Don’t tell me all my love’s in vain: Eric Clapton and Layla

The album Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs was released 47 years ago, on 9 November 1970. It gave us a stone classic in the title tune and some say it’s Eric Clapton’s best album. But it’s not even by him, it’s by Derek & the Dominos, a group of unbelievable musicians formed by Clapton and keyboard player/singer Bobby Whitlock, who made the one album then split after barely six months, brought down by money, drugs and EC’s unrequited obsession for the wife of his best friend –  who just to complicate things happened to be a Beatle. Every song on Layla…. Even the covers of old blues numbers they included seem to have been inspired by Patti, George Harrison’s wife.

But making such a milestone record was not without its victims. Of the five key players, only three are still with us, one of them not really. Eric Clapton’s story is well-known and despite heroin addiction and alcoholism is as successful today at 72 as he ever was. Bobby Whitlock the keyboard player and co-writer of the most of the songs is also still very much with us and very active musically, a new album on the way. But bass player Carl Radle was not so lucky and died of a drugs-related kidney problem in 1980 aged only 37. Guest guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in October 1971, barely a year after the release of Layla. Perhaps most tragic of all, powerhouse drummer Jim Gordon the drummer has been in a secure prison hospital in California since 1983 when he was convicted of killing his mother.

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But back to Patti. Eric Clapton and George Harrison were best friends. They had met when Clapton’s band of the time, the Yardbirds, were a support act in the ‘Another Beatles Christmas Show’ a bizarre festive songs and comedy sketches review at the Hammersmith Odeon in London at Christmas 1964. By this time, George’s girlfriend was Patti Boyd, a 20-year old model he’d met on the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night where she had played a schoolgirl. They were married in January 1966 and lived in Esher. A little later Clapton bought the beautiful house he still lives in in Surrey, barely 20 miles from the Harrisons. As Clapton’s preferred choice of wheels was a Ferrari 365 GTC and Harrison’s was a red psychedelically-painted souped-up Radford Mini Cooper, they spent all their time together. In 1968 Harrison asked Clapton to play lead guitar on the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps on The White Album; Clapton returned the favour by playing on Cream’s final album Goodbye credited as L’ange misterioso.

Unfortunately, Eric had developed quite an obsession his best friend’s wife. It’s not like Clapton didn’t have a steady girlfriend. He did, he was engaged to Alice Ormsby-Gore, the youngest daughter of Lord Harlech, a British diplomat, who had been US Ambassador to the USA for the first half of the 1960s. But he was a bit bored. He had conquered the world with Cream, had had a disastrous but lucrative few months with Blind Faith, a supergroup consisting of Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. But he was so tired of the pressure of being a blues guitar god that followed someone scrawling the graffiti Clapton Is God on the wall outside Highbury & Islington tube station.

His musical tastes had changed too, away from the blues. He’d been listening to newer folkier, more soulful music like the Band and crucially Delaney & Bonnie, who were blue-eyed interpreters of a folk-blues and R&B mix. They were the first white group to sign a contract with Stax Records. Their albums didn’t sell but created a buzz in music industry circles. George Harrison gave Clapton a copy of their second album Accept No Substitute. Clapton was so impressed he invited them to open for Blind Faith on their US Tour in late 1969 and watched them every night from the side of the stage. They seemed to having such fun whereas working with Blind Faith was like having his teeth pulled so he ended up hanging out with them more than the members of Blind Faith.

No surprise then that when Blind Faith split up at the end of the tour, Clapton offered his services as their guitar player on Delaney & Bonnie’s European tour. The other backing musicians included Dave Mason, who had just left Traffic, singer Rita Coolidge. keyboard player/ Bobby Whitlock, plus bassist Carl Radle and top LA session drummer Jim Gordon.   And when George Harrison went to see the band at the Royal Albert Hall, Clapton persuaded him to join the tour as an extra guitarist, his his first live appearance anywhere since the Beatles last show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in August 1966. The next year, 1970, the same guys backed Clapton on his first solo album then more or less became the backing band on George Harrison’s triple album, All Things Must Pass. Which kind of meant being with George and especially Patti Harrison most of the time. It’s not that he didn’t try to woo Patti away from George, she just said no.

The Harrison recordings went so well that the four of them decided to form a band, and not one that was just a backing group for Clapton, a proper band. The name came from DJ Jeff Dexter in the dressing room at the Lyceum Ballroom in London just before the new foursome made their debut. Clapton was known to many intimates as Derek or Del and when MC for the evening Dexter went out to introduce them as Derek & The Dominos, the audience reacted with baffle silence. Then Eric Clapton shuffled out holding his guitar…

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After a few more low-key gigs – where Clapton insisted that his name NOT be on the posters – they decided to record their debut album at Criteria Studios in Miami FL with legendary producer Tom Dowd. As they got to Miami, Dowd was just finishing the Allman Brothers’ second album Idlewild South and quickly introduced lead guitarist Duane Allman to Clapton. A huge fan, Clapton invited him to join their sessions. After completing a few gigs with the Allmans, he flew back to Miami to join in.

