Layla in Real Life: 10 Songs Written About Pattie Boyd

There are two sides to every story—and every song.
There are two sides to every story—and every song. / Chaloner Woods/GettyImages

Pattie Boyd was working as a model and actress in the early 1960s when she was cast as a schoolgirl in Richard Lester’s musical-comedy A Hard Days Night (1964), which starred The Beatles. Though she had just a single word of dialogue—“Prisoners?”—it was the role that changed her life, as it was how she met George Harrison and began a journey that would lead to her becoming one of the most important muses in rock and roll history.

Harrison and Boyd married two years later, but the beloved Beatle wasn’t the only iconic rock star who would end up vying for Boyd’s attention, or putting pen to paper to craft songs about her. Guitar deity Eric Clapton, one of Harrison’s best friends, also fell madly in love with Boyd, and wrote much of Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, about her and his forbidden love.

Boyd and Harrison eventually divorced in 1977, but not before she had a brief fling with future Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. In 1979, Clapton got his Layla when he and Boyd married, though even that didn’t last. The couple divorced a decade later, and in 2015, Boyd married for a third time—to property developer Rod Weston, whom she had met in the early 1990s. Weston, as far as anyone knows, is neither a songwriter nor an instrumentalist. But the string of hits that Boyd inspired are still some of the most iconic songs in music history.

1. The Beatles // “I Need You” (1965)

“I Need You” was only the second song written by Harrison to make it onto a Beatles album, which in this case was 1965’s Help! ; his first, “Don't Bother Me,” was on 1963’s With the Beatles.

During the February 15, 1965, recording session for the song, Ringo Starr notably played on the back of an acoustic guitar while John Lennon played the snare drum on beats two and four throughout the track.

2. The Beatles // “Something” (1969)

Harrison grew as a songwriter between Help! and 1969’s Abbey Road. During that period, his tunes were about police (“Piggies”), the government (“Think For Yourself,” “Taxman”), or generally about the human condition (Harrison once said that “I Want to Tell You,” off 1966’s Revolver, was about “the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit.”).

According to Boyd, Harrison revealed that “Something” was about her in a “matter-of-fact way.” In her memoir, Wonderful Tonight, Boyd also claimed that Harrison’s favorite cover of the song—of which there are hundreds—was James Brown’s version. Her favorite was George’s, when he played it for her in their kitchen. Harrison was more opaque about his inspiration, but said that he had first written “Something” during a break in the making of The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) and later denied that Boyd was his muse for it.

3. The Beatles // “For You Blue” (1970)

Harrison would, predictably, only have one sentence to say about his Let It Be contribution. “It’s a simple 12-bar song following all the normal 12-bar principles, except that it’s happy-go-lucky!” Still, it’s widely considered to be about Boyd. (Lennon also notably used a shotgun shell as his slide when he played the lap steel guitar on the song.)

4. Derek and the Dominos // “Layla” (1970)

Clapton used Derek and the Dominos’ lone studio album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, as a more than 77-minute declaration of love to Pattie Boyd Harrison. The name “Layla” came from the 5th century Arabian poem-turned-book, The Story of Layla and Majnun, adapted by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi.

It was about forbidden love, and a mutual friend reportedly gave copies of it to both Clapton and Boyd. Later, after writing the album’s title track, Clapton secretly met with Boyd one afternoon in a South Kensington flat and played the song for her off of his tape machine. She claimed that Clapton had identified with Majnun and was determined to know how she felt. For her part, Boyd wrote that “Layla” was “the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard,” but she still went home to Harrison—at least on that day.

5 and 6. Ronnie Wood // “Mystifies Me” (1974) and “Breathe On Me” (1975)

“Mystifies Me” was on Wood’s solo record Ive Got My Own Album to Do, while he was still a member of the band Faces, and it was released one year before he joined the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, along with George Harrison, helped with some of the writing and performing).

Wood had “sort of a warped rock star wife swap” with Harrison, in which he had an affair with Boyd and Harrison had an affair with Wood’s first wife, Krissie Findley. In his autobiography, Wood wrote that he had actually “pinched” Findley from Eric Clapton to begin with, further complicating things, and knew full well that Clapton was in love with Boyd. Still, Wood considered himself a “loving intermediary” for Boyd between Harrison and Clapton, and enjoyed a holiday in the Bahamas with her, while Harrison jetted off to Portugal with Findley.

Harrison and Wood would later joke about the wife swapping. And along with “Mystifies Me,” Boyd would serve as inspiration for “Breathe on Me,” which was released on Wood’s next solo album, 1975’s Now Look (it was later reimagined on his 1992 effort, Slide on This).

7. George Harrison // “So Sad” (1974)

“So Sad,” off of Harrison’s 1974 album Dark Horse, is usually regarded as the only Harrison work about the marital problems between him and Boyd. The album was released the same year they separated; their divorce wasn’t finalized until 1977.

8. Eric Clapton // “Wonderful Tonight” (1977)

Clapton and Boyd eventually got together after she left Harrison in July 1974. In her book, Boyd recalled one incident in which she spent hours deciding on which dress to wear for a night out, while Clapton waited in the other room, playing his guitar all the while.

Inspired by the country singer Don Williams, who wrote “beautifully simple” lyrics about everyday life events, Clapton came up with the chorus to “Wonderful Tonight” while he waited. When Boyd finally came downstairs and asked him if she looked alright, he played her what he had just written.

9. Eric Clapton // “She’s Waiting” (1985)

“She’s Waiting” was released on Clapton’s 1985 album, Behind the Sun, which Warner Bros. then forced him to tinker with a bit because his initial interpretation of the project was not commercial enough for the record company.

“They said it had no singles and no relevance to anything else that was out there, and I needed to wake up and get with what’s going on,” Clapton later recalled.

The song was released in 1985, about two years before Boyd officially left Clapton due to his alcoholism, abuse, and repeated infidelities (two of which resulted in children: a daughter, Ruth, born in 1985, and a son, Conor, who was born in 1986 and later died tragically in 1991 after falling out of an open bedroom window).

“She’s Waiting” features the lyrics, “She’s waiting for another love” and “Get ready now, ’cause pretty soon/She’ll be gone and you’ll be on your own” have strongly indicated to rock critics that it’s about Mrs. Boyd-Harrison-Clapton.

10. Eric Clapton // “Old Love” (1989)

Clapton and Boyd officially divorced in 1989. In a letter from New York, Clapton wrote to Boyd saying he was working on an album (1989’s Journeyman) with her “other ex-hubby” (meaning Harrison) and had written another song about her. “I think it will be the best one on the album,” he claimed. “It’s called ‘Old Love,’ don’t be offended, it’s not about you being old, it’s about love getting old, and it’s great, well, you’ll see it when you hear it.”

In 2008, Boyd told The Guardian she didn’t think it was so awesome. “The end of a relationship is a sad enough thing, but to then have Eric writing about it as well. It makes me more sad, I think, because I can’t answer back.”

A version of this article was originally published in 2016; it has been updated in 2023.