Derek and the Dominoes originally released Layla in 1970, and Eric Clapton recorded his MTV Unplugged version in 1992.
These two renderings of the song couldn’t be more different. But which one is better?
We’re taking a closer look at the song’s origins and its diverse recordings.
Who Originally Wrote Layla?
Hailing from England and widely considered one of the best rock guitarists ever, Eric Clapton began performing in the United States with his band Cream in the 1960s. When the band broke up in 1968, he began touring with the rhythm section of Delaney & Bonnie’s backup band.
While on tour, he met drummer, Jim Gordon. Instead of attending UCLA on a music scholarship, Gordon began his professional career in the early 1960s. He toured with the Everly Brothers and played on albums such as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Gordon often played evening shows in Las Vegas and flew to Los Angeles to record during the day. He joined Delaney & Bonnie’s backup band in 1969.
Clapton and Gordon scooped up the rest of the backing band’s rhythm section. With bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, they formed a new group called Derek and the Dominos. The new band played on Clapton’s solo album and eventually put out their own album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Clapton and Gordon wrote the titular song together in 1970. The Unplugged version of Layla didn’t come out until much later.
What Was the Creative Process for Layla?
The song was inspired both by a story of Arab origin and a real-life experience. The story follows a poet that falls madly in love with Layla, who married another.
Similarly, Eric Clapton collaborated on songs with George Harrison of the Beatles in the early 1960s. During this time, Clapton fell in love with Harrison’s wife, Pattie. She eventually married Clapton in 1979, though they divorced nine years later. She recalls that she “wasn’t so happy when Eric wrote ‘Layla’ while [she] was still married to George.”
The main guitar riff emulates one written by blues guitarist Albert King for his song As The Years Go Passing By. The Dominos also paid tribute to jazz legend Charlie Parker, known as Bird. Duane Allman played a crying bird sound at the end of the track.
Gordon took credit for writing the piano ending for the track. Although in recent years, it’s been acknowledged that his ex-girlfriend, Rita Coolidge, wrote the riff.
Layla: The Studio Version
Clapton’s signature guitar sound starts the track out strong. The second half of the song recorded a week later, sounds entirely different. You can hear both Clapton and Allman playing slide guitar over the piano riff written by Coolidge. Make sure you listen to the end of the track to hear Allman’s tribute to Charlie Parker, the bird chirps.
The original studio version of the song, released in 1970, struggled to gain traction compared to the Unplugged Layla. Over seven minutes, the length proved a prohibitive factor in radio airplay. Though Eric Clapton and several of his collaborators already had an established reputation in the rock world, the lack of their names on the album cover caused it to fly under the radar.
In 1971, a shortened version of the song began enjoying more radio time. This version cut out the piano section during the song’s second half, making it closer to three minutes long. When Layla came out a third time in 1972, the original seven-minute track finally broke into the top 10 of the Billboard 100 charts. It also placed seventh on the UK singles chart.
Layla: MTV Unplugged
In 1993, Eric Clapton won a Grammy award for Best Rock Song for his live, acoustic recording of Layla. He also won Grammys for Best Album of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for his MTV Unplugged album.
This version of the song doesn’t open with the screaming signature guitar riff or end with the piano outro heard in the studio version. Instead, Clapton takes a more subtle approach with his acoustic guitar. The rendering finds the intersection of blues and rock music, creating Clapton’s most authentic sound.
Who Has Covered Layla?
You may have heard the original recording of this song by Derek and the Dominos, or maybe it was Clapton’s acoustic cover. But artists from around the world have also covered this famous song. If you love the song Layla, definitely check out some of these covers. You might find a new favorite rendition.
The Charlie Daniels Band
If you’ve heard the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, then you’ve heard The Charlie Daniel’s Band. This band covers Layla with fiddles playing the signature guitar licks and a signature bluegrass twang. The version covers the upbeat first part of the song and omits the outro, offering listeners an exciting three-minute version of the tune.
Collin Raye’s interpretation is a must-listen for a proper country version of Clapton’s hit. He performs the cover on the compilation album Gone Country ‘70s Rock. This rendition lays the slide guitar on heavy during the opening section and includes a shortened version of the piano outro to close the track.
Tedeschi Trucks Band Featuring Trey Anastasio
Typically known for their bluegrass music, this Florida-based band released their 2019 live performance of Layla. The Tedeschi Trucks Band closely emulates the original, from the screaming guitar solos (okay, maybe a few extra guitar solos) to the eight-minute run time. You can even hear the bird chirps at the end.
What is Eric Clapton Doing Now?
In 2016, Clapton added to his extensive catalog by releasing his 23rd album, I Still Do. Since then, he’s been touring around the world. After wrapping up a tour in the US in 2022, he will be ringing in the new year with a show in Great Britain before heading to Japan for several shows.
At 77 years old and with more than 60 years of professional experience, it seems Clapton may begin slowing down soon. He’s struggling with gradual hearing loss due to tinnitus for nearly a decade. Additionally, doctors diagnosed Clapton with peripheral neuropathy. Unfortunately, he’s had to cancel some shows because of these health problems.
Layla Is Timeless, Unplugged or Not
Eric Clapton has contributed monumentally to the world of rock, and his songs continue to be cherished by many. It took two years for Layla to become popular, and it was another 22 years before the Unplugged version won a Grammy. This tune truly stands the test of time regardless of how it’s performed. In our minds, each is a classic.
Which version is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!