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Should Eric Clapton Pay Rita Coolidge for Writing the Piano Coda for “Layla?”

Rita Coolidge performing in Pasadena on July 14, 2018 at The Rose.

Back in 1970, singer/songwriter Rita Coolidge wrote a song with a very memorable piano riff and played it for guitarist Eric Clapton, with whom she had sung background vocals while the two performed as part of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Coolidge was then dating drummer Jim Gordon, who played in Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos. After showing the song to Gordon, who added his own touch to Coolidge’s song, the two took it to Clapton with the expectation that he might cover it. The song was called “Time (Don’t Let the World Get in Our Way)” and was later recorded by Rita’s sister, Priscilla Coolidge.

After not hearing back from Clapton about her song, Coolidge was surprised when Clapton released “Layla,” a year later and used her music as the memorable and haunting piano coda. While Clapton gave drummer Gordon songwriting credit, Coolidge’s name was blatantly absent. Layla would rise on to #1 on the charts and make many millions of dollars for Clapton, taking his recording career to new heights.

Back in the early ‘70s, artists were not as well represented as they are now. At that time, Coolidge was in her 20s and had not yet established herself as a recording artist. When she realized that her song had been released by Clapton, she contacted his manager Robert Stigwood, who reportedly said to her, “What are you going to do about it?  Are you going to go up against Stiggy?”  This is documented in her memoir, Delta Lady.

“I was at A&M one afternoon in 1971 after I’d finished my first album, getting promotional photos taken,” says Coolidge. “The photographer had turned on the radio while he worked. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the song on the radio was my song – except that I’d never recorded it. I cried, “That’s my music! That’s my music!”  It was “Time,” the song Jim and I had written at the Garfield house and played for Eric at Olympic Studios. 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…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.”

Jeremy Smith is a Los Angeles-based intellectual property attorney who works with songwriters helping them protect their trademarks and copyrights. He says, “You’re never going to hear Eric comment on this; he’s never going to acknowledge that a huge part of one of the most successful songs recorded came from her, or didn’t come from her, because he doesn’t have any motivation to address it.  This is a story that happens on a daily basis in the music business. We won’t ever hear Eric’s version, which may be quite different, as is often the case.”

So what could Coolidge have done differently to have protected herself, and is there a statute of limitations for her to contact him now?

Smith states, “She could have registered the copyright, which isn’t done by most writers but would have been the best evidence of the date of creation and also would have created some much stronger enforcement provisions and potential damages for her to recover.  Many writers do what’s called a “poor man’s copyright” – they put the material – lyrics, music, recording – in an envelope and mail it to themselves, never to open it again until necessary to prove up the date the material was created.  Unfortunately for Rita, the statute of limitations has probably expired.  Under federal law, you have three years to bring the claim.  There is some divide as to when that clock starts ticking – whether at the time of discovery or the time of “injury” – but either way based on the timeline it has long passed.”

For Coolidge, who is still recording and performing 48 years later, it was disappointing.

“I deserved credit for my work. I never wanted the money. I just wanted my name on it.” She adds, “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.”

(Jim Gordon was later convicted of brutally murdering his mother in a schizophrenic episode and remains incarcerated).

Coolidge acknowledges the other songwriters who contributed to “Layla” saying, “Layla has a lot of fathers. 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.’”

Is it time for Clapton to come clean and do what’s right?  Or will he hide behind the law and say, “It’s too late.”   

Since he has become known as a philanthropist, making a nice gesture of support on Coolidge’s behalf – and giving her a long-delayed songwriting credit – would go a long way toward making amends.