Of all the tearjerker songs, Tears in Heaven is up there as one of the saddest songs of all time. Whether you’re an Eric Clapton fan or not, you can’t deny that the song written about losing his four-year-old son to an unimaginable tragedy is one for the ages. Parents, in particular, have a hard time fathoming it.
While most people know the general story behind the song, what’s less known are the circumstances behind the boy’s death, what happened in the days leading up to his fatal fall, and the other song Clapton wrote about his son, called Circus. Then, there’s the personal account from the boy’s mother and Clapton’s ex-girlfriend, Lory Del Santo, who lost yet another son many years later.
A Song About the Unthinkable
“Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?”
Eric Clapton’s most famous song was heard for the first time in 1991, the same year the tragedy that inspired the song took place. Conor, his four-year-old son, died on March 20, 1991, when he accidentally fell out of the 53rd-floor window of the New York City apartment building he was living in with his mother.
A song with such meaning, heartache, and emotion could only be created by someone who experienced something incredibly heavy. Losing Conor brought Clapton to his knees, but like most musicians, he took his pen to his paper and created a song that became his most popular.
He Was Planning to Spend the Day With Him
Conor was born to Clapton and his Italian actress-model girlfriend, Lory del Santo, in 1986. One morning, as Conor was playing at home in the apartment he shared with his mother, he accidentally fell out the window of the high-rise building.
It was later discovered that the window had been inadvertently left open when janitorial work was being done in the apartment. Clapton, who was staying in a nearby hotel, was planning to pick up his son for a father-son lunch and a visit to the Central Park Zoo. It’s been said that upon hearing the news, Clapton “went cold.”
He Went Cold
“The first I knew was a telephone call from their apartment,” Clapton said in a 1992 interview. “I was actually getting ready to go out of the hotel room to go and pick him up for lunch. Lory was on the other end of the phone, and she was hysterical, saying he was dead. And I could not let myself believe it.”
After hearing the news, Clapton recalled going “cold” and couldn’t help but “shut down right away.” Naturally, he was in a state of disbelief, but he nonetheless rushed to the apartment block where ambulances, fire engines and paramedics surrounded the area.
It Was Like Walking Into Someone Else’s Life
He entered the apartment, which was filled with emergency responders, and felt as though the scene had nothing to do with him. “I felt like I had walked into someone else’s life,” Clapton explained in the 1992 interview. “And I still feel like that.”
Two days later and two days before Clapton’s 46th birthday, Conor’s funeral was held. Clapton had the dreadful task of identifying his son at the Lennox Hill Hospital’s mortuary. “I remember looking at his beautiful face in repose and thinking, this isn’t my son. It looks a bit like him, but he’s gone.”
The Morning Of…
On the morning of his last day alive, Conor was still talking about the elephants he saw at the circus with his daddy the night before (we’ll get into the story behind Circus Leaves Town – the second song – soon). He was in his room still in his pajamas and playing with the nanny. As his mom, Lory Del Santo, was taking a bath, she could hear him talking and shouting happily.
It was 11 a.m. and she shouted to him from the bathroom to hurry up. He yelled back, “In a minute.” It was that morning that the apartment block janitor was in the apartment, cleaning. Del Santo had told the nanny not to leave Conor alone for a second.
He Was Only Playing Hide and Seek
When she came out of the bathroom, she heard the fax ring, and stood by the fax machine reading memos for about 15 minutes. Then she heard Conor running as he was playing hide and seek. The nanny was right behind him.
Conor ran into the room where the janitor was cleaning. The janitor then stopped the nanny to tell her that he had slid open the window, which was a huge wall of glass. In that moment, as she listened to the janitor, Conor ran straight through the window.
She Collapsed to the Floor; He Turned to Stone
That’s when Del Santo heard a howl of a scream, and it wasn’t from Conor. She entered the room, saw the nanny in hysterics and the window open. “I understood at once,” she recalled. “I felt all my strength leave me and I collapsed on the floor.”
