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