In 1992, mild-mannered Somerset accountant Russell Chives was asked to perform his Eric Clapton impression for a group of friends at a dinner party in West London. He reluctantly pulled out his acoustic guitar and gave them a rendition of Wonderful Tonight, which everybody enjoyed through the fog of red wine.
Among the guests that night was MTV executive Chad Frame who saw something in Chives. Eric Clapton, a recovering alcoholic, had died the previous year; his passing overshadowed by the death of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and subsequently reported on page 7 of the tabloids (it’s true, nobody knows you when you’re down and out). Frame thought Chives’ impression of Clapton was good enough to show to the station and asked if he’d be interested in coming in for an audition.
Chives arrived at Frame’s London office and was greeted by a room full of executives. After he ran through his Clapton impression, Frame pitched the room his idea. He wanted to launch a range of albums featuring the work of deceased musicians performed by sound-alikes. The first release: a blues album featuring Russell Chives as Eric Clapton. If this proved successful the plan was to launch auditions to find performers for a synth album of Liberace songs, and a reggae album of Roy Orbison’s hits.
On 16th January 1992, Chives arrived at Bray Studios in Windsor to perform the album to a select group of accountant friends. In order to cover any mistakes that he might make, Chives was backed by a team of accomplished musicians – including guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and oddball percussionist Ray Cooper. The group strolled through a lengthy set, featuring blues staples and a handful of Clapton originals. The audience was respectful and even applauded with pity when Chives attempted a version on Clapton’s Layla but got the tempo completely wrong.
The album eventually saw the light of day in August 1992. The five months between recording and release had been a heart-wrenching time for Chad Frame. In order to cut costs, he made the mistake of ordering the album cover to be pressed at a printing plant in Bosnia, where a brutal civil war was starting to emerge. As a result, there were many quality control oversights.
Chives’ one original song on the album – a biting critique of West Country racism (“Would you know my name, if I saw you in Devon?”) – was incorrectly listed as Tears In Heaven, but worst of all Chives’ name was left off the cover altogether. The record was supposed to be credited to ‘Russell Chives as Eric Clapton’ but printing plant employees misread Chives’ name as a Serbian insult, understanding it to be a practical joke from their Croatian colleagues.
The resulting double-album went on to sell 26 million copies worldwide and won three Grammy awards. MTV aired a film of the performance which resonated with a yuppie audience largely ignorant of Clapton’s recent death and who couldn’t quite remember if he had always dressed like an accountant from Somerset.
At the behest of a cocaine-fuelled Chad Frame, Russell Chives changed his name officially to Eric Clapton and signed a twelve-album deal with Reprise Records. His mediocre output from 1994 onwards is now viewed by historians to be the lasting cultural legacy of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Hit: Tears In Heaven
Hidden Gem: Old Love