Duane Allman was a musical genius who couldn’t read or write music. For those who are not devoted fans of the Allman Brothers Band like I am, Duane Allman is not a household name. His recording career was but a short five years. His genius came in “the vision thing.” His genius was in his ability to bring people of disparate musical backgrounds together [jazz, country, blues, R&B, soul, psychedelic rock], mix and match those disparate influences and come up with something new. Many would label this “something new” thing as “Southern rock.” I argue that the music that came from the original Allman Brothers Band was what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music.” The kind of music they played wasn’t your standard “three chords and the truth.” The band was unique – it had two lead guitar players [Duane Allman and Dickey Betts], two drummers [Jaimoe and Butch Trucks], a bassist who played like a third lead guitarist [Berry Oakley], and the greatest white blues singer on the planet [Gregg Allman]. Rock and Roll as a genre originated from the American South, so the term “Southern rock” is a bit redundant. Duane didn’t sing, didn’t write songs, but he was the undisputed leader, the alpha dog in the Allman Brothers Band. Drummer Butch Trucks credited Duane as giving the band “the religion,” and the rest of the band were his disciples. Brother Gregg Allman said of his brother when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “he was always the first to face the fire.” That Duane Allman was able to create a band that survived his death is a testament to his vision.
Duane Allman became interested in playing music after he and his brother saw a BB King show in Nashville. Shortly after that show Gregg bought his first guitar with money he earned delivering newspapers. Duane often fought his little brother for the guitar until Mama A bought a Les Paul Junior for Duane. Gregg taught Duane how to play the chords, but then Duane quickly surpassed his little brother. When both brothers were attending school at the Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee, Duane would play along to the blues records he owned until he learned them perfectly. When Gregg finished school [Duane dropped out], both went back to Daytona Beach and started a band. Without going through the history of each line-up, I’ll fast-forward to when their band became known as The Hour Glass. They were able to get a record deal with Liberty Records, and they re-located to Los Angeles.
While they were in the Hour Glass, they recorded material they didn’t like, chosen by an unsympathetic producer. The record company wanted them to be psychedelic pop and didn’t want them playing live so as not to “ruin the image.” They recorded two albums for Liberty Records, what Gregg referred to as a “shit sandwich.” The band spent money earned from the few gigs they did play and went to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They cut a BB King medley of the songs Sweet Little Angel, It’s My Own Fault, and How Blue Can You Get. The Hour Glass’ producer didn’t like what he heard, the band broke up. But this song gave a strong hint the direction Duane and Gregg wanted to take. This wasn’t psychedelic pop – it was the blues. It can be found on Duane Allman: An Anthology. After the end of The Hour Glass, Duane and Gregg recorded an album of demos in September 1968 with Butch Trucks’ band The 31st of February. They cut an exceptional version of Tim Rose’s Morning Dew. The Grateful Dead and the Jeff Beck Group had also cut the song. Duane and Gregg’s version is more like what Jeff Beck cut. They also cut an early version of Melissa. This version is the only one you’ll hear featuring Duane Allman. The album stayed in the can until after Duane’s death. It came out in May 1972 under the title Duane & Gregg Allman. The album is long out of print, but some of the cuts from it can be found elsewhere. Morning Dew can be found on the Allman Brothers’ box set, Dreams. The early version of Melissa with Duane can be found on Gregg’s anthology One More Try: An Anthology. This music was another clue as to where Duane wanted to go musically.
BB King Medley – The Hour Glass
Morning Dew – The 31st of February
His most notable work came as a session player at FAME Studios [Muscle Shoals, Alabama] and with the band he founded, the Allman Brothers Band. His big break as a session player came when he recorded Hey Jude with Wilson Pickett. His guitar solo at the end of the song got the attention of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler. After the Wilson Pickett session, Duane got more and more session work to include the likes of Aretha Franklin, saxophone legend King Curtis, flautist Herbie Mann, Delaney & Bonnie, Clarence Carter, John Hammond, Boz Scaggs, and Johnny Jenkins. His five-minute solo at the end of Boz Scaggs’ Loan Me a Dime is mesmerizing. His work with Johnny Jenkins started out as a solo album for himself, but he didn’t finish the album because he formed the Allman Brothers Band instead. This album [Ton-Ton Macoute!] features Dr. John’s Walk on Gilded Splinters, a song the Allman Brothers play in the live sets today as one of many tributes to Duane.
