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Music: The tragedy of the ‘Layla’ coda

It's one of the most famous three minutes and 48 seconds in rock n' roll. And its story is marked by theft, madness, domestic violence — and murder.

When Derek and the Dominos' "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" hit record store shelves in November 1970, it was widely anticipated by the fans of two guitar legends: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Clapton had been a star in his native U.K. since his 1963-65 stint in the Yardbirds, after which he had, in just a few years, done time in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, spent a couple years (and become a rock star in the U.S.) as the guitarist in Cream, cut an album with Blind Faith, toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and recorded his first solo album.

In 1970, believing he would be more comfortable as a member of an ensemble rather than a headlining "star," Clapton decided to form a new band with some of the musicians in Delaney and Bonnie and Friends as well as former Stax sideman, Bobby Whitlock. They joined together with Clapton's old friend Carl Radle on bass and Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon to form the band that would be known as Derek and the Dominos.

Duane Allman was the last to the party. After recording the first sessions for the new album, producer Tom Dowd took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert. After the show, Clapton invited Allman back to the studio to jam. By the time their partnership had ended, Allman had contributed slide guitar to 11 of the 14 songs on "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs."

The album spawned a couple of hits. But by far, its best-known song is the title track, which Clapton wrote to express his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the model wife of Beatles guitarist George Harrison. A searing guitar riff and Clapton's tortured vocals would have made "Layla" memorable no matter what. But sealing the deal was a nearly four-minute piano coda of such sheer loveliness that "Layla" was recognized almost immediately as a new classic.

The coda was credited to drummer Jim Gordon, who played the main piano part while Allman contributed the (slightly off-key) slide guitar. But years later, it was revealed that Gordon had stolen the melody of the "Layla" coda from his ex-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge (who was living with Gordon in early 1970 but who left him after he gave her a black eye in the hallway of New York's Warwick Hotel) had written the music for a song called "Time," and knew Gordon had stolen her melody, but — afraid of his temper — decided to shine it on.

Gordon continued to work steadily after the Derek and the Dominos sessions. (You can hear his work on Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis," among others). But years of cycling between heroin, cocaine and alcohol had taken a grim toll on the talented musician.

Through the 1970s, Gordon wrestled with acute schizophrenia. He was paranoid. He heard voices. He became convinced his mother was evil, and had killed Karen Carpenter and comedian Paul Lynde. Finally, in 1983, he murdered his own mother, bludgeoning her with a hammer before stabbing her with a butcher knife. Jim Gordon, the man whose piano-playing on the "Layla" coda has brought grown men to tears, is halfway through his thirtieth year in prison in Vacaville, Calif., where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.