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Boomer Ballads: Layla, the love song wherein lurks murder, insanity, death, and rebirth

A blistering and rare performance from Clapton’s Classic Cocaine Period that basically blows out the back walls of the concert hall (with an assist from Phil Collins on the drums–  good to the last pop.).  We advise full screen and speakers up combined with a deep rocking dance around the room. Go ahead. Nobody’s watching.


The opening five bars of Layla

Layla was inspired by a love story that originated in 7th-century Arabia and later formed the basis of The Story of Layla and Majnun by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, a copy of which Ian Dallas had given to Clapton. The book moved Clapton profoundly, because it was the tale of a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful young girl, went crazy and so could not marry her. The song was further inspired by Clapton’s then unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow musician George Harrison of the Beatles. Clapton and Boyd would eventually marry.

As Clapton commented on the song: ‘Layla’ is a difficult one, because it’s a difficult song to perform live. You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going, but when you’ve got that. … It’s difficult to do as a quartet, for instance, because there are some parts you have to play and sing completely opposing lines, which is almost impossible to do. If you’ve got a big band, which I will have on the tour, then it will be easy to do something like ‘Layla’—and I’m very proud of it. I love to hear it. It’s almost like it’s not me. It’s like I’m listening to someone that I really like. Derek and The Dominos was a band I really liked—and it’s almost like I wasn’t in that band. It’s just a band that I’m a fan of. Sometimes, my own music can be like that. When it’s served its purpose to being good music, I don’t associate myself with it anymore. It’s like someone else.

Pattie Boyd wrote: “We met secretly at a flat in South Kensington. Eric Clapton had asked me to come because he wanted me to listen to a new number he had written. He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume, and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard. It was Layla, about a man who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who loves him but is unavailable. He played it to me two or three times, all the while watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was: ‘Oh God, everyone’s going to know this is about me.’

“I wasn’t so happy when Eric wrote ‘Layla,’ while I was still married to George. I felt I was being exposed. I was amazed and thrilled at the song – it was so passionate and devastatingly dramatic – but I wanted to hang on to my marriage. Eric made this public declaration of love. I resisted his attentions for a long time – I didn’t want to leave my husband. But obviously when things got so excruciatingly bad for George and me it was the end of our relationship. We both had to move on. Layla was based on a book by a 12th-century Persian poet called Nizami about a man who is in love with an unobtainable woman. The song was fantastically painful and beautiful. After I married Eric we were invited out for an evening and he was sitting round playing his guitar while I was trying on dresses upstairs. I was taking so long and I was panicking about my hair, my clothes, everything, and I came downstairs expecting him to really berate me but he said, ‘Listen to this!’ In the time I had taken to get ready he had written “Wonderful Tonight.”

Despite the lyrics being so marked by Clapton’s personal tribulations, the composition was largely shaped by guest collaborator Duane Allman, who devised that brazenly confrontational intro riff, and who helped transform Clapton’s early, self-pitying balladic draft into a bravura rock showpiece.

Such is the impact of those opening few bars that it’s easy to forget that two-thirds of Layla consists of an extended outro, written by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon –although he lifted the tune from a song written by his ex-girlfriend Rita Coolidge, which she later released as “Time” in 1973.***

[Verse 1]
What’ll you do when you get lonely
And nobody’s waiting by your side
You’ve been running and hiding much too long
You know it’s just your foolish pride

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

[Verse 2]
I tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down
Like a fool, I fell in love with you
Turned my whole world upside down

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

[Verse 3]
Let’s make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane
Please don’t say we’ll never find a way
And tell me all my love’s in vain

[Chorus 2X]
Layla, you’ve got me on my knees
Layla, I’m begging, darling please
Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind

[Instrumental Outro]

*** Layla, the love anthem wherein lurks murder, insanity, death.The coda was credited to drummer Jim Gordon, who played the main piano part while Allman contributed the (slightly off-key) slide guitar. But years later, it was revealed that Gordon had stolen the melody of the “Layla” coda from his ex-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge (who was living with Gordon in early 1970 but who left him after he gave her a black eye in the hallway of New York’s Warwick Hotel) had written the music for a song called “Time,” and knew Gordon had stolen her melody, but — afraid of his temper — decided to shine it on.

Gordon continued to work steadily after the Derek and the Dominos sessions. (You can hear his work on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” among others). But years of cycling between heroin, cocaine and alcohol had taken a grim toll on the talented musician.

Through the 1970s, Gordon wrestled with acute schizophrenia. He was paranoid. He heard voices. He became convinced his mother was evil, and had killed Karen Carpenter and comedian Paul Lynde. Finally, in 1983, he murdered his own mother, bludgeoning her with a hammer before stabbing her with a butcher knife. Jim Gordon, the man whose piano-playing on the “Layla” coda has brought grown men to tears, is halfway through his thirtieth year in prison in Vacaville, Calif., where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.    Music: The tragedy of the ‘Layla’ coda 

As recorded and released.

Rita Coolidge’s “Time” in 1973

(Below) The Love Story of Layla in greater detail.


HT: Kevin in PA

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tim March 2, 2021, 1:08 PM

    Timely – “On March 7, 2018, Gordon was denied parole for the tenth time and is tentatively scheduled to become eligible again in March 2021.”

  • David Smith March 2, 2021, 1:34 PM

    That looks a whole lot like Phil Collins on drums.

