Derek & The Dominos - Biography
By Brad Austin
Upon the completion of a tour with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Eric Clapton finally seemed ready to strike out as a solo artist. The Yardbirds had made him revered, Cream had made him a superstar and Blind Faith had made him absolutely frustrated with being in a band. Craving a degree of anonymity, Clapton sought shelter with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who had been hired as the opening band for Blind Faith’s only tour. Clapton ended up spending more time with the husband and wife duo than he did with his own band. When Blind Faith broke up less than seven months after forming, it came as no surprise that Clapton joined the Bramletts on tour, where he could stay out of the spotlight. He met and befriended a few skilled musicians, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon.
Recruiting the aforementioned trio of musicians, as well as Delaney and Bonnie, Clapton recorded his first ever solo album at the end of the tour. Before it came out, however, the reclusive artist began to ponder the responsibility that comes with being a solo artist. For someone who supposedly dreaded the spotlight, perhaps it was a bad move to release an album with no name on the cover but his own. He next formed a new band, with Whitlock on keyboards and vocals, Radle on bass, and Gordon on drums.
Derek & the Dominos made their live debut at London's Lyceum Ballroom on June 14, 1970. While many stories about the origins of the name have cropped up over the years, one seems to be more likely than the others. The band had originally planned on calling themselves the Dynamics. All the members had nicknames for each other and Clapton's was “Derek.” Before taking the stage at the Lyceum, they told Tony Ashton to introduce them as Derek and the Dynamics. Ashton instead introduced them as Derek and the Dominos and it stuck. From there, they went on touring the rest of England in a jaunt that lasted well into the summer.
They entered the studio in August to record their only album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970 Polydor). Clapton had a huge well of lyrical inspiration that he was about to tap into; he was hopelessly in love with model Pattie Boyd, then the wife of his good friend, George Harrison. He channeled that anguish and frustration into his songwriting and yielded often stunning results. For the music side of things, Clapton found his secret weapon in the legendary Duane Allman. Clapton had been a fan of Allman's since hearing his work on Wilson Pickett's 1968 album, Hey Jude. The Allman Brothers Band were playing a gig one night in Miami, where Derek & the Dominos were about to begin recording. Clapton went to the concert and met the Allmans, inviting them back to Criteria studios. After a lengthy jam session proved that Clapton's playing jelled beautifully with Allman's, Clapton invited him to play on the record. Once finished, they immediately hit the road again, albeit without Allman, who had commitments to his own band. Unbeknownst to all, it would be the last time Derek & the Dominos would tour. After another round of UK dates, they toured the US, finishing up with a show on December 6th, their final live performance.
Layla somehow failed to chart in the UK (probably because no one knew that Eric Clapton was the man at the helm) but it was a big hit in the States. Shortened versions of the epic title track and “Bell Bottom Blues” were sizable hits and the LP reached number 16 on the charts. A second attempt at recording did not yield any tangible results when the band reconvened in the studio in May of the following year. Increased drug use and overinflated egos were the main offenders in ending the band. The album they planned to make was aborted and Clapton subsequently quit the music business, determined to concentrate on kicking his heroin addiction. The 24-year-old Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident that October. One aftereffect of that tragedy was that his fans were suddenly paying more attention to one of Allman's last studio recording, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Since Clapton himself had walked away from the band altogether, the one album they did make now seemed even more essential.
The History of Eric Clapton was an eleven-track compilation released in March, 1972. It hit the racks at a time when Clapton's career needed some resuscitation and it worked miraclulously. The final song on the collection, “Layla,” was re-released as a single, this time in all of its seven-minute glory. It reached the top ten in the US and UK. It charted there once more a decade later. The live album, In Concert (1973 Polydor), was another good seller, reaching number 20. Also in '73, Clapton capitalized on his revived popularity with Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert, a live album released that September. By 1974, he was well on his way as a solo artist.
Clapton's onetime backing bandmates went down very different roads in their post-Dominos lives. Whitlock relocated to Ireland for a couple years and became acquainted with Scottish folk singer Donovan. After returning to the states he began to quietly release solo albums. Radle remained Clapton's right-hand man, sticking by him while he was down and out trying to kick heroin, and playing bass for him when he made his resurgence. In 1980, Radle died from drug-related kidney failure. Perhaps the most tragic story belonged to Jim Gordon, who spent the rest of the ‘70s earning a steady paycheck as a session drummer with Frank Zappa, Dave Mason and Traffic. By the late ‘70s, though, Turner complained that he was beginning to hear voices in his head. Doctors failed to properly diagnose him, telling him he was feeling the effects of years of alcohol and drug abuse. In 1983, Turner's mental disturbances culminated in his taking a hammer to his mother and killing her. The next year, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sentenced to 16 years to life. He remains incarcerated to this day, though there is an online petition to free him.
In 1990, Polydor released The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition, a 3-CD set that treated Layla like the classic album that it is. In 1994, a live album called Live at the Fillmore (Polydor), culled together some live cuts from the same tour represented by In Concert, was released. Today, Derek & the Dominos, this one-off project of Clapton's, is often looked at as one of the man's best contributions to popular music.