The Making Of… Derek And The Dominos’ Layla
The wild story of Cream is told in the current issue of Uncut (dated May 2013), out now, by Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton – a couple of years later, Clapton formed Derek And The Dominos and, lovesick for George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, cut one of the greatest love songs in rock history. This is how it happened… Originally from Uncut’s October 2006 issue (Take 113). Words: Nigel Williamson
By the time “Layla” eventually became a hit in December 1972, two years after its first release, Eric Clapton was past caring. He’d formed Derek And The Dominos with Carl Radle (bass), Jim Gordon (drums) and Bobby Whitlock (keyboards), from Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, the band he joined after Blind Faith split, in early 1970. But the Dominos imploded in spectacular fashion in 1971, and Clapton all but retreated from the world for three years, doing nothing much beyond sitting around at home, taking heroin and building model airplanes.
Truth is, the fans didn’t get “Layla”. For those who’d revered Clapton as “God” with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, his desire to be “one of the boys” with the Dominos, and his preference for tightly structured songs rather than long blues-rock jams, just didn’t compute. In America, the Dominos’ only studio album, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, stalled at No 16. In Britain, the record didn’t even make the charts first time round.
“Layla”, of course, was Clapton’s declaration of love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend, neighbour and former Beatle George Harrison. In fact, the album is littered with songs about Boyd – “I Am Yours”, “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” and a cover of “Have You Ever Loved A Woman?” – but it’s “Layla” itself that is by far Clapton’s most eloquent and inspired statement of his love.
Clapton got his girl and there’s no doubt that “Layla” helped his case. But pretty much everyone else involved with the record got burned, bad. Within a year of its recording, Duane Allman – who came up with the song’s stunning guitar riff – was dead, followed by Carl Radle, whose kidneys gave up in 1980. After murdering his mother in 1983, drummer Jim Gordon was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent two decades in a mental hospital. Boyd finally left Harrison in ’74, only for her and Clapton to separate in ’86.
Eric Clapton (guitarist, vocalist, songwriter): There seem to have been a series of crossroads in my life and ‘Layla’ came at one of them. I was standing there wondering which way to go and was paralysed with fear about making a decision. It seemed there were all these choices, musically and emotionally. I was getting involved with this woman who was already married to my best friend, I had a new band and drugs were waiting in the wings. I was terrified by the decisions I was facing and I guess the drugs helped to anaesthetise me.
I’d first met George when I was in The Yardbirds and we played The Beatles’ Christmas show at the Hammersmith Odeon. I was a blues player, which he wasn’t, and he was checking me out to see what I was all about and I was checking him out to see if he was a real guitar player. We became very good friends. We lived quite close to each other and he’d come over to my house and I’d go over to his place in Esher. Pattie was always there and we became friends, too, although at first that’s all it was.
The relationship that developed devastated all three of us. But that was the spirit of the times. It didn’t even seem anything unusual. It was like one of those ’60s wife-swapping movies, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. It got quite difficult at times, inevitably. But I think George and me always cared for one another in quite a profound way and, amazingly, everybody remained friends.
I hadn’t planned to put a band together. I knew Carl Radle, Jim Gordon and Bobby Whitlock from playing with Delaney & Bonnie. They were leaving because they’d asked Delaney for a raise and, as I understand it, he said, ‘No’. So they told him they were off and Carl rang me and said, ‘Are you interested in a band?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ So they came over to England and lived in my house at Ewhurst for several months and we evolved into Derek And The Dominos. I was looking for a musical context into which I could fit and they seemed to provide it.
When we had some songs we went to Miami to work with Tom Dowd on an album. We got so far with it. Someone had given me a book called The Story Of Layla And Majnun, which was a Persian story about being driven mad by falling in love with a beautiful, unavailable woman. I loved the name and I had the main body of a song that was obviously about Pattie. But I knew it needed something else. A motif. I realised we had something after Duane Allman came up with the riff.
