How perfect strangers ERIC CLAPTON and DUANE ALLMAN
teamed up to create rock guitar history on LAYLA
Early in 1970, Eric Clapton's manager called Tom Dowd at Miami's Criteria Studios to ask if he could produce Clapton's next album. Dowd, who had produced Cream's Disraeli Gears, was then working on The Allman Brothers Band's second album, Idlewild South. As he had some free time at the end of August, Dowd agreed to set up the dates. Later, he mentioned the call to Duane Allman. "Boy," he said. "A guitar player you're going to love is coming here - Eric Clapton."
didn't know that Clapton
had be one of Duane's
heroes, that his style
had been transformed by
Clapton's work with the
Yardbirds. "Oh man, I'd
love to meet that guy,"
Duane said in a excited
voice, and he played a
series of Clapton licks
for the producer.
Not long after Dowd's sessions with Clapton kicked off, Duane called down to Criteria and told the producer that the Allman Brothers would be in Miami the following week for a concert. He asked if he could stop by the studio and meet Eric. The producer said it would be no problem and, after hanging up the phone, turned to Eric and said, "There's a chap I've been working with named Duane Allman who's coming to town."
The Allman Brothers Band had made virtually no impact in England, but Clapton immediately recognized the name. "The guy that plays all those bottleneck licks on [Wilson Pickett's recording of] 'Hey Jude'?" he asked. Clapton then played some of Duane's riffs for Dowd.
The orbits of Duane Allman and Eric Clapton, the two best white guitarists in rock, had been coming closer and closer for months, and the common axis was the white blues group Delaney and Bonnie. After the breakup of Cream, Clapton found himself weary of rock star adulation and longed to immerse himself in anonymety. He found the chance to do so with Delaney and Bonnie, a married couple from the American South who had come to Englandwith a band packed with seasoned musicians like bassist Carl Radle, pianist Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon. Delaney had a great grasp of the blues, and Bonnie sang like a white Aretha Franklin, in a full-bodied, throaty voice. Clapton joined up, and when George Harrison heard Delaney and Bonnie, he decided to come aboard as well. With so many big names in the group, it became impossible for Clapton to hide, and a 1969 British tour with the two guitarists had made stars of Delaney and Bonnie. The next year, Clapton recorded his first solo album, Eric Clapton, with Delaney producing and donating his band to back the guitarist.
Not long after that, the entire backup group staged a mutiny over low pay, and left Delaney and Bonnie to join up with Clapton and Harrison. When the couple went into the studio in mid-1970 to record From Delaney To Bonnie, they used an Atlantic studio band. Delaney told producer Jerry Wexler that he wanted a slide player and requested Ry Cooder, who was unavailable. When Wexler suggested Duane Allman as a substitute, Delaney was dubious. He had been in Europe for the better part of two years, and had never heard of the guitarist. "I don't think you'll be disappointed," Wexler promised.
Duane played on several cuts on the album, and became good friends with Delaney. They often drove out to Jerry Wexler's house on Long Island, where they would jam until the wee hours. "The best I ever heard Duane play wasn't on a record; it was with Delaney," Wexler remembered. "The two of them would play acoustic guitars at night. They'd be outdoors on my deck, singing Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson songs." Duane would spend the night, usually going to bed only when he was at the edge of exhaustion. "He used to sleep so hard," Wexler said. "Once, he had a gig and I couldn't get him up. My kid played the trumpet, and finally he got his trumpet and played it in Duane's ear. And he finally woke up."
As Delaney and Bonnie were finishing their album, the core of their old backup band - Clapton, Whitlock, Radle and Gordon - was in London, putting down tracks for what became All Things Must Pass, George Harrison's first solo record. Clapton kept the band together when that project ended, and they began performing in clubs. He didn't want his name on the marquee, so the group went incognico, using the moniker "Derek And The Dominos." The audiences quickly recognized Eric Clapton, but they didn't recognize a lot of the music. Instead of his hits with Cream, Clapton played blues tunes and songs of obsessive passion that no one had ever heard before. These were his love songs to Patti Boyd Harrison, George's wife, with whom he was soon to embark on a love affair that became one of the most complicated and convoluted in the history of rock.
George and Patti had married at the height of Beatlemania, and she was the inspiration for his most famous song, "Something." Clapton and Harrison had grown close, especially after Clapton moved to a place not far from the Harrison household. He visited often, and began to realize that he was going to see Patti as much as, if not more than, George. "I remember feeling a dreadful emptiness because I was certain I was never going to meet a woman quite that beautiful for myself," Clapton said later. "I knew I was in love. I fell in love with her at first sight, and it got heavier and heavier."
A friend had given Clapton a book by the Perzian poet Nizami called The Story Of Layla And Majnun, the tale of a man whose love for a woman drives him to madness. Her beauty was so intoxicating, the first spark of connection so intense and magical, that Majnun had "already given his heart to Layla before he understood what he was giving away." Eric immediately identified with the characters. He gave Patti a copy of the book and wrote her a note proclaiming his love. Through her, he had come to believe in the power of love's possibility; conversely he also learned the pain of love's impossibilities. Not only was she married, she was married to a Beatle, which was like royalty in Great Britain. And not only was she married to a Beatle, she was married to Eric's best friend. Patti found herself torn between her husband and her growing attachment to this quiet, intense man who had such a strong passion for her.
"Layla," the song and the album, became Eric Clapton's cry of love for Patti Boyd Harrison and his plea for her love in return.
Allman Brothers concert
in Miami was scheduled
for August 26, 1970, a
Wednesday night. Duane
had planned on stopping
by the studio after the
show to meet Eric, and
he was hoping to be
invited to sit in on a
song. But Clapton
insisted on shutting
down the sessions and
going to the gig; he
wanted to hear the
Allman Brothers Band.
The only place for Dowd,
Clapton and the others
to sit was at the
audience barricade in
front of the stage, and
they had to crawl on all
fours to get there.
Duane was playing a
solo, and when he looked
down and saw one of his
heroes sitting a few
feet away, he froze.
Dickey Betts was puzzled
when Duane stopped
playing. Assuming that
Duane had broken a
string, he decided he'd
better cover for him and
came in on lead. When
Dickey looked down and
saw Clapton, he turned
his back, to keep
himself from freezing as
The members of both bands hung out together after the show, and the next afternoon, after having been up all night, made their way to the studio and spent the entire day and evening jamming on old blues songs. It was Eric and Duane's way of getting acquainted.
"It turns out they were both afraid of each other," said Criteria engineer Karl Richardson. "Duane was obviously in awe of Clapton, and Clapton, who'd been listening to Duane, was likewise in awe. So the two of them, when they finally met, looked at each other and it was like, 'Oh, I'm scared of you' and 'Yeah, I'm scared of you, too.' "
Dowd taped a couple of the jam sessions - Eric, Duane and Dickey trade licks on a couple of blues shuffles with Bobby Whitlock on organ and the Allmans' Berry Oakley on bass, Butch Trucks on drums and Gregg Allman on piano. Later, Dowd caught on tape an intimate moment when Eric and Duane were alone and quietly playing their electric guitars on a couple of Elmore James songs, "It Hurts Me Too" and "Dust My Broom." On the former, Clapton plays a gentle rhythm while Duane plays bottleneck. Duane then goes into the famous slide riffs that open "Dust My Broom," and Eric quickly falls in behind him. The jam falls apart when Eric comes in on lead and an obviously nervous Duane begins playing rhythm to the wrong song.
For most of the night, Duane and Eric sat in the studio showing each other guitar licks and playing old blues songs. "It was a four-way conversation; the guitars were talking to each other, and the heads were talking to each other," Dowd said. "They went on like that until 4:30 or five in the morning."
Duane got his wish: Clapton asked him to play on a track or two of his album. The following day, Duane returned to help cut a song Clapton and Bobby Whitlock had written called "Tell The Truth." Even on that first song, there was an instant kinship and immediate interplay between Duane and Eric. It was like Miles Davis and John Coltrane getting together; they brought out the greatness in each other.
Eric kicks off "Tell The Truth" with a concise guitar riff, then the band comes in. Duane glides up the fretboard with his bottleneck, and plays fill-in notes in the pauses between the lyrics. Clapton also plays slide on the song: when he and Whitlock join together to sing "Can you feel it," Clapton chords with a bottleneck. He also plays slide on the rising melody after the second verse while Duane plays a secondary lead behind him.
"Tell The Truth" is the only song on the album without a direct reference to Patti. But as Clapton sings the refrain over and over in a voice that grows hoarser with each cry, it is as if he is transforming the song into a personal plea for her to look inside herself and see the love that he is sure is lurking there. The song has a long fade-out during which Duane takes over on bottleneck and ends up playing almost impossibly high notes that underscore the urgency of Clapton and Whitlock's vocals.
Nothing was recorded on Saturday. Duane returned Sunday, and Dowd was able to catch a moment of inspired spontaneity. The band had kicked into a medium-tempo blues, and Dowd was so taken by it that it took him a minute to realize that the tape recorder wasn't rolling. He whipped around to the engineer and yelled, "Hit the goddamn machine!" The tape comes on at the conclusion of a bottleneck lead by Duane, and Eric comes in with a solo that is relaxed, brassy and superbly confident. He plays two bars, then lays back for Duane to take over. But it's as though Duane wants to hear Clapton play some more; he hits only a couple of brief riffs. Taking the cue, Eric comes back in to fill the empty spaces and then begins singing Big Bill Broonzy's "Key To The Highway."
He takes another solo, then sings the second verse, with Duane beginning to throw in fill-in licks.The verse concludes and Jim Gordon suddenly picks up the tempo on his drums. They all fall in behind him as Duane plays a stinging bottleneck solo with Clapton yelling encouragement. There is a moment during Duane's solo when he slows the tempo, then picks it back up as he begins an old Chuck Berry phrase. The two guitarists are so in sync that Clapton has begun to play the very same lick; he hits one note of it, realizes Duane is already there, and stops cold. Duane and Eric play on for nearly 10 minutes, pushing the song through ebbs and flows, trading lead licks and obviously getting off on hearing the other play. Clapton's major flaw as a guitarist was that he could be lethargic unless he was prodded; during the Layla sessions, Clapton was pushed by Duane Allman in a way he never had been before, or ever would be again.
Even though the recording was flawed by the abrupt fade-in, the cut was so good that they let it stand as is. It must have been at about this point that Clapton started thinking seriously about using Duane Allman on the entire record. Until then, there hadn't been a whole lot of tape worth keeping. Everyone in the band was indulging in prodigious amounts of hard dope and the sessions had lacked focus.
"We didn't have little bits of anything; there were no grams around, let's put it like that," Bobby Whitlock said. "Tom couldn't believe the way we had these big bags laying out everywhere. Cocaine and heroin, and Johnny Walker." When writer Robert Palmer went to Miami to interview Clapton, he walked into the studio and found everyone on the floor, nodded out.
With Duane's arrival, things began to fall into place. They immediately nailed "Tell The Truth," a song they had struggled with for months. The band had first recorded it in London during George Harrison's All Things Must Pass sessions and even released it as a single. The tempo was so frantic, however, that the band had the record recalled so they could get a better versions on tape. By the time the Dominos reached Miami, they were playing "Tell The Truth" at a much slower pace; still, the song wasn't quite clicking and neither was the session in general. Then Duane Allman showed up. "All of a sudden the catalyst was there," Dowd said. "It was just a matter of putting things into shape."
Clapton absolutely loved to listen to Duane play, and having him there kept the pressure off; Eric was very content to sit back, play a lot of rhythm guitar and let Duane Allman run free.
