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 EMI 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 guitarist—ever—to play on a Beatles song and on official studio recordings by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
Clapton even wrote (and played on) a tune for Ringo—"This Be Called a Song"—in 1976. As we'll see, Clapton and the former Beatles also played on the same sessions for different artists throughout the decades.
Today, however, we'll restrict our focus to the late Sixties through 1970, the golden age of Clapton-Beatle collaborations. We'll explore the rest of the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and beyond in the near future.
It's only fitting that Clapton's best Beatles buddy was Harrison, the Fab Four's lead guitarist. The pair had the most in common; they certainly shared a guitar or two—not to mention a wife. Harrison wrote "Here Comes the Sun" at Clapton's country home; 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.
Although they had already been friends since the Beatles' "moptop" period, Clapton and Harrison never got together in a recording studio (to actually record something) until late 1967 or early 1968 during the Wonderwall Music sessions. And, as the 11 songs below can attest, once they started, the floodgates were opened—at least through late 1970; they'd open again—to a lesser degree—several years later.
Note that this is not a guide to every recorded Clapton-Beatle collaboration during this period, just 11 highlights that happen to include all four Beatles. Be sure to check out whereseric.com for a list of Clapton's session work. Also note that this story doesn't include live performances, such as the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends concerts, Live Peace in Toronto 1969and so on. Enjoy!
Note: One of the songs below was released in 1971, but we've included it because it was recorded in mid-1970.
WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS | The Beatles | 1968
Eric, John, Paul, George and Ringo
Yes, it's the big one, the obvious one, the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" one. During the recording of The Beatles (aka the White Album), Harrison, McCartney, Lennon and Starr were getting on each other's nerves—or so legend has it (although Abbey Road engineer Ken Scott has a different story). To lighten the mood a bit, Harrison asked Clapton to play on his new song. Clapton originally wasn't into the idea, saying, "Nobody ever plays on the Beatles' records."
"So what?" Harrison said. "It's my song." So Clapton showed up—and, as it turned out, the battling Beatles were on their best behavior that day.
Most of the Beatles' music is no longer available on YouTube, so here's an interesting August 1971 performance of the song featuring Harrison, Clapton and Starr. Odd guitar choice by Clapton...
SKI-ING | George Harrison | 1968
Eric, George and Ringo
In early January 1968, Clapton added some bluesy, fuzz-drenched guitar to "Ski-ing," a simple, catchy and rocking instrumental from Harrison's first solo album of sorts, a wonderfully obscure movie soundtrack called Wonderwall Music, whichcame out in November 1968 (and a month later in the U.S.). The recording, which marks the first recorded collaboration between Harrison and Clapton, also features Starr on drums.
"George told me he'd like me to play on something, or we'd write something as we went along," Clapton said later. "You know, it was very experimental, and it was good fun." Classical musician/arranger John Barham, who assisted Harrison with the project, said "I have never heard anyone play the guitar quite like Eric did on this track."
The video clip below gives you a good idea of what the film—Wonderwall—is like. If you're into the Sixties, watch it for sure, man. It's seriously groovy.
SOUR MILK SEA | Jackie Lomax | 1968
Eric, Paul, George and Ringo
Clapton was on hand in June 1968 when Harrison, McCartney and Starr recorded a masterful Harrison composition called "Sour Milk Sea" at Abbey Road. The song, which was the A-side of a single released by Jackie Lomax in August 1968, also appears on Lomax's 1969 album, Is This What You Want?, which was produced by Harrison.
"With Clapton playing on it, it was on fire," Lomax said. "When the backing tape was played back, I thought it worked as an instrumental. 'You want me to sing on top of that?!' There I am in the studio and there are three Beatles in the control room watching me ... I guess I was nervous at first, but after a couple of takes I was into it."
As I've written before, "Sour Milk Sea" is just one or two notches away from being a bona fide Beatles song (and—by the way—it would've made a great standalone Beatles single). Besides Harrison and Clapton on guitar, McCartney on bass and Starr on drums, the recording also features ace U.K. session man Nicky Hopkins on keyboards—the same studio pro who played on the Beatles' "Revolution" and the White Album.
BADGE | Cream | 1969
Eric and George
When Cream decided to call it quits in late 1968, each member of the band, including Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, was required to come up with a new song for the group’s final album, Goodbye, which was released in February 1969. Clapton called on Harrison for assistance.
