Layla’s 40th: The Where’s Eric! Interview With Bill Levenson

Over the next few weeks, Where’s Eric! will be celebrating Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs and the release of the 40th Anniversary Editions. Even the forthcoming issue of Where’s Eric! Magazine (#42) will get in on the Layla action with a series of articles on Derek & The Dominos and the classic album. To get the online celebration started, what follows is a sneak preview from Issue 42; an interview with Bill Levenson, who compiled the upcoming 40th Anniversary Editions for Universal. Over the course of his career, he also compiled several other Eric Clapton multi-disc releases. In the interview, Levenson discusses his involvement with the Layla tapes, re-discovering the Layla multi-tracks, live Dominos recordings, the jams, the journey from the 20th Anniversary Edition to the 40th Aniniversary Editions and much more with Where’s Eric! reporter, Barry Fisch.

Territories outside of North America get all digital and physical Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs 40th Anniversary Editions next week, including the super-deluxe box set. All versions are released in Canada on 29 March. The U.S. will see staggered release dates starting the 29th. On that date, all digital versions, the single CD remaster, and the two LP vinyl will be available at all music retailers. Additionally, Best Buy will have the double CD deluxe edition as an exclusive available online and in their stores from that date. Four weeks later, on 26 April, the super-deluxe box set hits the streets and all U.S. retailers will then have the double CD set available as well. (Release dates are subject to change).


Bill Levenson was at PolyGram Records and Universal Music Group for almost 30 years. He is now president of a music consulting company that specializes in reissues, compilations, tape vault research and catalog management. While at PolyGram and Universal, Bill compiled Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, Crossroads 2, and the 461 Ocean Boulevard Deluxe Edition, Derek & The Dominos’ Layla 20th Anniversary Collection, Cream’s Those Were The Days plus numerous other sets across a wide variety of musical genres. Where’s Eric! Reporter, Barry Fisch, visited Bill at his Long Island home to talk about his most recent Eric Clapton project, the upcoming 40th Anniversary Editions of Derek & The Dominos’ classic Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs.
BF:      Let’s start with the history of your involvement with the Derek & The Dominos tapes.
BL:     The history of my involvement goes back almost 30 years when I was at Polygram with you. We did some research and projects; the main one being the Crossroads box set. In the couple of years that we researched and developed that, we touched a lot of tapes. Some of the tapes we researched and located were Derek & The Dominos’. For Crossroads, we touched on the band somewhat lightly. We had a couple of songs included from the Layla album and for the first time, we had located the tapes for the second album. Five of those songs were used in Crossroads.
BF:     Isn’t there a story to tell about locating the Criteria tapes? You had already gone deep into the Crossroads project without those…
BL:     One of the reasons why Layla was possibly under-represented in the box set was right until the end of the project we hadn’t located the tapes. We obviously had identified Layla for the set. Mean Old World was in there and probably one or two others. There was a conscious effort not to go deep into the record because we didn’t have the appropriate tapes. We had production copies. We didn’t have the multi-tracks and were still searching for them. During the mastering session at Sterling Sound, one of the office managers walked into the session and said, “Can you help us out for a second? We’re cleaning out the back room and we’re just curious if these tapes belong to you, or if can you tell us where to send them?” So I said, “I can’t imagine we have anything here, but what do you have?” They wheeled in this travel trunk, flipped it open and it’s a full set of Layla multi-tracks! To this day, no one knows what they were doing in the Sterling Sound back room in New York. My guess? They were probably delivered there in the early seventies when they mastered the record and no one bothered to return them. They just sat there for eighteen years. So at that point, it was very late in the project but we did utilize the tapes. We did a mix for Layla for the Crossroads set and then pretty much parked our ideas for two years, until 1990, when we said “We now have all these tapes, let’s do a celebration of the Layla record.” That was the starting point for the 20th Anniversary set.
BF:    The mix that is in the Crossroads box of Layla was done very quickly. But, is there any more light you can shed on it? It’s unique now …
BL:     In hindsight, should we have done it? Thinking about it now, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but at the time, it seemed like a good thing to do. It made the package a little more unique. We learned a lot when we did the mix. The Layla multi-track takes a bit of effort to work with because it loses time; it slows down over the course of the song. In 1970, the machine they used had some technical problems so when you play it back, it slows down over the seven minutes about three or four percent at the end. You have to readjust your speed to compensate for it. That was just a taste of what was to come two years later with the 20th Anniversary set.
