You’ve got me on my knees, Sheila

If you’re a drummer, falling in love with a woman called Pattie can be inspirational. Pa-ttie, Pat-tat-tat-ie is percussion in female form.

But if you’re a guitarist? You can’t bend or stretch Pattie‘s vowels. You can’t wrap her round a guitar riff. Her double tt tethers her to the beat and to the ground. Her a is the short, tidy type. Her P is sharp and unforgiving.

They say all clouds have a silver lining. When Pattie’s married to your best friend, you have the perfect excuse for giving her a new, secret, improved name in a love-song. Something exotic and soft, something to curve and soar to the sound of your guitar. Something like Layla.

Layla has the wonderfully useful, central ay diphthong. Like a fan, Layla can unfold or stay closed. As the singer chooses.

If you watch Eric Clapton on the MTV unplugged version of Layla, you can hear him expand and contract the diphthong. He couldn’t have done that if he’d stayed faithful to Pattie:

Eric Clapton didn’t pluck the name Layla out of thin air. He says that the story of Leyli and Majnun, ‘the man who loved too much’ seemed to suit his situation. The l sound at each end of Layla is pleasing to the ear, giving a soft boundary at the beginning and a springboard to the a at the end.

That final a gives Layla a lightness and a bounce that a consonant ending would have smothered. If you think of women’s names in songs – Angie, Sara, Emily, Proud Mary or Delilah, a final vowel sound lifts them and gives them the freedom to take their place at the end of a line, or to fill a line on their own.

It was tactful for Eric Clapton to use a completely new and exotic name in his song. Sheila, you’ve got me on my knees would have sounded suspiciously recycled from a previous love affair. Layla, with its Arabic origins, was fresh to the West. Names without a history in English stand separate from the humdrum daily routine. They’re special.

Layla, though unusual, is recognisable in English-speaking countries, as a woman’s name – because of the final, feminine a. Eric’s audience guesses, from the first time he sings Layla, without having to stop and think, that he’s singing to a woman, not a man.

You can hear Pattie Boyd’s reaction to the song and the complications it brought into her marriage to George Harrison here.

If English isn’t your first language and you want to sing Layla, be sure to give the name Layla plenty of room to grow, and plenty of room to contract. The word changes during the song. If Arabic is your first language, you’ll need to choose whether to pronounce the name Layla in its Arabic form, or to switch entirely to the English version. If you stay with the Arabic pronunciation, you’ll have to make adjustments elsewhere so that the word fits the music. Eric Clapton’s version of Layla is an English one, with a light l at the beginning and an expanding diphthong in the middle. The word is like a hammock, in English.

The moral of the story? If a guitarist falls in love with you, don’t expect to hear your name in his love songs unless it suits his guitar. And expect the song to outlive your affair.

© Sing Better English, 2015

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12 thoughts on “You’ve got me on my knees, Sheila”

    1. Thanks Aileen. Yes, I remember Layla being difficult to dance to at discos, but feeling Clapton’s longing for the unattainable woman ringing through the guitar riffs. I don’t play guitar, but I imagine you can pour your heart into your fingers. It must have been very difficult for Pattie Boyd to hear it, while she was still married to George Harrison.

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  1. Thank you so much for writing about this with your great pen and share the video, Dear Elaine!
    I never knew that E. Clapton has such a great song with this name.
    I wonder how correctly he pronounce/sing the name.
    I really-really enjoyed!
    Great thanks,
    All the best, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He pronounces Layla to rhyme with sailor and he emphasises the y in the middle. I don’t think you pronounce لیلی exactly like that, do you? But I think he’s close.

      It must be strange for him to know that he introduced the name to the West. Lots of people named their babies Layla after the Derek and the Dominoes song. It’s like Wendy from Peter Pan. Very few people used the name Wendy before Barrie wrote his play, but they liked her character and the sound of her name so they named their babies after her.

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  2. Well, when you write “لیلی” and pronounce it “Layla”; then it is Arabic, not Persian.

    When you write “لیلی” and pronounce it “Lili or Layli”; then it is a girl’s name in Persian. We have “Layli & Majnoon”, not “Layla”.

    When you write “لیلا” and pronounce it “Layla”, it’s another girl’s name in Persian again and the pronunciation in the song sounds perfect and correct to my ears.

    Really?! It’s amazing! I can’t believe babies with this name in West.
    So interesting for me.
    Yes, this occurs time to time everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. By the way,

    Maybe this is interesting for you:
    Emel Sayin – Layla (I’m sorry Layla)

    I’m not sure, but I think the main composer and songwriter is “Zeki Muren”:


    (He was one of the best in Turkey.)

    This song has been performed by several artists in different versions, for years and years. I love Emel Sayin’s performance with such a great orchestra. The lyric is so meaningful and beautiful.

    All the best, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow!
    I was thinking about the html-tags for inserting videos in commentary, as it is my first time post such a comment, but as soon as I posted my comment, the videos appear!
    🙂
    It’s fun!

    Warmed regards, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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