Clapton and Allman collided on the masterpiece 'Layla'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In the midsts of a decent amount of writing dedicated to Duane Allman and the greatness of his band and many projects, I was caught in a conversation about Derek and the Dominos and their singular masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. And the discussion was a simple one: can we really tell when Allman is playing guitar and when it’s Eric Clapton?
The two have distinct styles, of course, even if they came from severely differing backgrounds — Clapton, from the burgeoning scene of English musicians discovering American blues, and Allman, much closer to the source in Jacksonville, Fla. Clapton through his various bands — The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, and so on — was helping to rewrite the standards of pop music and was met with “God” proclamations in graffiti around England for his efforts. Allman was a coveted session guitarist in soul circles and was just at the beginning of a career with the Allman Brothers Band that was about to throw him into the spotlight.
And it was at this point, in the summer of 1970, that the two met, began recording almost immediately, and then mostly went their separate ways, leaving behind some of their best work in a flash of guitars and inspiration. The result was, without hyperbole, one of the greatest albums of the rock and roll era, a double-LP of joy, heartbreak, dejection and tenacity.
This was a period when Clapton, if ever so briefly, found the best part of himself and channeled that into a distinct musical voice. Two years earlier, he’d broken up Cream after hearing the homespun ragtime of the Band, leaving British psychedelia behind in an effort to join the band. He’d lent his signature solo to friend George Harrison and the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” worked as a sideman in the first Plastic Ono Band with John Lennon, toured with Delaney and Bonnie, started another short-lived supergroup with Steve Winwood in Blind Faith, tried to go solo, felt swallowed up by expectations, was rejected by the woman he loved … truly, if he was ever going to make his mark musically in any kind of organic way, 1970 would have been the time.
He recruited singer and organist Bobby Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon and bass player Carl Radle away from Delany and Bonnie, and set about creating Derek and the Dominos, a new band free of superstar pressure, a semi-anonymous vehicle for Clapton to play the music that he’d been trying to make since the Band’s Music from Big Pink threw him into a quarter-life crisis.
The music he’d make, of course, would be much more frantic that what the Band was doing. But it was certainly earthier than Cream or any of his other headlining projects. And with Allman joining in the sessions, brought along by producer Tom Dowd at Clapton’s request, the ground was set for a special project, musical paths crossing and darting and meeting at just the right moment.
Due to the fleeting nature of the band and Allman’s own impending mortality, there’s a ghostly feel to the entire project. Even looking in the LP’s inner photo collage reads like a scrapbook, a testament to a long-lost friend and the good times that have since slipped into ether.
Maybe that’s all baggage, brought second hand and decades later by me and, perhaps, any other listeners with an awareness of the history behind it. But what isn’t baggage is the beautiful interplay of the band, of Clapton’s and Allman’s guitars weaving and intertwining, of Whitlock’s husky blues delivery grounding Clapton’s reedier vocals in an off-the-cuff harmony that Clapton would never again experience in his recording career.
There were a lot of “never agains” on this album. Derek and the Dominos would never record another album in a studio. Allman wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with Clapton. Clapton’s own demons spiked his career shortly after this, and when he reemerged, he was fluid, but never again had quite the same frantic burn.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is often looked at either as an Eric Clapton solo album, or as a one-off by a group assembled as sympathetic character actors cast in Clapton’s play. And that’s not entirely inaccurate — while he hid behind a false moniker under the flag of the band, this was clearly Clapton’s show. He co-wrote most of the songs, chose the covers and hand-picked musicians who were wired the same as himself. If anyone in the Dominos was going to land on the cover of magazines for this album, it would be Clapton.
But that does serve to undersell the impact the musicians had on the sessions, and the power they wielded individually, which was more than those of the typical “sidemen” cast. Radle and Gordon formed an elastic rhythm section, and while Gordon later moved on to different bands and projects before succumbing to his own drastic health issues, Radle continued to play with Clapton until his death in 1980 at the age of 37.
Whitlock, a product of Memphis and the blues and R&B scene of its time, was a tremendous force of his own. Co-writing a number of the original songs with Clapton, his deep baritone grounded much of the album and helps cast doubt on the myth that this was merely Clapton’s glorified solo outing. His singing on “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” is one of the singular moments on the record, literally providing a voice to Derek and the Dominos that would ultimately prove unique. And he’s given the last word on “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” a quiet, acoustic moment that mercifully frees the album from at least some of it’s dramatic tensions, though certainly not all of them.
