At their peak, The Beatles were almost impossible to turn down. But Eric Clapton once turned down the chance to join The Beatles in the lates sixties. Imagine what could have been if he had agreed to the band’s wishes but, alas, he had his reasons for refusing to join the biggest band in the world.
Clapton’s first foray into the mad world of The Fab Four was when he took part in sessions at Abbey Road in 1968 for the White Album which was such a roaring success that he was later asked to join the band as a permanent fixture just a year later.
Those initial recording sessions would spawn ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps‘ which would mark the first time anyone outside of the four members of The Beatles had taken a leading role on the song and picked up the reigns of lead guitar. It was a track which initially made Clapton nervous, reportedly asking George Harrison ‘What will they say?’
Later that year, Clapton would share the stage once more with John Lennon when the two performed at The Rollings Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus with Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, and Mitch Mitchell as The Dirty Mac. Clapton delivered another masterclass at this show and John Lennon was full of adoration for his guitar playing so when in 1969 George Harrison would tender his resignation from the band, Lennon knew the one man who he wanted to take his spot.
After Harrison walked out, Lennon said “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play,” he told Get Back director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. “We should just go on as if nothing’s happened.”
This would never come to fruition because of how soon George Harrison would walk back on his intention to quit the band and would be back in the fold. But it could have been a very different scenario if Harrison had stuck to his guns. Clapton would reveal that he was seriously weighing up this opportunity that had seemingly been gifted to him and would have catapulted his career to yet another level of stardom.
In Martin Scorsese’s 2011 George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, Clapton spoke extensively about his long friendship with George as well as what his relationships were like with the other members of the band and what it was like to work on the White Album.
During the film, Clapton is asked about the story about John wanting to bring him into The Beatles rather than trying to convince George Harrison to return to the set up in January 1969. “Yeah,” Clapton replies. As a follow-up, Clapton gets asked if ever considered what it would be like being in The Beatles.
Clapton responds by breaking into unadulterated laughter before replying: “Yeah … the pros and cons of being in a band like that were massively extreme.” On the pro side, the self-described “lone wolf” saw a certain closeness the band had.
“There were times when it was like the closest-knit family you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said. But there was also cons to do with the band which was partly why Harrison handed in his resignation anyway that Clapton considered, adding: “The cruelty and the viciousness was unparalleled.”
John Lennon would later make an offer in the form of a lengthy letter pleading with Eric about joining his band with Yoko Ono and Phil Spector in 1971, but Clapton would decide against this and the lone wolf would carry on his own path which served him well.
Enjoy watching the two come together at the Rock and Roll Circus which is as close as we would ever get to see what the band would have sounded like if Clapton had accepted Lennon’s offer.