Over a long career in music, Rita Coolidge is known for her numerous hit songs and extensive studio work across pop, rock, country and more. Her place in history is secure, but even with a body of accomplishments dating back to the early ‘70s, one particular song continues to vex the Grammy winner.
Coolidge claims she was unfairly denied songwriting credit on Derek & the Dominos’ iconic hit “Layla.” In her just published memoir Delta Lady (Harper), Coolidge details a songwriting session with Jim Gordon, who went on to co-write and record “Layla” alongside Eric Clapton. Coolidge says she conceived what would one day become the song’s piano-laced coda as an unfinished demo with Gordon in 1970.
Billboard is excited to premiere this exclusive excerpt of Delta Lady in which Coolidge (along with co-author and Billboard contributor Michael Walker) tells her side of the genesis of one of classic rock’s most powerful songs.
One afternoon in 1970, Jim Gordon came over to my house in Hollywood, sat down at the piano, and played for me a chord progression he’d just composed. Most people know Jim as one of L.A.’s top session drummers in the early ‘70s — he played on everything from Glen Cambpell’s “Wichita Lineman” to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album — but he was also a capable pianist, and because he was exposed to so many styles of music, he had a well-developed sense of melody and structure. The chords Jim played for me were in the key of C sharp and built to an eight-note refrain before the progression repeated. There was something haunting about it, especially when the bright major chords suddenly dipped to B-flat 7th for the refrain. It also seemed deeply familiar—like when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to who seems at once both exotic and approachable.
I loved Jim’s progression, but at the moment that’s all it was — a stunning riff, not a song. As we played with it, a second progression suddenly came to me, a countermelody in the key of G that “answered” and resolved the tension of Jim’s chords and built to a dramatic crescendo that bridged the song’s beginning and ending. I wrote lyrics that reflected the melody’s sense of fatalism and hope (“my darling believe me, don’t ever leave me, we’ve got a million years to show them that our love is real.”). Jim and I ended up calling it “Time (Don’t Let the World Get In Our Way)” and taped a demo. We played the song for Eric Clapton when we were in England touring with Delanie and Bonnie — I remember clearly sitting at the piano at Olympic Studios while Eric listened to me play it all the way through (so does Bobby Whitlock, Delaney’s and Bonnie’s ace piano player, who was on the session). Jim and I left a tape cassette of the demo with Eric, hoping of course that he might cover it. Nothing came of it, and I largely forgot about it. But our song, with Jim’s wistful melody and my sweet countermelody, would come to haunt me the rest of my life.
I was at A&M Records one afternoon in 1971 after I’d finished my first album, getting promotional photos taken. The photographer had turned on a radio while he worked. I wasn’t paying much attention but suddenly noticed that the song that was playing sounded familiar. I was thinking, Wait, I think I’ve heard that before. The photographer was telling me to pose this way and that, but all I could hear was that song. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the song on the radio was my song—except that I’d never recorded it. The veins must have been popping out on my neck. I cried, “That’s my music! That’s my music!” It was “Time,” the song Jim and I had written and played for Eric at Olympic. Except that now it was an instrumental as played by Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and . . . Jim Gordon. Collectively known as Derek and the Dominoes. The song was “Layla.” And “Time” had been appropriated as the soon-to-be-famous “piano coda” that gives Eric’s greatest song its bittersweet denouement.
When I got my hands on the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, I looked at the label. “Layla” was credited to “E. Clapton and J. Gordon.” No mention of “R. Coolidge.” I was infuriated. What they’d clearly done was take the song Jim and I had written, jettisoned the lyrics, and tacked it on to the end of Eric’s song. It was almost the same arrangement. I have to admit it sounded stunning. Juxtaposing Eric’s desperate verses about his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, his best friend George Harrison’s wife, and the coda’s — make that my coda’s — wistful, winding melody, was a masterstroke. Following Eric’s impassioned singing and guitar playing inspired by the torture of falling into a forbidden love, the coda was “nothing less than bliss, the sound of love fulfilled,” a critic noted forty years after the song was recorded. Even without my words, Jim’s and my original intent shines through. That didn’t make being left out of the songwriting credits any easier.
I told my producer, David Anderle and A&M’s co-founder, Jerry Moss about not getting credit on “Layla” — in fact, I told everyone I knew. I finally called Robert Stigwood, Eric’s manager. All he said was, “You’re going to go up against Stiggy? The Robert Stigwood Organization? Who do you think you are? You’re a girl singer — what are you going to do?” I talked to David and he was sympathetic but said, “You know, you don’t have the money to fight this.” And it was true. Also, the Layla album was not an especially big hit when it was released in 1971, and certainly nobody knew that “Layla” was going to become Eric’s anthem. But that was beside the point — I deserved credit for my work. I never wanted the money. I just wanted my name on it. (When I later learned that Stiggy had been hung out of his office window by a fellow manager’s goons to dissuade him from poaching an act, I wanted to applaud.)
There was no way Jim could have forgotten we’d written the song together. If I sound bitter, I’m not. “Layla” has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in songwriting royalties — maybe millions — over the years for Eric. But I know that part of Jim’s share actually went to his daughter, Amy. And that, finally, was how I was able to deal with it, just knowing that she had something from her dad.
Until now I’ve never told of how I helped write one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. “Layla” has a lot of fathers — in addition to Eric’s and Jim’s contributions, Duane Allman may have adapted part of the song’s guitar riff from Albert King’s vocal on “As the Years Go Passing By.”
But I think it’s time everyone knew that it also has a mother.
Excerpted from Delta Lady: A Memoir by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker.
Copyright (c) by Rita Coolidge. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers