Remembering Alphi O’Leary

The funeral of Alphi O’Leary took place in East London on Thursday 21 February 2002. Alphi was Eric’s personal assistant for more than 20 years and had fought a long and courageous battle with cancer. He was the man for whom the phrase "gentle giant" was invented. A big man with a big heart, Alphi was loyal and devoted to Eric but always kind and considerate to Eric’s fans around the world. He’ll be missed.

Alphi Remembered by Bruce Kahn / Detroit, Michigan

It’s June 10, 1982. I’m standing at the bar at the Northfield Hilton hotel, on the chance that I might finally get to meet my hero. I place my order for a cold one. Suddenly I turn around, and as luck would have it, standing right in front of me is Eric Clapton. Well, let my life end right here and now. I get the autograph, I shake the hand, and I buy him a drink (a Coke at that time). Well, I always said that would be enough, but being the greedy one that I am, I look for more. After awhile (and a few more cold ones), I get up enough nerve to mosey on over to the booth where Eric is sitting. I plop my scrawny ass down in the booth and join in on the conversation between Eric and the guitarist from the bar band. No more than 30 seconds later, this big, muscular figure walks over and gives me "the look". Well, I thought, my 15 minutes of fame is all over. But just at that moment, Eric says "It’s alright. He’s cool". A hand is extended and I meet a man who would become my friend for the next 20 years. That man was Alphi O’Leary.

From that first meeting, a friendship grew with a man who many have called "the gentle giant". It wasn’t enough that Eric or anyone else said that I was alright. It had to be approved by Alphi. He was there for a reason and I knew it. He had to look after his boss and make sure that no "undesirables" came near to tempt him. He would spend almost 20 years of his life performing this task and, I might add, performing it with the dedication one needs to have while working for a high profile personality such as E.C. You had to pass the inspection with Alphi. If he liked you, you were as good as gold. And oh yes, you could expect one of his patented bear hugs every time thereafter.

Alphi always made time for his friends, and of those there were many. In fact, I sometimes thought he was more popular than his employer. Seeing him after a show was as much an experience as seeing the show itself. It wasn’t until afterwards, when he knew the boss had retired for the night that he would kick back with a beverage and catch up on what was going on in my life. We’d talk about anything that fit the moment, from music to politics to, oh yes, girls. In fact, there was one night when he gave me his theories about John Lennon’s murder and how he thought the U.S. government had a hand in it. And do you know something? He was so convincing that to this day I often wonder about it.

Over the years, Alphi became the big brother I never had. He looked out for me, gave me advice when needed and always shed a positive light on matters that may have brought me down at a particular time. If I called him, he was there to chat. If I missed him, he was quick to return the call and usually kept me on the line for quite awhile. He once called me while I was on the road working and asked me to find him a beat-up suitcase. It seems that every year while on the road with Eric, he would amass a good amount of collectibles that he would need to get home. Lo and behold, my folks had some old luggage that they were all too willing to rid themselves of. Now, imagine hauling some beat-up denim suitcases around Chicago, through the halls of a hotel such as the Ritz-Carlton, and the stares that one would have to endure following through on this endeavor? Only for my friend Alphi.

When I received his call in 1998 to tell me that Eric no longer needed his services, I was hurt. Sure, I would still go to see Slowhand in different cities across the U.S., but I knew that I wouldn’t get to see my friend. Alphi never let on that he was hurt by this decision. It wasn’t his way. I knew, however, that it hit him hard. No longer would he get to see his friends in different cities around the world, and we wouldn’t get to see him and share those moments that made life that much more easier to tolerate. Thank God we had e-mail, as Alphi was one to send notes each and every week. That would suffice, but only for a short while. There was still an emptiness in all of us, that was even felt by the band. Alphi meant that much to all of us.

When he informed me of his condition a few years ago, I was beside myself. I know life isn’t always fair, but why all these curves? And why him? I would e-mail Alphi each week, telling him that if anyone could beat it, it would be him. Besides, he wanted to write his book about his experiences with Eric. I already had the book tour ready and I was set to promote the author and his work. On top of that, I dreamed of the day when all of his friends here in the states could fly him in to celebrate his triumph over the dreaded "C". Sorry to say, it would never be.

My biggest regret in life is that I couldn’t be with my friend during his final days. For all the time that he helped ease my pain , whether it was in my personal or professional life, I wanted to give something back to him, not just from me, but from all the people whose lives he touched. He was as caring an individual as anyone I have or will ever know. I hope he knew just what he meant to so many people around the world. Tony and Ginny – thanks for being there for all of us.

I’ve always been told that if you only have one good friend in life, you should count yourself as one of the lucky ones. If that one friend was Alphi O’Leary, you were not only lucky, you were blessed. I was both. To count Alphi as one of my friends was also an honor. His wit, his charm, his love for people will never be matched. You were the big brother I never had. Your memory will live on in all of our hearts. Yes, on June 10, 1982, I met my hero. And his name was Alphi O’Leary. God rest your soul, my friend. And should I make it to Heaven one day, please meet me at the Pearly Gates and have one of those big bear hugs waiting for me. Cheers, mate.

Where’s Eric!
Find us on Facebook