Having learned to play as a boy, and growing up listening to blues recording by the likes of Robert Johnson, Clapton first made his name as a member of the Yardbirds, a pop-influenced rock and roll band whose biggest hit "For Your Love" came whilst Eric was a member. Feeling the need to return to his blues roots he joined the Bluesbreakers, with John Mayall. His emotional playing on their first album (which features Eric reading a copy of the Beano on the cover) made his name as a blues player, and inspired a short-lived craze of graffiti deifying him ("Clapton is God", it read).
Limited by Mayall's traditional blues format, and destroyed by Jimi Hendrix's newly formed Experience playing a double-timed version of "Killing Floor" at the Central Polytechnic in London, he left in 1966 to form Cream, one of the earliest examples of the supergroup, and also one of the earliest 'power trios', with Jack Bruce (also of Bluesbreakers) and Ginger Baker (of the Graham Bond Organisation). During his time with Cream he began to develop as a singer as well as play, though Bruce took most of the vocals.
Cream's repertoire varied from pop soul ("I Feel Free") to lengthy instrumental jams ("Spoonful"). The group achieved commercial success during its brief existence with the song "Sunshine of Your Love", from the Disraeli Gears album, and "White Room" from Wheels of Fire. The Goodbye album, released shortly after Cream disbanded in 1968, featured the single "Badge", co-written by Clapton and Beatle George Harrison. The friendship between the two, which had resulted in Clapton playing on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from The Beatles' White Album (a tactic by Harrison to make the other band members take his song seriously) was later sorely tested when Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd-Harrison, left him for Clapton. His relationship with Pattie was his inspiration for the classic song, "Layla".
Following a second spell in a supergroup, the less successful Blind Faith, Clapton first played as one of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends before releasing a restrained solo album. The next record, however, was better received. Taking the sidemen from his solo record and forming "Derek and the Dominos", he recorded Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, along with an unplanned late addition of slide guitar virtuoso Duane Allman. The album, which was heavily blues-influenced, featured a winning combination of the two guitars of Allman and Clapton.
Despite his success, Clapton's personal life was a mess. In addition to a (temporarily) unrequited intensive romantic longing for Pattie Boyd-Harrison, he had become addicted to heroin, which resulted in a career hiatus interrupted only by the Concert for Bangladesh and the "Rainbow Concert" in 1973, organised by The Who's Pete Townshend to help Clapton kick the drug. Relatively clean again, he released 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974), an album with the emphasis on songs rather than musicianship. Its cover of "I Shot The Sheriff" was important in bringing the music of Bob Marley to a wider audience. The 1975 album There's One In Every Crowd continued this trend. (Its original intended title The World's Greatest Guitar Player (There's One In Every Crowd) was altered, as it was felt the ironic intention would be missed.)
In 1976 Clapton was the centre of controversy, and accusations of racism, when he spoke out against increasing immigration, during a concert in Birmingham. Clapton said that England had "become overcrowded", and implored the crowd to vote for Enoch Powell to stop Britain becoming "a black colony." The comments would directly motivate the foundation of Rock Against Racism. Despite the damage to his career and reputation caused, Clapton has always steadfastly refused to distance himself from the remarks and denied there was any contradiction between his political views and his career based on an essentially black musical form.
The late 1970s saw Clapton struggle to come to terms with the changes in popular music, and a relapse into alcoholism, that eventually saw him hospitalised and spend a period of convalescence in Antigua, where he would later support the creation of a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre. His albums continued in the 1980s, with only 1989's Journeyman achieving much critical acclaim, featuring a strong return to his blues roots.
The early 1990s saw tragedy enter Clapton's life on two occasions. On August 27, 1990 guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was touring with Clapton, and two members of their road crew were killed in a helicopter crash between concerts. Then, on March 20, 1991, Clapton's four-year-old son Conor died following an accidental fall from an apartment window. A fraction of Clapton's grief was heard on the song "Tears In Heaven" (on the soundtrack to the movie Rush), co-written with Will Jennings, which, like the MTV Unplugged album that followed it, won a Grammy award.
Like Unplugged, his 1994 album From The Cradle, featured a number of versions of old blues standards, and highlighted his economical acoustic guitar style. In 1997 he recorded Retail Therapy, an album of electronic music under the pseudonym TDF, and he finished the twentieth century with critically-acclaimed collaborations with Carlos Santana and B. B. King. Clapton's 1996 recording of the Wayne Kirkpatrick/ Gordon Kennedy/Tommy Sims tune Change the World won a Grammy award for song of the year in 1997.