Tom Dowd was responsible for getting us together. He said the Allman Brothers were playing close by in Coconut Grove and we should go see them. They were already playing when we got there and I could hear this amazing, wailing guitar from about half a mile away. I sat on the grass in front of the stage and was mesmerised. After the show, I asked them back to the studio to hear what we’d done and I took to Duane straight away.
We spent a lot of time working together on the guitars and Duane was very instrumental in the development of the song. He came up with this riff that was pretty much a direct lift from an Albert King song, ‘As The Years Go Passing By’ from the Stax album Born Under A Bad Sign. It’s a slow blues and there’s a line that goes, ‘There is nothing I can do if you leave me here to cry’, and we used that.
The piano part was a pure accident. It came from Jim Gordon, the Dominos’ drummer. When the band left the studio, it turned out that, unknown to us, Jim would sneak back in and use the time to make his own record. Basically, he was poaching. One night I went back to the studio to collect something and I caught him, playing that piano riff. I think the deal we offered him was that we’d let him carry on using our studio time to make his record if we could have that tune for the LP. I don’t think he ever did finish his album, but the piano theme fitted what we were doing perfectly and now the song just doesn’t sound right without it.
There were a lot of drugs around the making of ‘Layla’. There was a nest of dealers in Miami close to the studio who supplied us with whatever we wanted. At first the drugs didn’t seem to have an adverse effect on the work. It would kill me today, but we were very fit at the time and seemed to be able to handle it OK and, before we knew it, we had a double album. But it wasn’t just ‘Layla’ itself that was inspired by my personal situation. I’d known ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ for years but, under the circumstances, that song seemed to take on a new meaning. I wrote ‘Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad’ with Bobby Whitlock, which was also about what was happening to me. So it’s there throughout the album, which is why it was called Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs.
After we’d made ‘Layla’ it was the end of the Dominos. I tried to get Duane to leave the Allmans. But he said he had to be loyal to what he called ‘the family’. We went on tour and I don’t know how we got through it with the amount of drugs we were doing. That’s when it got out of control.
It frightens me to think about it. It was cocaine and heroin and it wore the band down and a hostility was released that hadn’t been there before. When drugs or medication enter the picture, something happens to relationships. They just dissolve. Whatever held us together got thrown out and the atmosphere was so bad you could cut it with a knife. My instinct in those scenes is just to get out. I went back home and stayed there and locked all the doors.
But I’m very proud of the one album we made and that song. You never really get used to having ownership of something that powerful and it still knocks me out every time I play it.
Pattie Boyd (muse): Eric never sang the song to me before it was recorded, so I was like everybody else – the first I knew about it was when I heard the record for the first time. I remember when he came back from America, he played it to me before it was released. He put it on several times and the intensity was amazing. He’s such an incredible musician that he’s always been able to put his emotions into music in a way that goes right through you.
Of course, it was particularly fascinating for me to hear the song in the circumstances we were in. You can imagine the effect it had on me. I was bowled over not just by the words but the whole song. I hate it when you just hear the first part of it.
He says Duane Allman wrote the guitar riff and Jim Gordon came up with the piano part and that’s so Eric. He’s always been very ready to give credit to other musicians. He’s really happiest being one of the band, which was what Derek And The Dominos was all about.
All I can say is I still feel deeply flattered and honoured to be the subject of a song like that.
Bobby Whitlock (keyboards, backing vocals): I had half-a-dozen writing credits on the album, but ‘Layla’ itself wasn’t one of them. Eric had the middle of the song, the title and some lyrics. Duane wrote the intro and Jim Gordon came up with the piano part with Rita Coolidge, who he was dating at the time. The strange thing was the album didn’t sell very well at first and the song itself wasn’t a hit until a year-and-a-half after the band broke up.
A college radio station picked up on the extended album version with the piano coda and kept playing it over and over. Duane was dead, everybody else was strung-out and doing other stuff – and all of a sudden, the song was like the alternative national anthem.
By then, nobody even really knew who Derek And The Dominos were. The song just took its own wings, and flew itself.