This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
By 1970, Eric Clapton had fallen desperately — and, at that point, unrequitedly — in love with the wife of his best friend, George Harrison. As if to shroud his emotions in secrecy, Clapton transformed himself into Derek, and Pattie Boyd Harrison became Layla, a name Clapton borrowed from “The Story of Layla and Majnun,” by the Persian poet Nizami. Drugs and alcohol exacerbated the raw emotions churning inside the guitarist. Keyboardist Bobby Whitlock provided a terse summary of the sessions’ psychotropic menu: “Cocaine and heroin, that’s all —and Johnnie Walker.”
The result? A masterpiece. The epic “Bell Bottom Blues” feels as if it’s going to shatter from the heat of its romantic agony. “Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?” Clapton sings. “Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?” The playing on the album, too, teeters on the edge of chaos but never tips. Clapton and the then relatively unknown second lead guitarist, Duane Allman, swirl in the whirlwind of each other’s wild gifts on the title track and on a ravaging version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Meanwhile, on “Keep On Growing” and “Anyday,” Clapton and Whitlock share vocals in raggedy emulation of the American soul duo Sam and Dave. Best known for his blues-playing and pop songs, Clapton rocks harder on those tracks than he’s done before or since.
Back in the all-too-mundane real world, Clapton and Pattie Boyd Harrison eventually married and later divorced. But Derek and Layla live on.