The Story Behind One of the Hardest Songs for Eric Clapton to Record, “My Father’s Eyes”

It wasn’t until he was 9 that Eric Clapton learned that his parents, the people raising him, Rose and Jack Clapp, were his grandparents. Up until then, he also believed that his mother, Patricia Molly Clapton (1929-1999), was his sister. His mother had a brief affair with his biological father, Canadian soldier Edward Fryer, who was stationed in England during World War II. She was left pregnant at 16 and never heard from Fyrer again.

Eric Clapton never met Fryer, who died in 1985 from leukemia. Years after his father’s death, Clapton started reflecting on their lost relationship and how he wished they had known one another in “My Father’s Eyes.”

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Paternal Passage

Released on Clapton’s 13th album Pilgrim in 1998, “My Father’s Eyes” was first written while he was living in Antigua and Barbuda. Lyrics weave through questions, confusion, and the void of never knowing his father.

Sailing down behind the sun
Waiting for my prince to come
Praying for the healing rain
To restore my soul again

Just a toe rag on the run
How did I get here?
What have I done?
When will all my hopes arise?
How will I know him?
When I look in my father’s eyes

My father’s eyes
When I look in my father’s eyes (look into my father’s eyes)
My father’s eyes

As the song progresses, Clapton refers to his son Conor (1986-1991), who died at the age of 4 from a fall from an apartment window in New York City, and being a better father to him than Fryer.

Then the light begins to shine
And I hear those ancient lullabies
And as I watch this seedling grow
Feel my heart start to overflow

Where do I find the words to say?
How do I teach him?
What do we play?
Bit by bit, I’ve realized
That’s when I need them
That’s when I need my father’s eyes

Clapton later refers to some healing by seeing his father’s eyes through his son’s: Bit by bit, I’ve realized / That he was here with me / And I looked into my father’s eyes. “I never met my father,” said Clapton, “and I realized that the closest I ever came to looking into my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes.”

In his 2007 book Clapton: The Autobiography, Clapton writes, “I wrote a song linking the loss of Conor with the mystery surrounding the life of my father. In [the song] I tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood.”

[RELATED: The Many Incarnations of Eric Clapton]

“My Father’s Eyes,” which peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, and went to No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary chart, earned Clapton a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

The Many Incarnations of “My Father’s Eyes”

At first, the lyrics to “My Father’s Eyes” came across as “angry and childish,” according to Clapton, who went through several revisions of the song—at one point he had around five different versions. “Where the art and craft came in was in being able to shape the anger into something people could empathize with,” said Clapton in 1998. “It wouldn’t work for me to just kind of sulk in the song, because it wouldn’t have communicated. Instead of feeling an affinity, people would’ve been repelled.”

Clapton first performed “My Father’s Eyes” in 1992 during his MTV Unplugged set but still wasn’t satisfied with how it sounded. He performed it again, electric, in 1996 then put it aside until he started working with producer Simon Climie on Pilgrim.

“‘My Father’s Eyes’ was the hardest song to record on the album,” added Clapton. “It was one of the first songs, along with ‘Circus,’ that I wrote after my son died. And it was the last one that I could let go of.”

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic

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