"Layla" is a song written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, originally released by their blues rock band Derek and the Dominos, as the thirteenth track from their album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (November 1970). Its famously contrasting movements were composed separately by Clapton and Gordon.
The song was inspired by a love story that originated in 7th-century Arabia and later formed the basis of The Story of Layla and Majnun by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, a copy of which Ian Dallas had given to Clapton. The book moved Clapton profoundly, because it was the tale of a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful, young girl and went crazy and so could not marry her. In his autobiography, Clapton states, "Ian Dallas told me the tale of Layla and Majnun [sic], a romantic Persian love story in which a young man, Majnun, falls passionately in love with the beautiful Layla, but is forbidden by her father to marry her and goes crazy with desire." The song was further inspired by Clapton's then unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow musician George Harrison of the Beatles. Clapton and Boyd would eventually marry.
"Layla" was unsuccessful on its initial release. The song has since experienced great critical and popular acclaim, and is often hailed as being among the greatest rock songs of all time. Two versions have achieved chart success, the first in 1972 and the second (without the piano coda) 20 years later as an acoustic Unplugged performance by Clapton. In 2004, "Layla" was ranked number 27 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and the acoustic version won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.
In 1966, George Harrison married Pattie Boyd, a model he met during the filming of A Hard Day's Night. During the late 1960s, Clapton and Harrison became close friends. Clapton contributed uncredited guitar work on Harrison's song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on the Beatles' White Album, and Harrison co-wrote and played guitar pseudonymously (as L'Angelo Misterioso) on Cream's "Badge" from Goodbye. However, between his tenures in Cream and Blind Faith, Clapton fell in love with Boyd.
The title, "Layla", was inspired by the story of Layla and Majnun, which Clapton had been told by his friend Ian Dallas, who was in the process of converting to Islam. Nizami's tale, about a moon princess who was married off by her father to a man she didn't love, resulting in Majnun's madness, struck a deep chord with Clapton.
Boyd divorced Harrison in 1977 and married Clapton in 1979 during a concert stop in Tucson, Arizona. Harrison was not bitter about the divorce and attended Clapton's wedding party with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. During their relationship, Clapton wrote another love ballad for Pattie called "Wonderful Tonight" (1977). Clapton and Boyd divorced in 1988 after several years of separation.
Writing and recording
After the breakup of Cream, Clapton tried his hand with several groups, including Blind Faith and the husband-and-wife duo Delaney and Bonnie. In the spring of 1970, he was told that some members of Delaney and Bonnie's backup band, notably bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon, and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, were leaving the group. Seizing the opportunity, Clapton formed a new group, which became Derek and the Dominos.
During the recording of the album, Duane Allman joined Clapton's fledgling band as a guest. Clapton and Allman, already mutual fans, were introduced at an Allman Brothers concert by Tom Dowd. The two hit it off well and soon became good friends. Dowd said of their guitar-playing chemistry: "There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I've never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, 'Could you play that again, please?' It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other." Dowd was already famous for a variety of work and had worked with Clapton in his Cream days (Clapton once called him "the ideal recording man"); his work on the album would be another achievement. For the making of his biographical film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, he remixed the original master tapes of "Layla," saying, "There are my principles, in one form or another."
Clapton originally wrote "Layla" as a ballad, with lyrics describing his unrequited love for Boyd, but the song became a "rocker" when, according to Clapton, Allman composed the song's signature riff. With the band assembled and Dowd producing, "Layla" was recorded in its now-familiar rock form. The recording of the first section consisted of sixteen tracks of which six were guitar tracks: a rhythm track by Clapton, three tracks of harmonies played by Clapton (the main power chord riff on both channels and two harmonies against that main riff, one on the left channel and one on the right channel), a track of solos by Allman (fretted solos with bent notes during the verses and a slide solo during the outro), and one track with both Allman and Clapton playing duplicate solos (the 7-note "signature" riff doubled in two octaves and the 12-note "signature" riff doubled in unison). According to Clapton, Allman played the first seven notes of the 12-note "signature" riff fretted and the last five notes on slide in standard tuning. Each player used one input of the same two-input Fender Champ amplifier.