"I was just going to play on one or two, and then as we kept on going, it kept developing," Duane said. "And Eric said, 'Okay, man, we're going to make us a record here and we're going to have two guitar players instead of one.' We worked our butts off on it. Everybody got behind it, with no ego trips or anything. It's just good music all the way through."
If the first two songs hadn't cemented things in Clapton's mind, then the next two, recorded the day after "Key To The Highway," did the trick. First, they cut "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," an old blues song that had been a hit for Bessie Smith over 50 years earlier. Duane came up with the arrangement - the same one he had used two years earlier when the 31st Of February [drummer Butch Trucks' pre-Allman Brothers band, with whom both Gregg and Duane recorded] played the song. Then he laid down wonderful bottleneck notes underneath Clapton's vocals, which Clapton followed with one of his best solos on the album.
The second song recorded that day, "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad," had been written by Clapton and Whitlock in England. It was the first of the songs composed for Patti Boyd Harrison that Duane would be involved with, as though he had survived running the gauntlet and could now be entrusted to share in the band's secret stash of magnificent songs of love and despair.
The intensity level on the session picked up considerably with "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad." Eric plays a two-chord riff to start it off, Whitlock's organ swells and rises up, and Duane's lead guitar comes in at the apex. From that point on, Duane is locked in behind Clapton's vocals in one of the most emotionally charged performances of his career, ripping out notes that echo every word Eric sings. The lyrics are like one continuous primal scream, all from the depths of Clapton's love for Patti.
Duane, playing straight guitar for the first time on the session, takes the lead break. Clapton soon jumps in and they are both playing at the same time, each pounding out notes with such intensity that it all sounds on the verge of chaos - until they reign it back in ever so slightly. Duane and Eric stood facing one another as they overdubbed the lead breaks, and everyone in the studio watched in awe at the electricity flying between them, the total concentration and instinctive anticipation, as these two masters focused in and combined the power of their music into one singular statement.
Duane left Miami after recording that song, but the group carried on the momentum and recorded "Keep On Growin' " on Tuesday, followed by "I Looked Away" and one of the record's masterpieces, "Bell Bottom Blues," on Wednesday. Duane was back late that night for "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," a slow blues that had been popularized by Freddie King, a guitarist who had exerted a profound influence on Clapton. The song appears on King's Hide Away, one of Clapton's favorite albums, and was tailor-made for Layla - it speaks directly of being in love with a woman who is married to your best friend.
The had been trying to get the song on tape ever since their arrival in Miami. But two early versions failed to capture anything of the flaming intensity that would show up on this recording. Only four or five days passed between the first and final takes of the song and, listening to them in succession, you can hear Clapton learning to sing it as he goes from the hesitance of the first to the absolute despair of the last.
"Have You Ever Loved A Woman" begins with a Clapton riff, and the guitarist plays a passionate Freddie King-inspired lead before he begins singing. The tempo shifts into a heavy beat when Duane comes in for a bottleneck lead - gritty one minute, gentle and tender the next - that pushes the song's emotions higher and higher. Clapton then takes over on his black Stratocaster, beginning at the crest where Duane left off and spitting out notes that take it even further. It wasn't a case of one-upsmanship - they were bringing out the best in each other and daring each other to take it up an extra level. There are blues solos as good as those Duane and Eric play on this song, but very few that are better.
Thursday was a full day in the studio. Recorded was "I Am Yours," a ballad Clapton had written after reading The Story Of Layla And Majnun. He had pulled enough of the lyrics directly from the book to give Nizami co-writer's credit. It is a simple yet beautiful song, one of the album's most tender moments. The arrangement is understated; Eric is on the acoustic guitar, Jim Gordon softly plays the congas and Duane plays a gentle bottleneck line. The introduction to each verse brings an unusual tempo shift as the melody rises: Duane plays ahead of the beat for four notes, then he and Clapton join together for the rest of the measure.