When Clapton arrived, she told him, “He’s dead.” That’s when his eyes went dark and said, “Dead, he’s dead. It’s impossible.” His face “turned to stone; it was like a film. We said absolutely nothing to each other. I just stopped functioning.”
The Janitor Never Asked for Forgiveness
The glass window was about 4 ft. by 6 ft. tall and it was more like a wall that was never meant to be open, Del Santo explained. “Our son must have thought the glass was still there when he jumped on to the low ledge a foot off the ground.”
She admitted that she wanted to kill the janitor, who “had no common sense” and never even asked for forgiveness. She couldn’t help but think of all the “what-ifs” – the scenarios that could have prevented the fall. But it was no use.
The Closest Relationship He Ever Had
They ended up flying the boy to England, to be buried in Clapton’s hometown of Ripley, Surrey, at St. Mary Magdalen’s Church. (The mourners there included Phil Collins, George Harrison and even Patti Boyd, and Prince Charles sent a letter of condolence.)
Clapton said that his bond with Conor was the closest relationship he had ever had up to that point. He also credits his late son as the reason he became – and still is – sober. The former Cream singer (“Cocaine”) was a known addict in the 1970s. By the end of the decade, he kicked his heroin habit but kept doing other drugs.
His Drive to Get Clean and Stay Clean
It wasn’t the boy’s death that sobered him up but rather his birth. It gave the troubled musician drive to get clean. “I really did it for Conor because I thought, no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Clapton: The Autobiography.
“I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.” Clapton was three years sober when the tragedy struck, and because of it, he knew he would never relapse.
As His Guitar Gently Weeps
Dealing with unimaginable grief, Clapton spent the months following the death alone. He traveled between England and Antigua, going to sobriety meetings and seeking solace by creating music.
It took him a while to focus on music again, but he eventually started strumming the chords of a small Spanish guitar. It helped him escape and ease the pain. He said that as thought about his son in those moments, the melody of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross started playing in his mind.
The First One to Hear the Melody
Not long after, he was approached by director Lili Fini Zanuck to write a song for an action movie called Rush (starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric as undercover narcotic cops). Clapton played a few chords of the melody for Zanuck, which stuck in the director’s mind.
“What I heard was Eric sitting in his hotel room and saying, ‘If you don’t like this, I’ve got plenty more,’” Zanuck recalled. “Then he began playing Tears in Heaven… it was so painfully personal, so obviously about the son that he’d lost, I wondered if it would work in the movie.”
He Needed Help Completing the Song
“Would you hold my hand, If I Saw you in Heaven?”
At the time, Clapton had only writteh the initial verse (the lyric above) and decided to ask songwriter Will Jennings to add some verses and a bridge. At first, Jennings thought the song was “too maudlin” (soppy) to be a hit.
But Jennings was a master of lyrics. He was, after all, the writer behind An Officer and a Gentleman’s Where We Belong and Titanic’s My Heart Will Go On. And so, he finally agreed to complete the song.
Playing It for the First Time on MTV Unplugged
During his live interview with Sue Lawley back in 1992, which took place ten months after the accident, Clapton performed Tears in Heaven for the first time in front of a small audience. Looking back at the video, you can see just how emotional he gets, making it all the more impressive that he kept himself together.
Lawley told him, “It is going make a lot of people cry” and she couldn’t have been more correct. But the song didn’t just affect audiences; Clapton said he “used music for myself as a healing agent.” Still, his first recordings of Tears in Heaven were difficult to record.
It Took a Few Takes
Clapton sang and played guitar and dobro on the track and had to do numerous takes for producer Russ Titelman. For the studio version, Clapton was joined by Randy Kerber (synthesizer), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar), Nathan East (bass), Gayle Levant (Celtic harp), Lenny Castro (percussion) and Jimmy Bralower (drum machine).
