Some statements are like zombies. They keep returning and replicating. And some people are all too willing to parrot simple statements like these. But simple statements are for simple minds...
If you're not aware of what this is referring to, you might be scratching your head and saying "How could a musician who dedicated almost his entire life to playing and celebrating Black music possibly be considered racist?". And that statement wouldn't be false either.
Nonetheless, there is that one incident which is, undoubtedly, a blemish on a career that otherwise can only be considered remarkable. I'm not going to replicate his words here; you can find them elsewhere if you're interested, and they're really horrifying. No denying that.
But there is a larger picture here and anybody who focuses on this one occurrence thinking it is in any way representative of Eric Clapton is engaging in willful ignorance. The incident happened in the middle of his raging alcoholism, which occupied about fifteen years of his life. After getting off heroin in the early 1970s, he slid from one addiction to the next. At the time this was seemingly not seen as much of a problem, and that is very much the problem. Can you imagine going to a gig where the main attraction performs the entire show lying on the stage, with a microphone stand lying beside him? This might sound hilarious, as does the episode where he went out fishing in the middle of the night and then freaked everybody out by returning in a diving suit. But in reality, alcohol had turned Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. An introverted, intelligent, well-mannered man turned into a belligerent idiot. It's almost as if his personality had completely flipped - the only thing the two Claptons had in common were that they both played guitar. There is no film material of the infamous 1976 "speech" but there are bits of video showing him trying to pick a fight with the audience. He comes across as bone-headed and entirely unlikable. Pattie Boyd, his wife at the time, confirms that he was violent under the influence, and that it was not part of his sober personality at all. In his autobiography, he admits that there was always a nutcase inside him waiting to get out, and drinking set it free.
In his autobiography, Clapton also refers to his second time of rehab, since which he has been clean for good, as the beginning of his maturing into a grown-up. And if you analyze all those accounts of his drunken behaviour, they can be summed up in one word: childish. It didn't help that his management (Robert Stigwood) was protecting him from a lot of trouble, this clearly furthered the 'spoiled child' behaviour. He got mad at officials for reading his full name (Eric Patrick Clapton). Can you take anything serious he said in such a state?
In the documentary "Life in 12 Bars", he referred to that awful speech as "the moment that ruined everything". Again, it fits into a pattern - not one of racism, but one of self-destruct. He had car accidents that could've killed him (and others). His unquantifiable alcohol consumption gave him ulcers that could've killed him. It goes on and on. He had no respect for anybody, least of all himself and his own life.
To add context: Those horrifying comments didn't come out of nowhere. Clapton referred to UK parliament member Enoch Powell, already then a polarizing figure but not unpopular. His "rivers of blood" speech on what immigration would turn the UK into was deemed racist back in the day. For the record, Powell always denied being racist. If you define racism as hating others based on their skin colour or heritage, then he doesn't fit the definition. But nowadays it's generally consensus to also label the idea that racial groups have certain intellectual properties racist, and it's a definition I tend to agree with. Of course, genetic disposition is a thing, but not across entire swathes of population. And this kind of prejudice needn't be negative either. If you approach somebody with Indian roots with the clear idea that they must be a mathematical genius, this is still racist because you're basically not willing to accept that human beings are all individual, not just those of your own group. A certain former US president exhibited this kind of behaviour time and time again.
So, Powell does not really fit the bracket of a typical right-wing rabble-rouser, but he was seen as a problematic figure. As evidence, Manfred Mann, who had left South Africa partially because he couldn't stand the Apartheid regime and how it treated Black people, dedicated this instrumental to him after the "rivers of blood" speech. In case you're still wondering about what Manfred thought of him, just read the title "Konekuf" backwards.
Now why would Clapton, always influenced by and admiring Black musicians, come out with support of Powell? It's not an easy question; drunkenness is only part of the answer. First of all, I think many people have some amount of prejudice. We always like to think that we don't but most of us grow up in relatively homogenous surroundings. I'm wary of people who say "I'm the least racist person", because those either lack self-critical insight or modesty. Secondly, the UK has always been a bit funny about this. My father, who's a jazz musician, told me that the British jazz scene is the most isolationist in this part of the world. Just look at the Brexit vote: those beliefs are still very much alive. To be clear: There is a fine line between simply thinking 'mass immigration' is bad for one's country and being actually racist, but Clapton's comments clearly crossed the line, not just through the choice of words. So is he racist, after all?
...I don't think so. I still think it was mostly alcohol-fueled shit-talking. Maybe he was spending a lot of time in pubs where his drinking mates talked like that and he simply parroted something he'd heard the other night. Not really an excuse but an attempt at an explanation. Every ugly cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, people horrified by Clapton's comments started the Rock Against Racism movement in response to this incident (as well as a cocaine-based David Bowie ogling fascism at the time).
