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Eric Clapton Almost Replaced George Harrison In The Beatles In 1969

Entertainment | March 8, 2018

George Harrison and Eric Clapton performing at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. Source: Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor

John, Paul, Eric, and Ringo -- meet The Beatles! No, that doesn't sound right, but it might have happened if Eric Clapton had replaced George Harrison as John Lennon proposed. By the time this idea was on the table, The Beatles had ceased to function as a group, but it's a tantalizing thought that in some alternate universe the British blues-guitar virtuoso joined the most successful band of the '60s and helped repair the frayed relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. There is a similar alternate-history where keyboardist Billy Preston joins as a fifth member and the Fab Four -- now the Fab Five -- goes on to inevitable musical glory.

While Clapton and Preston contributed to some classic Beatles recordings, neither joined the group, which may have been past the point of saving anyway. Here's how Clapton's brush with Beatle-hood went down.

George Harrison And Eric Clapton Were Friends, Not Rivals

George Harrison and Eric Clapton circa 1968. Source: Tumblr

Eric Clapton first met the famous Beatles in December 1964, at their holiday Christmas Show in London, England. Clapton and his band the Yardbirds played back-up act, supporting the iconic Beatles. The Fab Four promptly befriended Clapton; especially George Harrison, who eventually became his closest friend.

Although the Lennon-McCarney songwriting partnership produced the vast majority of Beatles classics, George Harrison contributed many beloved songs to the catalogue, including “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The latter, recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London, features Clapton on lead guitar.

How Many People Were Considered The 'Fifth Beatle'?

If you are one of those people that follow the epic band’s history, and have knowledge of the band, itself, you may be familiar with the story about the “fifth Beatle.” Some rock historians grant that there is a case to be made for Stuart Sutcliffe, the band's original bassist, or original drummer Pete Best. Manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin have been suggested as worthy of the title, and indeed The Beatles as we know them might not have happened without either of their contributions. There was one man, however, who came extremely close to officially being named a Beatle toward the end, replacing a core band member. This man was none other than the guitar legend Eric Clapton.

There is quite a history surrounding Eric Clapton’s relationship with The Beatles.

Harrison Invited Clapton To Contribute Some Guitar Magic

During the summer of 1968, tensions were running high as The Beatles were attempting to record tracks for what would become known as the "White Album" (officially titled The Beatles). The band took a few stabs at "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but Harrison wasn't happy with the results. The lyrics didn't leave a lot of room for compromise -- this song needed a strong lead guitar with a weeping sound, or it wouldn't work at all. Harrison couldn't get it right, but he knew a guitarist who could.

On September 6, Harrison asked his friend Eric Clapton for a helping hand. He said, “We’re going to do this song ["While My Guitar Gently Weeps"]. Come on and play on it.” Clapton responded, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on The Beatles records.” Harrison answered, “Look, it’s my song, and I want you to play on it.” That night, Clapton laid down the guitar part and Harrison knew instantly that his friend had contributed just what the song needed.

John Lennon couldn’t make it to that particular session, so it turned out that Eric Clapton never actually recorded with the entire Beatles band. The completed track has Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Paul McCartney on bass guitar and piano, Ringo Starr on drums, and George Harrison on vocals and guitar; no John Lennon.

George Harrison Quit The Beatles In January 1969

Eric Clapton in Barcelona, 1974.

Months later, on January 10, 1969, during the arduous sessions documented in the 1970 film Let It Be, George Harrison, sadly and abruptly left The Beatles.

After Harrison’s sudden departure, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and the film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg discussed all of the possible outcomes of Harrison’s departure.

Due to all of the upcoming and pre-planned live performances, filming and recordings, John Lennon threw Eric Clapton’s name into the ring. Lennon was reported to have said that they should have Eric Clapton stand in Harrison’s place because, “He’s just as good and not such a headache.” Ouch!

The Beatles Seemed, Briefly, To Be Comfortable With The Idea Of Making The Swap

Many of the band’s inner circle conversations were recorded and were later documented to confirm the band’s partiality for Eric Clapton. They were officially on record as being willing to have Clapton as a possible, eventual replacement for George Harrison. It was somewhat of a no-brainer as far as they were concerned. John Lennon has reportedly said that if George Harrison didn’t return, ready to carry on, by (that) Tuesday, they would approach Eric Clapton to play in his place.

The Beatles were so sold on Eric Clapton that they were ready and willing to have him and were known to have said that they, “would give him full scope to play his guitar.” John Lennon went even further by saying that he wanted the band to keep on playing regardless if Harrison continued with them or not. “Not” being the operative word in that sentence. The group had begun to tire of Harrison’s involvement.

That discussion, however, ended then and there. In true Beatles fashion, the conversation ended in a jam session. John Lennon’s statement is known as just one of his well-known episodes of shooting off his mouth. He was often known to be overly dramatic and frequently overstated circumstances and situations.

Even more interesting to note, however, is that this bold statement just may have been John Lennon’s scare tactic to force Harrison’s hand and call his bluff. It may have been an attempt to persuade Harrison to rejoin the group. It was Lennon’s hope that that his words would coerce and influence Harrison.

Harrison's Departure Ended Up Being A Brief One

Harrison returned to The Beatles 12 days later, making discussions about his replacement moot.