Hey Jude – Wilson Pickett
Loan Me a Dime – Boz Scaggs
Walk on Gilded Splinters – Johnny Jenkins
Accounts vary about how Duane Allman became such a devotee to playing the electric slide guitar. Whether it was because of seeing a show of Taj Mahal and his band, or brother Gregg giving him a copy of Taj Mahal’s first album, this much is clear – Statesboro Blues [as played by Taj Mahal with Jessie Ed Davis on slide] was Duane’s revelation. Such was the reverence for the song and the way it was played, the Allman Brothers Band still plays Statesboro Blues the same way Taj Mahal did in the mid-1960s. Duane’s axe of choice for playing slide was a 1961 Gibson SG that was given to him by Dickey Betts (sometimes he played slide on a Les Paul). Rather than play the same guitar throughout a live show, Duane had his SG tuned to open E [EBEG#BE] so when he didn’t have to play slide, he could play his Les Paul in standard tuning [EADGBE]. His slide of choice was a glass Coricidin bottle that he wore on the ring finger of his fretting hand. Such was his mastery of the slide that once he had the likes of Elmore James down, he began to emulate the blues harp of such guys as Little Walter and Junior Wells. A great example of this is his playing on Clarence Carter’s The Road of Love, which can be found on Duane Allman: An Anthology.
The Road of Love – Clarence Carter
Duane had jammed with an acquaintance from the band The Second Coming. His name: Berry Oakley. Duane intended to form a trio with him, Berry and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson. Berry didn’t want to abandon his guitar player, Dickey Betts. Duane was open-minded. He’d jammed with Second Coming before and liked Dickey’s playing. When it was time for a jam, there were those four guys, then Butch Trucks showed up. Berry and Dickey brought their keyboard player from Second Coming, Reese Wynans. Then there were six. The band needed a singer. Duane knew just the guy – little brother Gregg. Duane made the call to California, Gregg showed up, and Reese Wynans was out. The line-up of the Allman Brothers Band was set. After they finished a four-hour jam, Duane is reputed to have said that if anyone wanted out of his band, they’d have to fight their way out. Nobody threw any punches that day.
The Allman Brothers Band, the band’s debut album, was released in November 1969. It has the blueprint of what the Allman Brothers “sound” would be [but not always used] - the twin lead guitars, two drummers who complement each other, a thunderous bass player who plays like a third lead guitarist, excellent songwriting, and Gregg Allman proving he is one of the finest blues singers alive, if not of all time. The opening track is an instrumental (?!?) take of the Spencer Davis song Don’t Want You No More. It was something Dickey Betts brought from his previous band The Second Coming. Who starts their debut album with an instrumental? This announced to the world right out of the box that the Brothers would be a different kind of band playing a different kind of music. It grabs your attention immediately, then after two and a half minutes segues into the Gregg Allman original, It’s Not My Cross to Bear. The segue from a 4/4-time instrumental into a ¾-time blues is effortless. It’s a five-minute slow blues executed perfectly. Both guitarists know when to play and when to leave space. They don’t try to break the world land speed record in notes per second in their playing. Black Hearted Woman is another Gregg original that shows off the harmony attack of Duane and Dickey on the songs main riff. Duane plays some snarling licks while Dickey plays the funky rhythm in the back while Gregg sings. Duane introduces the slide on the album’s first cover, Muddy Waters’ Trouble No More. The album ends with duo Dreams and Whipping Post. Dreams is a seven-minute slow blues played in ¾ time. It’s one of those songs that doesn’t feel like it’s as long as it really is. Words to describe Dreams: slow, ethereal, hypnotic, hazy. Its length is due to Duane’s extended soloing. He starts off playing it straight, but then you can hear the exact moment when Duane starts to play the slide. It’s at the 3:12 mark. This is one of the few times Duane plays slide in standard tuning [the other time would be Mountain Jam]. Where Dreams is a fairly easy-going piece of music, Whipping Post is furious. Thanks to Berry Oakley, the song has an 11/4 time signature, what some would call a modified ¾-time. Duane and Dickey dual with their guitars, and then they harmonize the shrieking guitar climax. On stage the it morphed into a monster that left plenty of room for exploration [see At Fillmore East].
