Clapton's Tragic "Tears" Became An Unexpected Hit

Eric Clapton in concert
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From one of the greatest horrors any adult can endure, Eric Clapton found a song that resonated with millions: the emotional ballad "Tears in Heaven."

In the mid-'80s, having long proved himself a versatile and innovative guitarist with a dark side - most notably battles with drug and alcohol abuse - Clapton was ready to take a place as an elder statesman. The career-spanning Crossroads box set put most of his solo material into proper context; no longer actively chasing the charts as a pop artist, he even welcomed a new role into his life: fatherhood. Clapton and model Lory del Santo's son Conor was born in 1986 - a blessing that nonetheless ended his marriage to Pattie Boyd, former model and subject of his hits "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight."

The bliss ended shockingly on March 20, 1991. Conor, only four years old, was in an apartment of a family friend in a Manhattan high-rise and fell from an open window on the 53rd floor. Clapton withdrew almost completely from public life, tortured by Conor's passing. (The loss came less than a year after Clapton's friend, blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, was killed in a helicopter crash while the pair were on tour.)

READ MORE: '24 Nights': Remembering Eric Clapton's Royal Albert Residence

It took a film score to rouse Clapton from his isolation. Rush told the tale of a pair of undercover cops struggling with addiction to the drugs they tried to keep off the streets. Clapton wrote all the music for the film, and worked with songwriter Will Jennings to create a song that would both echo the tragic plight of the heroes as well as his own personal trials - having written the first verse before working on the album. "It was in the back of my head," Clapton later said, "but it didn't really have a reason for being until I was scoring this movie...Then it sort of had a reason to be. And it is a little ambiguous because it could be taken to be about Conor but it also is meant to be part of the film."

Only days after the Rush album was released in January 1992, Clapton played the song live for an intimate audience at Bray Studios in England. Armed with only an acoustic guitar for the whole set, the show would be filmed for MTV's nascent Unplugged series. An album taken from that show would sell more than 25 million copies worldwide - Clapton's biggest seller by a considerable degree. The studio version of "Tears in Heaven" resonated deeply with audiences, too, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 in England. And in 1993, Unplugged and "Tears" combined to net Clapton Grammy Awards for Album, Record and Song of the Year.

READ MORE: February 1993: Eric Clapton's Grammy Gold

Clapton ultimately stopped playing the song in 2004, noting his connection to the track had changed. "I didn't feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs," he told the Associated Press. "I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They're kind of gone and I really don't want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now."

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