Eric Clapton v. George Harrison: The Duel from All Angles

It is one of the most mythic romantic entanglements in rock ’n’ roll history. At some point in the late 1960s, Eric Clapton fell in love with Pattie Boyd, wife of his close friend George Harrison. Mr. Clapton’s 1970 masterpiece, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” (recorded with his band at the time, Derek and the Dominos), was an offering and a plea to her; they eventually married in 1979 and divorced in 1988 (Light, 2010).

The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of The Beatles By Peter Brown & Steven Gaines 1983 – New American Library, New York

Pattie’s strongest weapon against George was the man who had become his best friend now that the Beatles were gone: Eric Clapton. Clapton’s own career had recently skyrocketed, and he had become perhaps the most revered virtuoso rock guitarist in the business, called “Old Slow Hand” because of his distinctive twangy guitar sound. For a long time now it had been obvious to anyone who saw Eric and Pattie together – including George – that Eric was madly in love with her. He turned into a pile of romantic mush in her presence, while she blinked at him with those big blue eyes and giggled. Now that Pattie was so unhappy in her relationship with George, she encouraged the attentions of the handsome and romantic rock guitarist. She began to manipulate Clapton’s infatuation with her to control and anger George. “She used me, you see,” Clapton later admitted, “and I fell madly in love with her.”

What follows are differing accounts of one of the most revered, mythical events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

A Harrison-Clapton Guitar Duel – By Peter Grosvenor – October 10, 1985 – Chicago Tribune

When rock guitarist Eric Clapton fell in love with George Harrison`s blond wife Patti Boyd, the two men fought an extraordinary duel to win her affections . . . with guitars. Long-haired Boyd, a top model of the `60s, had inspired both men to write several songs to her glory–such as Clapton`s “Wonderful Tonight“ and his manically intense “Layla,“ which made Boyd go weak at the knees. Thus Clapton wrested Boyd away from Harrison, who decided it was time for a showdown. So he invited Clapton and Boyd to his Oxfordshire mansion for “proper conversation.“ Actor John Hurt, a friend of both men, was staying at the time with Harrison, who insisted he remain to witness “the duel.“

  • “George dearly needed a small audience. He got down two guitars and two amplifiers and put them in the hall,“ Hurt recalls.
  • “When Eric turned up with Patti, George invited him to play.
  • “It was an extraordinary contest because George had quite clearly given him the inferior guitar and inferior amplifier.“

Then, as Ray Coleman relates in his authorized biography of Clapton, “Survivor,“ “The two men improvised for two hours in an historic guitar battle of superstars.“ By common consent of those present, Clapton won the musical scrap–even though he had the inferior instrument.

  • “He was unbeatable,“ says Hurt. Harrison got rattled and tried to be too clever, whereas Clapton “concentrated on playing a few meaningful notes in contrast to Harrison`s instrumental gymnastics.“

Most important, he also kept the girl, despite some horrifying drinking that followed, almost as a reaction, when he succeeded in giving up his heroin addiction.

  • “The greatest obsession of his life was undoubtedly Patti with her flying blond hair and pert toothy smile.“
  • “I fell in love with her at first sight and it got heavier and heavier for me,“ he recalls–even though Harrison was one of his best friends and a musical ally.

Rock muse Pattie Boyd – By Tim Spencer – February 20, 2015

Boyd married Harrison after meeting on the set of the movie Hard Day’s Night. Over time, their friend Eric Clapton became infatuated with Patti and the two began an affair. Harrison once caught them at a party, talking alone, and asked what was going on. Clapton said to him, “I have to tell you, man, that I’m in love with your wife. Harrison decided it was time for a showdown and invited Clapton and Boyd to his mansion for “proper conversation.” Actor John Hurt, a friend of both men, was staying at the time with Harrison, who insisted he remain to witness “the duel.”
“George dearly needed a small audience. He got down two guitars and two amplifiers and put them in the hall,” Hurt recalls. “It was an extraordinary contest because George had quite clearly given him the inferior guitar and inferior amplifier.” Then, as Ray Coleman relates in his authorized biography of Clapton, “Survivor,” “The two men improvised for two hours in an historic guitar battle of superstars.” It was the consensus of those present that Clapton had won. “He was unbeatable,” says Hurt. Harrison got rattled and tried to be too clever, whereas Clapton “concentrated on playing a few meaningful notes in contrast to Harrison`s instrumental gymnastics.”