The studio version was released as a single on January 8, 1992, a week before the Rush soundtrack came out. The song hit No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100. By the end of the year, it sold over three million copies in America alone. As for the MTV Unplugged album, it sold 26 million copies worldwide and won three Grammys.
A Night at the Circus
“And it’s sad, so sad
There ain’t no easy way round
And it’s sad, so sad
All you friends gather
Because the circus left town”
The second song about losing his son is Circus Left Town, which tells the story of the day before Conor died. Clapton took him to the circus and the boy “couldn’t stop talking” the whole way home about all the amazing things he had just seen.
Little Man With a Heart So Pure
“Little man with his heart so pure
And his love so fine
Stick with me and I’ll ride with you
‘Til the end of the line.”
The lyrics show the contrast between the boy’s excitement and the father’s overwhelming grief of losing him the following day.
“And when I smile, I’ll be thinking of you
And every little thing will be all right.”
The song ends with a hopeful note of a memory cherished. In a 1998 BBC interview, Clapton spoke of his last moments with Conor….
The Clown With the Knife
“The last night I spent with Conor, we went to the circus,” Clapton said. “We went to see one of those huge things that they do in America where they have three rings going on at the same time. You’ve got clowns and tigers and everything.”
After the show, as they were driving back to New York City, “all he could remember, all he could talk about was this clown. He’d seen a clown with a knife, which I didn’t see at all. Some clown was running around brandishing a knife, which was something quite frightening but he liked it.”
The Circus Left Town
“The circus left town, left town
The circus left town, left town”
The clown and the circus in general excited Conor, and that’s in the lyrics. “But and I suppose what I was doing,” he added, “was paying tribute to this night with him and also seeing him as being the circus of my life.”
“You know – that particular part of my life has now left town.” Clapton wrote the song in the summer of 1991 and it was meant to be included in the 1992 Unplugged album, but it was dropped from the track listing. The song was re-recorded and finally released in 1998 on his album Pilgrim.
The Night Before Their Lives Changed Forever
“It was a special day,” Del Santo remembered. She and Conor had come to New York for Easter, and after his day trip with the boy at the circus, Clapton told Del Santo, “I now understand what it means to have a child and be a father.”
The night before their lives changed forever, Clapton was telling Del Santo that he wanted to more involved in Conor’s life. The following day will forever be etched in her mind. “The night before I put Conor to bed. He was pretending to be asleep, but when I went to bed, he jumped in with me – he was so excited about the day he’d had with his Daddy.”
Neither Song Was Meant to Be Heard
Both Circus and Tears in Heaven are about the loss of his son, but it was the latter that really grabbed people by the heartstrings. The song asked the eternal question of whether we’ll meet our loved ones again. No wonder it affected people so deeply.
Neither song, however, was initially meant for public consumption. It was the soundtrack of Rush and the co-writing with Jennings gave him the push he didn’t necessarily need at the moment, but one that listeners will forever be grateful for.
A Look Into His Father’s Eyes
The third Conor-related song, My Father’s Eyes, was first performed in 1992 on MTV’s Unplugged, and it didn’t make it onto the official album either. Clapton explained that the song expresses the “upside” of losing his son.
“He gave me something… what it might have been like to look in my father’s eyes … because I looked in his eyes.” He described having a “kind of revelation” about his son. “It’s a very personal matter but I never met my father… 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.”
He Didn’t Have the Guts to Record Them
Writing My Father’s Eyes was a “strange kind of cycle thing,” he explained, which occurred to him and he felt the need to share it. Clapton also said that when he wrote My Father’s Eyes and Circus Left Town, he simply didn’t have the guts to record them.
He even thought it would be inappropriate. More so, he couldn’t find a way to arrange My Father’s Eyes specifically – to put it into the proper setting. It took him several years to feel okay with presenting the song in a way that wouldn’t embarrass anybody.
The Hardest One to Record
For Clapton, My Father’s Eyes was “the hardest song to record on that album (Pilgrim)” as it was the last one that he let go of. As for Circus, however, he said he found it a lot easier to depart from. My Father’s Eyes evolved through at least five incarnations.
