By the early 1970s, The Beatles were broken up. George Harrison had been married to fashion model Pattie Boyd for a handful of years and Eric Clapton had just recorded the epic and iconic love ballad “Layla”. Already a rock superstar, Clapton was considered one of the most brilliant guitarists in the world. He was also utterly and hopelessly in love with Pattie. The infatuation was not lost on Harrison. Clapton and Harrison were best friends and perhaps the only thing stronger than their shared love for music was their mutual love for Pattie. The situation would culminate one night when the two guitar gods would try to out play each other to impress the beautiful woman they both adored.
Peter Brown was one of the few people with access to the inner circle of The Beatles. Among other things, he was personal assistant to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, a senior executive at Apple Corp, and John Lennon’s best man when he married Yoko Ono. In his 1983 book, “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of The Beatles”, Brown illustrates the complicated dynamic between Clapton, Harrison, and Boyd: “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.”
Brown continues, “for a long time, 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’.”
After months of frustration and increasing tensions, Clapton was invited to the home of Harrison and Boyd. It was during this nocturnal visit that the infamous six-string skirmish took place. This brief episode has gone down through the annals of music history as one of the most glorious rock duels of all time. More than 50 years later, some parties have differing versions of the encounter. The following articles and interviews offer firsthand accounts of one of the most legendary and fabled events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
A Guitar God’s Memories, Demons and All By Alan Light (2007)
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.
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.
Wonderful Tonight By Pattie Boyd (2007)
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…Even when he was drunk, his guitar-playing was unbeatable.
Clapton: The Autobiography By Eric Clapton (2007)
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.
Rock muse Pattie Boyd By Tim Spencer (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.”