“I’m incredibly proud of this song. Owning something so powerful is something I can never get used to,” Eric Clapton said of Layla in 1988. “It still knocks me out when I play it.”
One of the most recognizable rock songs, Layla begins with a seven-note riff of awesome expectation, followed by an intense, intoxicating cry of unrequited love: ‘What will you do when things get lonely?‘
It was directed to Patti Harrison, wife of George. Clapton was trying to alienate her from her husband, with whom he was good friends. It wasn’t widely known when the song appeared on the 1970 album Derek And The Dominos. Layla and other assorted love songsbut it was certainly obvious to all concerned.
Layla was inspired by a book Clapton had read, The story of Layla and Majnunthe 12th century story of an Arabian princess whose father marries her, leaving her true love in despair that turns to madness.
Most of the songs Clapton wrote for the Layla were co-written with Bobby Whitlock, an American keyboardist who had recently left Delaney & Bonnie, a band Clapton had befriended and toured with. But Layla is credited to Clapton and Dominos drummer Jim Gordon, who invented the long piano coda.
Whitlock remembers that Clapton had already Layla when they started writing together: “He wrote this song by himself at home.”
The opening riff was also there – taken from Albert King’s As the years pass – but the song was much slower than it eventually appeared. “Eric took the song to Miami with him. We had experienced it before,” says Whitlock. “Eric brought that seven-note lick with him to the recording sessions. And then Duane stirred them.
Allman Brothers guitarist Duane Allman was introduced to Clapton by producer Tom Dowd shortly after sessions began on the Layla album at Criteria Studios in Miami. According to Dowd, sessions had been slow before taking Clapton to an Allman Brothers gig. Afterwards, Clapton invited the band back to the studio, where they jammed for the next 18 hours. Within days, Duane Allman was playing the sessions for the album, transforming the atmosphere as he and Clapton brought out the best in each other.
Layla was recorded towards the end of the album sessions, and Whitlock says the album was recorded pretty much in the order you hear it. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’ll do this one first, then this one, and we’ll go Layla for the end,” he explains. “It happened naturally.”
Nevertheless, the fact that Layla gave the record its title and is the culmination of the double album suggests that Clapton considered it a special song, even before Allman added his masterstroke.
What Allman did was change the dynamic of the song by speeding up the opening riff. Some people even argue that it was Allman who introduced the opening riff to the song, though Whitlock disagrees. “[It] was already there,” he said. But it wasn’t just the riff. Tom Dowd recalled layering six guitar parts on the track. “There’s a rhythm part of Eric, three tracks of Eric playing the harmony and lead riff, one of Duane playing that beautiful bottleneck, and one of Duane and Eric locked in, playing counter melodies” , did he declare. “There must have been some kind of telepathy, because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at this rate and on this level.
“One of them was playing something and the other was reacting instantly. Not once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ was like two hands in a glove.”
Whitlock’s appreciation of Allman’s playing with Derek And The Dominos is more measured. While he credits her with inspiring performances – “The majesty of those opening chords on small wing is all Duane for sure” – he has a problem with some of his other contributions. “Layla would have been just as great without Duane on it,” he says. “In many ways it would have been better. The two parts of slides he put on the coda are out of tune. If Eric had played them, it would have been different.
Such remarks are heresy to the Allman fan club, but there are reports of an unreleased release from Layla which was discontinued due to “tuning issues”.
Jim Gordon’s piano coda, added three weeks after the song was recorded, further irritated Whitlock. “It taints integrity,” he sighs. “It has nothing to do with the rest of the song. It feels like a mess. It’s like Guitar Wars – you have three or four guitars and everyone is going all over the place. Whitlock also claims that Gordon has stole the piano part from Rita Coolidge, his girlfriend at the time. This certainly sounds like the one written by Coolidge Weatherpublished by Booker T. and sister Rita Priscilla in 1973.
The piano coda was not on the version of Layla released as a single in the United States in 1971, which reached No. 51 there. When the full seven-minute version was released the following year, it charted at #7 in the UK and #10 in the US. By then, Derek and the Dominos had been pulled apart by drug-fueled paranoia, and Clapton was sliding into a full-blown heroin addiction.
In fact, the recording of the album had been characterized by conspicuous drug use. “We didn’t have little bits of anything,” Whitlock says. “There were no grams around – let’s put it that way.”
While Layla has since become the ritual climax of a Clapton concert, she has only been performed live by Derek And The Dominos a few times, when Allman was a guest with the band. Whitlock says it was just a coincidence. Or maybe not.
This feature was originally published in Classic Rock issue #177.