WHEN HE STEPS INTO THE SPOTLIGHT FOR THE PREORDAINED emotional climax of Wednesday's Grammy Awards ceremony in L.A., Eric Clapton may appear a tad wobbly. Executing a neat, one-day transatlantic pirouette, Clapton will have jetted in from London, where he is in the midst of his annual Twelve Nights concert stand at the Royal Albert Hall, and will be returning immediately after the show. When he does, bets are that he will be too lagged to lug all his golden gramophones in his carry-on. The fact is, the music industry might as well have gilded Clapton himself this year. The '60s classic rock icon turned "90s balladeer has been nominated for nine Grammys, including top honors for the acoustic album Unplugged and for "Tears in Heaven," his sweet, sorrowful lullaby to Conor, his 4-year-old son who died in a fall from a Manhattan apartment building in 1991.

Grammy voters grieved for him then, and they're almost certain to honor him now. And the Armani-clad Clapton, 47, will know that the crescendo of applause that greets him will be as much for his legend as for his music. Barely out of his teens when London worshipers scrawled the graffiti gospel Clapton Is God, the guitar idol reigned over all psychedelia as the high priest of Cream, then found his voice in his masterpiece, "Layla," only to lose it in a two-decade nightmare bout with hard drugs and booze that ended with what was, for him, a miracle—the birth of his son, Conor. "This little baby," he said, "somehow represented to me something really concrete in my life that I'd never experienced before." When fate struck him a devastating blow by claiming the child, Clapton recovered with a stubborn, life-affirming resilience. "I seem to have come full circle," he said six months after tragedy struck. "I mean, the death of my son, the death of Stevie Ray [Vaughan, his close friend], taught me that life is very fragile and that if you are given another 24 hours, it's a blessing."

The child of a brief wartime liaison between Canadian soldier Edward Fryer and young, unmarried Patricia Clapton, Eric was raised by her stepfather, John Clapp, a plasterer, and her mother, Rose, in the village of Ripley, outside London. The father that Clapton would never meet split before Eric was born, and Patricia moved to Germany soon afterward. Clapton excelled in art at school until, at age 12, "my real mum came back to stay with us. We had to go through this whole thing of pretending she was my sister," he told interviewer Philip Norman in 1970. Clapton became "confused, angry and lonely, he said in 1991, but found emotional escape in the blues of Muddy Waters and what he called the "shatteringly intimate" voice of Robert Johnson.

When his grandparents bought him his first guitar, at 14, "I was pretty terrible," he told Norman. Growing wondrously proficient—and restless—he signed on with the Yardbirds four years later but quit after the group recorded its biggest hit, "For Your Love," in 1965 because the pop tune rankled his blues sensibilities. Already known, ironically, as Slowhand for his fast, fierce style, he joined the more orthodox Bluesbreakers but soon chafed under the tight reign of leader John Mayall.

Craving more musical freedom in the pot-hazy summer of'66, Clapton concocted Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. A volatile mix of powerful and warring personalities, rock's first supergroup disbanded after two years, four albums and a siring of hits, including the Jimi Hendrix tribute "Sunshine of Your Love." Clapton's next group, Blind Faith, scored a No. I album, but it soon fell victim to media hype and tour pressures.

Clapton then formed Derek and the Dominos, a group whose members would be beset by personal tragedies. Guitarist Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, bassist Carl Radle died of alcohol poisoning in 1980, and drummer Jim Gordon was imprisoned in 1984 for murdering his mother. During its brief life, though, the Dominos managed a masterwork, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the 1970 album inspired by Clapton's unrequited love for his best friend's wife.

That was Pattie Boyd Harrison, who flirted with Clapton at parties in a futile effort to hold the flagging attention of her husband, ex-Beatle George. "All she wanted was for him to say 'I love you,' and all he was doing was meditating. Clapton said in l976. "She may have been trying to make him jealous—and using me. And I fell madly in love with her."

Clapton's method of madness was heroin, which he began ingesting in huge doses. After a single lour, the Dominos disintegrated. When Clapton was finally weaned from heroin through electro-acupuncture in 1974, he simply switched addictions, downing, he has said, as much as two bottles of brandy a day. One bright spot in the boozy blur was Pattie, who moved in with Clapton in 1974, after he assured her that he had indeed kicked smack. They married in 1979 and lived together off and on for the next nine years. But the marriage was troubled by Pattie's inability to have children and, despite a brief ride on the wagon. Clapton's deepening, alcohol-fueled despair. "I had shotguns," he said, "and was practically toying with suicide."

Salvation came with the 1986 birth of his son, Conor, to Italian actress Lori Del Santo, whom Clapton had met while on tour in Italy in 1985. Pattie and Clapton soon separated, and while she would later begin divorce proceedings, Clapton went back into rehab and embraced the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program. Then, on March 20, 1991, Clapton was in a New York City hotel get-ling ready to pick up Conor for lunch when Del Santo called with the unbearable news: Conor, who had fallen from a 53rd-story window accidentally left open by a maintenance worker, was dead. "I turned to stone," Clapton later said. "And then I just went off the edge of the world for a while."

Psychoanalysis and AA meetings helped bring him back, sober. Then he began writing songs for Conor. "It is hard to imagine the trauma that he has coped with," says Clapton's photographer friend Terry O'Neill. "It would send most people over the edge, but Eric has gathered strength from it. Since Conor's death, he seems a lot more into life."

Nowadays, Clapton can often be found at his regular table at San Lorenzo, a trendy Knightsbridge restaurant frequented by Princess Di, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, friends describe him as a stylish and fantastically storied but otherwise ordinary bloke. He divides his time between a six-bedroom Chelsea town house and a country home near Ripley, where his grandmother and his mother, with whom he has patched things up, still reside.

An admittedly addictive personality, Clapton chainsmokes, enjoys expensive clothes, art collecting—he owns a Matisse and a Degas, among others—fly-fishing in streams the world over and horse racing. But besides music, his paramount passion is for women. "I just like the company of beautiful women," he said unapologetically, in 1991. "It seems to be almost impossible for me to find myself in a relationship without wanting to get away at some point, wanting to run away and go and be a little boy again and play the guitar and misbehave."

If his life now sounds a bit chi-chi, fans of old Slowhand need not despair. He still knows a fret from a worry, as he proved last month in a blistering, three-song set with the reunited Cream at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet in L.A., his guitar so learning with the same incendiary blues power that made his worshipers tremble three decades ago. The performance helped fan rumors of a reunion album, but Clapton, who once defined nostalgia as "return to pain," scotches the notion. Whatever the musical changeling's next guise, adherents shouldn't expect Clapton to go for the grunge. "You'll never see me rolling on the floor or crawling across a stage," he said. "It has something to do about grace."