(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.