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The Layla Sessions: A Look Back

Published // 02.Dec.20

Last month, the 50th Anniversary edition of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released as a 4LP vinyl box set and a separate 2CD edition. To further celebrate this milestone, Where’s Eric! is taking a look back at our Spring 2011 interview with Bobby Whitlock. One of Derek & The Domino's creative forces along with Eric Clapton, he spoke to WE! at length about the band, the Layla sessions, the album’s legacy, Duane Allman’s role, and more.

Bobby Whitlock began his life-long career in music while still a teenager, playing on numerous sessions at Memphis’ Stax Studios. In 1967, Bobby moved to California to join the husband and wife duo Delaney & Bonnie and their band of “friends”. While the band was opening for Blind Faith's US Tour, Bobby and the band met Eric Clapton and a friendship developed. A Delaney & Bonnie Tour of Germany, the UK and Scandinavia with EC followed near the end of the year. Afterwards, Delaney, Bonnie, Bobby and other friends helped Eric record his first solo album in late December 1969 and early 1970.

A few months later, Bobby went to England to visit Eric. From that visit, the groundbreaking band, Derek And The Dominos, was born. Eric and Bobby, along with Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, first helped George Harrison record his solo album, All Things Must Pass, in May and June 1970. The Dominos recorded their first single during these sessions but pulled it from distribution shortly after release. Soon after the All Things Must Pass sessions ended, the Dominos hit the road in the UK. By late August, they were in Miami's Criteria Studios to record their first album. After the Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs sessions ended in September, the Dominos toured the US from October through December.

In January 1971, EC, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon (along with George Harrison, Bobby Keys and Jim Price) helped Bobby record his first solo album. Sessions for the Dominos second album began that April. But by the end of May 1971, it was over for the Dominos. They broke up before they completed their sophomore effort.

The Where's Eric! Interview: Bobby Whitlock

First of all, thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Bobby. Let’s start with something fun. What was your favorite song from the Layla album to perform live in the Dominos?

That's a difficult call because I love playing them all. But there are a few that stand out for different reasons. "Tell The Truth" is probably the best rock 'n' roll song that I have ever heard. Not just because Eric and I wrote it, but because it has all of the ingredients of what I term a classic. It's raw, it's simple, and it rocks! There is also meaning and purpose in the message of it as well.

Let’s go back to 1970. What was it like inside Criteria Studios? Lots of fans have heard the jams, but even on the bootlegs, there’s no studio chatter. Was the mood super-serious and focused even between takes? You were all pretty young; did you ever cut up a bit?

Actually, we were there to take care of business. We cooled our heels at the hotel, but when we got to the studio it was focus time. We were there to play, not party. We did our partying when we were at the hotel, not at Criteria Recording Studios. We really enjoyed ourselves but that's what we do when we play and sing. It's never work or an arduous task. It's an incredible feeling when everything starts flowing out of musicians who are as in tune with their source as we all were. We were all dialed in on the same channel.

Getting back to the sessions, Duane Allman and Eric were such kindred spirits on guitar. The story of their meeting at the Allman Brothers’ Miami concert has become part of music lore. After the gig, both bands went back to Criteria. Three drummers (Jim Gordon, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe), two bass players (Carl Radle, Berry Oakley), you and Gregg Allman on keys, plus Eric and Duane. Can you tell us about that night?

It was mass confusion at first, but you've got to understand that it was very late in the evening and it went on until daybreak. I don't remember any of the songs because they were jams. Great music was being played but it was all jamming and no vocals went down at all. We did a lot of hanging out and getting to know each other that evening as well. A very large time was had by all that evening. It was good fun getting to know them all.
Can you tell us about the song writing or completion process once you were in the studio? You and Eric already had a good number of songs done by the time you got to Florida …

