Eric Clapton’s Layla – His Greatest Song

Eric Clapton’s Layla. One of the greatest rock songs ever to be recorded in history.

When it comes to the blues-rock repertoire, few musicians have made as many important contributions as Mr. Eric Clapton. Just to name a few of the songs he’s added to the catalog: Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Derek and the Dominos’ “Bell Bottom Blues,” and solo songs like “Lay Down Sally,” “My Father’s Eyes,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” But above all of these towers a song that is so legendary, so historic, so damn good, that it’s in a class by itself. That song would be Eric Clapton’s Layla.

My first exposure to Layla, when I was a wee lad, was not the familiar version, but the acoustic performance from the Unplugged album. I’m sure you’ve all heard but just in case you haven’t in awhile, here’s a refresher for you:

It’s a great performance, and since I didn’t know any better, I thought it was pretty definitive. The re-worked Layla, with its re-arranged acoustic guitar riff and its slower tempo, was a big hit for Clapton in the States, reaching #12 on the pop charts. Moreover, in what many consider to be a huge upset, the song beat Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for best rock song at the 1992 Grammy’s. 

But as you know, and as I now know, that version of Eric Clapton’s Layla wasn’t definitive at all! Layla, of course, was originally written and recorded when Eric Clapton was with blues-rock band Derek and the Dominos. Actually, that’s not exactly true. The first half of Layla was written by Clapton, but the second half, the riveting and stunningly gorgeous piano coda, was actually composed by Derek and the Dominos’ drummer, Jim Gordon. So Layla was actually written as two songs, not one.

What was the inspiration for the passionate love song, Eric Clapton’s Layla? There’s an old Persian story called The Story of Layla and Majnun, written by Nizami Ganjavi in the 12 century, a copy of which was given to Eric Clapton by Ian Dallas. The story is about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but is forbidden to marry her by her father. Majnun has so much desire for the woman that he loses his mind. Clapton found the story to be highly moving, given his own love for an unavailable woman at the time – George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. Clapton did eventually marry Boyd, so the real life version of events had somewhat of a happy ending (they also later divorced). 

Of course, no article on Eric Clapton’s Layla would be complete without the mention of the phenomenal contribution of Duane Allman on the track. Allman and Clapton were already fans of each others’ work when they were introduced at a concert by rock producer Tom Dowd. Tom Dowd, you may remember, also produced a certain album called A New Day Yesterday, by one Joe Bonamassa. But I digress. Anyway, Clapton and Allman hit it off swimmingly, and their guitar playing together? Even better!  Dowd has said, “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.” Funny enough, Clapton originally wrote the song as a quiet ballad-type song – perhaps closer to the version we know from the Unplugged album. The story goes, however, that Duane Allman came up with the song’s signature riff and that from then on it was definitely a rocker. 

And so it went, and thus, one of rock music’s greatest achievement was born. Eric Clapton’s Layla has, over time, reached iconic status, making all kinds of “greatest songs” lists and landing in the #27 slot of Rolling Stone’s famous “500 Greatest Songs” article. It played an essential part in the film Goodfellas, which I wrote about here. I even planned to play it at my wedding, that’s how great it is. I kid, I kid (but it’s true). 

Eric Clapton’s Layla may or may not be your favorite Clapton song (it happens to be mine), but I don’t think anyone can deny that it’s Clapton’s greatest song, and certainly his signature piece. The one critique I have of the song is that it never quite, in my mind, lived up to its studio counterpart when played live – I miss the slide guitar contributions from Duane Allman too much during the piano coda of the piece. But who knows. Maybe someday I’ll hear a live version of Eric Clapton’s Layla that will blow my mind. Perhaps Clapton will invite a very special guest guitarist out to play it with him sometime. **Hint Hint Joe Bonamassa Hint Hint.**

– Brian R.
J&R Adventures

Check out Tribut Apparel’s blog on Eric Clapton: http://blog.tributapparel.com/music/eric-clapton-rises-10-ways-a-bluesman-becomes-a-legend/

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