BF:     Can we talk some more about the 20th Anniversary set? It’s part of the story of how we came to the upcoming 40th Anniversary release …
BL:     Again, the 20th Anniversary set is one of those projects that seemed the right thing to do at the time. In hindsight, I would have done it differently. You learn over time what a good way to approach a project is. Then, a remix seemed like a good idea. But, the remix has had a polarizing effect. Some people love it, they like to hear alternate views of a song but I think the purists felt it went too far. I have to acknowledge both sides. The same goes for the use of jams. I think some people thought the jams were great and they could spend all day listening to them. Others felt they weren’t rich enough to spend time with. Both experiences are fair. Now, twenty years later it helped shape the 40th Anniversary set and how to approach it.
BF:      How did you approach it?
BL:     When we finally got the go ahead to pursue the project, we had to think real hard about the best way to go about it. Because there was a 20th Anniversary set, it would be very easy to end up making the same set twice. We didn’t want to do that. Philosophically, we took an entirely different road. The 20th Anniversary celebrates the Layla Sessions – pretty much one month, September 1970 – while the 40th Anniversary celebrates the arc of the band from June 1970 to May 1971. It’s a different kind of project. It doesn’t focus on Layla the album. The album is the main component but there was history before the record and history after. It starts with the Phil Spector sessions, it goes through the Layla sessions, touches on the live album and ends with the unreleased second album that takes you into May ’71. It’s an incredibly different type of record. My feeling was the fan who bought the 20th is going to be the same person who is going to buy the 40th. You want to give them two different packages so they don’t feel that they were cheated; that they bought the same record twice.
BF:      I understand the 40th Anniversary set will be released as three different versions?
BL:     Yes. There’s a single disc remaster which is for traditional sales. There’s a double-disc deluxe edition and there’s a four CD, one DVD, two LP super-deluxe edition. To break it down, the single disc remaster is just that – a remaster of the original US album. The deluxe edition is the single disc remaster plus a second disc of bonus material which has tracks like Mean Old World, the Tell The Truth / Roll It Over single, the four Johnny Cash TV performances for the first time and six songs that were remixed especially for this package from the unreleased second album sessions. It’s a very good listening experience that flows well. That one bonus disc gives you the one year arc which the package is about.
BF:      What’s on the other two packages?
BL:     For the super-deluxe edition, we take the deluxe edition and add to it. For the CD, we re-mastered the In Concert album which has been long out of print. There were four songs that were included in the updated 1993 Live At The Fillmore that were not on the original release. Those four songs were added to In Concert so now you get all the songs. So, you get the original versions which were on In Concert – original mixes, original takes – but you get four additional tracks: Key To The Highway, Nobody Knows You, Little Wing and Crossroads.
          There’s also an audio DVD surround sound mix of Layla as done by Elliot Shiner. When the SACD version was issued in 2003, a second set of mixes were done by Simon Climie. Simon’s were used on the SACD, so we’re using Elliot’s on the audio DVD. They each took a different approach. I think Elliot’s are a little more organic. I think they’re closer to what you would anticipate from the record. It’s another view of the album. So you get the remaster, the bonus discs, the bonus tracks, the live tracks, the DVD in surround sound 5.1 DTS Dolby, and then two slabs of vinyl which makes it the complete Derek & The Dominos.
BF:     Two LPs? I presume they’re a new pressing of the original mix on vinyl as issued in 1970?
BL:     The vinyl has a small but interesting story. We decided to cut the vinyl in London even though we did the mastering for the CDs and DVD in New York. There was a very good set of tapes on file at Polydor UK so we cut the vinyl at Metropolis in London. We sent the tapes over to Metropolis and had a test cut made. When I got the reference cuts, they were not what I was expecting! The mixes were slightly different on a couple of songs. It corroborated information we’d seen on the tape boxes. The UK tapes were dated September 29, 1970 while the Atlantic tapes were dated to the first week of October. So, the tapes sent to London were sent a week earlier than those sent to New York for Atlantic. In that week, they tweaked Layla, they tweaked Tell The Truth, and I’m not sure, there are other songs on it. But when you hear the two records side by side, they have different tonalities. So, the LP will have the UK mixes, the CD the US mixes, and the super-deluxe box set will have both.
BF:      Are there are all sorts of other things coming in the box?
BL:     That’s still being developed. There will be a booklet. Ashley Kahn, who’s this wonderful writer, wrote 17,000 words. There will be a main essay on Layla, an essay on Olympic Studios, an essay on Criteria Studios plus an interview with Derek Trucks. He has an interesting place in all of this. As a musician, he ultimately played with Eric revisiting Duane Allman’s parts. As a child, he was named after Derek & The Dominos, so it’s a very poignant discussion with Ashley. Other things that are being discussed are a “Derek Is Eric” button, a quality print of the album cover, three-dimensional graphics, but they’re still working on the packaging. It will be very elegant.
