How Eric Clapton Created the Classic Song “Layla”

The sto­ry of Eric Clap­ton and “Lay­la” has always both­ered me because to under­stand it is to under­stand how fal­li­ble and crazed any of us can be when it comes to love. We under­stand that our rock gods are human, but there’s some­thing about Clap­ton falling in love with the wife (Pat­tie Boyd) of one of his best mates (George Har­ri­son, a freakin’ Bea­t­le, man!) and then writ­ing a whole album about it, that is just unset­tling. Is this some­thing tawdry writ epic? Or is this some­thing epic that has the waft­ing aro­ma of taw­dri­ness?

Poly­phon­ic takes on the behind the scenes sto­ry of this rock mas­ter­piece and rewinds sev­er­al cen­turies to the source of Layla’s name: “Lay­la and Maj­nun,” a roman­tic poem from 12th cen­tu­ry Per­sian poet Niẓā­mi Gan­javi based on an actu­al woman from the 6th Cen­tu­ry who drove her poet para­mour mad. Lord Byron called the trag­ic poem “The Romeo and Juli­et of the East,” as unre­quit­ed love leaves both Maj­nun and Lay­la dead after the latter’s father for­bids her to be with the poet.

Eric Clap­ton heard of the poem from his Sufi friend Abdalqadir as-Sufi (for­mer­ly Ian Dal­las), and so when he wrote a slow bal­lad about his unre­quit­ed love for Pat­ti, “Lay­la” made per­fect sense as a name.

The song might have stayed a ballad–think of Clapton’s slowed down ver­sion from his MTV “Unplugged” special–if it wasn’t for Duane All­man of the All­man Broth­ers. The two had yet to meet, but were aware of each oth­er. All­man had grabbed Clapton’s atten­tion with his fiery solo work at the end of Wil­son Pickett’s cov­er of “Hey Jude”:

When Clap­ton and All­man did meet, the two set to jam­ming and All­man made the his­to­ry-chang­ing deci­sion to speed up Clapton’s bal­lad and use a riff tak­en from Albert King. “Lay­la” was born. Allman’s bot­tle­neck slide style met Clapton’s string bend­ing, and the track is a con­ver­sa­tion between the two, where no words are need­ed.

“It’s in the tip of their fin­gers,” says engi­neer Tom Dowd, lis­ten­ing to the iso­lat­ed tracks in the video below. “It’s not in a knob, it’s not in how loud they play, it’s touch.”

Over this, Clap­ton deliv­ers his des­per­ate lyrics, sung by a man at his wits end, much like Maj­nun of the poem.

And then, that coda, which takes up half the song. Drum­mer Jim Gor­don was work­ing on the piano piece for a solo album in secret. When Clap­ton dis­cov­ered Gor­don was record­ing on the sly, he wasn’t angry. Instead he insist­ed it be added to the end of the rock­ing first half. The song is a per­fect bal­ance between fran­tic rock and roman­tic bal­lad.

But in the real world, “Lay­la” didn’t do the job. Clap­ton played the album for Pat­tie Boyd three weeks lat­er, and though she under­stood its beau­ty, Boyd was embar­rassed by its mes­sage.

“I couldn’t believe I was the inspi­ra­tion for putting this togeth­er,” she said in an inter­view. “I didn’t want this to hap­pen.” She was also mor­ti­fied think­ing that every­body would know exact­ly who “Lay­la” was about.

“It didn’t work,” Clap­ton recalled. “It was all for noth­ing.”

The song was a flop in the charts, espe­cial­ly as it was cut in half for the sin­gle. It would find its audi­ence three years lat­er when the full ver­sion appeared on both a Clap­ton anthol­o­gy and a best of col­lec­tion of Duane Allman’s work. Final­ly it rock­et­ed up the charts, and it’s kind of stayed in clas­sic rock playlists ever since.

And as for Boyd, she actu­al­ly did leave George Har­ri­son in 1974 to mar­ry Clap­ton in 1979, a mar­riage that last­ed 10 years. Not all mar­riages last. The orig­i­nal flame dies out. It’s just that, in “Lay­la“ ‘s case, the flame is there every time the nee­dle drops into the groove.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

23-Year-Old Eric Clap­ton Demon­strates the Ele­ments of His Gui­tar Sound (1968)

Hear Eric Clapton’s Iso­lat­ed Gui­tar Track From the Bea­t­les’ ‘While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps’ (1968)

Eric Clap­ton Tries Out Gui­tars at Home and Talks About the Bea­t­les, Cream, and His Musi­cal Roots

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (6)
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  • Dale says:

    I haven’t the whole sto­ry before. That has always been one of my favorite songs! The sto­ry was told here in a great way!!

  • Deb says:

    I love know­ing this, I will nev­er hear this great song with­out think­ing of this sto­ry. Thank you.

  • Polly says:

    Clapton’s and Boyd’s “orig­i­nal flame” didn’t die out as much as it was over­come by Clapton’s addic­tions to drugs and alco­hol. He has admit­ted as much pub­licly. He also got anoth­er woman preg­nant which, accord­ing to Boyd, was the last straw. That baby was the son who died trag­i­cal­ly when he was very young.

  • Jp says:

    It was just like any oth­er British band.the All need­ed Amer­i­can song writers.bacause they don’t speak Amer­i­can Eng­lish in Britain .diffrent cul­ture dif­fer­ent style of sto­ry telling.they found the blues.and of course they had to be black Amer­i­can men.a good writer writer his or her homework.and uses the right tools (musi­cal instru­ments and vision to tell or con­vey a message.the I can tell you a view of the mean­ing t LAYLA.ITS LAX AIRPORT AND A PLANE IS TRYING TO LEAVE THIS COUNTRY.ON IT ARE A BUNCH OF KIDS WHO HAVE BEEN ABUSED TORTURED NIG UN WANTED .AND THEY HAVE FINALLY FOUND SOMEONE WHO WILL ADOPT THEM.AND THE JUST WANT A NEW LIFE.INSTEAD OF BEING A STRANGER ON THE SHORE..THE MOST TALANTED CREATIVE CHILD WILL STILL FEEL THE PAIN OF BEING PERMANTLY DISFIGURED FROM DOMISTIC VIOLANCE OR IN REALITY GENOCIDE BECAUSE OF AGE BIAS.OR LEFT HANDED.OR. JUST CONTROL FREAKS.

  • Mike Anderson says:

    No, Clap­ton was­n’t mad with Jum Gor­don. He just took Gor­don’s song for his own use.

  • Eric Thiessen says:

    Accord­ing to Bob­by Whit­lock, all Duane did was speed it up and play out of tune slide on it. He says Clap­ton had already tak­en the Albert King riff before All­man joined the ses­sions.

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