Why Eric Clapton Thought Being in The Beatles Wouldn’t Work for Him

What would’ve happened if George Harrison hadn’t returned to The Beatles in January 1969? That’s been a fascinating topic ever since George took his leave from the band during the sessions for Let It Be.

For John Lennon, George’s departure didn’t represent the end of the world. “Let’s get in Eric [Clapton],” he said calmly. “He’s just as good and not such a headache.” To reinforce the point, John (always ready to burn someone) began playing The Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away.”

But it wouldn’t be that simple. For starters, Paul McCartney and Ringo didn’t agree to call in Clapton as a replacement for George. And that wasn’t the only thing keeping one of the era’s guitar gods from joining the Fab Four.

If John bothered to run it by Clapton, he probably would have gotten a “no” in reply. By early ’69, George and Clapton had already solidified what would become a lifelong friendship.

Clapton said he was ‘too much a mate of George’s’ for it to work

George Harrison and Eric Clapton play at Limehouse Studios in London, 1985. | Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You only need to look at 1968’s White Album to get an idea how close George and Clapton were becoming. That September, George felt comfortable enough asking his friend to come into the studio and play the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Later in the year, George introduced another White Album song that he had written for Clapton. That was “Savoy Truffle,” which had George teasing Clapton for his sweet tooth (and the dental work it had forced Clapton to get).

Looking back at the time when John had suggested bringing him into the group, Clapton said his relationship with George would have prevented it. “The problem with that was I had bonded or was developing a relationship with George, exclusive of them,” he told an interviewer in 1998.

Clapton also read into John’s motives. “I think it fitted a need of his … that he could elevate himself by having this guy that could be like a gunslinger to them,” he said. “Lennon would use my name every now and then for clout.”

But in the end what he had with George outweighed the rest. “I don’t think I could have been brought into the whole thing because I was too much a mate of George’s,” Clapton said.

George and Clapton’s friendship would get stronger (and stranger) as the years passed

Eric Clapton and John Lennon perform live on stage as The Dirty Mac on the set of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock and Roll Circus,’ December 1968. | Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns

Just how tight did George and Clapton become in the ’70s? Put it this way: When Clapton fell in love with George’s first wife Pattie, George didn’t cut ties with him. In fact, George attended their 1979 wedding and gamely referred to himself as their “husband-in-law.”

Their professional bond was clear. When George staged his Concert for Bangladesh (1971), there was little question of whether Clapton would play. And the relationship held for the coming decades. In 1985, George and Clapton played together with Carl Perkins in a television special for the rockabilly great.

Before that gig, George hadn’t played in public for over a decade. And after Clapton and Pattie got their divorce in 1989, his friendship with George kept going. When George embarked on his final tour (of Japan in 1991), he had Clapton and his band playing behind him.

“One reason why I thought about working was because Eric asked me,” George said at the time. To George and Clapton, what they had was bigger than The Beatles.

Also see: Why The Beatles Scrapped This George Harrison Song After 100 Takes