Behind the Song: “Layla,” Eric Clapton (2024)

It was 50 years ago this fall that EricClapton, with a band of stellar musicians that included the late Duane Allman,went into Florida’s Criteria Studios to record what would become one of thegreat classic albums of all time. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Withits standout track “Layla,” the album became a timeless record that helped determinethe direction of 1970s rock guitar, performed by a band called Derek and theDominos, as Clapton didn’t want to use his name for the marquee value.

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“Layla” was a song Clapton wrote, with Dominos drummer Jim Gordon, about his forbidden love for the wife of his close friend George Harrison (she eventually became Clapton’s wife). The song was inspired by Clapton’s reading of the classic Persian unrequited love story, the epic poem Layla and Manjun. The album might have done big business had Clapton been up front about being the big name in the group, but instead, it stalled on the charts. When the edited version of “Layla” was released to radio as a single in 1972, it did fairly well, but by this time Allman was dead and the band had broken up.

Behind the Song: “Layla,” Eric Clapton (2)

With an introductory minor pentatonic guitarlick that Allman supposedly based on an Albert King blues song, “As the YearsGo Passing By,” the “Layla” intro riff is one of the most famous in musichistory. But if the suspicion about its origin is true, it was based on thefirst seven notes of King’s vocal melody, and not a guitar line, andAllman brought it in at a much faster tempo.

A big part of what made “Layla” somemorable was the long piano coda that comprised the second half of the song.That section was credited to Gordon, who had worked as a session drummer onsome of the greatest records to come out of Los Angeles in the 1960s. Claptontold Guitar Player magazine, “Jim Gordon … had been secretlygoing back into the studio and recording his own album without any of usknowing it. … We caught him playing this one day and said, ‘Come on, man. Canwe have that?’ So he was happy to give us that part. And we made the two piecesinto one song.”

On the fan club magazinewebsite, though, New York City broadcasting executive Linda Wnek interviewed Dominoskeyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who had his own recollection and opinion about thepiano piece. “That piano part in my opinion hasnothing to do with this song that Eric wrote entirely himself. It’s about hisexperience. Not Jim’s! Jim took that piano melody from his ex-girlfriend RitaCoolidge. I know because in the Delaney & Bonnie days I lived in JohnGarfield’s old house in the Hollywood Hills and there was a guest house with anupright piano in it.”

Whitlock continued, “Rita and Jim were up there in theguest house and invited me to join in on writing this song with them called‘Time.’ I didn’t hear it as rock ‘n’ roll and bowed out of the littlesongwriting session … I still don’t think that it’s rock ‘n’ roll and reallyhas no place on Eric’s incredibly soul-on-the-line-for-the-world-to-hear songabout his world and his experience. Jim took the melody from Rita’s song anddidn’t give her credit for writing it. Her boyfriend ripped her off … Thatpiano coda taints the integrity of this incredibly beautiful song. It has noplace on it … I think ‘Layla’ rocks without a piano on it.”

Rita Coolidge, in her book Delta Lady: A Memoirby Rita Coolidge, also asserts that she should havereceived credit for the song, which would have generated an incredible amountof royalty money over five decades.

Regardless, “Layla” became a classic. In1992 Clapton recorded an acoustic version of “Layla” for MTV Unplugged.That version later appeared on his own Unplugged album, introducing thesong to a new generation of listeners who may have heard the originalrecording, but had no idea who it was, especially given the Derek and theDominos moniker. Propelled by “Layla” and “Tears In Heaven,” Unpluggedbecame Clapton’s biggest selling-album, as well as one of the biggest-sellinglive albums in history with a purported 26,000,000 copies sold. And “Layla” wona Grammy, more than two decades after it was originally recorded, for Best RockSong, though many argued that the win was for sentimental reasons (followingthe death of Clapton’s four-year-old son), and that the acoustic version of“Layla” wasn’t “rock” at all.

Clapton typically played a Fender Strat on the “Layla” sessions, while the 1957 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top that Allman used on the song (often called the “Layla” guitar) went for $1.25 million at auction last year. And Jim Gordon sadly has been incarcerated, often in a mental facility, since 1983, convicted of killing his mother before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

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Behind the Song: “Layla,” Eric Clapton (2024)
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