Dreams – Allman Brothers Band
Idlewild South saw the light of day in September 1970. Like its predecessor it contained only seven songs. It’s not as gloomy or dark as the debut. With one exception [the instrumental In Memory of Elizabeth Reed] the songs are shorter, more radio-friendly. Revival is a spirited, gospel-like number written by Dickey Betts that shows the interplay of Duane’s and Dickey’s guitars. This is what Keith Richards often describes an “an ancient form of weaving.” They each get to play their own thing without getting in each others’ way. One thing that is on Idlewild South that isn’t on the debut album [except for Trouble No More] is the acoustic guitar. The first notes from Revival come from Duane strumming an acoustic. Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ is one of Gregg’s better blues songs. Duane’s slide trades licks with Thom Doucette’s harp. Duane’s playing on this song can best be described as “blistering.” It’s even more intense on the version found on the deluxe edition of At Fillmore East. Midnight Rider is another acoustic-driven song, but there are electrics mixed in. They produce an effect that sounds like a pedal steel guitar. Gregg Allman wasn’t much of a country music fan, but he referred to this song as a country song, and it sounds like one. In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is the first of many Dickey Betts-written instrumentals that takes its name from the tombstone of Elizabeth Reed Napier, who is buried at Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery. She’s buried near the train tracks that run along the Ocmulgee River. Dickey named it after her because he had written the song for a lady whom he was seeing but didn’t want to reveal her identity. The Brothers often sought musical and chemical [and sometimes carnal] inspiration from the cemetery, which wasn’t far from their original “Hippie Crash Pad.” Elizabeth Reed had been in the works for a long time. Dickey once said he had Miles Davis in mind when he wrote the song. One can hear it played by the band at the Fillmore East in February 1970. It’s a dynamic track that has lots of different movements. Rock bands aren’t supposed to play music this complex, but the band pulls it off with ease. Clocking in at just less than seven minutes, Elizabeth Reed is the longest song on Idlewild South. There’s a lot of room to stretch out and jam, as demonstrated on At Fillmore East. Berry Oakley [whom Duane once referred to as “our bad sex symbol”] contributes his one and only lead vocal to the Allman Brothers catalog with Hoochie Coochie Man. This sounds nothing like the Muddy Waters original. It’s ominous, brooding, and almost scary. Duane and Dickey push each other to incredible heights, propelled by Berry’s booming bass and Jaimoe and Butch’s drumming. Please Call Home is the slow blues of Idlewild South. Here Duane is at his most sympathetic. He provides an acoustic guitar that he strums along with Gregg’s piano. Dickey provides all the electric work. The album closes with Leave My Blues at Home. This is the Allman Brothers at their most funky. In that regard it’s similar to Black Hearted Woman from the first album. I don’t know what it is about this song, but it’s one of my Top 10 ABB cuts. It’s a great example of the twin harmonies of Duane and Dickey. It’s very loose, with the guitarists doing a wonderful call-and-response at the very end as the song fades.
His most famous contribution as a “session” player came during the making of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. More than just a session player, Duane was a featured special guest on the album that is Eric Clapton’s greatest musical achievement. The musical marriage made in heaven came about by accident. When Clapton and company began work with producer Tom Dowd on what became the Layla album, Tom Dowd received a call from Duane to let him know the Brothers were going to be in town to play a concert. When he told Clapton of the phone call, Clapton said “you mean that guy who plays on the back of Hey Jude? I want to see him play!” Clapton and the band showed up and watched the Brothers play. During a solo, Duane looked down and saw Clapton at his feet and froze, probably for the only time in his career. When Dickey Betts heard Duane stopped playing he picked up the solo where Duane left off. When Dickey saw Clapton he turned his back so he wouldn’t freeze up as well. After the show, Duane asked Clapton if he could watch him and his band record their album. Clapton told him to bring his guitar – they had to play! When asked how one can tell the difference between his and Clapton’s playing, Whenever you hear the introduction to the song Layla, think of Duane Allman. Those first seven notes was something Duane came up with off the top of his head. Think about that – the defining riff of Eric Clapton’s career is a Duane Allman throwaway. That screeching slide? Yup, that’s Duane too. Clapton invited Duane to join Derek and the Dominos, but Duane politely declined because he couldn’t leave the Brothers. The Layla album isn’t a Duane Allman album or an Allman Brothers album, but it is quite important in Duane Allman’s story. He lit a fire under Eric Clapton, and each guitarist drove the other to soaring musical heights. Duane didn’t come into the picture until the 4th song, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out, and you can tell the band dials up the intensity with Duane’s presence from that point on [the album is sequenced in the order the songs were recorded, or so it’s been said]. When asked how one could tell his playing apart from Clapton’s he said the Stratocaster played by Clapton has a “sparklier sound” while his own Gibsons produced a “full-tilt screech.” That’s playing it just a little coy, but when Layla was first remastered you could really tell the difference. For those who don’t know the difference, Clapton is mixed to the right; Duane is mixed to the left. In his autobiography Clapton referred to Duane as “the musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”