Let me tell you about how one of the songs came together. The sessions started out with the four of us. Eric, Carl, Jim and me. Derek and the three Dominos. When we started the recording process we treated it the same way that we treated our live performances. No different. We always started out where ever we were with a jam or two. No matter if it was Royal Albert Hall or the Speakeasy. In the studio nothing changed in that department. We jammed before "I Looked Away", then into the song. Then we jammed before and into "Bell Bottom Blues". The third song was about to go down, so we did our usual jam and it was astounding! It had a groove like never before. Then suddenly Eric said, "Let me put another guitar on it!" He did as I was standing in the doorway of the control room and looking at him through the glass about eight feet away from me. The song ended and he said again, "Let me put another one on." He played the second over-dub without listening to the first one. When that was finished he said, "Let's do another." He put the third guitar part on without listening to the other two over-dubs while he was recording. When that one was finished he said, "Just one more." Eric heard only the original guitar while he was doing the over-dubs. He could hear what he had already done in his head. When he was finished he got up and walked in and said, "Let's hear what they all sound like together." It was amazing what we heard back. All of the guitars blended together as if they had been worked out long before the session. It was incredible standing there watching and listening to Eric the master at work. I felt like a fly on the wall. I thought that was a-kin to watching Rembrandt at work. What a very special moment for me. And now you all! When we had finished listening to it Tom said that it was going to the can because we didn't have room on this record for an instrumental. I said to them, "Give me twenty minutes!" I took a yellow note pad and a pencil out into the foyer of Criteria and my relatively short life fell out of me, words and melody and all, so fast that I could hardly get them down on the paper. When I was finished I went back into the studio where Eric and Tom had been waiting in the control room for me to finish. The mike was there waiting for me, so I walked up to it and started to sing the song. I got half way through the first verse when I stopped it and said to Eric, "Hey man come on out here and let's do our Sam and Dave thing to it." Eric came out and we did it first run through. First take! That was it! And the song "Keep On Growing" had been born.

Listening to audience recordings from the UK tour, the four of you were so locked into each other. The music was incredibly organic and the band was more than ready for the studio. What did Duane bring to the table? We’re stepping on pretty mythic stuff even asking this. Do you think he was really needed to take the Dominos to the next level?

We were already at that next level. What Duane did was give us a little more structure. He was from a structured situation band-wise. Pretty much everything in the Allman Brothers Band was and still is structured. We were a sophisticated rock 'n' roll band without limitations. But when Duane came to our sessions he brought the same leadership quality that Eric had. The two of them together was more than magical. It was mystical. They were on the same plane at the same level of understanding. They jelled as one fluid entity. The creative principle was at work at all times throughout the whole recording process.

In an interview with Roch Parisien you said, “Duane never ventured outside of the box. Eric never ventured into it.” Can you elaborate on that?

Certainly. Eric played entirely free form and out of the box. He was not structured in the sense of everything always being the same every time. It was constantly changing. Just like the drawbars on my B3. Always changing to suit the need of the moment. All of us moved together, kind of like a flock of birds in the sky. We would all go the same direction at the same time. The left hand always inherently knew what the right hand was doing. We listened to each other. We were all in tune with each other's sensibilities and trusted one another musically explicitly.

When Duane was with us in the studio everything was structured. It worked in the studio but it didn't translate on the live stage. Duane simply couldn't keep up when Eric took off flying. His playing was the same as he had played with his band. The same licks and approaches that he used on other songs. I believe it was "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" that he had done previously with his band when they were the Allman Joys. He played the exact same licks on our record as he played on his several years before with the Allman Joys. That's inside the box. The only licks that Eric plays consistently are the signature licks for the song. Example, “Layla”. He plays those famous seven notes and then he is off flying! You can't fly in a box.

What was Tom Dowd’s role? As the album producer, did he give the band a lot of direction?

When we went in the first day, Tom walked out into the studio and handed us all pieces of paper with numbers and chords written down on it. I turned to Eric and said, "What the hell is this?" He said that they were song charts. I said that we needed to have a little pow-wow. Eric and I decided that Tom should stay on the other side of the glass and make sure that the tapes were rolling. We wrote these songs and had been playing them out on the road already and we certainly didn't need someone telling us how they should go. Also, I was to be the one to tell him. We were the producers of our record and he was to be the executive producer. Tom's role was to make sure that everything went down on tape and to keep them rolling whenever anybody in the band was in the studio. I remembered George [Harrison] and Phil [Spector] recording the jams for George's All Things Must Pass record and suggested to Eric that we keep the tapes rolling. It was only tape anyway. Had we not, those great jams wouldn't be here now. Tom was a very gracious man and understood and agreed with us and complied with our request.

