Forgive me for not writing about this album before, or Eric Clapton for that matter. Where do you start with Clapton? I guess right here.
Fifty years ago, this delight was delivered to record stores. Remember record stores? This was the third band for Clapton in just a couple of years. I am not sure what people expected this time around, but Clapton delved deep in traditional blues from middle America. He was a blues musician to his soul, and he would revisit the blues throughout his career, but here the blues shared the stage with his British-blues-rocker originals. Co-writing with Whitlock gave these songs additional emotional weight to go with the musical muscle.
Derek and the Dominoes were Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon. Along the way, Duane Allman joined up to lend his southern rock guitar talent. The album was produced by the group, but overseen by the renown Tom Dowd. Most of the attention went to Clapton and Allman, but the rhythm section of Radle and Gordon is superb. Whitlock’s piano and organ are usually buried in the mix, but he supports the rhythm and provides some very effective melodic fills.
Clapton’s involvement with Delaney and Bonnie, and Joe Cocker, helped provide not only musical direction after he split from Cream, and then Blind Faith, but he was introduced to musicians that would be in his orbit for a next couple of years. Bass player Radle stayed with him until the 1980s. Gordon went on to other things like mental illness and prison for killing his mother. Whitlock was also in England at the time, got to know Clapton, and worked on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, as the did the other Dominoes. Allman was working with producer Tom Dowd on an Allman Brothers album when he met Clapton, and was invited to the studio to record with the Dominoes. He stayed, and added his guitar to what would become a landmark album.
Clapton enjoyed hiding behind the band name, rather than feel all of the attention on him. The band would tour without Allman, who had commitments with his own band. Plans for a second album fell apart, so Layla was their only studio album.
When it was released, this album underwhelmed a lot of people, both critically and commercially. Sales were okay, but not significant. Time would erase the doubt, and replace that feeling, with the realization of this being a significant work. Critics now declare it a masterpiece and it is ranked high on the all-time list of top albums. It has been re-released several times in remastered versions, supplemented by unreleased and live tracks.
I always found the original audio to be very compressed and the guitars lacking bite, and sounding tinny without thickness. Through remastering, the sound quality has been improved, but comparing the recording to other albums of the time period, the instruments seems stacked on top of their other and very little bottom sound. I believe that was a deliberate decision when the album was originally mastered, but it always sounded dated to me, and hid the richness of the instrumentation. Thankfully, others agreed with my brilliant observations and the sound is now better.
Most of the songs were co-written by Clapton and Whitlock.
“Bell Bottom Blues” Slightly bluesy, more of a pop-blues, with memorable hooks at the chorus, “I don’t want to fade away, give me one more day please.” Everyone wore bell bottom trousers in those days, it was a sign of youthful independence. The twin lead of Clapton and Allman is in full force here. Aside from “Layla” this song received a lot of airplay.
“Keep On Growing” One of the best songs, the guitar riff is quite infectious. Co-lead vocals by Clapton and Whitlock. It is hard to count the number of guitar layers on this album, riffs, fills and solos. The solos are worth the price of admission.
“Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” A blues song by Jimmy Cox, covered by many artists through the years. Recorded in one take, with Allman on slide guitar.
“I Am Yours” A slower song, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, percussion and bass. It has an easy, Latin flavor to it with beat and slide guitar.
“Anyday” An upbeat, bluesy-rocker, back with twin lead guitars. Clapton and Whitlock trade vocals. An underrated song. If you are mining for songs on this set, check this one out. The guitar work is superb, but so are the forceful vocals.
“Key to the Highway” Back to the traditional blues. The song fades in, reportedly after producer Dowd heard the band jamming to the song and wanted it on tape. Clocking in at over nine minutes, if you like the Chicago blues, Clapton and Allman air it out here.
“Tell the Truth” A blues-rocker, with twin vocals by Clapton and Whitlock, with gnarly guitars.
“Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad” A very fast, bluesy-rock love song. The version here is nowhere as good as the live version, which would highlight the band’s live release. Here, the version is too fast and the lead guitar is buried in the mix.
“Have You Ever Loved a Woman” Written by Billy Myles. Back to the blues, slower this time, but very forceful. The guitars are great, but it is shame that Whitlock’s piano is not more in the foreground. This song shows the compressed nature of the disc’s mastering.
“Little Wing” Written and recorded by Jimi Hendrix, the version here is superior. Sorry Jimi. The guitar work is incredibly good, as are the vocals, which are almost shouted. The B-side of “Bell Bottom Blues.”
Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales
That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind
“It’s Too Late” A bluesy-country song by Chuck Willis. A driving song, with call and response vocals. Rambling guitar work.
“Layla” What can you say about this song, the song most associated with Clapton. Twin lead guitars, a driving rocker, Clapton confesses his love for Patti Harrison. The coda, credited to drummer Jim Gordon, is reportedly to have been written by Gordon’s girlfriend at the time, Rita Coolidge. All she got for it was a black eye.
“Thorn Tree in the Garden” A gentle, quiet ballad by Whitlock on acoustic guitar to close the album. A very lovely melody.
Clapton would move on to get his solo career underway, but never to be in a band again. His albums never forgot the blues, even in his glossy-pop affairs in the 1980s.
Layla is a snapshot of a special time. Clapton and Allman were a special match, complimentary, but also competitive. The record people tried to talk Clapton into cutting the double album into a single disc, but he refused. The album is heavy on blues covers, that where I would start, but that’s like telling the Beatles to trim the White Album. Why bother. Layla tells a story, and that work with Allman is special. I’ll gladly take the filler.
“I don’t want to fade away, give me one more day please.”