Layla – Derek & the Dominos
At Fillmore East is Duane Allman’s [and the Allman Brothers Band’s] masterpiece. Recorded over two days and four shows at New York’s Fillmore East, At Fillmore Eat [there is no “Live” in the title] captures the Allman Brothers at their best, mixing jazz, rock and blues effortlessly. The album is a master’s class on playing the electric slide guitar. The original album was seven songs over four sides. The first four songs are blues [Statesboro Blues, Done Somebody Wrong, Stormy Monday, and You Don’t Love Me]. The first two are short blues number, and then they stretch out on T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday. Stormy Monday is more of a showcase for Gregg Allman’s vocals, but there is soling aplenty between Dickey, Gregg and Duane. You Don’t Love Me takes up all of side two. The Brothers take the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells version from 1965’s Hoodoo Man Blues and stretches it out for 19 minutes. Duane would incorporate other songs into it, either King Curtis’ Soul Serenade or Joy to the World. This version has Joy to the World. After the Brothers dispense with the blues they take on the instrumentals, Hot ‘Lanta and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Hot ‘Lanta evolved from a jam, hence the songwriting credit to everyone in the band. Compared to most of the album, it’s a short five minutes. There is no studio version of this song – this is it. Elizabeth Reed is a Dickey Betts jazz-influenced tour de force original that debuted on the Brothers’ second studio album Idlewild South. It clocks in just less than seven minutes. But on At Fillmore East the band stretches out to thirteen minutes, and not a single note is wasted. It opens with Dickey paying volume swells on his guitar, soon to be joined by Duane to play a double-lead melody. Dickey takes the first solo, Gregg plays an organ solo, and then Duane plays his solo that launches the band into the stratosphere. He starts out quietly, builds to one climax, cools off a bit, and then launches again into a furious peak. This is Duane Allman channeling John Coltrane and Miles Davis from Kind of Blue. If I was to pick one Allman Brothers song that captures their essence, this cut from At Fillmore East would be it. Where other bands would play songs to extraordinary lengths [like Cream or the Grateful Dead], the Allman Brothers’ excursions into otherworldly improvisation were not exercises in self-indulgent solos for the sake of soloing. These guys would play with the skill of jazz musicians with the aggression of rockers. These guys wouldn’t repeat anything. Just when you thought they’ve said everything they’ve got to say on Elizabeth Reed, they follow that with a 23-minute version of Whipping Post. Like on Elizabeth Reed, nothing is wasted on Whipping Post. After the song reaches its apocalyptic conclusion you can hear the faints strains of what comes next during the fade out, the monolithic Mountain Jam [to be released on the next album, Eat a Peach]. At Fillmore East is one of my “desert island discs.”
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed – Allman Brothers Band
Eat a Peach was the album the Brothers were working on when Duane died. Three sides contain music recorded with Duane, including some material left off At Fillmore East. Mountain Jam, the beginnings of which you can hear at the end of Whipping Post on At Fillmore East, takes up two whole sides of Eat a Peach. The fourth side is three songs by the remaining Brothers after Duane’s death. The Elmore James/Sonny Boy Williamson blues One Way Out is the song that got me hooked on the Allman Brothers in the first place. Dickey starts the song with the main riff, and then Duane joins on slide playing an octave above Dickey. When it comes to the solos, Dickey takes the first solo and is absolutely smokin’! After the drum break Dickey and Duane do a call-and-response, followed by Duane launching himself into the stratosphere once more. Trouble No More, the first song the Allman Brothers Band ever played together, follows One Way Out. On Stand Back Duane shows his ability to make his slide guitar sound like a horn section. Blue Sky is Dickey Betts’ first lead vocal on an Allman Brothers album. This song is almost straight-up country, a departure from the hard blues, rock and jazz sounds favored on earlier albums. But this direction is no problem for Duane. At the 2:38 mark Dickey takes the lead from Duane. It never ceases to amaze me the ease with which Duane and Dickey could switch roles from lead to rhythm. Their transitions from one role to the other were always flawlessly executed. Little Martha closes out Eat a Peach. It shows the rarely-seen soft acoustic side of Duane Allman. An ode to his girlfriend Dixie, it is the only song credited to Duane Allman as the only songwriter. It came to him in a dream. In the dream Jimi Hendrix showed him how to play it on a bathroom faucet. It’s just Duane and Dickey playing acoustic guitars as if they were sitting on your front porch. For those who play guitar, Duane’s guitar is tuned to E. If you try to play it in standard tuning it will drive you crazy. It is a short but beautiful song. Every Allman Brothers performance ends with Little Martha playing on the PA. When you hear that song, you know the show is over.
