“You just love that woman so much”
Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs’ five cover songs are all obvious choices, and they’re all done with justice. Take Duane Allman’s yearning slide guitar, in perfect support of Clapton’s own guitar and vocals on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, or the spontaneous feel of Key To The Highway. Another blues groove, It’s Too Late, proclaimed yet more heartbreak: “Wish I had told her she was my only one/But it’s too late, she’s gone.”
They duo give a beautiful nod to the other guitar god of the time, Jimi Hendrix, covering Little Wing in almost as dreamy a fashion as the original. Having performed the song a handful of times during the live shows staged to help the band gel before recording Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, it was meant to be an ode to a living hero. But, with his tragic death in September, only about a week after they recorded the song, it became a touching tribute to a lost legend. Hendrix was only 27 years old.
Perhaps the best cover is of blues and guitar legend Freddie King’s Have You Ever Loved A Woman. The guitar work from both men is infectious and the song contains perhaps the most apt lyric of all: “You just love that woman/So much it’s a shame and a sin/But all the time you know/She belongs to your very best friend.”
If you thought that was good, Layla is utter ridiculousness. The opening riff you hear is Clapton’s, but hot on its heels is a track of duplicate solos from both men, with Allman on slide guitar. Clapton builds upon the driving rhythm track with his own lead for the verses, with Allman letting lose on alternative slide solos throughout. Clapton also provided upper and lower harmony tracks to help the lead along, not to mention that slide solo from Allman before Jim Gordon’s beautiful piano coda comes in. Add the main man’s impassioned vocals and you have one of the greatest seven-minute soundbites of all time.
All these factors mean that, simply put, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs is a masterpiece. Released on 9 November 1970, it was, however, favourably reviewed but commercially overlooked due to Clapton’s insistence on anonymity.
“I took a three-year holiday”
What was the fallout from such a monumental album? Clapton’s drinking and drug use was reportedly getting out of hand towards the end of the sessions – Bobby Whitlock recalled, “It was there, an abundance of it,” and even claimed that he, Clapton and Allman flushed a load down the toilet in order to finish recording the album. The Dominos fell apart. Pattie Harrison didn’t have it in her to leave George, so Clapton went into exile, claiming, “I took a three-year holiday,” while slumbering in self-pity and addiction.
Duane Allman’s story is even sadder. Almost exactly a year after the release of Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, the undeniably talented guitarist died in hospital following a motorcycle accident. He was just 24 years old. Thankfully, his legacy lives on far longer than he did; in 2019, the 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop guitar he used on the album’s sessions sold at auction for over $1 million.
“I’d rather she was with him than some dope”
After getting help to kick his heroin habit, Clapton recorded and released a comeback album, 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, a commercial success that highlighted yet more new musical influences, setting in motion a much-lauded solo career. Meanwhile, the Harrisons’ marriage slowly deteriorated, and Pattie finally left George for Clapton. Still good friends, however, the ex-Beatle said he was fine with the situation “because he’s great; I’d rather she was with him than some dope”.
Part of a whirlwind chapter in Eric Clapton’s life, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs charts a year-long story of love and lust, desperation and addiction, creativity and virtuosity. With a few decent guitarists to boot, that year or so, half a century ago, was quite something.