Check out my article over at Niche Appeal about how Clapton’s smash hit “Layla” brought death, jail, and artistic decline for everyone who touched it. Or read below.
You’ve heard the song at least 102,697 times. It’s been blasting from the FM Classic Rock stations at every jobsite you’ve ever walked past. A limp acoustic version haunted your MTV childhood. It’s lush piano outro soundtracked several of the most poignant moments in your favorite movies. It’s a song that has seeped its way into the world’s collective consciousness with the likes of “Stairway” and “Freebird” and “Gucci Gang”. The song is “Layla” and it’s got you on your knees. The song is “Layla” and it’s screamin’ darlin’ please. The song is “Layla” and darlin’ it will ease your worried mind.
You know “Layla” well. But did you know that the guy who co-wrote it with Eric Clapton killed his mother with a hammer?
If you don’t know this, then you don’t know about The Layla Curse. But unfortunately for you we’re about to tell you all about it.
We’ll start by stating a fact: “Layla” and the album it comes from, 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs are absolute stunners. Every second of this record is richly layered, earthy, highly emotional, and capital “G” groovy in every way. It was Clapton’s last stand, really, since he definitely never did anything cool ever again. He still had great hair and had not yet sprouted that coked-out line beard that haunted him through the late 70s and 80s. This was still the Clapton of Cream and Blind Faith. The spirits still walked with him. The heartbroken swagger on this record was influenced by George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, and it bleeds through heavy on immortal dirges like “Bellbottom Blues” and the title track. We know, we know, you’ve heard “Layla” so many times it just doesn’t have an impact. But it’s a great and desperate song. Take our word for it. We’re professionals.
We’ve established that the record is an out-and-out classic. It’s also moved millions upon millions of units and is easily one of the crowning jewels of the classic rock era. But it came with a horrible curse, and even Clapton himself wasn’t able to outrun it.
Playing on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs should have been a big red letter day for everyone involved in the sessions, from the boys in Eric’s band (called Derek And The Dominos for some perverse reason) to the engineers to the person who swept the floor after hours. It’s a rare combination: a misunderstood cult record that still sold millions, an uncompromising work of art that made the commercial marketplace bend to its will over time. It’s remarkably pure but soundtracked jaded times. Everyone knows it and could hum the title track’s main riff off the dome. Playing on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs should be like having Dark Side Of The Moon or Appetite For Destruction on your resume.
And yet everyone involved in the swampy hot Miami sessions that produced this thing met a horrible fate.
We’ll start with the sessions’ drummer, Bill Gordon. Or more specifically, Bill Gordon’s poor, doomed mother. Her son may have looked kind of square, but this was one of the freakiest and most versatile session drummers of the era. Dude pretty much played on everything. His resume reads like a wonderland of classic records from the era. Nobody would believe it if it wasn’t on Wikipedia. Crosby Stills & Nash? Check. The Monkees? Sure thing. Byrds? You know it. Alice Cooper? Oh fuck yea. Nancy Sinatra? Uh huh. Zappa? Of course. Steely Dan? You best believe it. Beach Boys? Been there, done that. John Denver? Booh yah. It was only natural that Clapton would phone him up to jam when he was putting together the Dominos, and only more natural that he was given the full-time drummer role. But Gordo wasn’t just a “How do you know when the stage is level? When the drummer is drooling out both sides of his mouth” caveman Keith moon type. This was a composer, classically trained, and that sweeping piano outro you know so well from that scene in Goodfellas that was tacked on to the end of “Layla” was his creation. Now, you can call Eric Clapton many things (a racist, for example) but you can’t say he was stingy with the songwriting credits. Gordy got a co-write on the thing. Perhaps Eric would have changed his tune on this had he known his cry of romantic pain would go on to generate millions upon millions of dollars. But now he has to share the proceeds and the multiple Grammys with a California Correctional System inmate.
But that’s just how the Layla Curse Works.
On a hot June night in 1983, some very convincing voices within Jim Gordon’s head demanded that he kill his mother. He took them up on it without question. We won’t get into the truly horrific details other than to say that a hammer was the main instrument used, which makes sense considering Jim’s long history as a percussionist. RIP to Osa Marie Gordon. After his conviction Gordy was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he has long asserted that the voices began just after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
So if you’re keeping score at home, the Layla Curse has a dead mother and a murder conviction under its belt and we haven’t even made it past the drummer.
Since we’re starting with the Derek and the Dominos rhythm section, let’s next move on to the bassist.
This guy also got around. And by “around” we mean that he jammed with a Beatle. Radle served as the main bassist on George Harrison’s overwhelmingly awesome All Things Must Pass record. He also kicked it with Joe Cocker and J.J. Cale. But then he made the poor decision to take Eric Clapton’s call and join in on the Layla sessions. Check out the gatefold album sleeve sometime and you will see an incredibly drunk guy in granny glasses sitting underneath an indoor palm tree. That’s successful session bassist Carl Radle, ladies and gentleman, and his alcohol consumption skyrocketed right around the time he became a Domino, crested during the Layla sessions, and never let up after that. Rads may have been an in-demand session musician of the 60s, but he couldn’t sidestep the Layla Curse. His liver gave out well before he saw 40.
So now we have a dead mother, a murder conviction, and a dead bassist. The Layla Curse is in full horrific spring. But you didn’t think it would stop there, did you?