“I was writing the words down, and when we came to the middle bit, I wrote ‘Bridge,’ ” Harrison said. “And from where [Eric] was sitting, opposite me, he looked and said, ‘What’s that—Badge?’ ” Clapton wound up calling the song “Badge” because it made him laugh. For the session, which took place only a month after “While My Gently Weeps,” Harrison played rhythm guitar.
Clapton, playing a shimmering, Beatles-inspired arpeggio riff through a Leslie rotary-speaker cabinet, enters the song at 1:06 and plays the rest of the way through. His solo was overdubbed later.
THAT'S THE WAY GOD PLANNED IT |Billy Preston | 1969
Eric and George
In early 1969, when Cream were 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. Clapton’s brilliance is best represented on the album’s powerful title track, which you can hear below.
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, 1970's Encouraging Words, which is a must-own for Harrison fans.
COLD TURKEY | Plastic Ono Band | 1969
Eric, John and Ringo
In late September 1969, John Lennon rounded up Clapton, Starr and bassist Klaus Voormann to record his second solo single, the grippingly chaotic "Cold Turkey," backed with "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)," a ridiculous but rocking Yoko Ono composition.
Clapton was no stranger to both songs; he had played them with Lennon, Ono, Voormann and drummer Alan White (who joined Yes a few years later) just a few weeks earlier in Toronto. You can hear that performance on Live Peace in Toronto 1969.
ART OF DYING | George Harrison | 1970
Eric and George
In mid-1970, 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" (see below), "Art of Dying" and several other outstanding tracks. Below, check out the wah-tastic "Art of Dying," which is the closest Harrison got to hard rock as a solo artist.
"It was awesome when we were doing 'Art of Dying' [with] Eric on that wah-wah and it was all cooking—Derek and the Dominos with George Harrison," wrote Derek and the Dominos' Bobby Whitlock in his 2010 autobiography. The sessions actually led to the formation of Derek and the Dominos, whose original (pre-Duane Allman) lineup—Clapton, Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon—all played on the track.
I'D HAVE YOU ANYTIME | George Harrison | 1970
Eric and George
We're not going to leave this era without pausing to hear "I'd Have You Anytime," the Harrison/Bob Dylan tune that opens All Things Must Pass. Clapton's emotive guitar playing is front and center, 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."
ROLL IT OVER | Derek and the Dominos | 1970
Eric and George
During the All Things Must Pass sessions, Clapton and the pre-Allman Dominos recorded "Roll It Over," which features Harrison—plus early Dominos member Dave Mason—on guitar. "Roll It Over" was the B-side of the band's first single, which featured a rushed, Phil Spector-produced version of "Tell the Truth" on the A-side. It was pulled from shelves very soon after its release.
I AIN'T SUPERSTITIOUS | Howlin' Wolf | 1971
Eric and Ringo
Clapton and Starr found themselves in the same recording studio in early May 1970 while working on "I Ain't Superstitious," a track from The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions. The album features a who's who of British rockers, all of whom provide a smooth—and occasionally gritty—backdrop for American blues legend Howlin' Wolf's booming voice.
Note Clapton's Strat tone, and remember this was recorded in the spring of 1970. It's basically the same guitar sound he'd use on his mid- to late-Seventies albums, including No Reason to Cry, Slowhand and Backless, plus 1981's Another Ticket. It is not the same Strat tone heard on his two 1970 albums, Eric Clapton and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
AIN'T THAT CUTE | Doris Troy | 1970
Eric and George
Harrison was very busy immediately following the breakup of the Beatles. In addition to working on All Things Must Pass, Lennon's "Instant Karma (We All Shine On)" single, Leon Russell's debut solo album, Billy Preston's Encouraging Words album and 47.666667 other things, he also co-produced and played on American soul singer Doris Troy's self-titled 1970 album.
Not surprisingly, Clapton took part in the sessions, and you can hear his unmistakable lead tone (it sounds like a Gibson) right out of the gate on the sadly overlooked "Ain't That Cute," which was written by Harrison and Troy and released as a single on Apple Records.
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. Fanelli, a former member of Brooklyn jump-blues/swing/rockabilly band the Gas House Gorillas and New York City instrumental surf-rock band Mister Neutron, also composes and records film soundtracks. He writes GuitarWorld.com's The Next Bend column, which is dedicated to B-bender guitars and guitarists. His latest liner notes can be found in Sony/Legacy's Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook,Twitter and/or Instagram.