Shortly afterward, Clapton returned to the studio, where he heard Jim Gordon playing a piano piece he had composed separately. Clapton, impressed by the piece, convinced Gordon to allow it to be used as part of the song. Though only Gordon has been officially credited with this part, Whitlock claimed, "Jim took that piano melody from his ex-girlfriend Rita Coolidge. I know because in the D&B days I lived in John Garfield's old house in the Hollywood Hills and there was a guest house with an upright piano in it. Rita and Jim were up there in the guest house and invited me to join in on writing this song with them called 'Time.' ... Her sister Priscilla wound up recording it with Booker T. Jones. ... Jim took the melody from Rita's song and didn't give her credit for writing it. Her boyfriend ripped her off." "Time" ended up on the album Chronicles by Booker T. and Priscilla Jones which was released in 1973. Whitlock's story was echoed by Coolidge herself in her 2016 autobiography. The claim is also substantiated in Graham Nash's 2014 autobiography 'Wild Tales'.
"Layla's" second movement was recorded roughly a week after the first, with Gordon playing his piano part, Clapton playing acoustic guitar and slide guitar, and Allman playing electric and bottleneck slide guitar. After Dowd spliced the two movements together, "Layla" was complete.
Due to the circumstances of its composition, "Layla" is defined by two movements, each marked by a riff. The first movement, which was recorded in the key of D minor for choruses and C-sharp minor for verses, is centred around the "signature riff", a guitar piece utilising hammer-ons, pull-offs, and power chords. The first section contains the overdub-heavy slide guitar solo, played by Allman. By placing his slide at points beyond the end of the fretboard, Allman was able to play notes at a higher pitch than could be played with standard technique. Dowd referred to this as "notes that aren't on the instrument!"
The second movement, Jim Gordon's contribution, is commonly referred to as the "piano coda." Originally played in C major, the tape speed of the coda was increased slightly during mixing. The resulting pitch is somewhere between C and C sharp. The piano interlude at the end of the song is augmented by an acoustic guitar, and is also the accompaniment to the outro-solo. The same melody is also played on Allman's slide guitar a octave higher. Gordon does not improvise or deviate from the piano part; Clapton and Allman are the ones who improvise the melody. The song ends with Allman playing his signature high-pitched "bird call" on his slide guitar.
As Clapton commented on his signature song:
'Layla' is a difficult one, because it's a difficult song to perform live. You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going, but when you've got that. ... It's difficult to do as a quartet, for instance, because there are some parts you have to play and sing completely opposing lines, which is almost impossible to do. If you've got a big band, which I will have on the tour, then it will be easy to do something like 'Layla'—and I'm very proud of it. I love to hear it. It's almost like it's not me. It's like I'm listening to someone that I really like. Derek and The Dominos was a band I really liked—and it's almost like I wasn't in that band. It's just a band that I'm a fan of. Sometimes, my own music can be like that. When it's served its purpose to being good music, I don't associate myself with it any more. It's like someone else. It's easy to do those songs then.
Or, as his inspiration, Pattie Boyd, once said, "I think that he was amazingly raw at the time... He's such an incredible musician that he's able to put his emotions into music in such a way that the audience can feel it instinctively. It goes right through you."
