Ringo, Paul, John — and Eric?! Perhaps no other band in history is quite as synonymous with the first names of its members as the Beatles. But at one point, George Harrison walked out on the band — and at the top of the list to replace him: Eric Clapton.
The guitarist first met the Fab Four when he was in the band the Yardbirds, who were a supporting act for one of their headlining shows in 1964.
That led to a connection so strong that 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 endeavors. On top of that, he became best friends with Harrison — and they even ended up sharing an ex-wife, Pattie Boyd.
But no matter what happened outside of the music — and even during some of the tense moments inside the recording studio with Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — they all shared a mutual respect for Clapton, who came close to becoming a Beatle himself.
Harrison used Clapton to help break tension within the Beatles
Fittingly, Harrison — the Beatles’ lead guitarist — bonded the most with Clapton, who left the Yardbirds in 1965 and later was part of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos and continues to thrive as a solo artist and one of the greatest guitarists of our time with songs like “Tears in Heaven” and “Wonderful Tonight. (Incidentally, he was replaced in the Yardbirds by two burgeoning guitarists at the time: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck).
By the time the Beatles were recording their 1968 self-titled album, also known as The White Album, things were tense among the four. In fact, Rolling Stone called it the “album that nearly tore them apart.” Thankfully, they stayed together with Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road following in 1969 and Let It Be in 1970.
When they got to the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” they started recording an early “draft” on July 25, 1968, with Harrison playing the guitars and McCartney following along on the harmonium. (The early acoustic take was released in a special edition in 2018.)
The song then marinated while they worked on other tracks like the 102 takes of “Not Guilty,” which didn’t make the album. (Eventually, Harrison released it as a solo artist in 1979.)
It wasn’t until Harrison invited his best pal Clapton into the studio that they went back to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Eric played that and I thought it was really good,” Harrison said, according to Rolling Stone. “Then we listened to it back and he said, ‘Ah, there’s a problem, though; it’s not Beatley enough.’ So we put it through the ADT to wobble it up a bit.”
But Harrison’s true purpose of inviting Clapton? To lessen the tension. “George knew everyone would behave themselves around Clapton — a classic George power move,” the Rolling Stone piece said. “The trick worked — in George’s words, ‘The other guys were as good as gold because he was there.’”
Lennon wrote Clapton a letter as a plea to work together
But things didn’t pan out so smoothly when they were back in the studio in 1969. Even though it was after the band’s famous 1968 transcendental meditation trip in India, tempers flared and on January 10, Harrison walked out.
“I’m out of here. Put an ad in [the papers] and get a few people in. See you ’round the clubs,” he said as he packed up his guitar, according to Rolling Stone.
While they continued working — with Yoko Ono stepping in for Harrison’s vocals — Lennon’s fear of the future burst out: “The point is, George leaves, and do we want to carry on as the Beatles? I certainly do.”
He immediately suggested Clapton.
While the actual reaction of the rest of the band is unknown, Clapton never went on to record with the Beatles (and wasn’t officially acknowledged for his work on The White Album track) — the Fab Four ended up dissolving over the course of the next couple of years as well.
But in one desperate plea — documented in a 1971 letter — Lennon did reach out to Clapton. “Eric, I know I can bring out something great, in fact greater in you that had been so far evident in your music. I hope to bring out the same kind of greatness in all of us, which I know will happen if/when we get together,” the letter reads.
In another passage, scribbled on page 8, it appears to say: “At least think about it, please don’t be frightened. I understand paranoia only too well. I think it could only do good for you to work with people who love and respect you and that’s from all of us. Lots of love to you both from John + Yoko.”
While it’s unclear who the “all of us” refers to, the letter was from 1971 and the Beatles had officially broken up in 1970.
Clapton eventually collaborated with some of the Beatles
Even after they all went their separate ways, each of the former Beatles showed their respect for Clapton’s talents with their individual solo projects.
Lennon called on Clapton, as well as Starr, for 1969’s “Cold Turkey,” written by Ono, and released under the Plastic Ono Band. Starr later teamed up with the guitarist for his 1976 “This Be Called a Song” (which Clapton wrote) and decades later on “Never Without You” in 2003. McCartney teamed up with him on the 9/11 tribute song “Freedom” in 2001, as well as this decade with “My Valentine” — and McCartney returned the favor, providing backing vocals on Clapton’s 2013 “All of Me.”