Duane Allman is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists who has ever lived. He can regularly be found in the top 10 of lists of greatest guitarists of all time, sometimes as high as number two, with only Jimi Hendrix ahead of him.
Allman was an innovator, who took electric guitar soloing to new heights, especially when using a slide made of the glass bottle of a cough remedy. He was instrumental in creating the Southern rock genre with The Allman Brothers Band, and at the heart of what many believe to be the best live album ever made.
In addition, Allman played on countless classic recordings by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Boz Scaggs and numerous others. In particular, Allman featured on the classic double album by Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which is widely regarded as Eric Clapton’s finest moment, and as one of the best rock and blues albums of all time.
These incredible accomplishments would normally make an impressive summary of a long and chequered career, but astonishingly, Allman achieved them over the course of just a couple of years. Sadly he died in 1971, at the age of 24.
Howard Duane Allman was born on November 20th, 1946, in Nashville, Tennessee, as the oldest son of Willis and Geraldine Allman. His brother Gregory Lenoir was born just over a year later, on December 8, 1947. In 1959, Gregg received some guitar lessons, and he bought a his own guitar in 1960.
In the same year, the brothers witnessed a B.B. King in concert, and Gregg started teaching his older brother some guitar basics. Duane’s obvious talent led him to quickly supersede his younger brother. Interestingly, both brothers were left-handed but played right-handed.
In July 1961, Duane bought a 1959 red Gibson Les Paul Junior. Both boys continued to practice hard, and within a year they were performing at teen dance parties. For the first half of the sixties, Duane and Greg played in a succession of bands, like The Kings, The Uniques, the Y Teens, The Misfits, The Shufflers, Lindsay Morris Band, The House Rockers, Sweet William & The Stereos and The Escorts.
By the summer of 1965, The Escorts changed their name to The Allman Joys, and Gregg started to sing and play organ. Songwriter John D Loudermilk spotted The Allman Joys during a gig in the second half of 1966 in Nashville, and he went on to produce some sessions with them. Some of the recordings were released much later, in 1973, on an album called Early Allman.
TERRIBLE AND USELESS
At the start of 1967, the Allman Joys changed their name to Almanac, or Allman-Act, and they moved to St Louis, Missouri, where they met The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and their manager Bill McEuen. At his suggestion the Allman-Act changed their name to Hour Glass, and decamped to Los Angeles.
By June 1967, McEuen had arranged for Hour Glass to sign with Liberty Records, which released the band’s self-titled debut album in October. A second album, Power Of Love, was issed in March 1968. Neither albums were in line with the band’s actual musical direction.
In an attempt to regain control of their music, Hour Glass went to FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where they recorded three tracks, which they loved, but the record company declared them “terrible and useless.” Understandably, it fractured the relationship between band and record company.
Liberty expressed an interest in Gregg Allman as a solo artist, and he remained in Los Angeles, while the rest of the group returned to St Louis, and disbanded by the end of August 1968.
Duane Allman travelled to Muscle Shoals in September, and asked FAME Studio owner Rick Hall for a job as a studio musician. Allman ended up playing on sessions by Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett.
Later in September 1968, Gregg and Duane Allman joined up in Daytona Beach in Florida. Both participated in recordings with a folk-rock band called 31st of February, later released on an album called Duane & Greg Allman.
MASTER OF MELODY
Sometime in the second half of 1968, Duane Allman discovered slide guitar playing, using the bottle of a Coricidin cough remedy. He studied records by the likes of blues and jazz greats like Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Kenny Burrell, Chuck Berry, and BB King, and later also Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.
When Allman developed his slide playing, he listened to a lot of blues harmonica playing, for example by Sonny Boy Williamson, and he imitated blues harmonica licks on the slide guitar. Allman also closely scrutinised the playing of jazz horn players. He listened to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for two years.
All these wide-ranging influences resulted in a unique guitar style, fluid and raw at the same time, with an immaculate sense of timing and articulation. Using standard tuning and a standard 351 celluloid pick for non-slide playing, and mostly open E and his fingers for slide playing, Allman was a master of melody. He developed melodies and his solos like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Allman could play fast, but also often used long lines, bending and playing with the pitch in an exceptionally smooth and subtle way. Manipulating feedback between his pickups and the speakers for sustain was part of his sound. Allman also was an excellent rhythm and acoustic guitarist.
BIRTH OF THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND
Allman played on many sessions at FAME studios, not always credited as he often just dropped in, but some of the more notable sessions were with Clarence Carter, Arthur Conley, Ronnie Hawkins Boz Scaggs, and King Curtis. On November 27th, 1968, he convinced Wilson Pickett to record a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Allman’s solo at the end of the track has become the stuff of legends.