For the record, a peach truck did not kill Duane Allman. On the evening of October 29, 1971, he was riding his motorcycle down Hillcrest Dr in Macon when a flatbed truck that was hauling lumber [coming from the opposite direction] turned in front of him and stopped. He swerved to go around the truck, but he struck the back of the truck. He came off the bike, the bike flipped in the air and landed on him. This caused massive internal injuries. He lived for three hours but died on the operating table as doctors worked to save him. The name for the Eat a Peach album came from a quip Duane made in a magazine shortly before his death. When the interviewer asked him what he does for “the revolution,” he responded "There ain't no revolution, it's evolution, but every time I'm in Georgia I eat a peach for peace." In a cruel twist, the success Duane had worked hard to achieve was just within his grasp. The week he died At Fillmore East was certified Gold.
Duane penned his own epitaph. Inscribed on his grave, it says: I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it and offer it to everyone who will take it…Seek knowledge from those wiser…and teach those who wish to learn from me…. In my travels I have often been to Duane’s gravesite. It’s at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Bassist Berry Oakley is buried beside him. One used to be able to leave things…a guitar pick, a rose, whatever one wanted to leave there. Unfortunately the graves were open to vandals as well. There were times when I saw someone had drawn graffiti on the graves, so Berry Oakley’s sister Candace had an iron fence built around them. You can still look but you can no longer touch.
It is a testament to Duane Allman’s stature as the leader of the band and as an iconic guitarist that the Brothers chose not to replace him. In the aftermath of his death, the remaining Allman Brothers Band members recorded and toured as a five-piece. Dickey Betts carried all the guitar weight himself. Gregg and bassist Berry Oakley stepped up to fill the sonic hole left by Duane’s absence. The five-man band continued for a year until they decided to go an entirely different instrumental direction. They added pianist Chuck Leavell, who had been working on Gregg’s album Laid Back. The Allman Brothers would not add another guitarist to the band until 1978, when they made the album Enlightened Rogues.
In 2009 was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Allman Brothers Band, and they dedicated their annual Beacon Theatre run [and the entire 2009 tour] to the life and music of Duane Allman. The band invited everybody who played with Duane or wanted to pay tribute to Duane, and almost everybody [except Dickey Betts] showed up and played. The guests are a who’s who of rock and blues: Taj Mahal and Levon Helm [3/9/09]; Johnny Winter [3/10/09]; Buddy Guy [3/12/09]; Boz Scaggs [3/13/09]; John Hammond [3/16/09]; Tommy Talton & Scott Boyer (Cowboy) [3/17/09]; Eric Clapton [3/19/09 & 3/20/09]; Bruce Hornsby [3/21/09]; King Curtis’ Kingpins [Jerry Jemmott - bass, Bernard Purdie - drums and Jimmy Smith – keys – 3/23/09]; Billy Gibbons & Thom Doucette [3/24/09]; Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, & Chuck Leavell [3/28/09]. Several of the shows began with Duane’s Little Martha, whether it’s a Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks duet, or an Oteil Burbridge bass solo.
At the funeral, Jerry Wexler eulogized Duane by saying, “Those of us who were privileged to know Duane will remember him from all the studios, backstage dressing rooms, the Downtowners, the Holiday Inns, the Sheratons, the late nights, relaxing after the sessions, the whisky and the music talk, playing back cassettes until night gave way to dawn, the meals and the pool games, and fishing in Miami and Long Island, this young beautiful man, who we love so dearly but who is not lost to us, because we have his music, and the music is imperishable."
Indeed. Wherever I am, Duane Allman’s music travels with me.
The Allman Brothers Band
At Fillmore East [Deluxe Version]
Eat a Peach
Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival
Live at Ludlow Garage
Fillmore East Feb 70
American University, Washington DC 12/13/70
S.U.N.Y. at Stonybrook 9/19/71
Duane Allman: An Anthology
Duane Allman: An Anthology Vol. 2
Derek & the Dominos - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
John Hammond – Southern Fried
Boz Scaggs – Boz Scaggs
Johnny Jenkins – Ton-Ton Macoute!
Delaney & Bonnie – To Bonnie From Delaney
Delaney & Bonnie – Motel Shot
Wilson Pickett – Hey Jude
King Curtis – Instant Groove