He would veto it every time, finding it too jolly or some other reason. Later, he realized that subconsciously, he wasn’t ready to let go.
Speaking of letting go, his son’s death is what helped Clapton connect with his daughter…
Conor’s Death Brought Light to Ruth, His Daughter
Conor wasn’t Clapton’s first child. His daughter, Ruth, was born a year before his son. And the loss of Conor is what ultimately led Clapton to play a larger role in his daughter’s life. Ruth is the only child Clapton had with Yvonne Kelly, a recording studio manager.
Ruth and her dad have had a complicated relationship, and the truth is her identity was only revealed after Conor’s death. Ruth was a product of an affair between Clapton and Kelly – he was married to Patti Boyd at the time.
She Was Pivotal in His Recovery
It was Kelly who suggested he spend more time with Ruth after Conor’s death, and after numerous visitations, the father-daughter duo established a rapport. “It was great to be in the company of a child again – my child,” Clapton wrote in his memoir.
“Looking back on those years, I realize what a profound effect she had on my well-being,” Clapton admitted. “Her presence in my life was absolutely vital to my recovery. In her, I had again found something real to be concerned about, and that was instrumental in my becoming an active human being again.”
A Feud Over a Kermit Costume?
Rather recently, Clapton reconciled with Ruth after a six-year feud which was sparked by a Kermit the Frog costume, no less. He had cut ties with Ruth when he learned that she was sharing details of his private life on Twitter.
Back in 2015, Ruth, a budding musician, told her Twitter followers that her famous dad wore a Kermit the Frog costume to his 70th birthday party, and she even shared images of the home he shares with his second wife Melia. It seems relatively harmless, but Clapton was furious and demanded she stop sharing his personal life on social media.
Reconciling After Six Years
It was Ruth who cut the ties between the two, and in a since-deleted Twitter post, she asked people to stop tagging her post relating to her rocker dad “because we no longer have a relationship.” The two have fortunately made amends, though.
The emotional reunion came after Ruth announced her split from husband Dean Bartlett – the father of her two children – and that her dad helped her with the heartache. “I’ve gone through a really rough time,” she said.
We’ve heard from his daughter, but one person we’ve wanted to hear from the most is Conor’s mother…
Conor’s Mom Finally Opened Up
It took Lory Del Santo a long time to open up about the tragedies she faced, the first one being the loss of Conor. Nine years after his death, she opened up about the tragedy, her relationship with Clapton, and finally being ready to have another child.
For Del Santo, the memory of losing Conor is so raw that it feels “like it happened only yesterday.” The birth of her son Loren gave her the strength to talk about the tragedy. “I cried for years and years, but the tears finally dried up. I have to be stronger now for Loren,” she said back in 1999.
19 Years Later, She Loses Another Son
Of course, Del Santo would never have known that she would also lose her third son 19 years later. Loren took his life in 2018 at the age of 19 because of a brain disease. “My son Loren left us. He took his life because of a serious brain disease. His brain died out of mental collapse,” the 62-year-old said.
To add to the tragedies, Del Santo lost another baby boy two years after Conor’s death. He was born three months premature and died at two weeks of an infection.
No Luck With Males
Del Santo never had it easy and the men in her life seemed to come and go. The Italian actress also lost her father when she was young. After moving to Milan for TV gigs, she started going to pop concerts. After one show, she was invited out to dinner by a musician.
“I didn’t recognize Eric at first,” she recalled, “but we got talking and I found him very natural, relaxed and uncomplicated. He asked me to dinner the next night.”
The Beginning of Eric and Lory
“That day I found out who he was when I was reading the papers and realized that I know one of his songs. Cocaine.” And so, they had dinner, but Del Santo claims she didn’t want “anything to happen.” She never intended to get involved with a famous person who only wanted a one-night stand.
