Clapton finds inspiration and solace in the face of unrequited love
Arguably the most famous album of Clapton’s career, and one that might never have been were it not for Delaney and Bonnie’s rhythm section deserting ship over the issue of wages and conditions. But since they had nowhere to go, each thought to give their recent touring buddy Eric Clapton a call, and being the polite English gentleman that he was, invited them over to his estate, where soon they started jamming, en premise, and after a few months decided that maybe they had something worth pursuing: in other words ‘let’s make a record’.
The results of their studious labours were nothing less than exemplary. And so it was in August 1970, that they chose Criteria Studios, in sunny Miami, as their home to build their musical temple. But as Clapton himself admitted, the initial sessions lacked the necessary sparkle and boldness each had been hoping for. Enter a one Mr. Duane Allman, of Allman Brothers fame, and quickly everything changed. Allman’s sophisticated slide turned out to be the perfect foil for Clapton’s more urbane bluesy melodramas. And the rest is history as they say.
One other and all important inspiration for the making of this album, was Clapton’s unrequited love for Patti Harrison, who at the time was married to George, the “quiet” member of the Beatles. Whether this was known to Harrison himself who can say (he was probably too busy chasing after other men’s wives anyway to pay all that much attention even if he did), and when she refused Clapton’s advances, that’s where Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs came in.
Opener “I Looked Away” is a pleasant, easy going country-blues ditty, and has Clapton’s confessional state of mind written all over it. Because what does one do when you’re in love with another man’s woman? “Bell Bottom Blues” is another paean to Patti, and one of Clapton’s most heart-felt vocal performances ever. It turns out Eric sat Patti down and played her the tape, purportedly bringing her to tears in the process.
“Keep on Growing” could well be an ode to the Everyman’s favourite bit of hydroponic leaf, but is more likely a more prosaic dedication to just getting on with life, and doing the best one can. “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” has been covered by just about everyone from Mickey Mouse to Moses. Clapton’s own interpretation is nothing to frown upon, during which one can hear the earliest indication of Eric’s later efforts only a few years after.
“I Am Yours” is a bit of well-meaning filler, and just plain awkward. Not so “Anyday”, where Eric and Allman’s guitars interlock in sublime six string intercourse, while Jim Gordon and Carl Radle (on drums and bass respectively) blow hot air on an already raging fire.
“Key to the Highway” goes way back in the annals of the blues, so it’s not surprising Clapton should have his own stab at it, and here he almost makes it his own. To be honest, the whole thing sounds like a bit of a late night (or early morning) drunken jam, with Eric and Allman trading licks, and generating more than their fair share of fireworks in the process. Another enjoyable gem is “Tell the Truth,” one of several songs from Layla Clapton continued to perform regularly throughout the ‘70s, and does so even today.
It’s difficult to say how these sessions might have sounded without Allman’s presence, but after a mere one listen to “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” makes it pretty clear that Duane succeeded in sticking a veritable firecracker up Clapton’s arse thus forcing him to work a little harder than he might have otherwise wanted, resulting in this intense performance by both guitarists. “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” is another exercise in the heavy weightlifting of one’s emotions which only the blues and an electric guitar can provide.
Clapton has stated that in his interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” his original intention was to give the song a little more structure, in contrast to the almost fairy-tale like quality of the original. And on this one point, the Dominos nearly succeeded. Allman’s slide guitar is truly heavenly, while Eric’s singing is as heartfelt as ever.
Unbeknown to everyone involved, Hendrix would pass away a mere month or so after it was recorded, an event which shook Clapton to the core, due to the considerable friendship and mutual admiration the two felt for each other. And whether you prefer the original, there can be no question that Clapton and Co. managed to imbue Hendrix’s composition with an almost cathedral-like quality in terms of technique and arrangement.
“It’s Too Late” must have been fun to record, though perhaps less fun for the listener. Not so the next tune which, more than any other, put Clapton on the map as a solo artist (as soon as people learned that was actually him who was playing it). And that song is none other than “Layla”. Now there’s some contention as to who came up with the main riff – was it Duane or Eric? The prosecution favours the former. However despite such arguments, it is a classic piece to be sure.
That it would soon become Clapton’s signature (regardless of who wrote what) should come as no surprise, even if the guitarist had mixed feelings about including it in his repertoire. Even so, to this day, “Layla” remains one of Clapton’s greatest and popular statements (and a hell of a lot better than “Wonderful Tonight”). The album ends with Bobby Whitlock’s “Thorn in the Tree Garden”, a song about as exciting as alfalfa, especially after the thrill of the album’s centrepiece.
It’s well known that the record did virtually nothing upon release, much to Clapton’s dismay, since he believed that the music alone should have been enough to propel it into popularity. But once word got out that it was in fact another one of “God’s” creations, the public went out and bought it in the droves, thanks to the title track, which just about every FM radio station couldn’t get enough, and the number everyone wanted to hear whenever he performed.
Eventually, Clapton’s dream came to fruition. He won his true love, convincing Patti to leave George, and live with him instead. But that would happen later, once he got through his haze of heroin and other assorted substances. And while it’s true that Eric would go on to make other superb albums, most notably 361 Ocean Boulevard, none of these ever quite reached those blissful heights, nor the organic inspiration which was, and is, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs.