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Tom Dowd and the recording of “Layla”

Tom Dowd may be the most important technician in the history of popular music. As a recording engineer, Dowd revolutionized the industry. He developed and devised techniques that have become the trade standard including the implementation of eight-track recording, popularizing the use of stereophonic sound, and establishing the design of linear channel faders. “Tom was a genius” says Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. However, Dowd will not be remembered for his works of musical innovation but rather, for the musical works he helped create. Among the numerous landmark albums Tom had a hand in, none are more revered than “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek and the Dominos. This is the story of “Layla” in the words of Tom Dowd.

The year was 1970. Eric Clapton was one of the biggest rock stars in the world and about to embark on his latest venture with a band he created called Derek and the Dominoes. Tom Dowd was already a renowned producer, and his talents were in high demand. One day while in the middle of a session at his Miami recording studio, Tom received a telephone call: “I was working with the Allman Brothers on Idlewild South” says Dowd, “when I got a call from Robert Stigwood saying that Eric would like to record and asking if I could fit him in my schedule. ‘Of course,’ I said I’d be delighted. It became a lengthy conversation and as I usually didn’t take calls while in session, the Allmans had all wandered what the hell was going on.”

Dowd continues, “I put the phone down and said to Duane, ‘You have to excuse me, that was Eric Clapton’s manager. They want to come here and record,’ and he said, ‘You mean this guy?’ and plays me an Eric solo note for note. I said, ‘That’s the one’ and he goes, ‘I got to meet that guy. You got to let me know when he’s gonna be here. I’d love to come by and just watch him. Do you think that would be possible?’ And I told him I was sure it would be fine, and he should call me, and we’d work it out. Sure enough, in about three weeks to one month later, Clapton, and Raddle, Gordon, and Whitlock show up.”

“I know Bobby Whitlock from Memphis, the other two I had never met before, and Eric I know from the Cream days. They tell me that they are still just working on songs…Derek and the Dominos are in the second day of recording and Duane calls and goes, ‘Is he there? We’re gonna be in Miami tomorrow for a concert. Can I come by and meet him?’” I said, ‘I’m sure you can. Hold on.’ I grabbed Eric and said, ‘I have Duane Allman on the phone. His band is playing in the area tomorrow and he’d like to come by and meet you.’ And he goes, ‘You mean this guy?’ and he plays me Duane’s solo off of Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ note for note. I said, ‘That’s the guy.’ And he goes, ‘I’ve got to see him perform. We’re going to that concert’”.

“I knew the two of them personally and they were both low-key, beautiful human beings and wonderful musicians, so I thought, ‘This is gonna be fun.’ Sure enough, Saturday afternoon, we record for a few hours, then head out to the limos Eric had waiting and go down to the Convention Center, where the Allman Brothers are playing. They snuck us in behind the photographer’s barricade, sitting on the floor with our backs to the audience, right in front of the stage. Duane’s in the middle of a solo, when he opens his eyes, looks down, sees Eric and stops playing cold, in shock. Dickey starts playing to cover until Duane regains his equilibrium, and then he sees Eric and he freezes too. That’s how big Eric was to them.”

“After the show they met and hung out and all of a sudden, I had half the Allman Brothers and all of Derek and the Dominos crammed into a limousine going back to Criteria, where they jammed until two or three the next afternoon. I kept the tape running the whole time. There’s Duane playing Eric’s guitar and Gregg playing Bobby Whitlock’s organ and they were all in piggy heaven. When it was over, they were all such good friends and Eric said to Duane, ‘When are you coming back? We should record some.’”

“Two or three days later [Duane] called up and said, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ By the time he returned, the Dominos had recorded several songs and had arrangements set for others, but right away he started fitting in parts and the more he did that, the more their reaction was, ‘If he’s gonna do that, I’m gonna do this.’ Songs started to radically change because Duane had unleashed this dynamic entity that was just ridiculous. They were feeding off each other like crazy and running on pure emotion.” Tom later recalled that it was as if Clapton and Allman were playing “notes that were not on the instrument.”

“There have been a lot of stories about how much drugs these guys did,” Dowd added, “but we started sessions every day at 2:00 and everyone arrived clear eyed and ready to work. As I dismissed people, they may have floated away, but it did not interfere with the album. Even in his wildest moments, Eric arrived at the studio on time with his instrument in tune, ready to play — and he would give absolute hell to anyone who didn’t. Eric and Duane shared that.”

“They [Eric and Duane] had enough knowledge of each other’s playing facility and technique that one of them would recognize that what they were playing depended on what amp you were using…They did whatever seemed best at the moment for a given part. It just happened and if you didn’t catch it, you blew it. The spontaneity of that whole session was absolutely frightening. A lot of it flew and then when they heard it, they’d say, ‘Oh man, here’s a part I gotta put in there.’ But it was not because it was misplaced the first time, but because they would have another flight of inspiration when they could step back and hear it. They had all this positive feedback to add. There was no jealousy or ego-type thing at all among them.”

“I sent them cassettes and then Eric called and said they wanted to come back to alter a part on one or two songs and remix one song. When they returned–with Duane–among the things they had in mind was adding a piano part to ‘Layla’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, where does it go? The song is tight as a drum’ I played them the cut, mixed, and they said, ‘Okay it’s going to go here and we’re going to do this and that.’ I thought, ‘You’re all absolutely stark-raving mad. How are we going to get everyone to match the brilliance of what they did the first time and make it fit?’ But I had no choice, so we gave it a go.”

“When I set up, I expected Bobby Whitlock to play the piano, but [drummer] Jim Gordon played it. I can’t say whether or not he wrote it, but he had it mastered; that part was in the end of his fingers. Duane’s guitar part on that coda is just absolutely intense and, of course, I was absolutely wrong about not being able to make the new part fit. We spliced it right in and it made the song. I knew immediately that we had something really, really special –as anyone would have. The whole session was just so damn impromptu and fly-by-the-seat-of-your- pants brilliant. It was just a wonderful experience to witness such meshing of musical minds, such telepathic sympathies…And then the damn album didn’t sell for a year–That was very hard to understand, and very disappointing. Then a year later ‘Layla’ was like the national anthem.”

Tom Dowd’s amazing life ended in 2002 at the age of 77. His astonishing career in music spanned over 50 years. Of all the masterpieces he masterminded through the decades, Tom held a special fondness for “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” recalling, “When we walked out, I told the band, ‘This is the best damn album I have done since The Genius of Ray Charles.’ We all knew how great it was.” The album remains Eric Clapton’s magnum opus and while many producers could have made “Layla” successful, Tom Dowd made it iconic. But his genius went far beyond his aptitude at the boards. As Butch Trucks once said of Dowd, “He was simply the guy that showed us how to play the best music that we were capable of playing.”

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