- Eric Clapton – lead vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, slide guitar, acoustic guitar
- Duane Allman – lead guitar, slide guitar
- Bobby Whitlock – Hammond organ, piano, background vocals
- Carl Radle – bass guitar
- Jim Gordon – drums, percussion, piano
- Tom Dowd – producer
- Howard Albert, Ron Albert, Mack Emerman, Chuck Kirkpatrick, Karl Richardson - recording engineers
Beyond the original album
The album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs opened to lacklustre sales as the album never actually reached the music charts in the United Kingdom, possibly in part because Clapton's name was found only on the back cover. In addition, the song's length proved prohibitive for radio airplay. As a result, an edited version of the song, trimmed to 2:43, was released as a single in March 1971 by Atco Records in the United States. The version peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. When "Layla" was re-released on the 1972 compilations The History of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman's An Anthology and then released the full 7:10 version as a single, it charted at number seven in the United Kingdom and reached number 10 in the United States. With good sales figures, the Billboard magazine was able to rank the Rock single as the 60th best-selling song in 1972.
In 1982, "Layla" was re-released as a single in the United Kingdom, and peaked at number four. This time the whole seven-minute single charted, containing the trailing two-thirds which is instrumental only. Critical opinion since has been overwhelmingly positive. Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, wrote that "there are few moments in the repertoire of recorded rock where a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide... to me 'Layla' is the greatest of them." Marsh listed "Layla" at number 156 in his The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.
In May 1980, "Layla" was covered by the London Symphony Orchestra, but without the lyrics, being recorded at EMI Studio One, Abbey Road, London. A similar version has been performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. On 20 September 1983, a benefit show called the ARMS Charity Concert for Multiple Sclerosis at the Royal Albert Hall in London featured a jam with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page performing "Layla". Clapton, Beck, and Page were the Yardbirds' successive lead guitarists from 1963 to 1968.
In 2003, the Allman Brothers Band began playing the song in concert. Warren Haynes sang the vocal, Gregg Allman played the piano part, and Derek Trucks played Duane Allman's guitar parts during the coda. The performances were seen as a tribute not only to Allman, but also to producer Tom Dowd, who had died the previous year. Eric Clapton recorded yet a third version. "Layla" appears as track seven on Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Personnel on this version include Wynton Marsalis (vocals, trumpet), Eric Clapton (vocals, guitar), Victor Goines (clarinet), Marcus Printup (trumpet), Chris Crenshaw (trombone, vocals), Don Vappie (banjo), Chris Stainton (keyboards), Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums).
Charts and certifications
In 1992, Clapton was invited to play for the MTV Unplugged series. On 16 January 1992, he recorded an acoustic album, accompanied by a concert film, at the Bray Studios in Bray, Berkshire. Although the production team and Clapton's staff liked the recordings, Clapton did not want to release either the album or the concert film. Finally, Clapton agreed to release the album in a limited edition. When Unplugged sold out, Clapton gave Warner Bros. and Reprise Records the permission to delete the limited album production. For the album, Clapton decided to record both new material like "Tears in Heaven" and "Lonely Stranger" and old songs he grew up with such as "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" or enjoyed listening to or had written as a grown man like "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "Layla". Clapton, who plays acoustic guitar and sings on the live track, was backed by Andy Fairweather Low who played acoustic rhythm guitar, Nathan East on acoustic bass guitar and background vocals, Ray Cooper on percussion, Steve Ferrone on drums, Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles on background vocals as well as Chuck Leavell on piano. Pianist Chuck Leavell recalled that recording the acoustic version of "Layla" felt natural to him and liked that the band was given some space to play during the body of the song and not just during the reprise like it is on the original recording. "It gave us a chance to interpret the song in our way and it did work out well and it gave it a re-birth I think.", Leavell said. The acoustic version of "Layla" was produced by Russ Titelman.
Clapton recorded the acoustic version of "Layla" on a C.F. Martin & Co. steel-string acoustic guitar in OOO-42 style from 1939 which was hand built in Nazareth, Pennsylvania (No. OOO-42/73234). Clapton called this guitar one of the finest instruments he has ever used and called its sound "incredible". The auction house Christie's noted, "the guitar became one of the most enduring images of recent music history" being a part of the Unplugged album cover. Christie's expert for the musical department Kerry Keane called the instrument "in the hands of Eric Capton singly responsible for the repolarization of playing acoustic guitar today". When Keane played the guitar, he also remarked an "amazing" sound as the acoustic guitar seems to have a "wonderfully balanced tone [which is] loud and sweet at the same time with an incredible bass note." The vintage instrument was estimated to sell between $60,000 to $80,000 but was in the end sold for $791,500.