Such was the musical simpatico between the Dominos and Duane that the whole album – and it’s a double – was done in little more than two weeks, the basic tracks all recorded live, with only a few overdubs later. Almost all the singing is live, mostly first take. They didn’t really have enough songs of their own, so included a few blues covers like Big Bill Broonzy’s Key To The Highway and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, both as it happens the first two songs Clapton ever learned to play on the guitar when he was a kid. They recorded Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing as a tribute to him but he never got to hear it. He died in London ten days later. The album’s track listing is pretty much in the order it was recorded so Duane is not on the first three songs.

The title song was written by Eric Clapton after a friend had given him a copy of The Story of Layla and Manjun, a book of Persian love poems by Ganjami Nizami. It tells the story of Qayas who falls in love with Layla a princess but is forbidden to marry her by her father and goes mad. His friends, unaware of  his obsession with Patti,  all thought that girlfriend Alice was Layla, especially with her father being aristocrat and Eric being working class boy from Surrey.

The song was recorded largely live on 9 September 1970 with only a few overdubs a couple of weeks later. They had spent a few days on and off approaching the tune in four or five different ways, most of them a bit slower as Clapton wrote it as a slow blues, but it was Duane Allman who speeded up the intro to create the riff to what we know now. The riff itself though, one of the classic riffs of all time in the opinion of most critics, was in fact nicked from an Albert King song, on his 1967 Born Under A Bad Sign album. The riff is a speeded-up version of vocal melody to King’s song As The Years Go Passing By on that album. And there are six layers of guitars in there, with most of the guitar solos from Clapton and the slide work handled by Allman. One layer is both Allman and Clapton playing exactly the same thing through the same single input of a tiny Fender Champ 5-watt amplifier.

A week later Eric Clapton heard drummer Jim Gordon playing a piano piece he had composed separately – actually most people say he nicked it from his girlfriend of the time, singer Rita Coolidge. Clapton liked and convinced Gordon to allow it to be used as part of the song. In a slightly different key, it was seamlessly tacked on to the existing section by speeding it up slightly so the keys matched.

As amazing as the music was, the sessions themselves were a bit of a debauch. Clapton had been dabbling with heroin for a few months, but the heartache over Patti remaining with George Harrison sent him over the edge. One day when When he tried to persuade Patti to leave George, he said that if she didn’t leave him, he’d start taking heroin. She didn’t, so he did. Since his days in Cream he’d had a healthy regard for its dangers having been lectured to by Ginger Baker, himself something of heroin expert, who threatened to cut his manhood off if he ever found out he was using heroin. And I think you take threats from Ginger Baker quite seriously.

But gradually Clapton went from using it once or twice a week, to four or five times a week to every day. And they had all the money they needed and drugs were widely available in Miami. Local dealers certainly weren’t shy and besides, they could get them from the gift shop in their hotel. You just left an order with the girl behind the counter and you got them the next day.

Recording over, they all agreed that Layla was the most powerful song on the album and they decided the album should be named after it. They added And Assorted Other Love Songs at Bobby Whitlock’s suggestion as he was eating a box of Cadbury’s Assorted Chocolates at the time and they liked the sound of it. The album was released in November 1970 and got to number 16 in the Album Charts, but did not even dent the charts in the UK.  There was no single from it and Clapton refused to do any publicity for it, knowing that it was his best work but wanting the album to succeed on its merit without the guitar god hype. The cover is a painting on the wall which Clapton saw at a friend’s house and thought looked like Patti but you will search in vain on na original pressing for the words Derek & the Dominos or Eric Clapton.

After a few more UK dates, they toured the USA for about a month, but by the first week of December it was all over, after only 6 months. Tired, overworked and not getting along and addicted to drugs, they tried to make a second album but the results were mediocre and when Clapton and Jim Gordon had a huge row, Clapton walked and that was it, in Clapton’s case for two years in which time he did nothing but sit at home play some guitar, make model aeroplanes and take heroin. He didn’t see his family or friends and when anyone came to visit, he would hide upstairs till they went. His manager Robert Stigwood was keen to keep his profile up so released The History of Eric Clapton compilation in 1972, with Layla as the single. It made Number 7 in the UK and Number 10 in the US.