One of the original concepts for the album was to have Bobby Whitlock and Clapton share the vocals like [the soul duo] Sam And Dave, exchanging lines and singing tight harmonies. This approach is taken on "Any Day." Clapton sings the first stanza, Whitlock sings the second and Eric returns for the final one. It is a song of faith and belief that goes to the heart of the album's concept - a plea to the woman to believe in the singer the way he believes in her.
Clapton and Whitlock wrote the song in England, and Duane decided the introduction needed a punch. "Hey, let's make it like a Roman chariot race," he said, playing a riff that begins on the bass notes and then slides high up the scale.
Duane plays the opening at the bottom end, while Clapton uses a slide for the high parts and for a quick lick during the interlude, before coming in on vocals. Both guitarists use bottlenecks on the chorus; Clapton plays full chords, while Duane echoes the melody playing single notes. Duane takes the solo, playing the first half with his fingers and before putting on his Coricidin bottle slide at the end for a three-note progression that seems to scream "Believe in me" over and over.
The third song from that Thursday session is "It's Too Late," written by r&b star Chuck Willis and later covered by Buddy Holly. The Sam and Dave vocal effects are again in full force, with Clapton and Whitlock playing call and response on the chorus. The song subsequently shifts from a medium tempo to a heavy blues backbeat for Duane's bottleneck solo.
Duane had to go back on the road with the Allman Brothers Band, and nothing else was cut until he returned six days later. Despite the haze of heroin and cocaine, the band had been recording at a furious pace. Duane Allman met Eric Clapton on August 26 and went into the studio with Derek And The Dominos two days later. They then recorded 11 songs over the next seven days, some of them among the greatest in rock history. Everyone in the studio knew they were in the midst of something magical.
"We knew it was phenomenal," engineer Karl Richardson said. "Absolutely. You couldn't not know that the music flying out of Studio B was phenomenal. You'd have to be deaf."
The core of the record is the excellent songwriting. The music is all firmly based in the blues, full of odd turns and twists that come unexpectedly yet instantly feel right. And the lyrics are the work of a Stratocaster-wielding Don Quixote, tilting at windmills with his guitar and making poetry out of the seeming futility of his eternal hope. The final crucial ingredient was Duane Allman, who always rose above the level of the material he had to work with. If it was good, he made it great; if it was great, he made it transcendent.
Duane returned to Miami on September 9, and the band cut Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing." Where Hendrix' version is contemplative, almost wistful, Clapton and company's was more grand operatic tragedy. Duane's guitar is heavily echoed as he sweeps up the fretboard in a lovely explosion on the introduction. On the lead break, he plays the first bar with his fingers and then uses his bottleneck on the second half to create swirling melanges of sound with haunting undertones. "Little Wing"was intended as a tribute, from two members of the triumvirate of that era's guitar greats to the third. But Jimi Hendrix never heard the loving version of "Little Wing" crafted by Eric and Duane in his honor. Nine days after the song was recorded, Hendrix died of a drug overdose.
Also recorded that day was a song Eric had written back in England after he'd first read The Story Of Layla And Majnun. It was a ballad called "Layla," described at the time by Clapton as "just a little ditty." Then Duane encouraged him to speed it up and transform it into a driving rock song.
"Eric and Duane were playing the song back for us, and all of a sudden Duane said, 'Let me try something,' " recalled Allman Brothers' drummer Butch Trucks, who happened to be hanging out in the studio control room when they were recording the song. "And he put on his guitar and came up with that signature phrase that just kind of set that song on fire."
The seven pulsating notes that open "Layla" comprise what is perhaps the most exciting introduction in rock and, other than Chuck Berry's guitar intro to "Johnny B. Goode," the most identifiable. This is the song where all the emorion and desire that drove Clapton at the sessions exploded in one furious blast of impassioned lyrics and thunderous music. The song is propelled by an army of overdubbed guitars - no fewer than seven guitar tracks are used - and a brilliant modulation from the opening notes to the verses that establishes a dramatic tone even before Clapton comes in to sing the opening lines: "What will you do when you get lonely, when nobody's waiting by your side?"