Rhythm acoustic guitar player Andy Fairweather Low was invited by Clapton to his flat in Chelsea, London to work out the songs to be recorded for the Unplugged album in January 1992. During the process, Clapton suggested that it would be a good idea to do another version of "Layla". Fairweather Low agreed because he had wanted to release one himself as a big Derek and the Dominos fan. Clapton thought that the perfect arrangement for the rock anthem would be a shuffle because he always liked changing the tempo of a song and looking at something from a different angle.
When Clapton was asked about the acoustic version of the song by the MTV Network, he replied: "'Layla' sort of mystified me. I have done it the same all these years and never ever considered trying to revamp it. And a lot of artists do that, you know? Bob Dylan for instance changes everything everytime he plays it and I thought this was another great opportunity to just take it off on a different path, to put it to a shuffle and for a start, making it acoustic denied all the riffs, really. They would have sounded a bit weak, I think, on the acoustic guitar, so it just seemed to become Jazzier somehow. And of course, I'm singing it a whole octave down. So it gives it a nice kind of atmosphere."
The song was written in the key of D minor which Clapton recalled pushed him to the top of his singing range. When Clapton slowed it down, Fairweather Low suggested Clapton should sing the track a whole octave down. The British Rock musician was pleased with the result as it sounded "nice" and "sort of Jazzy" to him. The new arrangement slowed down and re-worked the original riff and dispensed with the piano coda. Because Clapton changed the arrangement of his rock anthem so much, he decided to introduce this version to the unsuspecting live audience by stating: "See if you can spot this one."
AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine reviewed "Layla" seemed to be the Unplugged album's hit which the critic describes as a "slow crawl through Derek & the Dominos' version, turning that anguished howl of pain into a cozy shuffle and the whole album proceeds at a similar amiable gait, taking its time and enjoying detours into old blues standards." Journalist Steve Hochman called the acoustic version a "low-key but seductive recasting". Music broadcaster VH1 thinks the Unplugged version revealed Clapton's guitar skills in the acoustic setting, which was particularly obvious on the re-working of "Layla" that "stressed Clapton's tender side without forfeitting intensity." Entertainment Weekly journalists picked the tune as the mega hit off the Unplugged album. The critics especially liked Leavell's piano work on the song, saying that it "adds a smoky-jazz-joint torch-song ambience that's both expectation shattering and emotionally compelling to the tune".
In 1970, Jamrock Entertainment listed "Layla" as the best song of the year. Acclaimed Music rated the original version as the best song of 1970 and the 12th most popular song of the 1970s. In 1972, "Layla" was one of the most performed songs of the year, and was just a year after its original release considered a "Rock standard". With its re-release in 1982, the Rock song cemented its reputation as a global Rock hit track. The tune features one of the most iconic Rock guitar riffs of all-time, and it is one of the popular songs written about a woman. It is featured on a number of "greatest ever" lists. The song was chosen by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of their "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll", and Rolling Stone ranked the song at #27 on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The Recording Industry Association of America ranked "Layla" at number 118 on their Songs of the Century on March 7, 2001. Music critic Dave Marsh placed the tune on number two for his "Best Singles of the Year 1972" compilation. With its makeover in 1992 for the Unplugged album, "Layla" became an all-time hit song, as it won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song in 1993, and was broadcast nonstop in 1992 and 1993 on the radio, in stores, and on television around the globe. In 1992, "Layla" was the most performed song of the year, and won a BMI Broadcasting Award for radio and television appearances of the 1992 "Layla" for more than two million times in summer of 1994 – just one and a half years after "Layla" had been released as an acoustic version. As of 2011, "Layla" attained more than six million broadcasts on television and the radio or performances on other records and during live concerts.