Please Don’t Say We’ll Never Find a Way

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(Pictured: Eric Clapton grins at the camera, Johnny Cash stands at attention, and Jim Gordon checks out a cymbal during a taping of The Johnny Cash Show in November 1970.)

In recent weeks, I’ve written about “Free Bird” and “Stairway to Heaven,” so it’s only fitting that we bring the classic-rock warhorse troika to completion with a look at “Layla.”

Eric Clapton had written “Layla,” about his unrequired love for George Harrison’s wife Patti, as a ballad. When Clapton and Duane Allman met and started playing together, it was Allman who developed the riff that turned it into a rocker. The song’s second half came from a piece Derek and the Dominos’ drummer/pianist Jim Gordon was working on while the band was making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The story is told that Gordon was taking advantage of unused studio time for his own solo project; when Clapton found out, he said he wouldn’t make an issue of it if he could have that piano piece. Producer/engineer Tom Dowd got the idea of splicing the rockin’ guitar take to the piano piece, and “Layla” became “Layla.”

At ARSA, a newspaper clipping from Salt Lake City shows a radio station there was ranking “Layla” among its top hits in December 1970, but it didn’t begin to get real traction as a single until March 1971. Although it would get only to #51 on the Hot 100 during that chart run, it was a smash in several cities that spring, most notably at WIXY in Cleveland, where it was #1 for three weeks. It was a Top 10 hit in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Denver, and it got airplay on influential stations including WPGC in Washington, WCFL in Chicago, KOIL in Omaha, and KFRC in San Francisco.

The original single release in 1970 contained the first part of the song only. In the spring of 1972, “Layla” was re-released as a single after being included on the compilation albums History of Eric Clapton and An Anthology by Duane Allman (who had died in a motorcycle crash the previous October). One issue of the single contained the full 7:06 version, but Discogs shows another version with “Layla Part 1” on one side and “Layla Part 2” on the other. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember hearing the full version on the radio when it ran to #10 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1972—only the first part. Every American Top 40 show I have heard from that period includes the short version.

I don’t think I heard the full version of “Layla” until I was in high school, maybe five years after it first came out. In college, all of us considered it a classic. Because the college station played it from History of Eric Clapton, we also considered it a Clapton song (as distinct from Derek and the Dominos), and lots of fans still think of it as one.

Part of that is due to the MTV Unplugged version, which got to #12 on the Hot 100 in the fall of 1992, and won the Grammy that Clapton should have won two decades before. On the record, Clapton is heard saying, “See if you can spot this one,” before breaking into an acoustic version of Allman’s riff. I loved the unplugged “Layla” the first few times I heard it, due to its novelty. Now I hear a version without sweat or emotion, with sound quality so pristine that it sounds vacuum-sealed—a characteristic it shares with other MTV Unplugged recordings in my library.

“Stairway to Heaven” has the graceful lines of a sculpture. “Free Bird” is a sad parting that somehow turns into a fireworks display. In the first half of “Layla,” Clapton roars his pain at everyone within earshot; in the second half is the exhausted knowledge that comes afterward: roar all you want, son, but you love her still.

5 thoughts on “Please Don’t Say We’ll Never Find a Way

  1. “The story is told that Gordon was taking advantage of unused studio time for his own solo project”
    The story is also told that Gordon lifted the piano piece from his amour of the moment, Rita Coolidge, who doubtless would have enjoyed the royalties that would have resulted from a proper co-credit.

    At the time of Live Aid I was 12 years old and not yet intimately acquainted with “Layla.” I taped the first half of the song off the radio but stopped the tape when it seemed to be winding down. Only later did I discover I’d only taped half the song.

    I have never liked the Unplugged version, which I thought drained all the passion out of the song and left it sterile. That said, it would suck to be Eric Clapton and be expected to reopen that same vein of pain to play “Layla” every night on stage.
    Perhaps the Unplugged version was Clapton’s way of saying, “Yeah, I felt that pain for a long time, but now we’re not going to go there any more.”

