25 Years Ago: ‘My Father’s Eyes’ Sends Eric Clapton to Top 30 One Last Time
Eric Clapton's family life has been a series of jarring, heartbreaking surprises.
He grew up thinking his grandparents were his mom and dad, and that his mother was an older sister. The truth wasn't revealed until he was 9, and a spiraling Clapton turned to the guitar as a way to channel his hurt and confusion.
Clapton was the product of a brief World War II-era encounter between Patricia Clapton, then 16, and a 24-year-old Canadian soldier who'd been stationed in England. He wouldn't learn most of the details about his father's itinerant life until being surprised by a newspaper article in 1998.
Strangely, however, the tragedy of Conor's death completed a circle with Clapton's dad, the erstwhile Edward Fryer. "I never met my father," Clapton told biographer Michael Woloschuk in 1985, "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."
Fryer returned home in 1945, making a living once more singing in Canadian nightclubs and tricking people out of their money. Patricia gave birth alone. Fryer would go on to marry several times, Clapton later learned, and fathered at least three children. He died in 1985, apparently of leukemia, and was penniless save for a 30-foot sailboat called Jupiter IV where he would hole up between grifts.
Listen to the Studio Version of 'My Father's Eyes'
Fryer's absence echoed Conor's in the lyrics of a Clapton song that became "My Father's Eyes," the first single from 1998's Pilgrim. Once again, Clapton had turned to his guitar when trying to untangle a confusing moment: "Bit by bit, I've realized," he sings, "that he was here with me."
Released on Feb. 9, 1998, the deceptively ruminative song would become Clapton's most recent Billboard Top 30 hit. "I tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood," he wrote in 2007's Clapton: The Autobiography.
It had been a long road to this point for "My Father's Eyes." Clapton admitted that the first draft "came out sounding pretty petulant. The lyrics were too angry and childish," he told Guitar World in 1998.
"Where the art and craft came in was in being able to shape the anger into something people could empathize with," he added. "It wouldn't work for me to just kind of sulk in the song, because it wouldn't have communicated. Instead of feeling an affinity, people would've been repelled."
Clapton tried the song during the concert that produced 1992's Unplugged, then made another pass after the main set concluded. Something still wasn't right, and "My Father's Eyes" wasn't included in the initial film or audio releases. Instead, he put it aside for a look back at the blues on 1994's From the Cradle, then returned to the song during a yearlong tinkering process with producer Simon Climie that produced Pilgrim.
"'My Father's Eyes' was the hardest song to record on the album," Clapton told Guitar World. "It was one of the first songs, along with 'Circus,' that I wrote after my son died. And it was the last one that I could let go of."
Listen to a Live Version of 'My Father's Eyes'
In the end, Clapton said there were at least five different incarnations of "My Father's Eyes," "and I would veto it each time and say each wasn't good enough."
Best known for writing hits recorded by Pat Benatar ("Invincible") and George Michael with Aretha Franklin ("I Knew You Were Waiting"), Climie brought a sleek modernity to the proceedings that couldn't have been further from the Unplugged aesthetic. Still, he helped the grieving Clapton finally find a musical pathway out of his grief — and Clapton's solo on the studio version is a wonder of soaring hope.
"In retrospect, I question what I was up to because at the time, it was purely from an artistic point of view that I said, 'It's too fast' or 'It's too jolly' or 'It's too sad,'" Clapton told Guitar World. "Now, I actually think subconsciously I just wasn't ready to let it go, because it meant — on some level — letting go of my son."
Eventually, he seemed to come to terms with Conor's loss. Clapton eventually retired "My Father's Eyes" after only a few years of regular concert appearances.
“I didn't feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs," Clapton told NBC. "I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They're kind of gone, and I really don't want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now."
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