Launched into the stratosphere with arguably (in my humble opinion, indisputably) the greatest opening riff in the history of rock, Layla is Eric Clapton’s masterpiece. A proclamation of unrequited love to Pattie Boyd, the song urgently lays bare the agony of his frustration at falling for the wife of his best friend, George Harrison.
The song was inspired by a book given to the guitarist – The Story of Layla and Majnum by the Persian poet Nizami, about a man who had fallen in love with a woman who is unattainable. Seeing the obvious parallel in his own life, Clapton wrote his version and in the summer of 1970 he recorded it with his band, Derek And The Dominos, in Miami, Florida.
What'll you do when you get lonely
And nobody's waiting by your side?
You've been running and hiding much too long
You know it's just your foolish pride
I tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down
Like a fool, I fell in love with you
You turned my whole world upside down
Layla, you’ve got me on my knees
Layla, I’m begging, darling please
Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind
It is astonishing to think that Boyd inspired not only Layla but also Harrison’s Something as well as Clapton's later Wonderful Tonight (penned during the requited phase of their relationship) and Old Love. Indeed, all of the songs Clapton wrote for the Layla album contain desperate messages in music to Boyd. One of them was Bell Bottom Blues, so titled because Clapton rather prosaically had promised to buy her a pair of Landlubber jeans while he was in Miami:
Bell bottom blues, you made me cry
I don't want to lose this feeling
And if I could choose a place to die
It would be in your arms
Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?
Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?
I’d gladly do it because
I don’t want to fade away
Give me one more day, please
I don't want to fade away
In your heart I want to stay
And then there’s I Looked Away:
And if it seemed a sin
To love another man’s woman, baby,
I guess I’ll keep on sinning
Loving her, Lord, till my very last day
But I looked away
And she ran away from me today;
I'm such a lonely man
And It's Too Late:
It’s too late, she’s gone
It’s too late, my baby’s gone
Wish I had told her she was my only one
It’s too late, she’s gone
She’s gone, yes she’s gone
She’s gone, my baby’s gone
She’s gone, yes she’s gone
Where can my baby be?
And I wonder does she know
When she left me, it hurt me so
I need your love babe, please don’t make me wait
Tell me it’s not too late
The finished album is testimony to the extraordinary burst of creativity that Clapton’s passion for Pattie had inspired, both in his writing and guitar playing, and its crowning glory is undoubtedly the title track. However, Layla isn’t just about Clapton and the love he had lost; it was also about discovering the musical brother he had always wanted but until then had never found.
When the Dominos – Clapton, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon – first started work on the album, the combination of Clapton’s personal anguish and the copious amount of drugs the band were imbibing meant that very little musical progress had been made until one night the producer, Tom Dowd, urged Clapton to check out a gig by one of his other artists, The Allman Brothers Band, in nearby Coconut Grove.
When Clapton walked by the front of the stage as the band were playing, their lead guitarist Duane Allman was so shocked when he recognised him that he momentarily stopped playing. ‘I loved them,’ wrote Clapton in his 2007 autobiography, ‘but what blew me away was Duane Allman’s guitar playing. I was mesmerised by him.’ So much so that after a lengthy jam with the Allmans he invited Duane to join him for the Layla sessions.
The pair clicked immediately and the energy generated by the interplay between Clapton’s Fender Stratocaster and Allman’s Gibson Les Paul Goldtop (recently sold at auction for $1.25m) lifted the Dominos to new heights. ‘There were very few words exchanged,’ remembered Dowd. ‘Just complete musical dialogue among them. They just looked at each other and said ‘Hey man’, and the magic happened.’
According to Clapton: ‘Duane and I became inseparable during the time we were in Florida. He was like the musical brother that I never had. More so than Jimi [Hendrix] who was essentially a loner. Duane was a family man, a brother. Unfortunately for me he had a family, but I loved it while it lasted. Those kind of experiences don’t happen every day and I knew enough by then to cherish it while I could.’
Initially Layla was intended to be more of a slow ballad, along the lines of the version Clapton performed years later on his Unplugged album, but Allman had other ideas. Taking a vocal melody from the Albert King song As The Years Go Passing By and speeding it up, he composed the now immortal 12-note opening riff and the song really began to soar.
Now it was time for Dowd – one of the most unsung heroes of modern music – to add his brand of magic to the song. Originally a physicist, Dowd had worked on the Manhattan Project, the US atomic bomb programme during the second world war. His subsequent career, as a music producer and recording engineer, spanned just about the complete history of modern music, from his work in 1950 on If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake by Eileen Barton, through, among countless others, to John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles via Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Cream and The Allman Brothers, right up to Joe Bonamassa's 2000 debut album A New Day Yesterday.
Dowd, who died in 2002, pioneered the art of multi-track recording, and was a huge influence on the sound of late 20th century music. It is worth remembering that when he recorded Layla in 1970 it was only a couple of years earlier that George Martin had recorded The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album across just four tracks – the most available in Britain at the time. By contrast, Layla has six guitar tracks alone and is still arguably the finest piece of multi-tracking.
The final piece of the jigsaw was applied to Layla three weeks later when the majestic piano coda was added to the end of the song. Credited to the Dominos’ drummer Jim Gordon, who had been repeatedly playing the piece during breaks in the sessions, it later emerged that he had actually co-written it with his girlfriend at the time, Rita Coolidge, who was not credited.
‘I was infuriated,’ wrote Coolidge in her 2016 autobiography Delta Lady. ‘What they’d clearly done was take the song Jim and I had written, jettisoned the lyrics, and tacked it on to the end of Eric’s song. It was almost the same arrangement. I have to admit it sounded stunning.’
However, the Layla album was not initially a success when it was released on 9 November 1970 (few people at the time realised that Derek was in fact Eric) but it has subsequently become one of the best-loved guitar recordings of all time and is still revered today.
Indeed, in August 2019 The Tedeschi Trucks Band – one of the most exciting contemporary live bands – played their version of the entire Layla album at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Virginia. Their take on Layla thrillingly captures the dynamism of the original. Not that surprising perhaps, given the pedigree of the band’s guitarist Derek Trucks: named after the Dominos, a latter-day member of The Allman Brothers Band, a nephew of their original drummer Butch Trucks, as well as having also played for a while in Clapton’s touring band.
At its core Layla is a desperate plea for love and back in 1970 after Clapton had finished recording the album he returned home to England and sought out Pattie to play her a cassette of the title song.
‘He played it two or three times,’ wrote Pattie in her 2007 autobiography Wonderful Today. ‘Each time watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was: ‘Oh God, everybody's going to know who this is about.’ I felt uncomfortable that he was pushing me in a direction I wasn’t certain I wanted to go. But the song got the better of me, with the realisation that I had inspired such passion and such creativity. I could resist no longer.’
Despite creating such a fabulous album, Derek And The Dominos soon split up and Clapton all but disappeared for the next two years. Duane Allman had been invited to join the band full time but decided to stay with The Allman Brothers, only to be killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Jim Gordon was jailed in 1983 after killing his mother. He was suffering from schizophrenia having being misdiagnosed and treated for alcohol addiction instead. He is still behind bars today.
Eric Clapton and Pattie Boyd finally married in 1979 but would divorce in 1989.
Me? I love Layla so much the riff doubles as the ringtone on my mobile. Diddle-iddle, diddle-eee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee…
This is an expanded version of a blog first published on the Guardian website in January 2012