Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Derek and the Dominos

album cover

When Eric Met Duane. . .

In 1970, the recording engineer Tom Dowd brokered one of the most auspicious meetings in rock history—between guitarist Eric Clapton and the slide-guitar master Duane Allman. Clapton was working with Dowd at Miami's Criteria Studios, attempting to shake off the bitter demise of Blind Faith with a new group that included keyboardist and singer Bobby Whitlock. After a few days of what Dowd describes as "getting sounds and breaking ice," Allman called, curious to see the British guitar legend in person. Clapton's group went to watch the Allman Brothers play instead, and after the concert, the musicians partied all night, eventually repairing to the studio the next afternoon. Dowd: "We turned the tapes on, and they went on for fifteen, eighteen hours like that. I went through two or three sets of engineers."

Those jams—furious marathons based loosely on blues songs (Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor") and simple riffs—set the stage for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, a multidimensional rock landmark. Clapton was, according to legend, at loose ends during this time: He'd fallen in love with Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison, and was deeply troubled—a pain evident not just on the celebrated title track he wrote with Jim Gordon, but also such apt covers as Freddie King's sorrowful blues about messing with a friend's wife, "Have You Ever Loved a Woman."

Fueled by cocaine, heroin, and Johnny Walker ("It was scary," Whitlock recalls, because "we didn't have little bits of anything. . .. We had these big bags laying out everywhere"), the group went from open jamming to developing actual songs, among them the beseeching "Bell Bottom Blues." The basic concept was rock, pitched at the whiplash frequency of Memphis soul. The band worked up nontraditional approaches to old blues (this "Key to the Highway" has a searing energy that far outstrips Clapton's more scholarly later blues), and then recorded the masterpiece "Layla" as a suite, in stages.

Inspired by the Persian poet Nizami's romantic fable The Story of Layla and Majnun, Clapton wrote lyrics that expressed a worshipful devotion, and surrounded the verses with a guitar phrase, authored by Allman, that endures as a rock and roll national anthem. Then, when things can go no higher, comes the postcoital cigarette—in the form of a reflective elegy, written on piano by Gordon, that allows Allman and Clapton to have a more leisurely discussion. Their combined mojo takes everyone to church, where the impassioned whirling-dervish embrace of two swooning, imploring guitars leads to a state of illuminated bliss. Transcendence-wise, this is as close as rock gets to Coltrane's quartet collectively hitting the rafters at the Village Vanguard, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in an unshakable trance, or . . .

Genre: Rock
Released: 1971, Polydor
Key Tracks: "Layla," "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," "Key to the Highway."
Catalog Choice: The Layla Sessions (three discs, contains the studio jams)
Next Stop: John Coltrane Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard
After That: J. J. Cale: Troubadour
Book Pages: 219–220

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#1 from Rob Ardura, Richmond,Va - 09/09/2012 10:06

This album is very personal to me. The way Eric plays and everything he says has a very strong emotional resonance for me.

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