  2. Chris Herman

    “Jimmy was cutting every link between himself and the robbery, but it had nothing to do with me. I gave Jimmy the tip and he gave me some Christmas money. From then on I kept my mouth shut. I knew Jimmy, he had the cash. It was his. I know he kicked some money upstairs to Paulie, but that was it. It made him sick to have to turn money over to the guys who stole it, he’d rather whack them. Anyway, what did I care? I wasn’t asking for anything and besides Jimmy was making nice money through my Pittsburgh connections. Still, for months after the robbery, they were finding bodies all over. When they found Carbone in the meat truck, he was frozen so stiff it took them two days to thaw him out for the autopsy.”

  3. Yah Shure

    “Layla” didn’t get much traction as a single until March of 1971, because Atco didn’t ship promo 45s until the last week of February. My college station’s copy arrived on March 3rd. 1970 couldn’t have been a correct U.S. 45 release date for one other reason: “Bell Bottom Blues”. That Atco 45 had come into the station on January 20th.

    No two-part single was released in the U.S. by Atco. I did notice a counterfeit Atco pressing in the oldies 45 racks at the distributor I was working at in 1976. Everything about it looked wrong: crappy quality vinyl, not at all like any legit Atco pressing, from either 1971 or ’72. Labels were matte all-white, instead of glossy white and yellow; the “Layla” side’s title font was lifted from the east coast 1972 pressing, which would have meant the 7:10 version, although the counterfeit listed and played the 2:43 edit… in stereo, unlike any legit Atco stock 45. On the flip, “I Am Yours” used the fonts from the ’71 east coast release (Specialty Records, which pressed Atlantic’s east coast promo and stock 45s, had changed its type fonts at some point between the two releases.)

    There’s also a counterfeit red wax Atco 45 posted on discogs, which looks to have the same parentage as the above counterfeit, save for having a white and yellow label.

    Why would anyone bother counterfeiting a “Layla” 45? Atco had lost the U.S. rights when Robert Stigwood took his Polydor catalog over to Polygram, and the latter wasn’t about to cannibalize sales of its Layla LP reissue. Demand from jukebox operators remained strong, however. Polydor did do a “Layla” U.S. pressing run at the former Capitol Scranton plant (with “Bell Bottom Blues” on the flip), but this ‘History of Eric Clapton’ tie-in was strictly for export, as indicated by its European Polydor catalog number.

    I did get in a Part 1 “Layla” 45 in January of ’75, but it was the cover by Ronnie Charles with the London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Choir on 20th Century Records. Part 2 didn’t make it to the promo 45.

    It’s too bad James Brown never covered “Layla”. I would have loved to have heard Parts 15 & 16 on the B side.

    “Layla” holds a special meaning for me, but not in a way any normal person would ever conceive. It’s what I call “The Jägermeister Incident”, which involved one of my college fraternity brothers getting teetotaler me plastered on the sfuff, which led to me playing the “Layla” 45, minus the center-hole spindle, as off-centered as it would go, over the air on the frat’s pirate FM station I ran in my room.

    My next recollection was waking up down in the basement in the middle of the afternoon the following day, and while trying to piece together how I’d gotten there, one of my other brothers mentioned something about my chasing him around the kitchen with a peanut butter knife. The traumatizing incident produced a lasting effect: I swore I would never, ever mistreat a 45 like that again.

    Oh, and a second effect: avoiding Jägermeister at all costs.

  4. porky

    And here I was expecting a break-down of the live version of the Outlaws” “Green Grass and High Tides……”

    On the unplugged “Layla,” in my head I always heard a dixieland trombone and clarinet braying right before he sings the chorus. Brrrrrrrip…!!! Anyone else? Nah, didn’t think so.

    What about “After Midnight?” When it was used in that beer commercial that slow version was the only one they played. Now that’s disappeared and the up-tempo AM hit version is all you hear. Or again is that just me?

  5. I don’t recall hearing any version but the full-length one in 1972; every time I heard the record on the radio, I waited for the piano coda (and you’ve summarized its impact cogently with your “exhausted knowledge” comment) because as I listened, I was learning to sort out the chords so I could play it myself. It was one of the first somewhat complicated pieces I learned entirely by ear instead of from sheet music.

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