What’s your favorite memory from the Criteria sessions?

When we had finished the recording process and were doing the very last over-dubs, Eric said to me, "We have room for one more song. Why don't you do "Thorn Tree in the Garden?" A man with a load of guitars had arrived earlier and Eric picked out the orange guitar that you see on the inside sleeve of the Layla record cover just for the outro of "Layla". He said that it had a certain sound that he was looking for and that that guitar sound was it for the part. It was a very short part in the song as well. He picked out a Martin D35 and started to play it and asked me what I thought of the sound. I said that it sounded great and he said to me, "It's yours." He had said that to me a few months earlier with the Porsche. We went into the studio room and recorded "Thorn Tree in the Garden". Tom had us all in a circle around an omni-directional mic. I was sitting on a stool with my new Martin D35 and Eric was to my left sitting on a stool with his Martin D45 and Jim was next to him playing a little bell. Carl was standing to the left of Jim and his amp was way across the room. He played a pedal note. Duane sat straight across from me. We did a run through and Tom came out and made a mic adjustment. We did it first take. The end of the record.

Where did you guys stay in Miami while recording the album? Everyone knows Eric lived at 461 Ocean Boulevard when he went back to record a solo album at Criteria a few years later...

We stayed at the Thunderbird Motel on the strip right on Miami Beach. It was for sure not a five star place either. Pink flamingos and a flashing neon sign that read VACANCY.

At least it was on the beach! Speaking of less than five-star, wasn’t Criteria in a pretty odd and funky area? All warehouses and factories in a fairly rundown area of Miami? That doesn’t sound conducive to making music so the interior environment must be pretty inviting and rich in atmosphere?

The studio room that we recorded in was the big one. It had a large carousel at the back wall for the drums. A grand piano on the far wall and a Hammond B3 sitting next to it. The room had thirty foot ceilings and was only just finished and had hopsack on the walls. The control room had egg cartons on the walls as sound proofing. I am sure that you have seen photos of funky studios with egg cartons on the walls. A cheap but very effective way of soundproofing a control room in the initial building process. No-one but James Brown had recorded in it until we did. In the fold out of the Layla record you can see a gold album on the wall that I am walking by and I am wearing yellow pants. That's the James Brown gold record and the first and only gold record in the place. There were bean bag chairs in the control room for us to sit on, and there was a row of old airplane seats in the studio for us to sit on. It really wasn't all done out as I'm sure it is today. It was a very creative atmosphere. Warm and inviting.

Did you work in just one room of the studio the entire time, or did you use different ones as the need arose?

We did everything in the one room, Studio A. Sam the Sham was in the small room recording at the same time as we were recording. He and I go back a long way.

The Layla album is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of modern music. When it was released in December 1970, it didn’t do too much at first. Were you surprised? What do you think made the public finally wake up to it?

We were disappointed but not surprised. When we were on tour our record was behind us everywhere we went. There was no product for the band to promote and not everyone knew who we were. We were ahead of our record and ahead of our time. There was a DJ in Nashville who started playing it a lot. I can't remember his name but I have met him. He showed me his gold 45 record of Layla. I thanked him for playing it and told him that his persistence paid off for the world. Kind of like Dewey Philips playing "That's Alright Now Mama" 48 hours straight. That's what made Elvis a star.

Interview Copyright 2011 - Where's Eric! All rights reserved. Article cannot be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. The original full-length interview was published on whereseric.com on 26 April 2011.

The 50th Anniversary edition of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs as a 4LP vinyl box set and a separate 2CD edition are available now. In celebration of this milestone, the original album tracks have been given the 'Half-Speed Mastered' treatment by Miles Showell at Abbey Road Studios. Alongside the original album on LP1 and LP2, there are two more LPs of bonus material, some of which has not previously been released on vinyl. The bonus material is not half-speed mastered. The vinyl box set also includes a 12×12 book of sleeve notes taken from the 40th-Anniversary Edition and a certificate of authentication. Order at https://derekandthedominos.lnk.to/Layla50 The double CD has the original album plus a disc of bonus material and is available at all retailers and at https://derekandthedominos.lnk.to/Layla50