Wonderful Tonight – By Pattie Boyd – 2007 – Harmony Books, New York

One evening the actor John Hurt was with us. Eric was due to come over too and George decided to have it out with him. John wanted to make himself scarce but George insisted he stay. John remembers George coming downstairs with two guitars and two small amplifiers, laying them down in the hall, then pacing restlessly until Eric arrived – full of brandy, as usual. As Eric walked through the door George handed him a guitar and amp – as an 18th Century gentleman might have handed his rival a sword – and for two hours, without a word, they dueled. The air was electric and the music exciting. At the end, nothing was said but the general feeling was that Eric had won. He hadn’t allowed himself to get riled or to go in for instrumental gymnastics as George had. Even when he was drunk, his guitar-playing was unbeatable.

Clapton: The Autobiography – By Eric Clapton – 2007 – Broadway Books, New York

I began to get into the habit of dropping into Friar Park, in the hope that George might be away and I might catch a few moments alone with Pattie. One evening I went over there and found the two of them together with John Hurt. I was slightly taken aback, but George took over the situation and gave me a guitar and we started playing, which by now was a common occurrence with us.
There was quite an atmosphere in the house that night. A roaring fire was going, candles burning, and as the intensity of our playing increased, John sat there with a rapturous look on his face as if he were privy to some fantastic meeting of the giants, or battle of the sorcerers. With his actor’s imagination, I could see him creating this scenario in which George and I were somehow engaged in a musical duel for the hand of Pattie, who wafted in from time to time bringing us tea and cakes. The truth is, we were just jamming, although the mythical rumor of that night may have passed around a few dining room tables.

A Guitar God’s Memories, Demons and All – By Alan Light – October 7, 2010 – The New York Times

The saga sits at the center of “Clapton: The Autobiography,” which is being published this week by Broadway Books. Mr. Clapton’s memoir follows the recent release of Ms. Boyd’s side of the story in “Wonderful Tonight” (named for a song he wrote about her), which in September entered the New York Times best-seller list at No. 1. Mr. Clapton said that he had not read her book but that he had seen excerpts in newspapers and noted discrepancies, both small and large, between the two accounts of their relationship.

On the phone from his home outside London, where he lives with his wife, Melia McEnery, and their three daughters, he singled out as far-fetched Ms. Boyd’s description of a night in which he and Mr. Harrison had a “guitar duel” for her hand. “We each have our different versions of our years together,” he said.

The biggest curiosity for readers, however, presumably surrounds his account of his marriage to Ms. Boyd. Her book incited a bit of a tabloid frenzy, particularly a scene of the two guitarists battling for her affection with their instruments like medieval knights.

Mr. Clapton remembers the evening in question. “I went over just to hang out, he got two guitars, and we played,” he said. “But we were always doing that, so how do you make an everyday thing into a commodity?”

Ms. Boyd said in an e-mail message that she and Mr. Clapton are “friends” now but that he “is quite right in saying that we each have our memories of our years together.” The despair of “Layla,” Mr. Clapton added, represented a creative choice, not a documentary about his life. “That’s the art of writing love songs,” he said. “I was desperately obsessed with Pattie, but creating a song is just putting a stamp on a feeling.”

Ms. Boyd has different feelings about the intensity of their affair. “It was a big deal,” she wrote. “Eric was very attractive and persuasive. George and I had many problems in our relationship that had a great deal to do with the enormity of his fame and his increasing passion for meditation and the spiritual life. He frequently simply wasn’t there for me, and there were other women.”

Mr. Clapton’s friendship with Mr. Harrison survived the change in Ms. Boyd’s allegiance; famously, the former Beatle once said, “I’d rather she be with him than some dope.” Mr. Clapton served as the musical director for the “Concert for George” tribute show after Mr. Harrison’s death from cancer in 2001.


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