Anyway, let's put things into perspective.
In 1968, a very thoughtful and articulate Clapton commented on the conundrum why so many of his main role models and influences didn't get the same amount of media attention that Cream got at the time. Clapton analyzed the situation succinctly and told the interviewer that this was due to ongoing segregation and racism in the USA. In fact, a lot of the original bluesmen (and -women) had received more praise from a white audience in Europe (on the so-called "American Folk Blues Festival" tours) than what would've been possible in the US at that time. For reasons still somewhat mysterious, a lot of young white kids in the Old World, especially the UK, had really latched onto this style of music. It was a dedicated fandom, blues nerdism was a real thing. Those Brits might not have known all the backgrounds of slavery and sharecropping, but there was something universal in the music that spoke to them. Bands like The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, The Animals, The Spencer Davis Group, The Yardbirds and later Cream basically re-imported a genuinely American style of music back to the USA, where it was then rediscovered by a larger audience (while people like Mike Bloomfield were similar catalysts on American ground).
In any case, Clapton was well aware of the civil rights movement and said that it needed to progress further towards equality so that his heroes could get their due respect. This is the Clapton I want to remember when he's no longer with us. His statements then are consistent with pretty much his entire career. How?
His formative days were influenced by blues music he heard on the radio and later, on import records. Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Chuck Berry were among the musicians he payed close attention to. He literally modeled his playing style on those icons of Black music. In 1965, he left The Yardbirds because he was a blues nerd and didn't want to go their way of diluting that element for pop success. His subsequent playing in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers was ground-breaking; the combination of a Gibson Les Paul and overdriven Marshall amps (which he stumbled onto by trying to imitate Freddie King's sound) basically defines the tone of modern blues rock guitar. The famous graffitti "Clapton is God" originates from this period. Mayall himself was extremely educated about the blues and saw it as his mission to introduce his fans to lesser known blues artists - the LP "Crusade" (recorded after Clapton's departure) explicitly states the aim to bring more blues to the radio, and contains a mournful ode to J.B. Lenoir, one of Mayall's biggest influences.
Clapton left Mayall because he had seen Buddy Guy at a gig with just bass and drums and wanted to front his own trio. In the end, Cream was a rather different beast, with multi-instrumentalist Jack Bruce doing most of the singing and songwriting. What didn't change was the reverence for the blues: After he'd already sung Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind" on the Bluesbreakers album, Clapton resurrected another Johnson classic with "Four Until Late". And Skip James earned more money from Cream's version of "I'm So Glad" than from anything he had done up to that point.
As this Jack Bruce interview shows, Cream were not fussy about giving people credit. Clapton even eschewed bringing any new material of his own to Cream's third album "Wheels of Fire" in favour of covering Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" (which was brand new at the time), Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" (aka "Cross Road Blues", combined with elements of Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues") and the classic "Sitting on Top of the World" (written by the Mississippi Sheiks but made famous by Howlin' Wolf).
Clapton once also pointed out, correctly, that Cream's heavy blues paved the way for Led Zeppelin. But Willie Dixon had to sue the Zeps for royalties to "Whole Lotta Love", given that they gratuitously used his lyrics of "You Need Love" (recorded by Muddy Waters). This is not the only example of LZ ripping off black artists without giving proper credit, whereas Cream rearranged songs so heavily that they could've at least called themselves co-writers, but didn't. So who's the racist? (As an aside, Clapton admitted that his own "Let It Grow" borrowed heavily, if unconsciously, from "Stairway to Heaven", which he saw as a sort of irony considering how much he had criticized Led Zeppelin...)
If, after all of this, you still consider EC to be a racist, think of this: He has made music with Black artists almost his entire life. The Yardbirds backing up Sonny Boy Williamson didn't work out so well, but a few years later he was invited to play guitar on an Aretha Franklin song, he jammed with Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King and worked his way up, if you will.
In 1986, Clapton's live band consisted of himself, Phil Collins, Greg Philinganes and Nathan East. In other words, it was a 50/50 black/white split. Generously sharing the spotlight, all four bandmembers got to sing some parts of the show. East has been one of his go-to sidemen ever since and Philinganes also worked with him a couple of times more. I could list more names (e.g. his backing singers Michelle David and Sharon White), but you get the idea. If there was more to the allegation than the drunk rant, someone will have come forward about it at some point. I've not heard any tales that he treated fellow musicians different based on their skin.