He didn’t play live again till January 1973, when Pete Townshend of the Who, the only person he had kept in touch with was Pete Townshend mounted a comeback concert at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park with a superstar backing band, including Pete Townshend, Ronnie Wood, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Ric Grech from Traffic. Clapton was so stoned that he doesn’t remember the shows at all, but the press reviews were enthusiastic mainly because people were just glad to have him back. It was a turning point in Eric’s life and career, although after the concert he went back into hiding. It was several months before he got clean and recorded his comeback 461 Ocean Boulevard which came out in April 1974.

Patti and George Harrison separated in 1974 and they divorced in 1977. Clapton and Patti got together in 1974 about her and they were married in 1979 with Harrison attending the wedding along with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. They split up in September 1984, and divorced in 1988. He wrote Layla and Wonderful Tonight for her.

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Derek & the Dominos in the garden at Eric Clapton’s house, 1970: l to r Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Eric Clapton

The others musicians have not necessarily been so successful. Bobby Whitlock, the keyboard player and co-writer of many of the Layla songs, has survived intact and has been clean and sober for nearly 20 years. He and Clapton have remained good friends and he remains very active in music, as a duo with his wife CoCo, the ex-wife of Delaney. His autobiography Bobby Whitlock: a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography is well worth a read.

Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident on 29 October 1971 in Macon GA, the Allman Brothers home town. He was apparently riding at some speed when a truck stopped suddenly in front of him, forcing him to swerve sharply. He hit the back of the truck and was thrown from the bike, which then landed on top of him. He died several hours later from massive internal injuries. Carl Radle, the bass player, remained as Eric Clapton’s bass player and right-hand man for the rest of the 1970s but died in May 1980 from a kidney infection, exacerbated by the effects of alcohol and narcotics; he was 37.

Jim Gordon’s though is possibly the most tragic story. The co-writer of Layla, one of those songs like Stairway to Heaven which is always on the radio somewhere in the world, he continues to collect significant royalties. Unfortunately he isn’t really in a position to do much with them. He has been in prison since June 1983 when he was arrested for killing his mother. At his trial a year later, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life, although the defence had argued insanity. A change to California law made it almost impossible to prove that anyone is legally insane, despite five defence psychiatrists testifying that Gordon was an acute paranoid schizophrenic. He remains in prison 34 years later.

Jim Gordon had been, quite simply, one of the greatest drummers of his time. In the Sixties and Seventies he was a first call studio session drummer on everything from the Monkees to the Beach Boys. He’s on Wichita Lineman, Midnight At The Oasis and even joined Traffic for a while. He is the drummer on one of the most sampled records on of all time, the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache. Eric Clapton’s in his book describes him as the greatest rock and roll drummer ever, bar none. And let’s just mentally list the incredible drummers Eric Clapton has played with.

However he had been hearing voices in his head from an early age, which were only exacerbated by the drugs and were becoming difficult to ignore or control. He wasn’t a particularly sociable guy, someone said if you looked into his eyes, they were empty, he had no soul.

He was a drug addict and then found that alcohol quietened the voices, and in a short time he was drinking more than ever. The madness though was winning, and soon everyone would know it. Gordon was becoming a liability. Record producers would not hire him anymore. With few recording dates being offered, Gordon wound up doing lower-paying work, like television, movies and commercials.

The worst of the voices was his mother’s and she wanted to control his life. He did get help, checking into a psychiatric hospital at least fourteen times over the next six years but nothing stuck and he would often check himself out. By 1980 he was, for all practical purposes, no longer a professional musician. He had always been paid well and had substantial savings, property investments and royalty payments coming in so he could afford to do anything or nothing.

He decided he would either kill himself or he would kill his mother. He hadn’t seen her for two years, although they had spoken on the phone where he had threatened her, although he had never actually harmed her. He suddenly appeared at her LA apartment in June 1983 and when she opened her door the voices in his head that hadtold him to take a hammer and an 8-inch butcher’s knife told him to use them to kill his 72-year-old mother. He hit her three times and stabbed her three times.

Her neighbours heard the screams and called the police. When they went to Gordon’s apartment early the next morning, it was to notify him of his mother’s death. The police found Gordon, moaning and sobbing, face down on his living-room floor. Although he had been sober when he killed his mother, afterward he had been to a bar and got massively drunk, then went home and drank a bottle of vodka. Amazingly he was coherent with the police to whom he confessed.

In July 1984, he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. He was first eligible for parole in 1992, but it has been denied several times. According to the authorities he is still “seriously psychologically incapacitated” and “a danger when he is not taking his medication”. He declined to attend his last parole hearing and won’t be eligible again until at least 2018. He is serving his sentence at a medical and psychiatric prison in Vacaville, California.


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