The Great Albums
Derek and the Dominos, Layla (A&M, 1970)
By Jim DeRogatis
What degree of personal misery is necessary to produce musical brilliance? This is a question thatís as old as the blues itself, and itís certainly relevant when considering Derek and the Dominosí 1970 album "Layla," the strongest recording of Eric Claptonís career, and arguably the greatest blues-rock album ever made.
Any discussion of this timeless double album must begin with the notorious love triangle between Clapton, his best friend George Harrison, and fashion model Patti Boyd, whom the Beatles guitarist met on the set of "A Hard Dayís Night" and married in 1966. It isnít simply prurient curiosity that brings us here, but Boydís undeniable power as a muse: In addition to inspiring Harrison to write "Something," she became the subject of Claptonís unrequited love, famously prompting him to pen "Layla" in an attempt to win her affections, and contributing to the despair that resulted in his addiction to heroin through the early í70s.
According to the Clapton and Beatles biographies, the former guitarist for the Yardbirds and Cream begged Boyd to leave her husband and take up with him, but she rebuffed his advances for almost five years. Clapton was tortured, and, like all bluesmen, he sought catharsis via music. The result was an interweaving cycle of 14 songs, most of them about heartbreak and unrequited love. Even the covers of Jimmie Coxís "Nobody Knows You When Youíre Down and Out" and Billy Mylesí "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" seem to comment on his frustrated romance.
The 25-year-old musician was adrift professionally as well as personally when he entered Criteria Studios in Miami in the late summer of 1970. In the months before, he had split from Blind Faith, his second supergroup after Cream; toured with the all-star revue Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and released his first self-titled solo album. He had always been ambivalent about stardom--the famous "Clapton is God" graffiti embarrassed a man who had simply set out to emulate his American heroes--so he decided to form a new combo that, instead of being an ensemble of ever-soloing virtuosos, was actually a band in the sense of the great American R&B groups.
The original idea was to issue an album as the pseudononymous "Derek and the Dominos," packaged in a cover (depicting a female figure by painter Frandsen-de Schonberg that, in retrospect, looks quite a bit like Boyd) devoid of any other info. But the groupís true identity was never really a secret to anyone, and few rock fans could mistake that signature Stratocaster sound, which had never been more intense.
Though he was still unsure of his abilities as a vocalist (Bobby Whitlock would double many of his parts on the album), Claptonís singing was never stronger or more soulful. Listen to the way he wails, "Layla! Youíve got me on my knees." Or his heartbreaking delivery of the opening of the albumís second most familiar tune: "Bell bottom blues, you made me cry/I donít want to lose this feeling/And if I could choose a place to die/It would be in your arms."
Just as moving and even more eloquent are his celebrated guitar leads, which were at their most elegant and mellifluous. Many have credited a friendly competition with Duane Allman as the factor that spurred Old Slowhand on. Coming to the sessions late in the game (Dave Mason was to have been the Dominosí second guitarist, but he pulled out after one gig), the moonlighting hero of the Allman Brothers contributed fluid slide work and dexterous leads of his own. Itís often hard to tell which guitarist is playing which solo--the dueling lines wrap around each other like limbs at a frenzied orgy.
Just as vital to the proceedings were Atlantic Records producer Tom Dowd, a veteran of sessions with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett who followed the simple approach of capturing the music in an unadorned and straightforward way as it came together before his microphones. Then there was the rest of the backing band that Clapton borrowed from Delaney and Bonnie: Whitlock deserves a place just below Booker T. Jones on any list of rockís great organists, and Carl Radle was a sensitive and melodic bassist. But the MVP was Jim Gordon.
Gordonís simple but expressive drumming creatively propels "Bell Bottom Blues," "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," and Claptonís dramatically different reinterpretation of Jimi Hendrixís "Little Wing." The percussionist also added the stately and breathtakingly beautiful piano part that introduces the second half of the classic title track, the albumís centerpiece and emotional core.
In "Layla," you can almost literally hear Clapton ripping his heart out and placing it at the feet of the woman he loves. Meanwhile, behind him, Allman searches for his own path toward emotional transcendence. The Florida musician would be dead the following year, the victim of hard-living and an unfortunate motorcycle crash. Meanwhile, Clapton would spiral into a haze of alcoholism and heroin addiction, which he has said was fueled by the torture of his unrequited love.
And what of "Layla" herself, Patti Boyd-Harrison? Clapton said she ignored the song he wrote for her, but Patti remembered it differently. "He played ĎLaylaí to me two or three times," she has said. "His intensity was both frightening and fascinating."
By 1975, the Harrisonsí marriage was over--George had apparently been distracted by his devotion to Eastern mysticism, as well as an affair with Ringoís wife, Maureen--and Patti and Clapton finally got together. They married on March 27, 1979, at the Apostolic Assembly of Faith in Christ Jesus Church in Tucson, Arizona, and divorced less than a decade later, in 1988. Clapton later admitted that he physically and emotionally abused his wife, though he also wrote another beautiful song for her, "Wonderful Tonight." Today, Patti is a photographer living in London.
Amazingly, through it all, Clapton and Harrison remained the best of chums, even joking about the love triangle. "Better sheís with some drunken Yardbird than some old dope," Harrison allegedly cracked upon losing Patti. Recalled Clapton: "It was like a Woody Allen movie." As for the Dominos, they toured for several months after recording "Layla," taped the potent "In Concert" live album, and split up in April 1971, long before their time, as their leader has said.
Clapton recovered from the turmoil of the "Layla" years to live the life of a musical legend and comfortable millionaire whose tours are sponsored by the likes of Lexus. The brilliance of his best album is glimpsed all too infrequently in his solo work through the last two decades. Contrast the muted, sterile tone of "Tears In Heaven," a song dedicated to his dead son, to the red-hot emotion of "Layla." And there is simply no comparison with schlock such as "Broken Down" and "Traveliní Light" from his last album, "Reptile."
Was the unparalleled achievement of "Layla" worth the painful price that the artist paid in terms of emotional turmoil? Itís a question that he no doubt grapples with to this day. For the rest of us, thereís no debate: The answer speaks loud and clear from within these powerful grooves.