Dave D: Reading Dan’s insanely good article on The Layla Curse, I got to thinking on the track Little Wing, incessantly humming between the Hendrix and Clapton versions. I recall Clapton’s version being on FM radio with pretty regular frequency when I was younger. It also appeared on the Eric Clapton at His Best double album, which my mom finally acquiesced to me listening to by my early teens (it surely wasn’t the music she was afraid of introducing me to, she just didn’t want a clumsy oaf of a son handling her vinyl.) But then punk-rock and experimental music hit (and I admit, all the pop-alternative jams as well), and the relevance of FM classic rock radio waned quickly. I soon forgot about the tune. Fast-forward a few years, when I’m reintroducing myself to classic rock with the financial ability to purchase CD’s en-masse, I “discover” Hendrix’s version of Little Wing.
I emphasize ‘discover’, because I don’t recall that being one of the classic rock radio staples from my childhood, and was truly brand new to me at the time. Also, I didn’t make the connection that this was the ‘same’ composition as the Clapton jam from my childhood. I think that says a lot both about the individuality of the performances, and the inevitable loss of memory-retaining brain cells during my formative years. I only realized the connection when reading (on the interwebs no doubt) about Clapton’s internal struggle whether to publish his version, following the death of his friend.
I initially thought there was going to be an easy conclusion as to who’s track was superior. After all, this was my favorite Hendrix track, and I preferred Hendrix over Clapton, so slam dunk. Hendrix’s guitar sings, almost weeps, with both virtuosity and intimacy, on one of his most brilliant chord melodies. Hendrix’s soft-sung vocals are the perfect medium for his psychedelic lyrics. The Experience lays low on this one, allowing the the melody and sentiment to surface-through effortlessly. The second section is absolutely distinct, but yet not disparate, and therefore acts like a true coda to what I consider the primary part of the song. And let’s not trivialize the single-only appropriate use of glockenspiel in the history of rock-and-roll. The only fault that I’ve ever had with this version is the abrupt (and bit distracting) way the song ends so quickly, leaving me feeling as Hendrix’s musical idea was left unfinished.
Where Hendrix’s version sings, Clapton’s version soars. Where Hendrix is close and intimate, Clapton is big and grand. Where Hendrix’ band lays low, Clapton’s band plays with enormous energy. Again, don’t fault me for not recognizing the connection, because Clapton truly performs this with his wholly unique voice. Bombastic major chords, played in powerful parallel motion, set the tone for the rest of the Clapton track. (The fact that you have both Clapton and Duane Allman pounding away at essentially the same part, really drives the musical message foward.) Clapton’s melodic lead playing, though reminiscent of Hendrix’s, is quite different (though absolutely on-par). Clapton gives us strong, simple, single line melodies, though admittedly lacking the virtuosity and subtlety of the original, that relay a powerful message. And Bobby Whitlock’s role should, in no-way, be overlooked. His roaring organ propels the harmony beneath the other instruments, and his vocal contribution is, in every bit, as integral as Clapton’s.
There is an underlying somber quality to the vocal melody of Little Wing, that is exposed in both versions. It sounds as if both artists are working through some deep emotional baggage via this song – Hendrix perhaps being a bit introspective, where Clapton is clearly broadcasting out to the world.
Neither version reigns above the other. However I feel that Hendrix’s version is a bit more unique, not only in the context of his own body of work, but also in the general landscape of rock-and-roll. So I won’t commit to he ‘did it better’, but his version is the more outstanding.