BF:     Are there stories to tell about obtaining or going through some of the other tapes used? For instance, the Dominos’ second album tapes or the live Fillmore material?
BL:     There are four sets of tapes. There’s the Abbey Road / Trident tapes for the Tell The Truth /“Roll It Over single – the band’s very first recordings. Philosophically, we went into the project not wanting to revise history which means to not do remixes for remixes’ sake. So, for Tell The Truth / Roll It Over we had the original masters, which to be fair, didn’t sound very good. At that point, we said “let’s do a remix.” But, we couldn’t do a satisfactory remix; it’s a real tough set of tracks to do. Ultimately, we listened to the original mixes, the new remixes, and the remixes done for the Crossroads box. To be fair, the best ones were the ones done for Crossroads. The recent remastering took them to another place. They’re really very good now. They’re actually quite accurate to the single if the single had sounded better. So, we opted to stay with the Crossroads mixes for Tell The Truth / Roll It Over.
BF:      And when you looked at the tape boxes for the single, there’s some verification of names?
BL:     Oh, yeah. On Roll It Over, the tracking sheet has Dave Mason, George Harrison and the other four Dominos. They’re all notated and on the session. I understand there was some dialogue as to whether or not Dave and George were on there. They certainly are. When you put up the multi-track and isolate the tracks you can hear everybody in discussion. They were having a pretty good time on that track!
BF:      But back to the tapes …
BL:     Then there are the Layla sessions. We made a conscious decision not to do a remix, so it is an honest, straightforward mastering of that record. I think Ellen Fitton did a really good job of staying accurate and not taking it where it doesn’t belong. It’s a very organic recording and it remains an organic recording, we just cleaned it up. It’s got clarity now that I don’t think any of the CDs before have hinted at. I’m very happy with it.
          Chronologically, the live material is the next thing that happened. Again, we decided to not be revisionists and stayed with the In Concert album which has a charm of its own. Some of the takes there are arguably superior to the ones on Live At The Fillmore, so we opted to stay with that record and augment it with the songs that weren’t used. I think it worked out very well.
          The Johnny Cash material was licensed from Sony and mixed for this package as mixes were never prepared. It’s an interesting slice of Americana – Johnny Cash meeting Derek & The Dominos at the Ryman Auditorium for a television show. It’s pretty surreal and a pretty wonderful performance. They only broadcast two songs but four were recorded. So, we got permission to include all four.
          That leads us to the unreleased second album tapes from April and May ‘71. It’s a record that is so different from the Layla album that it’s hard to believe it’s the same band. Instead of having an organic southern rock vibe, it has almost a Led Zeppelin-y English rock vibe brought to you courtesy of Andy Johns, who was working with Led Zeppelin and bands like that at the time. Andy was brought in for continuity, to revisit the tapes and do the mixes since he did them in the first place. We thought he’d be the best person to mix them to the specifications of what they had in mind in 1971. There’s one additional element, the very last song the Dominos ever recorded, Got To Get Better In A Little While. They broke up before that song was completed. All of us felt it needed to be completed. It needed backing vocals from Bobby Whitlock, keyboards from Bobby and a new mix. We got the opportunity to do that and it worked out spectacularly.
BF:      How did that come together?
BL:     It was an idea that had been floating around. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do from the day we did Crossroads. It’s such a great song, if not the best song, that came from the band but it was never finished. Every time I heard it, I wanted to sing (laughs) or have someone sing to finish it off. We just decided to pursue it. We copied the tape – well, the Pro Tools files – sent them to Bobby in Austin and in a four hour session, literally one or two takes, Bobby did his overdubs. Those files were sent to Los Angeles where Andy was waiting for them. Andy worked on all six songs and when he received Bobby’s stuff, he blended those mixes in with the others. I thought the results were spectacular.
BF:      I assume we don’t know what Eric’s reaction is to all of this ?  
BL:     Nope. We may never know, but I think he’s going to be pretty pleased with the results. It closes an arc – lots of arcs – that started 40 years ago. It finishes off the songs. It puts a period at the end of the band, it resolves Andy Johns wanting to finish the mixing, it resolves Bobby wanting to finish Got To Get Better. Poetically, the song closes the two CD set. So, it comes to an end on Got To Get Better, which lyrically and musically is just a great place to end the record.
BF:     I want to delve into the jams. Why they’re not included here and are there any jams that exist that weren’t included in the Layla 20th Anniversary Collection
BL:     When we did the 20th, we worked with what we had. You can always only work with what’s in front of you. We thought we used every single jam. Over time, there’s always a bootleg, there’s always someone who has some other piece of the puzzle. I think we got 98% of it when we did that box set. You’re never going to get every piece and you know what? Not every piece is meant to be heard. But, I thought we pretty much got it all. Yeah, I’ve learned that there’s a few more – we have five jams and I think there may have been a sixth. There’s stuff out there. But, I’m comfortable with what we worked with in 1990.
