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Exploring the unstoppable friendship of George Harrison and Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton first met The Beatles in December 1964, a time when he was still with The Yardbirds. After his group acted as one of the support acts for the Fab Four’s Christmas Show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, his connection proved to be so strong that he straddled both The Beatles’ professional and personal lives. Clapton didn’t just collaborate with the band as a whole, but he also played with each of the four members independently on their solo endeavours. For a few moments, John Lennon even tried to recruit Clapton to replace George Harrison after he temporarily left The Beatles.

There was always a member of the band with which he connected more permanently, however, and he became best friends with George Harrison long after working with one another. What’s more, they even ended up sharing an ex-wife, Pattie Boyd. However, even after all the drama and heartbreak, Harrison and Clapton remained friends and continued to play music together right up until the very end. Theirs was a friendship that was tenderly enjoyed by both members.

Despite all the trial and tribulations, Harrison and Clapton remained close friends and completed a number collaborations together. In the late sixties, The Beatles and Eric Clapton kicked off a nearly five-decade-long tradition of recorded collaborations. Sure, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, the only official Beatles recording Clapton ever played on is an undisputed highlight, but Slowhand’s fretwork also graces recordings by all four solo Beatles. In fact, the former Yardbird and Bluesbreaker is the only external guitarist to ever play on a Beatles song and on official studio recordings by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

It goes further still, George Harrison even writing a song for his pal that appeared on The Beatles’ White Album and, when listeners come to ‘Savoy Truffle’, they hear a rollicking organ part, horns, and Harrison’s tongue-in-cheek vocal about some exotic sweets. The ‘Quiet Beatle’ calls out creme tangerine, Montelimar, and a ginger sling with pineapple heart before he gets out of the first verse. From there, he sings about coconut fudge, apple tarts, and more. However, despite all the “good news”, he warns “you’ll have to have them all pulled out.” All the while, Harrison was referring to Clapton’s sweet tooth and subsequent dental problems, it was a joyful reflection of their relationship.

So when Clapton needed help with a song, Harrison was happy to oblige. “I helped Eric write ‘Badge’, you know,” Harrison told Crawdaddy in a 1977 interview, “Each of them had to come up with a song for that Goodbye album and Eric didn’t have his written.” Harrison also famously wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun’ at Clapton’s country home, following some difficulties with the most famous band on the planet. The duo toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends in 1969, they toured Japan in 1991 and recorded together countless times until Harrison’s death in 2001. It was proof of a friendship that was tried and tested by some of the rock’s most dangerous tropes.

It was a relationship that provided some serious support for the two rockers. In early 1969, when Cream was history and The Beatles were quickly heading in that direction, Harrison invited Clapton to sit in on sessions for Billy Preston’s fourth studio album, which Harrison was co-producing at the time. Clapton’s brilliance is best represented on the album’s powerful title track. While the verses and chorus feature Clapton’s sympathetic fills, things take off during the song’s final two-and-a-half-minutes. It’s as if Preston and Harrison pulled Clapton aside and said, “Okay, man, go nuts!” Maybe he was inspired by the presence of Ginger Baker, who also plays on the track. Clapton and Harrison also worked together on Preston’s next album, the 1970s effort Encouraging Words.

Not resting on their laurels, in mid-1970s Clapton played on Harrison’s solo masterpiece, All Things Must Pass. Although the album’s liner notes didn’t bother mentioning it, Clapton can be heard on ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, ‘Art of Dying’ and several other outstanding tracks. During the All Things Must Pass sessions, Clapton and the pre-Allman Dominos recorded ‘Roll It Over’ which featured Harrison alongside the early Dominos member Dave Mason on guitar. ‘Roll It Over’ was the B-side of the band’s first single. Clapton’s finest moment comes on the album opener, ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ the Harrison/Bob Dylan tune from All Things Must Pass. Clapton’s emotive guitar playing is front and centre, where it belongs. His solo, which sounds a bit like ‘Something’, as if he were trying to play Harrison-style guitar for a Harrison track, is exquisite. “It just seemed like a good thing to do [to open the album with ‘I’d Have You Anytime’,” Harrison said in 2000. “Maybe subconsciously I needed a bit of support. I had Eric playing the solo, and Bob had helped write it.”

Their friendship is largely impressive not because they found a kindred spirit in one another — when you think about it, the two men’s lives were fairly aligned — but because they managed to survive one incident that would have sent most friendships down the pan. In the late 1960s, Clapton and Harrison had become close friends and began writing and recording music together. During the rise of the rock and roll era, there was one woman who caught the eyes and trapped the hearts of the two legendary music icons: Pattie Boyd. Harrison married Boyd in 1966 but Clapton was utterly captivated by her.

In an effort to satisfy his infatuation, Clapton briefly dated Boyd’s sister, Paula. His 1970 album with Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, was written to proclaim his love for Boyd, particularly the hit song ‘Layla’. Clapton drew inspiration from The Story of Layla and Majnun by Persian writer Nizami, a tale based on a story about the seventh-century Nejdi Bedouin poet Qays ibn Al-Mulawwah and his lover Layla bint Mahdi, focusing on a man driven to madness by his unattainable love. 

Before the marriage of Boyd and Harrison collapsed, she continuously refused Clapton’s courtship, it was rumoured that the rejection drove Clapton into heroin addiction and self-imposed exile for three years. Once overcoming his addiction in 1974, Clapton again pursued Boyd, who now agreed to leave Harrison. She and Clapton were married in 1979 and they remained relentlessly close with Harrison, who took to calling Clapton his “husband-in-law” in a comedic take that only he could make.

Very rarely can we see a friendship that has seen so many ups and down survive for so many years. Not only in life but also in death, Harrison remained a good and close friend of Clapton. In November 2002, exactly a year after George’s death, Clapton decided to hold a tribute concert in his name, calling it the Concert For George.

“It was Clapton’s idea,” says Harrison’s widow, Olivia. “He phoned me not long after George died and said, ‘I’d like to do something.’ Eric was a very deep friend of George’s, so I felt confident and relieved that it was Eric coming to me.” George Harrison was honoured at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It was the final sign-off for one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most touching relationships. Though songs, bands and wives have come and gone, Eric Clapton and George Harrison had one thing they could always count on — each other.