Dan: This is a tough one for me. First, let me just state my answer: The Derek & The Dominos version of “Little Wing” soars in a way that Hendrix only hinted upon in his original version. While Jimi simply sounded like he had stumbled upon a cool sound, Clapton and his soon-to-be-dead-or-cursed-or-a-murdered crew took that sound and blasted it off through so many stratospheres that it barely resembles the modest planet it was born upon. Like everything else on the Layla album, the little wing being crooned to was no doubt Patty Boyd, and there’s just something about that demure little blond that brought out the God-level artistry in Eric Clapton. Or should I say, not having her brought out his best work and shot it through with a visceral pain that was easy to identify with for anyone who’s ever had a crush that didn’t quite work out. After he did successfully steal her from George Harrison and marry her that muse dried up right quick (Darrrrllliiinnnnn, yooouuu looooookkkk wooonnnddeerrrffffuuullllll toooonnniigghhht, anyone?). You could say that this was the Layla Curse at work, or just attribute it to the endless inspiration of unrequited love, but whatever the case Clapton certainly heard Jimi’s song and saw a very clear vision of his torturer, his true love, and shot the song through with enough sweeping, majestic melancholy to make it his own.
And then there’s Duane Allman. Say what you will about southern rock and jam bands, but you can’t listen to this song and not admit the guy has infinite soul to spare. Listen to that Gibson slide glisten and melt all over the track, weaving in and out with the vocal harmony, hugging Clapton’s lead lines tight and pulling them through any rough spots. You really can’t say “soars” enough about this track, and it’s really Brother Duane that gets the whole thing off the ground and keeps it in strict defiance of any earthbound pull. This is easily one of Clapton’s best vocal performances on record, and it’s Duane who brings it out. Allman’s constantly shifting slide has great peaks and valleys, and Clapton has to shout himself hoarse just to keep up. Don’t forget that the poor, doomed Duane had spent many years as a Muscle Shoals session man. He knew intuitively how to bring out the best performance in any star passing through the studio, and he definitely took Clapton pretty much as far as he would ever go as a vocalist and performer. With Duane Allman in the room, suddenly Mr. Slow Hand wasn’t so slow.
This is the type of song where you wonder what the scene must have been after they finished the take on that swampy Miami night in 1970. Did they all just look at each other and simultaneously ask, “What the fuck was THAT?”
So yes, the D&TD’s version is technically my favorite. But there are infinite problems that come with this assessment.
The first of these problems is that the song killed Jimi Hendrix. Not that he ever got to hear it, but at the exact time his good friend was giving his dirge some wings, Jimi was embarking on the Quaalude/Mandrax/Booze binge that would lead him to join that coveted 27 Club just a few days later. This was the Layla Curse hard at work and easily one of its saddest casualties.
The second issue is that it killed most of the band that played it. Duane was dead within weeks. Carl Radle didn’t make it too far into the 70s. Jim Gordon didn’t actually die but he did kill his mother. Bobby Whitlock didn’t technically perish but his once-promising career was dead on arrival. Slow Hand is still kicking but whatever inspiration, innovation, and drive he once had during his late ’60s streak was done once Layla was released.
It’s the Layla Curse, my friends, and those are only the confirmed casualties. Like with any killer cult, there are many, many potential victims that just can’t be proven due to the passage of time and lack of concrete evidence (divorces, child deaths, embezzlement, disco).
How many people did Jimmy Hendrix’s original version kill?
How many lives did it ruin?
None that I can think of.
Was Jimmi’s “Little Wing” responsible in any way for the rise of disco?
No it was not.
Did this version cause anyone to drink themselves to kidney failure when still in their 20s?
There are no proven cases.
Did the Hendrix “Little Wing” cause any once mighty guitar gods to stumble through the rest of their careers pumping out tepid blues cover albums while wearing Bermuda shorts?
Again, there are no known cases.
Did Hendrix’s version cause anyone to hear voices in their head demanding the death of their mother?
So for the good of humanity I am going to have to go with the harmless Hendrix version even though the evil, soaring curse woven by Clapton is technically better.
And may the Layla Curse never rise again.
David C. We regret to inform you that our star reviewer, David C. Casey, listened to Layla & Other Assorted love Songs for the first time yesterday and is sadly no longer with us. We will be posting memorial service details when ready. His family asks that you don’t send flowers but encourages you to make a donation to The Curse Of Layla Study, Outreach & Support Group.