How Eric Clapton Created the Classic Song “Layla” (2024)

The sto­ry of Eric Clap­ton and “Lay­la” has always both­ered me because to under­stand it is to under­stand how fal­li­ble and crazed any of us can be when it comes to love. We under­stand that our rock gods are human, but there’s some­thing about Clap­ton falling in love with the wife (Pat­tie Boyd) of one of his best mates (George Har­ri­son, a freakin’ Bea­t­le, man!) and then writ­ing a whole album about it, that is just unset­tling. Is this some­thing tawdry writ epic? Or is this some­thing epic that has the waft­ing aro­ma of taw­dri­ness?

Poly­phon­ic takes on the behind the scenes sto­ry of this rock mas­ter­piece and rewinds sev­er­al cen­turies to the source of Layla’s name: “Lay­la and Maj­nun,” a roman­tic poem from 12th cen­tu­ry Per­sian poet Niẓā­mi Gan­javi based on an actu­al woman from the 6th Cen­tu­ry who drove her poet para­mour mad. Lord Byron called the trag­ic poem “The Romeo and Juli­et of the East,” as unre­quit­ed love leaves both Maj­nun and Lay­la dead after the latter’s father for­bids her to be with the poet.

Eric Clap­ton heard of the poem from his Sufi friend Abdalqadir as-Sufi (for­mer­ly Ian Dal­las), and so when he wrote a slow bal­lad about his unre­quit­ed love for Pat­ti, “Lay­la” made per­fect sense as a name.

The song might have stayed a ballad–think of Clapton’s slowed down ver­sion from his MTV “Unplugged” special–if it wasn’t for Duane All­man of the All­man Broth­ers. The two had yet to meet, but were aware of each oth­er. All­man had grabbed Clapton’s atten­tion with his fiery solo work at the end of Wil­son Pickett’s cov­er of “Hey Jude”:

When Clap­ton and All­man did meet, the two set to jam­ming and All­man made the his­to­ry-chang­ing deci­sion to speed up Clapton’s bal­lad and use a riff tak­en from Albert King. “Lay­la” was born. Allman’s bot­tle­neck slide style met Clapton’s string bend­ing, and the track is a con­ver­sa­tion between the two, where no words are need­ed.

“It’s in the tip of their fin­gers,” says engi­neer Tom Dowd, lis­ten­ing to the iso­lat­ed tracks in the video below. “It’s not in a knob, it’s not in how loud they play, it’s touch.”

Over this, Clap­ton deliv­ers his des­per­ate lyrics, sung by a man at his wits end, much like Maj­nun of the poem.

And then, that coda, which takes up half the song. Drum­mer Jim Gor­don was work­ing on the piano piece for a solo album in secret. When Clap­ton dis­cov­ered Gor­don was record­ing on the sly, he wasn’t angry. Instead he insist­ed it be added to the end of the rock­ing first half. The song is a per­fect bal­ance between fran­tic rock and roman­tic bal­lad.

But in the real world, “Lay­la” didn’t do the job. Clap­ton played the album for Pat­tie Boyd three weeks lat­er, and though she under­stood its beau­ty, Boyd was embar­rassed by its mes­sage.

“I couldn’t believe I was the inspi­ra­tion for putting this togeth­er,” she said in an inter­view. “I didn’t want this to hap­pen.” She was also mor­ti­fied think­ing that every­body would know exact­ly who “Lay­la” was about.

“It didn’t work,” Clap­ton recalled. “It was all for noth­ing.”

The song was a flop in the charts, espe­cial­ly as it was cut in half for the sin­gle. It would find its audi­ence three years lat­er when the full ver­sion appeared on both a Clap­ton anthol­o­gy and a best of col­lec­tion of Duane Allman’s work. Final­ly it rock­et­ed up the charts, and it’s kind of stayed in clas­sic rock playlists ever since.

And as for Boyd, she actu­al­ly did leave George Har­ri­son in 1974 to mar­ry Clap­ton in 1979, a mar­riage that last­ed 10 years. Not all mar­riages last. The orig­i­nal flame dies out. It’s just that, in “Lay­la“‘s case, the flame is there every time the nee­dle drops into the groove.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

23-Year-Old Eric Clap­ton Demon­strates the Ele­ments of His Gui­tar Sound (1968)

Hear Eric Clapton’s Iso­lat­ed Gui­tar Track From the Bea­t­les’ ‘While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps’ (1968)

Eric Clap­ton Tries Out Gui­tars at Home and Talks About the Bea­t­les, Cream, and His Musi­cal Roots

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

How Eric Clapton Created the Classic Song “Layla” (2024)
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