As an aside, Wilson Pickett nicknamed Allman “Skyman” because he was reaching for the stars while playing, though another version of the story says that it was because Allman was always high. Skyman was combined with Allman’s other nickname, “dog,” because his strawberry blonde hair resembled that of an Afghan Hound. As a result Allman became known as to “Skydog.”
By the end of March 1968, Allman wanted more musical freedom, and he went over to Jacksonville where he started jam sessions with friends. With Gregg Allman’s arrival in Jacksonville later on, the first line-up of The Allman Brothers Band was in place. In addition to the brothers it featured Dickey Betts on lead guitar, Berry Oakley on bass guitar, and Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny ‘Jaimoe’ Johanson on drums.
The heavy two drummers and two lead guitarists line-up came to define the sound of the band, and was the result of Duane Allman having heard James Brown, the first bandleader with two drummers, and of his own overdubbing experiments in the studio resulting in two lead lines, sometimes doubling parts, sometimes playing harmonies.
On May 1st, the Allman Brothers Band moved to Macon, Georgia. Phil Walden, who had managed Otis Redding, was looking for a new act to take under his wing, and also to set up a new record label, Capricorn, that was to be distributed by Atlantic. Walden arranged for the band to record at Redwal Studio in Macon, which later became Capricorn Studio. Ten days later Atlantic bought Duane out of his contract with Rick Hall for $10.000. The contract was later sold on to Walden.
The Allman Brothers Band started to tour constantly touring and built up a formidable live reputation. Gregg also grew enormously into his role as lead singer, and as a song writer. In August, the band went to Atlantic Studio in New York for sessions for their self-titled first album, which was released on November 4, 1969. However, the album only reached to 188 in the Billboard Top 200.
Despite the lukewarm response, the album marked significant artistic progress, embodying the band’s Southern rock style, that integrated rock with blues, jazz and country. The band continued touring, and recorded their second album over several months in 1970. Idlewild South was released in September 1970. It didn’t do much better than its predecessor.
Despite the problems the band had in reaching a wide audience, Duane Allman’s reputation as a great guitarist was spreading around the world. This was illustrated by events in Miami around the time of the album’s release. The Allman Brothers performed a concert in the city on August 26, at the same time that Eric Clapton and Derek and the Dominos were recording there.
When Clapton learned that the guitarist on ‘Hey Jude’ was set to perform in town he came to the show. The two guitar stars met after the gig, hit it off, and Duane Allman ended up playing on eleven of the 14 tracks on Layla and Assorted Love Songs, including the title track.
For the rest of 1970 and much of 1971, the Allman Brothers Band continued with its relentless touring schedule. Given the band’s fearsome live reputation, it was a logical step to release a live album. Producer Tom Dowd and engineers Aaron Baron and Sam Whiteside therefore recorded two shows at the Fillmore East in New York on March 12-13, 1971, and the lightly edited results were released on the double album At Fillmore East.
The album stormed the charts after its release on July 6th, and became The Allman Brothers Band’s most successful release.
Over time, the stature of At Fillmore East has grown to it being regarded as one of the most influential live albums of all time. In 2004 the Library of Congress included it in its National Recording Registry, and it is regularly included in best albums of all time lists. In 2020, The Independent newspaper in the UK declared it “the greatest live album of them all.”
By the fall of 1971, The Allman Brothers Band and Skyman, or Skydog, were to all extends and purposes on top of the world. However, on October 29th tragedy struck. Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident, in Macon. He would have turned 25 a month later.
Everyone expected The Allman Brothers Band to throw in the towel, but they managed to create a follow-up album in honour of their fallen band member. Eat a Peach was released in February 1972, and named after the words of Duane Allman, “I eat a peach for peace.”
The album reached to number four on the Billboard album charts and went platinum. The success inspired the band to continue, and it remained active until 2014, barring two brief pauses. In addition to being a core member of the band, Gregg Allman also enjoyed a successful solo career, until his death of liver cancer in 2017, at the age of 69.
What his younger brother Duane achieved in his short life remains astonishing, and his guitar playing continues to inspire new generations of guitarists. More than fifty years after his passing his music is still able to transcend time, different generations and cultures. It’s an illustration of the power of music, and in these fractured times, it’s perhaps best to conclude with Allman’s own perspective on this.
“There are a lot of different forms of communication, but music is absolutely the purest. You can’t hurt anybody with music. You can maybe offend somebody with songs and words, but you cannot offend anyone with music—it’s just all good. There’s nothing at all that could ever be bad about music. It’s a wonderful thing, a grace.”
© 2022 Paul Tingen.
Watch below – Artists Who Changed Music: Duane Allman