“Layla” is a song written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, originally released by their blues rock band Derek and the Dominos, as the thirteenth track from their only studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (November 1970). Its contrasting movements were supposedly composed separately by Clapton and Gordon. The piano part has also been controversially credited to Rita Coolidge, Gordon’s girlfriend at the time.
The song 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.
“Layla” was unsuccessful on its initial release, but has since experienced great critical and popular acclaim, and is often hailed as being among the greatest rock songs of all time. Two versions have achieved chart success, the first in 1972 and the second (without the piano coda) 20 years later as an acoustic Unplugged performance by Clapton. In 2004, “Layla” was ranked number 27 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and the acoustic version won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song.
In 1966, Beatles guitarist George Harrison married Pattie Boyd, a model he met during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night. During the late 1960s, Clapton and Harrison became close friends. Clapton contributed uncredited guitar work on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the Beatles’ White Album, and Harrison co-wrote and played guitar pseudonymously (as L’Angelo Misterioso) on Cream’s “Badge” from Goodbye. However, between his tenures in Cream and Blind Faith, Clapton fell in love with Boyd.
The title, “Layla”, was inspired by the story of Layla and Majnun, which Clapton had been told by his friend Ian Dallas, who was in the process of converting to Islam. Nizami’s tale, about a moon princess who was married off by her father to a man she didn’t love, resulting in Majnun’s madness, struck a deep chord with Clapton.
Boyd divorced Harrison in 1977 and married Clapton in 1979 during a concert stop in Tucson, Arizona. Harrison was not bitter about the divorce and attended Clapton’s wedding party with fellow Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. During their relationship, Clapton wrote another love ballad for Pattie, “Wonderful Tonight” (1977). Clapton and Boyd divorced in 1988.
After the breakup of Cream, Clapton tried his hand with several groups, including Blind Faith and the husband-and-wife duo Delaney and Bonnie. In the spring of 1970, he was told that some members of Delaney and Bonnie’s backup band, notably bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon, and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, were leaving the group. Seizing the opportunity, Clapton formed a new group, which became Derek and the Dominos.
During the recording of the album, Duane Allman joined Clapton’s fledgling band as a guest. Clapton and Allman, already mutual fans, were introduced at an Allman Brothers concert by Tom Dowd. The two hit it off well and soon became good friends. Dowd said of their guitar-playing chemistry: “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.” Dowd was already famous for a variety of work and had worked with Clapton in his Cream days (Clapton once called him “the ideal recording man”); his work on the album would be another achievement. For the making of his biographical film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, he remixed the original master tapes of “Layla,” saying, “There are my principles, in one form or another.”
Clapton originally wrote “Layla” as a ballad, with lyrics describing his unrequited love for Boyd, but the song became a “rocker” when, according to Clapton, Allman composed the song’s signature riff. With the band assembled and Dowd producing, “Layla” was recorded in its rock form. The recording of the first section consisted of sixteen tracks of which six were guitar tracks: a rhythm track by Clapton, three tracks of harmonies played by Clapton (the main power chord riff on both channels and two harmonies against that main riff, one on the left channel and one on the right channel), a track of solos by Allman (fretted solos with bent notes during the verses and a slide solo during the outro), and one track with both Allman and Clapton playing duplicate solos (the 7-note “signature” riff doubled in two octaves and the 12-note “signature” riff doubled in unison). According to Clapton, Allman played the first seven notes of the 12-note “signature” riff fretted and the last five notes on slide in standard tuning. Each player used one input of the same two-input Fender Champ amplifier.
Shortly afterward, Clapton returned to the studio, where he heard Jim Gordon playing a piano piece he had composed separately. Clapton, impressed by the piece, convinced Gordon to allow it to be used as part of the song. Though only Gordon has been credited with this part, according to Whitlock, “Jim took that piano melody from his ex-girlfriend Rita Coolidge. I know because in the D&B days I lived in John Garfield’s old house in the Hollywood Hills and there was a guest house with an upright piano in it. Rita and Jim were up there in the guest house and invited me to join in on writing this song with them called ‘Time’. … Her sister Priscilla wound up recording it with Booker T. Jones. … Jim took the melody from Rita’s song and didn’t give her credit for writing it. Her boyfriend ripped her off.” “Time” ended up on the album Chronicles by Booker T. and Priscilla Jones which was released in 1973. Whitlock’s story was echoed by Coolidge herself in her 2016 autobiography. The claim is also substantiated in Graham Nash’s 2014 autobiography ‘Wild Tales’.
“Layla’s” second movement (the “Piano Exit”) was recorded roughly a week after the first, with Gordon playing his piano part, Clapton playing acoustic guitar and slide guitar, and Allman playing electric and bottleneck slide guitar. After Dowd spliced the two movements together, “Layla” was complete.