Of course, the player that elevates the project from the ranks of “excellent blues album” to “greatness on vinyl” is Duane Allman, who’s bright, Coricidin-bottle slide provided a more rounded counterpoint to Clapton’s biting Fender leads. While discussions with friends and internal debates are sometimes racked with indecision as to who is playing what, “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” is a good reference point for the rest of the album in terms of distinguishing styles and sounds. Clapton’s guitar breaks on that track are sharp and solid, like thumbtacks punching through a poster, and clearly in the spirit of B.B. King, Albert King and that wave of bluesmen whose sound Clapton had based so much of his on. Meanwhile Allman’s tradeoffs are much warmer and looser, with the slide flying higher on the fretboard and the runs loping up and down, low to high, more quickly and freely. As meticulous as Clapton was in his approach, Allman was free-wheeling and organic, chasing the music more than studying it.
All that is to say, the character of this group was clearly of a band, albeit one with a distinct leader. But that leader was still dealing with the insecurity that comes with reluctant stardom, which pushed him into creating his version of the organic Woodstock sound he craved. And so, with these trusted compatriots was born Derek and the Dominos, and the music here, both the originals and covers, boasts a sound that wasn’t to be replicated.
The cover of “Little Wing” is especially interesting, considering that the band covered it while Jimi Hendrix was still alive, though it was released shortly after his death. Serving as something of a tribute to a genius guitarist, it was recorded as more of an in-the-moment appreciation of his work, acknowledging his mighty influence and the place he’d already earned, what Clapton and peers considered the “greats” of the time. Hindsight might see it as a tip of the cap to a lost friend, but at the time, it was a reworking by Clapton and Allman meant to be a nod to another amazing talent.
More than any other big double album of the time, Layla is a pure documentation of a moment, born from Clapton’s insecurity and heartbreak and brought to new heights by the collaboration with Allman. It was lightning captured as aching sorrow.
Clapton’s side of this story is as well-known in the annals of rock history as any; he was madly in love with Patti Boyd, who happened to be married to his best friend, George Harrison, and a number of the songs here were written as an impassioned plea to win her over. A slightly shocking bit is, in retrospect, just how blunt he was in his intentions. The opening track, “I Looked Away,” features a second verse that acts as a mission statement for the rest of the record:
“And if it seemed a sin
To love another man’s woman, baby,
I guess I’ll keep on sinning,
Loving her, Lord, till my very last day.”
Whether or not Clapton was trying to claim the moral high ground, at least he was honest in his way. His adoration of the blues has long been discussed and dissected, but this was one of the few times he was able to take actual anguish and channel that into his playing the way the best of his idols could.
He took that theme and ran with it, infusing some of his best original work with that tremendous emotion that was swallowing him whole. “Bell Bottom Blues” can be argued as one of his greater moments on record, a desperate song that sees Clapton sing in a rich harmony with Whitlock and his guitar intertwine with Allman’s slide, all the elements synching up to reach incredible heights. It’s a pleading case for a lost lover, and it sets the stage for his signature moment later, the title song “Layla.”
An epic within an epic, “Layla” was the culmination of all the best aspects of Clapton, Allman and the Dominos. Clapton’s struggles with his career, identity and love life fueled one of the greatest lyrics and performances of his career. Whitlock’s impassioned singing under Clapton provided so much weight to the song as to almost channel the guttural reaches of Clapton’s longing. And Allman, reaching into the greatest heights of his playing, provides a furious lead and, later in the song’s extended coda, a lilting passage that serves as a wordless commentary on love and loss.
Deciphering who is playing what is one of the better and longer-lasting arguments that can be had in classic rock, but, if either Clapton’s or Allman’s career can provide any kind of basis, the initial riff that works as the song’s foundation, that furious burst of notes in the beginning, is coming from Clapton’s guitar, while the counterpunch of drawn-out notes over the top belong to Allman. Within the verses, the smoother passages belong to Allman, and the short, prickly bits to Clapton. At least I think that’s what’s happening.
With the backstory of love and deceit among friends and rock royalty, the spur-of-the-moment sessions and the band working to disguise their leader, there’s more than enough mystery to be found on Layla, it’s iconic title track and elsewhere. To listen to the music, to look at the artwork, the aforementioned photo collage as well as the painting by Emile Théodore Frandsen de Schomberg that adorns the cover, and to take in the stories of late-night sessions fueled by mutual admiration, letting all that meld together can be overwhelming. Fittingly, the music feels overwhelming.
Layla, then, was and remains an epic in every sense of the word. Artists collided at just the right moment, music flowed without interruption and reputations were cemented. In the end, who plays what remains a fun question, but ultimately an inconsequential one; what matters is that everything here was played, and that it was played with heart and soul in a moment otherwise lost to time.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org