If there was ever a template for the “rising rock star” it was created by Duane Allman in 1970. His band, a little outfit called The Allman Brothers Band, had just released their second LP. A little song called “Midnight Rider” was gaining traction on the radio. They were touring hard, selling out the psychedelic ballrooms, getting coverage in Rolling Stone…it was just ON for these boys and they absolutely knew it. They had even reached the discerning ears of Eric Clapton, which led to Brother Duane taking a fateful phone call and falling right into the grips of the Layla Curse. Duane’s playing and backing vocals on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs are emotional, evocative…too saintly for any known descriptors. His slide playing is what makes this record ring out so distinctly. It made him familiar to millions before the Allman Bros had their big breakthrough with At Fillmore East later on that year.
But it also sealed his fate. The Layla Curse could not be cast off with mere stardom and Rolling Stone covers. Just months after the release of Fillmore East Brother Duane crashed into the back of a flatbed truck while speeding on his motorcycle in Macon, Georgia. He didn’t make it. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, and damn that Layla Curse.
We’ve now added one dead guitar legend to the Layla Curse tally. But how about we’ll throw in another one just for kicks? And why not make it the Ultimate Dead Guitar Legend of all time while we’re at it?
During the Layla sessions the Dominos cut a wailing, majestic version of Clapton’s homey Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. It serves as a centerpiece of sorts on the record and should have been a great compliment for Jimi who loved him some Eric Clapton. But the Layla Curse was an efficient and heartless beast, and within days of the song being recorded he was found dead in London after choking on his own early morning vomit.
Two dead guitar legends. A murdered mother. A killer drummer. A dead bassist. Where will it end?
Not there, of course.
This brings us to the trickier Layla Curse victims, the ones who aren’t dead or in prison. They may technically be survivors, but as far as career trajectory and artistic output are concerned, they were dead in the water after Layla. Bobby Whitlock was an official Domino and can be seen in the photos lining the album sleeve looking sweaty and happy. By all means he should have been happy in 1970. Dude was on the rise for sure. Whitlock had spent time jamming the keys with Delaney & Bonnie before Eric called him up to the big leagues for what should have been his big break. It should also be noted that Whitlock was by far the best looking of the Dominos.
The sky truly was the limit for Mr. Whitlock after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. A solo career. High priced session work. A supergroup invitation. All of these seemed inevitable. So why have you never heard of him then? Because of the Layla Curse, that’s why. His solo LPs went nowhere (you should check them out, though. They’re good.). He was never in Fleetwood Mac. His session work fell off. Bobby Whitlock is one of the more bewildering musical footnotes of all time. Because he was never meant to be a footnote. Sure, he never killed any of his family members or drank himself to death, but the Layla Curse has its hooks poor Bobby to this day.
Now we have a mysteriously stalled career to throw on the Curse’s rap sheet. But what of the man who made the Layla Curse possible?
We would understand if you argued that Eric Clapton himself managed to sidestep the Curse he created. He’s one of the most massive rock stars in the world, after all. The guy probably has nine Ferraris. He dated Cheryl Crow. He’s had hits as recently as ten years ago. But did he really dodge it? Think about it. Sir Eric was weaving dreams from fire right up until Layla. Cream. Blind Faith. The Yardbirds. The Blues Breakers. Six absolute classic records spread out over the four bands. More if you’re a Clapton fanatic. He was cutting edge, the height of fashion, a visionary on an artistic run that rivals the Stones and Beatles progressions of the same era. Layla and other Assorted love Songs was another crowning achievement, a left turn from the bombastic lysergic blues of the Creams and the Blind Faiths into something far more soulful and earthbound. If E.C. had died after these sessions he would have gone out a legend with the perfect artistic progression to his credit.
But Eric Clapton did not die, which is the Layla Curse showing its supreme cleverness. Instead he sank into years of heroin addiction, eventually kicking the habit but also kicking what was left of his artistic inspiration. For the past however many decades Eric Clapton has been releasing subpar solo records, putting out subpar blues covers, organizing subpar reunions of his once great bands, touring on subpar nostalgia fumes. His eventual marriage to Patty Boyd, his torturer and soulmate and most vivid of muses, ended in divorce. One of his children fell off a balcony and died. Sure he’s rich. Sure he’s maintained his star status. But as he lays awake at night Eric Clapton himself just has to know that he hasn’t done anything of much artistic value for many decades. If there wasn’t a dead mother involved we could say that Eric Clapton himself is the saddest victim of the Layla sessions. Just go and try to listen to Covering Robert Johnson Volume Nine or whatever and you will see right into the lucid, evil eyes of this seemingly never-ending Curse.
Inspirational voids. Divorces. Tragic accidents. Shorts. This Curse just doesn’t let up, does it? Can there possibly be any other travesties to attribute to these fated sessions from 1970? How about Disco? No, really.
The argument can indeed be made that the Layla Curse brought about the very downfall of the classic rock era it pinnacled. Unlike some of the tragedies covered in this article, this one isn’t even too far of a stretch. It is, after all, a fact that Clapton’s sleazbag manager of the time, Robert Stigwood, stole a good portion of the Dominos’ money (there’s that Curse again!) and used it to start up a little thing called RSO Records whose main reason for existence was to record the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever album which of course launched the rise of Disco and killed off what was left of the prime rock era, banishing it to classic rock stations forevermore. If you miss guitars in popular music, then you too are a victim of the never-ending Layla Curse.
By this point we’ve lost count of the tragedy tally, but it’s up to at least five tragic deaths, one vicious murder, the Bee Gees, ruined careers, inspirational dead zones, embezzlement, shorts, and the Death Of Rock N Roll.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is a masterful work, but it’s also a spiral of destruction and evil. Make sure to get rid of any copies your dad most likely has in his attic vinyl collection. Delete it from your playlists (although Spotify should take it off their site completely due to their new “hate” clause). Steer well clear of all films that use these songs on their soundtracks. And never, ever, turn on that FM dial.
For the Layla Curse lives on.