Before the super-groups of Cream and Blind Faith, Eric Clapton was already a legendary guitarist in England through his work with the Yardbirds as well as a one-year stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. It was while playing around London with the Bluesbreakers that graffiti began to appear around the city declaring: “Clapton is God”.
His position as a guitar deity led to him forming Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker for three volatile years from 1966 to 1968. After conflicting egos broke up Cream, Clapton went on to form the legendarily hyped “super-group” Blind Faith, with Traffic’s Steve Winwood in 1969 for one album and a few tour dates before also breaking up amidst issues of creative direction and, once again, artistic egos.
There has long been a story that Clapton decided to change direction from the extended pyrotechnical guitar soloing of Cream to a more unified ensemble direction after first hearing “Music From Big Pink” by The Band. But in any event, after his meteoric rise to legendary status in only a few years, Clapton took a decidedly anti-egotistical turn and joined American musicians Delaney & Bonnie as their band’s guitarist to focus on a more roots-oriented ensemble sound which was also reflected in his first solo album entitled simply “Eric Clapton”.
In 1970, Clapton took this new “anti-ego” direction a step further when he formed a new band with Delaney & Bonnie alums Bobby Whitlock (keyboards), Carl Radle (bassist), and Jim Gordon (Drums), which he mysteriously named “Derek & The Dominoes”. The Dominoes began by performing in small clubs in England as a shift from the arena concerts that Clapton had grown tired of playing with Cream and Blind Faith. The band’s name also helped mask his superstar status by not billing themselves under the Clapton name. At the same time, Clapton began writing with his new band members, and after the short tour of U.K. clubs (and recording one single with Phil Spector producing) the Dominoes traveled to Miami’s Criterion Studios to record the band’s only studio album.
When the Dominoes arrived in Miami to record, The Allman Brothers were scheduled for a live date in Miami at the same time. Guitarist Duane Allman asked producer Tom Dowd if he could come by the studio to listen. The Allmans (who were also recording their second album with Dowd) were yet to break-through in a big way, but Duane was already well known in music circles for his session work with R&B artists such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
When Clapton heard that Allman wanted to come to the sessions he exclaimed that HE HIMSELF wanted to hear ALLMAN play, as he was very familiar with the young guitarist’s work on some of his favorite soul recordings. The legendary story is that when the Allmans came on stage and saw Clapton sitting in the front-row, Allman FROZE in the middle of playing his first solo! Clapton then told Allman that not only could he attend the sessions but he also wanted him to play on the album. Thus making for one of the most legendary guitar collaborations of all time.
Although today many people (myself included) consider Layla to be Clapton’s best work, at the time of the album’s release it was not critically well received and didn’t even chart in the U.K. Perhaps critics and fans were longing for the extended guitar theatrics of the Cream years that Clapton had so intentionally moved beyond.
The recent new release of the Layla album as a 96/24 high definition download from www.HDtracks.com makes for a perfect opportunity to reevaluate this musical landmark in Clapton’s nearly half-century career.
The new download release was taken from a new re-mastering of the original analog tapes and, as expected the sound is both exquisite and revelatory in details with more than twice the resolution of previous CD issues. As with all downloads from HDtracks, the release comes with the complete CD liner notes and cover art as PDF files.
The Layla album builds slowly as it moves through a collection of primarily blues based numbers (including the highlights of “Bell Bottom Blues” and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”) to the finale of the now classic title song. Ironically, the “Little Wing” track was recorded as Clapton’s tribute to Hendrix a few days BEFORE the guitarist’s tragic death in September of 1970.
The Layla title track, written by Clapton and drummer Jim Gordon (who plays the majestic piano parts in the extended coda), was actually not a hit at the time of its release but it went on to become perhaps Clapton’s best-known song and a concert highlight. The subject matter for Layla was Patti Boyd, with whom Clapton fell in love while she was still married to his close friend, George Harrison. Boyd later married Clapton and has the distinction of having THREE hit songs written about her: Layla, (The Beatle’s) Something, and (Clapton’s) Wonderful Tonight.
Beyond the beautifully re-mastered original album there are also substantial bonus tracks including several from what was planned to be the second studio album by the band. These tracks have been recently mixed and mastered and although the sound is spectacular you can hear a significant drop in the quality of the writing and it’s understandable why the album project fell apart (along with the band) shortly after a brief period of touring. The magic was gone, and also Allman was not at the sessions for the ill-fated second album and did not tour with the band.
More interesting is the one “out-take” from the Layla sessions: an acoustic guitar duet between Clapton and Allman. A great rarity and a hint at what may have been possible if the two had collaborated further.
Also included are the two long-lost Phil Spector productions recorded during George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” Abbey Road sessions before the band flew to Miami to record the complete album. A single of “Tell the Truth” was released prior to the album recording, but in a very unusual move the disc was actually WITHDRAWN after Clapton decided he didn’t like the direction the single had taken. Although hearing the Spector production today is fascinating, it’s easy to understand why it didn’t work as the Spector wall of sound is almost the polar opposite of the direction taken by Tom Dowd in the later album sessions in Miami.
Along with several live tracks from the tour that followed the album, there are three very interesting tracks from a live appearance on Johnny Cash’s television show at the time. These include a cover of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” with Perkins himself leading the band.
During the television appearance Cash introduces the Dominoes as “one of the finest musical groups in the world”. Which is quite an understatement.
It’s too bad that the band’s history was so brief.