Eric Clapton turned grief into music -- The accidental death the singer's young son served as inspiration for ''Tears in Heaven''

By Will Lee
Updated March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

At the height of his powers in the ’60s, Eric Clapton’s stature among rock cognoscenti was more akin to a divinity than a musician. Unleashing torrents of electric virtuosity with scowling, tight-trousered bravado, the Fender-wielding guitar hero inspired his fans to scrawl ”Clapton is God” all over London tube stations. But three decades later, filming an MTV Unplugged episode in January 1992, Clapton looked far too human. As he sat slumped over an acoustic guitar, he sang plaintively about loss, his eyes half shut and framed in tortoiseshell: ”Would you know my name/If I saw you in heaven…”

More than age, it was pain that had brought Clapton to this chastened state. On March 20, 1991, the guitarist’s 4-year-old son, Conor, was killed when he fell out of a 53rd-floor window of a Manhattan building. A housekeeper had left the window open in the apartment where Conor had been staying with his mother, Italian actress Lory Del Santo.

For Clapton, the tragedy was the greatest in a crushing series of losses. Only seven months before, two members of Clapton’s crew and his booking agent died in the same helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan. Clapton had already come through a bout with heroin addiction in the early ’70s, as well as a turbulent set of personal relationships, including an emotionally draining affair with the wife of his friend George Harrison. Though Clapton and Patti Boyd (for whom he wrote ”Layla”) were married in 1979, the union dissolved after Conor was born to Del Santo in 1986.

But it took the death of his only son to awaken a new sensibility. ”It made him assess his identity again,” says Clapton biographer Michael Schumacher. ”He’s since put a lot of emotion into very bare, personal songs.” The guitarist himself explained the transformation in 1994: ”I was advised after his death to live my life…in honor of his memory, to do things that he would be proud of, and that immediately gave me somewhere to go.”

A few months after Conor’s death, Clapton wrote ”Tears in Heaven,” a searching folk-lullaby conversation with his son. Though it first appeared on the soundtrack to 1991’s Rush, it was Clapton’s gracefully forlorn performance of the ballad on Unplugged that seared the song — and the image of the musician as grieving father — onto the pop consciousness. In 1993, Clapton ended a career-long dry spell at the Grammys when the Unplugged album swept all three major awards: Record, Album, and Song of the Year. For a generation of fans, and perhaps more significantly, for himself, Clapton had come full circle: one of rock’s gods humbled by inscrutable fate.

Tears in Heaven
By Eric Clapton and Will Jennings

Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven? I must be strong, and carry on, ’cause I know I don’t belong, here in heaven…

Time Capsule – March 20, 1991
AT THE MOVIES, a veritable bestiary reigns as The Silence of the Lambs, Dances With Wolves, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II all sit in the Top 10. IN MUSIC, Mariah Carey’s ”Someday” tops the pop charts. AT BOOKSTORES, John Grisham’s The Firm spends its second week on the best-seller lists. AND IN THE NEWS, Rodney King’s lawyer announces that King will seek $56 million in damages for his beating at the hands of LAPD cops two weeks earlier. King is quoted as saying, ”I don’t want to start a riot.”