Eric Clapton’s ‘Circus’ Was About the Night Before His Young Son’s Accidental Death

In the classic rock scene, few loom as large as Eric Clapton. Clapton’s influence in the entertainment world continues to resonate today, and his blues-first philosophy behind the craft has gotten him lumped in with other remarkable artists like Jimi Hendrix. The songwriter’s powerful lyrics have also garnered attention over the years, and the song “Circus” stands out as particularly haunting — especially when you know the story behind it. 

Eric Clapton looking to the right, in black and white
Eric Clapton | Michael Putland/Getty Images

Eric Clapton built a solo career in the 1970s

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Eric Clapton has a reputation as one of the best guitarists of all time. He earned that reputation over many years spent making music both with bands and on his own. Throughout the 1960s, Clapton played with bands including the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream. He tested a solo run with a pseudonym — Derek and the Dominos.

Apparently pleased with the results, Clapton’s solo career really took off beginning around 1970. Clapton’s career has had many shining examples of critically acclaimed work. His 1992 concert for MTV Unplugged really showed off his blues roots, and the album went on to become his most successful. Clapton’s raw, emotional, and heartfelt style had a lasting impact on his fans. 

Eric Clapton lost his son in 1991

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In 1991, Eric Clapton’s life was forever changed by a tragic accident. His four-year-old son, Conor, was in his own New York City apartment, which he shared with his mother — Clapton’s ex — Lory del Santo, according to Biography. The young child fell from the 53rd-floor window, which had been accidentally left open by janitorial staff. Clapton was on his way to pick up his son for an outing to the zoo when the tragedy occurred. Clapton recalled getting the news from del Santo:

“I was actually getting ready to go out of the hotel room to go and pick him up for lunch. Lory was on the other end of the phone, and she was hysterical, saying he was dead. And I could not let myself believe it.” 

Losing his son had a tremendous impact on Clapton, who credits Conor’s influence for helping him remain sober. Prior to the accident, Clapton had struggled with a cocaine addiction and alcoholism that has left him with serious health problems that impact him to this day. 

‘Circus’ is a song Eric Clapton penned for his son 

Musicians often pour their own life events into their music, and Clapton is no exception. “Tears in Heaven” was famously written for and dedicated to Clapton’s son after his death. In that song, Clapton sings about needing to be strong and knowing he can’t stay in “Heaven” alongside his lost child. It’s a song about moving on with a heavy heart. 

There’s another song Clapton penned for his son’s memory. “Circus” recalls an event Clapton and his son shared the day before the tragic accident. As Listverse explains, they had attended a circus together and “Conor couldn’t stop talking” about all he had seen on the way home. The lyrics point to the excitement of the event followed by the overwhelming grief of losing his son.

“And it’s sad, so sad/There ain’t no easy way round/And it’s sad, so sad/All you friends gather round/Because the circus left town” the chorus rings out. The song remembers the little boy as “Little man with his heart so pure/And his love so fine.” It ends with a hopeful note of a memory kept and cherished: “And when I smile, I’ll be thinking of you/And every little thing will be all right.”