She was looking for a serious relationship and wanted a baby. She kept her distance at first, but Clapton was “so persistent that he gave me some confidence.”
He Was Still Married at the Time
Their relationship developed slowly. And then one day, he called her up out of the blue. “Hey, I’m in town” he told her, meaning in Milan. When she asked him why, he said, “Because I love you.” By that point, his marriage with Patti Boyd was near its end.
(Clapton, by the way, “stole” Boyd from George Harrison, with whom she was for nine years). Clapton was by no means in a clear head space when he met Lory; he was using drugs and involved in affairs.
Seeing the Demons in His Closet
As Del Santo came to know Clapton on a deeper level, she saw the demons in his closet, so to speak. She said she never saw him use drugs but realized he was an alcoholic. “I realized at a club, when he became abusive, that he had a drinking problem and was drinking purely to get drunk.”
She explained that his “solution to the problem” was to go away for a month to try to stop and would “come back to me drinking water.” It was a vicious cycle and all she could do was try to help.
Silence for Days, Weeks
It was the silence that proved to be the hardest part, she said. “He needed total silence, to live in a place with no noise. I never heard him play the guitar or sing in the house.” There was, however, one time when he called her to sing Happy Birthday over the phone.
He would stay silent, monk-like, for days, even weeks. Then he would suddenly break it by asking her if she wanted to eat something. She would always wait for him to talk first, scared to be the one to break the silence he so desperately needed.
Time to Have a Baby
She was sucked in by the few “beautiful” things he would tell her from time to time, which made up for all the pain he was putting her through. Eventually, they discussed having a baby, which was something he very much wanted.
Although he expressed desire to be a dad, he went into a “dark mood” when Del Santo told him she was pregnant. According to her, it took him half a year to adjust to the idea of becoming a father. By that point, they weren’t living together.
His Failed Attempt at Suicide
After she had moved back to Milan (she lived with him in London for a bit), Clapton told her he wanted her to terminate the pregnancy. She told him, “I’m not a piece of meat with no brain or principles. You can’t make a decision, change your mind, then rob someone of a baby.”
Things got even worse after that. Clapton called her to tell her he tried to take his own life. He attempted suicide by hanging himself from a tree but fainted and made it out alive. “I was angry that myself and the baby weren’t important enough to him,” she recalled.
He Couldn’t Handle Being a Dad
Then, one day, after months of no communication, he wrote her a letter expressing his love for her and his desire to be a father. At eight months pregnant, she moved back to London to have the baby there. After that, he became a lot more involved.
After Conor’s birth, they spent time together as a family. According to Del Santo, Clapton was having a hard time adjusting; he wasn’t getting the silence he wanted and “couldn’t handle the mess a child makes.” She said he never played with Conor.
The Day of the Circus Was the Day He Finally Understood
Clapton has insisted that he got clean for Conor and that they had a deeper bond than anyone before. Yet Del Santo’s account is wildly different. She said that after three years with their son, she had enough and couldn’t wait around for Clapton any longer.
They split up and Clapton would see Conor “from time to time.” The tragedy is that the day he finally realized what Conor meant to him was just the day before our son died.” Of course, she was referring to the magical day he had with Conor at the circus.
She Never Listened to Tears in Heaven
Shortly after Conor’s death, Del Santo discovered that she was pregnant. But it wasn’t Clapton’s. She had been seeing a man in Milano called Silvio Sardi (he later became her husband). Devin was born two days after what would have been Conor’s fifth birthday.
Del Santo said in that 1999 interview that she never listened to Tears in Heaven, “nor do I ever want to.” She was once in Amsterdam and heard the song being introduced on the radio. After hearing the first few bars, she “just ran away.”
No More Live Performances of the Songs
In 2004, Clapton announced that he was retiring Tears in Heaven from his concert repertoire. He explained that while he had recently been touring in Japan, he discovered that he couldn’t perform both Tears in Heaven and My Father’s Eyes.
He said in an interview, “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs. 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.”