50 Years Ago: Eric Clapton Opens His Heart and Made a Masterpiece With Derek and the Dominos
Eric Clapton's best album wasn't credited to him and wasn't even a real band. In a long career that stretches from the Yardbirds and a series of short-lived supergroups through solo albums and collaborations with some of the blues heroes who influenced him, the guitarist made his best work on a one-off record that pretty much amounted to a jam session among friends.
Derek and the Dominos were formed by Clapton and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, both of whom recently got off the road with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Following the crash and burn of Cream and Blind Faith, and the release of his first solo album, Clapton retreated from the spotlight, filling the guitarist gig on his pals' tour. The group's rotating membership also included drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Radle, the rhythm section that would shape Derek and the Dominos' core quartet.
From the start, the concept behind Derek and the Dominos was a figurative mask for Clapton to wear. All he wanted to do was play guitar, maybe sing a little and just be part of a band. No egos. No clashes. No spotlights turned on just one person. But something else powered those sessions that even Clapton probably hadn't anticipated.
Sometime in 1969, he had fallen deeply in love with Pattie Boyd, who happened to be married to one of his closest friends, George Harrison. And he fought his feelings in two ways: with heroin and by writing songs about his infatuation. The best of them, "Layla," would become the sprawling centerpiece of Derek and the Dominos' only studio album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Still, the project's ace in the hole wasn't even there at the start. Guitarist Duane Allman, who was recording the Allman Brothers Band's second album at the same studio (Miami's Criteria) and with the same producer (Tom Dowd) that Derek and the Dominos were using. One thing led to another, and soon the young guitarist was invited by Clapton to jump on board, and Allman ended up playing on 11 of Layla's 14 songs, including the title track's celebrated weeping slide solo.
The sessions ran from late August through early October 1970. Clapton and Whitlock wrote nine of the songs, either separately, together or with other songwriters. The remaining tracks included covers of cuts as vintage as Chuck Willis' '50s R&B lament "It's Too Late" and as recent as Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."
Listen to Derek and the Dominos Perform 'Layla'
Through it all, Clapton poured out his heart. The album's best songs – "Bell Bottom Blues," "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" and "Layla" – tell the story of a despairing man at the end of his rope. Clapton never sang with such soul, pain and urgency before or after. In a way, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is a concept album about unrequited passion. Other factors helped pull such a performance from him, but there's no denying the effect his love for Boyd had on the sessions. There's real hurt and confusion here. Few albums in rock history bare the scars that this one does.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is Clapton's masterpiece, even though it wasn't recognized as such at the time. The album stalled at No. 16 in the U.S. and didn't chart at all in Clapton's native U.K. Part of the problem had to do with some confusion as to just who Derek and the Dominos were. Clapton had integrated himself so perfectly into the group situation he desired that he practically buried any real chance for the record's commercial success. In 1972, "Layla" was reissued as a single – its first attempt stopped short of the Top 50 – and made it to the Top 10. In the years since, the LP's legend has grown, but back on Nov. 9, 1970, when it was released, it was casually dismissed as just another Clapton side group.
Clapton, Whitlock, Gordon and Radle toured the U.S. for a few weeks at the end of 1970; Allman joined them onstage for three shows. (They later pulled together a live record from the run.) Plans were set to record another Derek and the Dominos album in 1971, but the band got so wrapped up in drugs, booze and – once again – egos, that Clapton called it quits.
He went home and lost himself in a heroin addiction that took him years to shake. He made one public appearance in 1971, at Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, where he passed out onstage. It would be another two years before he started to get clean and began work on his second solo album, 1974's triumphant 461 Ocean Boulevard.
He finally got Layla too, hooking up with Boyd in 1974 and eventually marrying her five years later. Radle played with Clapton until his death in 1980. Whitlock wouldn't perform with Clapton again until 2003. Gordon had a breakdown in 1983 and murdered his mom (he's currently in a mental facility). And Allman died in a motorcycle accident in 1971.