“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek & the Dominos (1970)
Superstardom may have seemed inevitable for Eric Clapton, but for a while he did his best to avoid it.
Having gained international fame through his work with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and especially Cream, Clapton seemed to want to ratchet it up a notch after the latter band splintered. Joining with Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Family’s Ric Grech and Cream associate Ginger Baker, Clapton formed Blind Faith, for which the term “supergroup” was coined.
That project didn’t work out as well as expected, so Clapton decided to ditch the spotlight and play guitar for an American husband-and-wife team, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Then there was the show he played as part of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band on Sept. 13, 1969, as captured on the “Live Peace in Toronto” album and D.A. Pennebaker’s “Sweet Toronto” movie. Proceedings go well until Yoko starts doing her thing all over the audience, as John so aptly puts it, but it’s kind of fun to watch the guys flailing away on their guitars as she caterwauls.
Back to Delaney and Bonnie: Clapton liked the other members of their band so much that he drafted them to play on his first solo album, “Eric Clapton,” recorded November 1969 through January 1970. Then bassist Carl Radle, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon teamed up with Clapton to tour as Derek & the Dominos, which represented an attempt to keep a low profile.
Other “Dominos,” including George Harrison, went into the studio to record a couple of songs for a single, “Tell the Truth” and the lascivious “Roll It Over.” The single was released but quickly withdrawn, and the four regular members of the band subsequently traveled to Miami to work with producer Tom Dowd on a full album.
Dowd happened to also be working on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Idlewild South” at the time, and he invited Clapton to check out the Allmans at a Miami concert. Members of both groups headed back to Criteria Studios for an all-night jam session, and Clapton promptly invited Duane to sit in on laying down tracks for the album.
The result generally is regarded as the pinnacle of Clapton’s half-century of recording, a combination of original songs and blues covers, most drawing on the theme of unrequited love. Of course, much of that stemmed from Clapton’s own unrequited love for Harrison’s wife, Patti, the “Layla” of the album’s classic title track.
At first glance, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” seems sprawling, with its 14 songs spread over two albums in its original incarnation. And some critics at the time thought they detected some filler among the compositions.
That might be true for the album’s closer, “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” which is Whitlock’s song. Otherwise, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” stands as a statement by musicians putting on a clinic.
Several of the originals – “I Looked Away,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Keep on Growing,” “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” and a slowed-down “Tell the Truth” – have become classic-rock standards, while the covers as just as scintillating, especially Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” On the album, the song fades in, as the engineers didn’t quite capture the beginning of what started as an informal jam.
Clapton had been performing Billy Myles’ “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” since his Blues Breakers days, but the song takes on particular poignance in the “Layla” setting, nailing the Eric-Pattie relationship: “all the time you know she belongs to your very best friend.”
The LP’s fourth side opens with a hard-edged cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” which was was recorded right around the time of Jimi’s death. And the call-and-response vocals of Clapton and Whitlock are put to effective use on Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late,” as witnessed in the band’s appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show.
The Clapton-Allman collaboration culminates with “Layla,” with its blistering dual-guitar attack leading in to Eric’s definitive tale of woe. The song eventually segues into a piano coda, composed and played by Gordon with the guitarists adding their flourishes.
The album reached No. 16 in the United States but failed to chart in Britain, probably because of Clapton’s muted presence. Thanks to the title track’s re-release as a single a few years later, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” eventually went gold. Twenty years after its recording, it was released as a three-CD “deluxe package” featuring two discs of instrumental jams and outtakes, the first of its kind and still one of the best.
As for Derek & the Dominos, they toured the U.S., then started working on a second album before the inevitable breakup. Clapton went into a drug-induced seclusion for a couple of years before finally producing the top-selling “461 Ocean Boulevard,” his solo masterpiece.
Radle rejoined Clapton for that album and was part of his band through the ’70s. Carl died in 1980 from a kidney infection.
Whitlock recorded four solo albums in the ’70s before spending much of the next two decades out of the music business. He returned to recording, performing and songwriting in 1999.
Gordon remained a sought-after session drummer, playing with the likes of Lennon, Harrison, Traffic, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa. Unfortunately, he developed schizophrenia and was eventually was convicted for the 1983 murder of his mother.
Allman was riding his motorcycle in his hometown of Macon, Ga., on Oct. 29, 1971, when he ran into a flatbed truck carrying a lumber crane. He died a few weeks short of his 25th birthday.
He never knew what his collaboration with Eric Clapton would mean to rock music’s legacy.