That said, being the boss of his own band is one thing, but I've also never heard from any African-American blues artist who didn't accept him. He was good friends with Muddy Waters, who invited him to his wedding and even told him to keep the blues alive - Clapton goes as far as saying "The Mud" was almost like the father he never had, and he regrets that this took place in the time alcohol still had a tough grip on him. (Muddy died in 1983.) Robert Cray and Buddy Guy are also on good terms with him. The friendship with B.B. King seems to have been even deeper. B.B. called him a genius and told him "May I live forever, but may you live forever and a day". Of course B.B. was one of the most generous souls who ever walked the earth, but this was unusual even for his standards. Even if their collaboration album "Riding with the King" was a disappointment for me (as a fan of both artists), it probably still brought B.B. some new attention.
My favourite Eric Clapton album was released a few years earlier - I'm talking about "From the Cradle", which is an almost 1:1 reconstruction of classic blues mostly from the Chess Records stable. This was a project dear to his heart; after the tragic death of his son Conor, the ensuing hit single "Tears in Heaven" and the very successful MTV Unplugged album/video, management clearly expected something else but it's just like Clapton to deflect from himself by putting out a love letter to this classic era of Black American music. It has some of his finest playing and some of his most passionate singing ever, and the live gigs - with a fantastic band that featured, among others, Muddy's harmonica player Jerry Portnoy - were even better.
If anybody who bought this album and didn't know the blues before would investigate the work of Leroy Carr, Eddie Boyd, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Rogers or Charles Brown, the album already was good for something. A few years later, Clapton finally explored his love for Robert Johnson's music at album length. "Me and Mr. Johnson" soon got a sibling in form of "Sessions for Robert J", because EC kept playing with the material. And his more recent albums have usually also included a handful of blues classics such as "Can't Hold Out Much Longer" by Little Walter or "That's No Way to Get Along" by Robert Wilkins. In the final chapter of his autobiography, he goes through names of people who meant the most to him, and they're predominantly Black: Muddy, B.B., Leroy Carr, Little Walter, Ray Charles, Robert Cray and so on.
Cynics might say Eric made a lot of money playing African-American music. It's partially true, but then again he himself has become a main influence on many guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green or Gary Moore. For all of his borrowing of licks, his playing is usually recognizable because it's his own personal expression.
And if we talk about money, we shouldn't go without talking of his charitable actions. After surviving heroin addiction, going through alcohol rehab twice and also finally quitting smoking, he contemplated the fate of many of his musical heroes who didn't get the chance to straighten up their lives - blues and jazz are notoriously littered with addiction casualties. He also thought of people who couldn't afford therapy. Borne out of all this was the Crossroads Center in Antigua, which became a major undertaking for Clapton. He auctioned many of his guitars to raise money (besides the amount that he paid out of his own pocket), and this led to the Crossroads Guitar Festivals, which have usually taken place every three years and seen some of the best line-ups ever. The DVDs of the festivals are usually very recommended and all profits from their sale go to the Crossroads Foundation.
So, I don't take too kindly to people trying to paint him as some kind of villain. He's not faultless but he's mostly worked on himself; he had to overcome a lot of problems and managed to both find personal peace and a good cause to dedicate himself to. If you don't like his music or consider him a bad imitation of real blues guitar playing, that's a much more understandable & valid criticism than "he's racist".
In general, I abhor people who complain about "wokeness" and "cancel culture" because they want to have unchecked free speech and demand the right to offend anybody's sensibilities, which should not fly. But sometimes there is a grain of truth and I think this is it.
See, I'm very much pro equality and against discrimination. Structural and institutional racism is definitely a thing and "we" (= mostly privileged white people) must all work to do away with it. But an ideology that literally does not accept apologies and disregards the idea that someone might actually change their stance (if you can call even a drunken slur a stance) is not what I want to be part of. Clapton, although it's hard to disagree he wasn't really himself, said and did awful things and expressed regret about it. Though I'm not a very religious person, there is the teaching of Jesus that says "He who is faultless may throw the first stone". If you're going to keep on jumping on a man who's done so much since then for one drunken slur he made over forty years ago and that he has repeatedly disavowed, you'd better be sure you have no skeletons of your own somewhere in a closet. Moreover, you should really be taking your attention elsewhere. To me, a racist is someone who doesn't regret making offensive comments. EC doesn't fit that bill. Many people still do and act like that, though, and not just under the influence either. This is what we need to focus on.
Oh, and if you are only using this story in order to defend your personal dislike of his music and to make the ill-informed point that EC is unimportant/talentless/whatever, this is very poor form.
Don't get me wrong: Eric Clapton can be a bit of a pain to be a fan of. His albums are famously differing in quality - for every "From the Cradle" there's a "Back Home" and for every "CLAPTON" there's an "Old Sock". Politically speaking, his recent collaboration with Van Morrison on the subject of "lockdowns" alienated a lot of fans. But while I also criticize him for his unhelpful statements, I'm irritated that now all of a sudden this old stuff gets dragged to the surface again when it's really old hat.