  • nunnya bidnez, jrn March 2, 2021, 1:48 PM

    geez, put down the pipe man.

  • gwbnyc March 2, 2021, 1:53 PM

    I have only to offer a blasphemous line drawn in the sand-

    the tune:

    one lick for (+/-) 3.5 minutes followed by the other lick for the same.

    nobody can sing.

    the album:

    gets a “carbon monoxide” rating.

    one listenable: “She’s Gone”- close to true R&R. saw them perform it on the old Johnny Cash TV program, plus a tune with Carl Perkins.

    wrap-up: talented, drugged young men who, were they writers, sorely needed an editor.

    (pulls hatch down) *CLANK*

  • Kevin in PA March 2, 2021, 2:59 PM

    Layla is truly one of my all time fav rock anthems. The version at the top was a bit speedy for my tastes…the coke, you know.

    Allow me to share a fond memory about a road trip from Seattle to Eugene to attend a weekend Grateful Dead show, early nineties. An old HS pal and I got the tickets and were set for a weekend of camping in the lush Oregon forest by night and rocking out at Autzen Stadium (U of O) during the day.

    Truck is packed with the gear for a righteous weekend. Radiantly sunny August afternoon. One of those long waited for Summer days in the Pacific NorthWet, after months of soggy, rainy, gray. We are cruising 75 down I-5, of course slowing down a bit as we cross the state line. There’s always radar at the state lines. We’ve made excellent time, so far and then, traffic on the interstate comes to a complete and dead stop…..and we sat and sat for a very long time, enjoying the weather and the tunes, in spite of being stuck.

    One of the tunes happened to be a John Fahey instrumental version of Layla. Fahey had a very clean way of playing that I especially liked and of course, his was an acoustic guitar. Both of us having grown up in the same circles and listened to the same music of the day, as the Layla began, both of us sort of instinctively began to whistle the tune together in sync and didn’t miss a note right to the end.
    Great memory.

  • Vanderleun March 2, 2021, 5:07 PM

    Collins…. oh my god yes…..brain fart… I shall now go sit in the corner and wear the pointy hat until my mind returns. Thanks.

    And double thanks to Kevin in PA. Fahey is a great guitarist and undeservedly obscure. I knew him slightly during the time he was recording for Denson at Takoma.

  • H (science denier) March 2, 2021, 5:21 PM

    Holy hell, Gerard, I knew about the Patty Boyd/Harrison connection but not about any of the rest of it. Thanks VERY MUCH for putting this up for us – and it might be a good one to run again every so often, if you don’t mind me saying.

  • ama deplorable March 2, 2021, 8:17 PM

    This song always seems to evoke a deep love or a simmering hatred. Myself, I love it, it grips my heart. Thank you for the details on the backstory.

  • Anonymous March 3, 2021, 3:54 AM

    “…helped transform Clapton’s early, self-pitying balladic draft into a bravura rock showpiece”
    Yes, the self-pitying Clapton is revealed as a whiner elsewhere, and as gwbnyc accurately said “no one can sing”. Allman did the pop rock world a favor with his contribution but like most other super-popular poppy work this one is waaaaay overdone.
    And please don’t let Clapton sing.
    But like friend Sippican said “Like what you like, I don’t care”; to each etc.

  • Dan Patterson March 3, 2021, 3:55 AM

    That was me, above.
    I did the enter before I did the “me” part.

  • Cris March 3, 2021, 8:46 AM

    Kevin, Thanks for the intro to John Fahey. He was somebody I’d missed.

  • Jack March 3, 2021, 11:34 AM

    My wife and I loving argue about the greatest rock anthem and she says it’s Layla while I tend to lean toward Jessica. She’s right of course but I think Dickie Betts is equally on par with Clapton, just in a different way….probably interpretation/delivery.

    As for John Fahey. I heard John’s music while I was stationed in Oceana Virginia back in 72-73 and, never having been a fan of rock and roll guitar, I was knocked over by John and his skills on a single acoustic guitar. I was never a fan of blue grass and the idea to try to learn to play it still hasn’t occurred to me, but the idea of solo acoustic steel string guitar always pulled at me. So, one day when I had nothing to do and I was sitting around trying to figure out how to play some of the stuff from The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, with no idea at all about the existence of open tunings or what they were, I wrote John a letter and barraged him with questions. I think the tune was Orinda Moraga.

    A week or so later I received a reply and when I say that, I received my letter back with notes written in between my questions, down along the margins and on the back side of the pages. John and I ended up corresponding for 2-3 years after that and I learned to play several of his tunes but I often ended up playing them in a different tuning, viz, Sunflower River Blues is done in Open C and I always heard it in Open D. I picked up a little slide from him too.

    John was an interesting cat and I believe, without question, he was one of the foremost players of that period. His influence is literally everywhere. I hear people play all of the time who play in Fahey’s style and who have absolutely no idea who patented the licks or the original tunes from which they came.

  • Ed March 4, 2021, 12:08 PM

    John Fahey. If I may suggest, please do yourself a favor and seek out on Youtube his live concert at Rockpalast in Germany in the early 1980’s. Youtube search “John Fahey Rockpalast” will return the entire concert in three parts. The man was an orchestra comprising only six strings. Composition and playing is at a level rarely seen. You are most welcome.

    [EDITOR: Here’s a complete concert from Germany in 1978. Stunning.]