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The Evolution of Layla

The Evolution of Layla

If you’re a rock and roll fan, you’ve probably heard the song, Layla. If you’re not a rock enthusiast, you’ve probably still listened to the tune.

But have you heard the origin story of the 70s hit? We dug it up and felt it was worthy enough to share with you.

Let’s check it out!

Who Originally Wrote Layla?

Eric Clapton wrote Layla in 1970. Although Jim Gordon has credit as co-writer, Clapton created most of the composition.

Eric Clapton is an English musician and songwriter born in 1945. He’s known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He started playing guitar during his teens, influenced hugely by American blues artists such as Muddy Waters. He played in several bands from 1963 to 1971, including The Yardbirds and Cream.

As Clapton’s notoriety increased, so did his drug abuse. He drank excessively and did most drugs placed in front of him. By 1971 he was addicted to heroin and stopped writing and performing for approximately two years. Luckily, friends and fellow musicians such as Pete Townsend helped him kick the habit by 1974.

By the mid-70s, Clapton was making his mark as a solo artist. Although he would record 18 studio albums, his popularity peaked in two distinct timeframes. This first crest was in the late 70s and early 80s with hits like Lay Down Sally and Wonderful Tonight.

Clapton’s second pinnacle hit in the early to mid-90s. He wrote Tears in Heaven after the unimaginable death of his four-year-old son. Like many artists, Clapton needed songwriting to get him through his terrible loss. Clapton won three Grammys for the top-charting song.

Eric Clapton has released over 90 singles and has toured for over five decades.

How Layla Became the Song We Know Today

One of the most well-known songs by Eric Claption is, of course, Layla. Although the single didn’t chart high initially, Layla was already considered a rock standard by 1972. It has been used in numerous movie soundtracks and has scored countless accolades by the record industry.

Let’s take a look at the evolution of Layla. 

The Words

Lyrically, two things very close to Clapton’s heart inspired Layla. First, an ancient Arabic poetic story called Layla and Majnun. The poem is about young Majnun, who falls hopelessly in love with young Layla. Unfortunately, they cannot marry, and Majnun becomes mad with obsession. 

This tragic love story hit a nerve with Clapton. Clapton was good friends with The Beatles guitarist George Harrison. Harrison was married to Patty Boyd beginning in 1966. And Clapton was smitten with her for years. The fact that Clapton was in love with his best friend’s wife drove him crazy.

The silver lining was that this struggle inspired great music. Clapton wrote Layla as a cloaked love letter to Boyd. And many say he wrote the entire album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, for her. Either way, the lyrics are powerfully bold.

Layla, you've got me on my knees
Layla, I'm begging, darling please
Layla, darling won't you ease my worried mind

The Music

One of the most interesting things about Layla is that it almost feels like two songs. Although each section or movement could stand on its own, they complement each other. The first part feels like a declaration. The second is what happened as a result. Which, in this case, is admission to a lovelorn defeat.

From Ballad to Rocker

Clapton wrote the first part of Layla as a ballad. He had the song laid out before taking it to the studio. But record producer Tom Dowd felt like it needed a slightly different direction. Dowd felt like all of the recording sessions were a bit sluggish. 

He came up with a great way to inspire Clapton. Dowd took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert and introduced him to everyone. Clapton hit it off with the band and became good friends with guitarist Duane Allman.

Dowd’s bet paid off, and Duane Allman ended up contributing his talent to the session recordings. Allman sped up the opening riff for Layla, taking the song into a more rockin’ direction. Dowd could now produce Layla as a rocker, not a ballad. 

They layered in multiple guitar tracks, and power chords and leads played back and forth between Allman and Clapton. The song took flight!

Several sessions later, the team completed Layla, adding the piano coda when Clapton decided it would make a great ending. 

The Controversy

When Rita Coolidge heard Layla on the radio in 1970, she was livid. The second half of the piece, the piano coda, sounded exactly like her song called Time. 

Coolidge and her boyfriend, Jim Gordon, wrote the tune earlier that year. The couple shopped it to Clapton via a demo tape, but nothing came of it, at least not immediately. In 1973, another artist recorded and released Time. 

Meanwhile, Gordon was drumming for Clapton’s new band, Derek and the Dominos. This short-lived band only recorded one album, which is where Layla made its debut. When Clapton was struggling with a proper ending for Layla, Gordon offered up the demo he and Coolidge had showcased earlier. 

Apparently, neither Gordon nor Clapton thought to credit Coolidge for co-writing the piano arrangement.

Clapton’s manager shut down the issue of Coolidge’s writing credit. However, years later, Dominos singer Bobby Whitlock backed up the claims made by Coolidge. 

According to Whitlock, he was there when Gordon and Coolidge wrote the song together. He witnessed it. Whitlock also claims he played support piano on the recording of Layla, as Gordon was not especially good on the keys. 

Rita Coolidge, on the other hand, is a professional piano player. Although Coolidge was never officially credited, many musicians and fans agree that she deserves it.

Who First Recorded Layla?

It’s confusing, isn’t it? When we think of Layla, we think of Eric Clapton. All of those years of radio airplay – Eric Clapton. But the proper original credit goes to Derek and The Dominos.

You might be wondering who the heck Derek is. Derek is essentially Eric Clapton, and three musician friends were The Dominos. Derek and The Dominos were formed from a desire by Clapton and colleagues to play music in an unknown band. Clapton was tired of some of the consequences of fame. Mainly the crazy fans that followed him. He craved anonymity.

After touring with a project called Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Clapton grabbed collaborators from the great pool of musicians that were involved. Along with Jim Gordon and Bobby Whitlock, Clapton got bassist Carl Randle and various session musicians.

Derek and the Dominos was around just long enough to record and release Layla. The album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released in the fall of 1970 and the single shortly thereafter. The band broke up in the fall of 1971. 

Is there an acoustic version of Layla?

Yes! One of the best things MTV ever did was MTV Unplugged. In this series, the music channel invited artists to play acoustic sets in front of a live audience. 

The 1992 episode with Clapton shifted history for both Clapton and MTV. Critical reception was off the charts. The result was the full Unplugged album by Clapton released in 1992. It sold over 26 million copies and is the best-selling live album of all time.

Layla’s Story is Compelling

The evolution of Layla is as exciting and layered as the song itself. We have heartache, Arabian poetry, and MTV Unplugged. The hit traveled a long and prosperous journey to become one of the most memorable rock songs in history. 

What are your thoughts on Layla?

Michael Miller

Tuesday 15th of February 2022

Incredible tune. But, I am a huge Duane Allman fan and feel he didn’t get the credit that was truly deserved for the Layla album. While the world thought Clapton is god, Clapton recognized him as the guitar brother that he never had. The song Layla is incredible. Dig into the entire album and it is even more so. Especially the song Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad. Allman shines through and through. Two of the most incredible guitar virtuoso’s we will ever see.