BF:      What about jams from the second LP sessions. Were there any in the vaults?
BL:     Going into the 40th Anniversary package, we philosophically didn’t want to make the same record again. One of the decisions we made was not to use jams to pace the record. We wanted it to be song-based; we wanted it to flow like a record. There were jams – whenever there’s an Eric Clapton album, there’s going to be jams. It’s the nature of the interaction of the musicians. They warm up to jams, they entertain themselves with jams and they develop songs as jams. So of course that happened during the Olympic sessions for the second album. We opted to stay away from them this time with the exception of one jam that sets up Got To Get Better. They were still feeling their way into the song and they had a take which in essence was a jam but was so different that it had to be presented as an alternative to the final version.
BF:     Let’s talk about the Dominos’ second album. There are songs that aren’t complete that fans are familiar with from bootlegs. Songs like Chocolate, High and a bunch of others. You chose not to include them. I suppose if they were more finished, they would have been given consideration. A lot don’t have vocals. Why didn’t you use this other material that is known to exist and did you find any vocals or more parts of songs?
BL:     Again, when we started this project, we set the bar pretty high on what we wanted to include. I mentioned we didn’t want to use jams. We also didn’t want to use songs that weren’t complete enough to be satisfying. There were four or five like Chocolate, Carl and Me, Sick At Heart, High, that were well-recorded, well-performed, but they didn’t go anywhere. They were lacking vocals, they were lacking structure and they were lacking overdubs and soloing. At the end of the day, they were backing tracks. We didn’t want to include backing tracks just for the sake of including them. They were interesting backing tracks, but nonetheless, backing tracks.
          There were three or four Jim Gordon-penned songs that were pretty much all him. He was doing his own material off-hours during the Dominos’ sessions. They weren’t appropriate for the set, either. They weren’t Derek & The Dominos, they were Jim Gordon.
          So, when you go through all of the second album material, there really are only a few songs worth using. That was true in 1988 when we did Crossroads and its true now. We ended up using the same five songs because they were complete or nearly complete. And in the case of Got To Get Better, we added Bobby’s vocals and keys to bring it to completion.
BF:      In terms of Dominos live recordings, other than what is in this set, there’s nothing else?
BL:     No, there isn’t and that’s always been sort of sad. There was a thought about using bootlegs, but we set the bar that we wanted; we wanted the sonics to be professional. And you know what? Maybe there is room for a bootleg set. But I think that’s a future project.
BF:      Wasn’t there something about the Dominos’ Marquee gig being recorded?
BL:     Years and years ago, I came across a photostat of a tape box that said “live at the Marquee.” It was professionally done, it was done at Bell Studios, it had a track listing, it had a date, it looked like the real deal. But I’ve never been able to find a tape to corroborate it.
BF:     Any final thoughts?
BL:     It’s funny. Last year, Universal Music / Polydor Records had a very successful release with the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, which was a reassessment of a wonderful, sprawling two LP set. Everything they said about that record, you can say about Layla. It, too, was a lovely, intriguing, sprawling two LP set that was ready for reassessment. We know it as the album that gave us Layla, Bell Bottom Blues, but it’s so much richer than that. Some of the richness is in songs like I Am Yours and Thorn Tree In The Garden, songs that most people aren’t familiar with. On reassessment, if they can re-discover those songs I think all-in-all it’s a really good thing. And, while reassessing the album, reassess the band. Those four players may have been the finest four piece group of their time. Unfortunately, they were only around for a year but they contributed to a lot of records and sessions that people may not even be aware of, like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. They were the premiere players and could have been the premiere band of that year.  
BF:      Any future Bill Levenson projects you can talk about?
BL:     Not really, but you never know! I’d love to see what we started with Layla continue on with other Eric Clapton records. 461 Ocean Boulevard has been pretty well researched and developed, but I think records like There’s One In Every Crowd, No Reason To Cry and of course, Slowhand, all deserve a reassessment. It’s hard to believe, but each one will be having 40th Anniversaries over the next few years.
[Barry Fisch is a regular contributor to Where’s Eric! He’s also a record industry veteran who worked with Bill Levenson on Crossroads and other projects while both were at PolyGram Records.Photos courtesy of Barry Fisch, Bill Levenson, Bill Inglot, and Eliot Kissileff.]
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Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs: 40th Anniversary Editions Due This Month – includes track lists and exclusive preview video animation for the super-deluxe box set. DETAILS HERE.

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