Had Clapton and Harrison not been close friends, the drama might have created a rivalry, but George seemed actually to be closer to Eric than his own bandmates. The near-replacement wasn't even the most famous instance of their friendship surviving a challenge. It involved the wife of George Harrison, Pattie Boyd.

Pattie Boyd Was A Model And A Muse

Most of Harrison's love songs were inspired by Boyd, whom he married in 1966, including the line:

Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover

Years later, when Boyd and Harrison were still married, Clapton would pen one of his most famous songs to Boyd:

Layla, you've got me on my knees
Layla, I'm begging, darling please
Layla, darling won't you ease my worried mind

After Boyd and Harrison were married, they began having troubles due to alcohol and drugs as well as Harrison's numerous affairs. It was during this time that Harrison became a close friend of Eric Clapton, performing and writing music with him.

One day,  a letter was sent to Boyd where someone signed just as “E,” and declared his love for her. She assumed it was a secret admirer until she attended a party one night and Eric, who she regarded as a friend, asked her if she received his letter.

In 1974, Boyd separated from Harrison due to his endless infidelities, including with Ringo Starr’s wife. Her description of the last year of her marriage with Harrison was “fueled by alcohol and intolerable.”

Boyd had always refused Clapton’s advances and Clapton descended into heroin addiction and deep depression.

In 1979, Boyd decided to move in with Clapton and soon after were married. The honeymoon was over after a short time and they began having marriage troubles.  They were divorced in 1989.

Through it all, Harrison and Clapton remained friends. They continued to work together, with Clapton appearing on Harrison's Cloud Nine (1987) and Harrison appearing on Clapton's Journeyman (1989).

Eric Clapton Says He Wouldn't Have Joined The Beatles If Asked

McCartney, Harrison, Swedish pop singer Lill-Babs and Lennon on the set of the Swedish television show Drop-In, 30 October 1963.

Eric Clapton caught wind of the so-called proposition, and in 1998, he finally began speaking out regarding his thoughts on the entire idea. Needless to say, Clapton’s speaking up had often triggered the media’s attention; never mind, although the media attention mostly relied on speculations: “There might have been a suggestion that I was to be asked to join the Beatles in 1969. The problem with that was I had bonded or was developing a relationship with George, exclusive of them. I think it fitted a need of his and mine, that he could elevate himself by having this guy that could be like a gunslinger to them. Lennon would use my name every now and then for clout, as if I was the fastest gun. So, I don’t think I could have been brought into the whole thing because I was too much a mate of George’s.”

Harrison's Best Contributions To The Beatles Happened After His Return

George Harrison and Eric Clapton at the Prince’s Trust Concert, Wembley Arena, 1987.

Relations amongst the band members became more relaxed, although they were still strained, during recording sessions for their final recorded album, Abbey Road. The LP included two of George Harrison's most respected Beatles compositions, "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something", which became one half of the Beatles' first number one double A-side single, Harrison's first A-side, and the first of Harrison’s song to reach the top of the charts.

In 1969, Frank Sinatra recorded "Something," and later called it "the greatest love song of the past fifty years." 

John Lennon considered “Something” the best song on the Abbey Road album, and it became the Beatles' second most covered song after "Yesterday.” According to author Peter Lavezzoli, "Harrison would finally achieve equal songwriting status ... with his two classic contributions to the final Beatles' LP.”

In April 1970 when Harrison's "For You Blue" was released in America as a double A-side with McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road." It became the band's second chart-topping double A-side while "For You Blue" became Harrison's second number one hit. His increased productivity and the Beatles' reluctance to include his songs on their albums meant that by the time of the group’s ultimate break-up, he had amassed a stockpile of unreleased compositions.

While Harrison grew as a songwriter, his compositional presence on Beatles albums remained limited to two or three songs, which served to increase his frustration, and significantly contributed to the band's ultimate break-up. Harrison's last recording session with The Beatles was on January 4, 1970, when he, McCartney and Starr recorded the Harrison song "I Me Mine.”

For all of the negativity surrounding George Harrison for his career as a Beatle, he went on to achieve his dream of releasing his beloved songs. In fact, The Beatles are unique in that each member went on to have extremely successful solo careers.

Everybody Left The Beatles At One Time Or Another

George Harrison was not the only member of The Beatles to have walked away. As their notoriety grew, so did their egos and temperaments. Often, band members would clash about musical, creative and personal issues. Ringo Starr was known to have walked away after it all became too much.

Internally, the group knew it was really over on September 20, 1969, when John Lennon told his bandmates he was out. The Beatles did not publicly reveal the breakup until April of 1970, when Paul McCartney said in a statement that he was no longer working with the group. The press and the public took this as the official word that The Beatles were kaput, but the writing had been on the wall for a long time. 

Harrison had released his first solo album, the soundtrack to the film Wonderwall, in 1968, and Lennon had released an album of experimental music with Yoko Ono the same year. In 1970, before McCartney's statement, both he and Ringo Starr had solo albums in the can. The most commercially successful and musically influential band of the '60s had run its course.

Tags: 1969 | Eric Clapton | George Harrison | John Lennon | Paul McCartney | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The 1960s | The Beatles | Trivia Questions And Answers

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.