Bob Dylan's version
"Lay Lady Lay" was originally written for the soundtrack of the movie Midnight Cowboy, but wasn't submitted in time to be included in the finished film. Dylan's recording was released as a single in July 1969 and quickly became one of his top U.S. hits, peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single did even better in the United Kingdom where it reached #5 on the UK Singles Chart. Like many of the tracks on Nashville Skyline, the song is sung by Dylan in a warm, relatively low sounding voice, rather than the more abrasive nasal singing style with which he had become famous. Dylan attributed his "new" voice to having quit smoking before recording the album, but some unreleased bootleg recordings from the early 1960s reveal that, in fact, Dylan had used a similar singing style before.
Don Everly of the Everly Brothers recounted in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview that Dylan performed parts of the song for them after a late 1960s appearance by the duo in New York, as they were "looking for songs, and he was writing "Lay Lady Lay" at the time." Despite a popular story that the Everly Brothers rejected the song due to misunderstanding the lyrics as sexual in nature, Everly continued "He sang parts of it, and we weren't quite sure whether he was offering it to us or not. It was one of those awestruck moments." In a 1994 interview Don Everly further explained the encounter, stating that "It really wasn't a business meeting ... It wasn't that kind of atmosphere." The Everly Brothers later covered the song on their EB 84 album, 15 years after Dylan's release.
According to country musician Johnny Cash, Dylan played the song first in a circle of singer-songwriters at Cash's house outside of Nashville. Cash claimed that several other musicians also played their own new, unheard songs.
Drummer Kenny Buttrey has said that he had a difficult time coming up with a drum part for the song. Dylan had suggested bongos, while producer Bob Johnson said cowbells. In order to "show them how bad their ideas were", Buttrey used both instruments together. Kris Kristofferson, who was working as a janitor in the studio at the time, was enlisted to hold the bongos in one hand and the cowbell in the other. Buttrey moved the sole overhead drum mic over to these new instruments. When he switches back to the drums for the choruses the drumset sounds distant due to not being directly mic'd. The take heard on the album is the first take and is one of Buttrey's own favorite performances.
"I used to listen to that one record, 'Lay Lady Lay', in my brother's bedroom in the basement of our house," recalled Madonna. "I'd lie on the bed and play that song and cry all the time. I was going through adolescence; I had hormones raging through my body. Don't ask me why I was crying – it's not a sad song. But that's the only record of his that I really listened to."
Music and lyrics
Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" chord progression
features a descending chromatic
line in the upper voice:
Written in the key of A major, or A Mixolydian, the song's chord progression features a descending chromatic line and Dylan's voice occupies a range from F#2 to D4. The bass is most often based on the chromatic descent or otherwise emphasizing the modal center of A. The chief hook in "Lay Lady Lay", a song with far more hooks than is typical for Dylan, is a recurring four-note pedal steel guitar riff. The song's distinctive drum part is performed by Kenny Buttrey, who regarded his contribution to the song as one of his best performances on a record. Lyrically the song speaks of romantic and sexual anticipation as the singer beseeches his lover to spend the night with him.
Live performances and other releases
Dylan played the song live for the first time at the Isle of Wight on August 31, 1969; a recording is included on Isle of Wight Live, part of the 4-CD deluxe edition of The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971). Performances of the song from 1974 and 1976 are included on the Before the Flood and Hard Rain live albums. The song has frequently been performed by Dylan since the late 1980s during his Never Ending Tour.
"Lay Lady Lay" also appears on Dylan's quintuple-platinum Greatest Hits, Volume II album, as well as on the Masterpieces, Biograph, The Best of Bob Dylan, Vol. 1, and The Essential Bob Dylan compilation albums.