'LAYLA' ANEW Clapton unplugs his masterpiece


Just when it seemed Eric Clapton's year couldn't get any more commercial and the man himself couldn't possibly be any more in demand, the singer-songwriter turns up with yet another triumph.

The new "Layla," which Reprise Records has just released as a single, is something to behold.

The retooled version of this song is from Mr. Clapton's acoustic "Unplugged" set, holding steady on Billboard's album chart at No. 4 this week.

Though this new rendition officially bears the original title -- just plain "Layla" -- it has come to be known as the "New Layla" because it is so strikingly different from its predecessor.

Mr. Clapton has been toying with this rock anthem -- arguably one of the greatest -- for years, reinterpreting it in concert all the time. Now it has been recast as a mellow blues exploration, making it a perfect companion for the roots-oriented favorites that fill out the "Unplugged" set.

Fans who missed Mr. Clapton on tour this year, and on the March MTV show from which the "Unplugged" album was culled, finally have a chance to hear the new "Layla" through its surprising success on Top 40 radio.

"Layla" was one of the fastest gainers on Billboard's chart during the last two weeks, moving 42 places to crack the Top 40 at No. 37 this week.

"Eric Clapton has aged very well," said Michael Ellis, director of charts for Billboard. "He is exactly the type of performer Top 40 programmers are going after. He has a long rock history, an image that's right for the demographic they want, yet he's not making heavy music."

"And the song is instantly recognizable to everyone -- yet it's so different."

This is the third time "Layla" has hit the Hot 100. It was first released in 1971 as a 2 1/2 -minute single that peaked at No. 51.

The song's relative failure at the time devastated Mr. Clapton, driving him into a deep, drug-ridden depression. He had considered "Layla" -- which chronicled his tormented affair with best friend George Harrison's wife -- to be a masterpiece.

The following year the song was re-released in the 7-minute format we have come to regard as the classic version. "Layla" became a huge hit, reaching No. 10.

Of course, "Layla" in any form always has transcended the charts.

Cynics might see "Layla's" release to Top 40 radio as a company's way of cashing in on Mr. Clapton's new status with teens, acquired when his ballad "Tears in Heaven" peaked at No. 2 last spring. But a Reprise spokesman says that's not how it happened.

"Unplugged" was never even going to be an album," said Rich Fitzgerald, the senior vice president of promotions for Reprise. "And we had never even thought about releasing 'Layla.' Then we found out that many radio stations had recorded it right off MTV and were playing it all the time."

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