steal Clapton's thunder, the enigmatic Englishman indisputably changed the face of electric guitar playing. When Cream played its now legendary final show (until reuniting decades later) on November 26, 1968, Clapton was 23 years old.
Clapton continued producing successful music for decades after his early super stardom. But, like many musicians of his generation, much of Clapton's adult life was marred by addiction, tragedy, and personal drama. Derek and the Dominoes, a super group Clapton formed with Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, put out one record before falling apart due to extreme drug use. A lot of the songs on that record, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, were about Clapton's unrequited love for Patty Boyd, George Harrison's wife, who eventually returned Clapton's affections and left Harrison for him. In 1991, Clapton's four-and-a-half-year-old son Conor died when he accidentally fell from a 53rd story window.
And then there's the racist, xenophobic rant Clapton unleashed on stage on August 5, 1976 in Birmingham, England. The things Clapton said in this slurred diatribe are shocking even by the standards of a generation of musicians who had orgies with 14-year-old groupies. So what happened? Is Eric Clapton racist? What was the context of his life at the time?
- Photo: RSO Records
Clapton's Indebtedness To International, Multi-Cultural Musical Traditions Makes His Tirade All The More Unexpected
Clapton's racist remarks are particularly startling considered in the context of the music for which he's most well known. Like nearly all British musicians of his generation, Clapton was most heavily inspired by the blues, a form of American folk music created primarily by African American musicians (the history of blues is more racially complicated than most simplistic overviews make it out to be). Over the years, in various bands and solo projects, Clapton has covered a number of blues songs by Black musicians.
In an interview from 1968, Clapton remarked: "all the Indian musicians I've heard and all the blues musicians I've heard have influenced me." His 1974 hit "I Shot the Sheriff" was a Bob Marley cover. Marley lived in London in the early 1970s and heavily influenced the music scene there. The UK's reggae underground had a major impact on punk bands like The Clash, and is responsible for Led Zeppelin's lilting ditty "D'yer Maker".
Clapton's Addiction Made Him Abusive And UnpredictableVideo: YouTube
Drummer Jamie Oldaker, who played with Clapton from '74 to '80, recalls of the band's 1974 tour: "[Clapton] was fragile. I'm not sure whether he was really aware of of anything around him, or what as going on around him."
Clapton himself said "to me, alcohol was far more dangerous than heroin". Guitarist George Terry remembers Clapton drinking entire bottles of cognac before lunch, drinking so heavily is seemed like he had a death wish.
Clapton's drinking made him difficult to be around, and sometimes violent. "Everyone used to walk around me on eggshells. They didn't know if I was going to be angry or whatever. When I’d come back from the pub I could come back happy, or I could come back and smash the place up," Clapton later explained to the New York Post.
Clapton admitted to raping his wife, Patty Boyd, during this period. “There were times when I took sex with my wife by force and thought that was my entitlement. I had absolutely no concern for other people." Pattie Boyd has also spoken out about their relationship, stating she would "pray he would pass out when he came to bed and not try to touch me."
Clapton Admitted He Was A "Semi-Racist" At The Time Of His Rant
Speaking in 2018, Clapton says he was “'disgusted' with himself for his 'chauvinistic' and 'fascistic' comments on stage."
Recalling that period in his life, Clapton continued: "I sabotaged everything I got involved with. I was so ashamed of who I was, a kind of semi-racist, which didn't make sense. Half of my friends were Black, I dated a Black woman, and I championed Black music."
Clapton's Racist Comments Prompted The "Rock Against Racism" Movement
Clapton's racist outburst earned him a rather unsavory reputation among music lovers, and fellow musicians took note. In 1978, the first Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in East London, and featured Black and white musicians playing together in direct response to Clapton's bigoted comments. The event was spearheaded at the grassroots level, and brought in members of The Clash, as well as groups like the Specials and singers like Tom Robinson.
Rock Against Racism joined forces with anti-Nazi groups in England that were protesting National Front.