Duane is mixed underneath the vocals, playing electrifying lead guitar lines nonstop while Clapton sings angrily, chiding Layla for hiding behind her "foolish pride." Yet the chorus is a plea: "Please, come back to me." The song rides a delicate balance between Clapton's anger and his desperate need to believe there is still hope. Ultimately, fittingly, Clapton invokes Robert Johnson, as he begs Layla not to tell him that "all my love's in vain." From there, the song soars on the energy of the screaming slide guitars of Eric and Duane, with Duane breaking free to play an other-worldly counter-melody at the uppermost reaches of his fretboard.
After three minutes the song gently touches down, and it is Jim Gordon, the drummer, who sits down at the piano and begins playing a sweet and tender melody. That final section of the song was recorded a couple of weeks after the first part and, in an inspired moment. was put at the end of "Layla" with a nifty tape splicing job by Tom Dowd.
"Jim Gordon wrote that. He'd had been secretly going back into the studio and recording his own album without any of us knowing it," said Clapton, who played only the acoustic guitar on the coda. "We caught him playing it one day and said, 'Come on, man. Let us have that.' And we made the two pieces into one song."
The piano coda becomes the personification of the beauty and vulnerability of the love Clapton feels for Layla. The one theme is played over and over, rising and falling in intensity and always colored by the gliding bottleneck symphony crafted by Duane. It fades with Duane making his bottleneck sound like a crying bird.
The final song, "Thorn Tree In The Garden," begins as a statement of resignation, as though Eric knows he has failed to move the woman he loves. The song's scenario has him meeting someone else but apologizing to her because he can't forget the moments he had with Layla. Everyone sat in a circle in the studio with acoustic instruments to record the song, and Bobby Whitlock's aching vocals seem on the verge of cracking from sadness. Eric fingerpicks the rhythm guitar and Duane plays chiming notes and soft, lovely slide on the chorus. "Maybe someday soon," Whitlock concludes, "some way." Somehow, the hope remains. In spite of everything, he still believes.
Mixing the album proved to be a difficult task. Often, three or more guitars were going at once, and Dowd had to find the right balance between them. The album's huge guitar sound led most people to assume that Duane and Eric were playing through powerful Marshall and Fender amplifiers. In truth, however, both guitarists used tiny amps, primarily two puny Fender Champs that were routinely used for sessions at Criteria.
"We closed the top of the piano and set the amps up on it so that the Champs were at ear level," said Ron Albert, who owned the amps with his brother, Howie, another Criteria engineer. "It was the only way that Eric and Duane could hear themselves. You'd turn them up to 10, stick a microphone on them and go."
Dowd faced a tight deadline of two days to do the job - not much time to mix enough music to fill up two albums. The final night was even more rushed because Clapton was about to return to England. "Eric had like the last flight out," said Karl Richardson. "Tommy was in there mixing with him, and I was sitting in another room putting the album together. It was in the middle of night, around five in the morning, and Eric had a six o'clock flight."
They also faced technical problems. One night a visitor in the control room spilled coffee on the master tapes. "I remember Tommy Dowd and I standing at the tape machine with what they call Chem-Wipes, which are very absorbent, non-chemical-treated tissue," said Karl. "And we passed the master tape back and forth through the reels to get all the coffee out."
In addition, a quirky tape player caused most of the songs to turn out either faster or slower than their actual tempo. "Layla," for example, came out so fast that it was nearly a half-step sharp, and many thought the variations were deliberate. "There's no reason for it except the mix-down machine was an old Ampex 351," Karl said. "At the beginning of the reel, you'd record a little slow and at the end you'd record a little quickly."
When Tom Dowd finally walked out of the studio after they had finished the album, he shook his head and said to himself, "That's the best goddamned record I've made in 10 years." To his dismay, Layla was hardly noticed upon its release in December of 1970.
"The pity of it was that it took a year for the thing to hit," Dowd said. "When it didn't hit in the first six months, I just thought, 'The public is just a bunch of assholes. They don't know what the hell is good or bad anymore.' Then six months later, it was like the national anthem."