“I ain’t on no star trip man…”
- Duane Allman on ducking photo shoots
While Duane Allman may not have set out intentionally for a star trip, his tragically quick journey took him right into the heart of one. In what has become a terribly common theme in rock and roll’s history, Duane Allman rose from the shadows as a session player to become a rock icon only to disappear just a quickly in calamity. Yet what he left behind is a legacy of guitar work that both amazes and inspires countless of music fans and guitar players well beyond his generation. As a group, The Allman Brothers Band were the ultimate American rock band in 1970. They were the proto-type Southern Rock band that spawned an entire genre of music. The Allman Brothers were, and still are, a powerful band that have their feet planted firmly in the blues and jazz and yet effortlessly manage to morph their music into a raw southern sound. A warm and gritty sound that hits the ear like Georgia humidity hits the back of your neck in August.
And the ex-facto ringleader of the Allman Brothers Circus during those heady early days was the guitar genius that was Duane Allman.
Duane was born (Howard Duane Allman) on November 20th, 1946 in Nashville, TN a year before his brother Greg. The family relocated to Florida while the boys were still children after their father had been murdered by a hitchhiker while serving in the Korean War in the Army. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Greg explained how the pair came to the guitar. Greg came across a neighbor who used to sit on his front porch playing an acoustic. The neighbor let him pick at it a bit and Greg became entranced with the instrument. He got a paper route and saved up enough to buy a Sears Belltone acoustic and with the aid of a Mel-Bay lessons books began to teach himself the guitar. As siblings often do, they fought over the guitar eventually leading their mother to purchase a Gibson Les-Paul Junior for Duane. While growing up in Daytona Beach, the boys would go back to Nashville in the summers to stay with their grandmother. While in Nashville, the boys attended a concert held by blues icon B.B. King that served as a mammoth inspiration for the pair. There is a story circulating that while at the concert that Duane turned to Greg and said ‘We gotta get into this.”
Duane took to the guitar quickly and it didn’t take long for him to eclipse his brothers’ skill with the instrument. He took to it so hard that he decided to drop out of high school to stay at home and focus on his guitar playing skills. (Once when asked in an interview how he got so good at playing, he responded, hopefully jokingly, that he dropped speed for three years straight and did nothing but practice).
By 1961 the brothers started playing publically on the Florida club scene with a variety of local outfits. By 1965 (the same year Greg graduated from Seabreeze High School) they had formed The Allman Joys that began to tour the southeast. In 1967 the brothers and their small band re-located to Los Angeles where they became The Hour Glass and signed with Liberty Records. The band released two rather forgettable albums, 1967’s Hour Glass and 1968’s The Power Of Love. (The Hour Glass’s first public gig was opening for The Doors at the Hullabaloo Club in L.A.)
There is a un-substantiated story that how Duane came to play slide guitar as a result of Greg dropping off some medication and a copy of Taj Mahal’s debut album when Duane was sick. The story goes on to say that Greg dropped off the pills and album and left. Two hours later he received a call from Duane asking him to come back over. When he arrived, he found that Duane had poured all the pills out of the bottle, removed the label and was playing Mahal’s version of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’. ‘Duane had never played slide before,” said Greg, “he just picked it up and started burning”.
After the second Hour Glass album was completed (and not performing well at all on the charts), the brothers wanted to walk away from the contract they had with Liberty. The management suits were willing to let them go but threatened them with a lawsuit over a $40,000 debt they owed to the label. They worked it out by insisting that Greg stay and release another disc for Liberty. The rest of the band returned to Florida.
While in Florida, Duane was offered a chance to work play on a Wilson Pickett session at Muscle Shoals Studios. As a result of that work, Duane was hired on to as a session guitarist at the Shoals. While working at the famed studio, Duane performed on recordings for artists like Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Laura Nyro, Otis Rush, Percy Sledge, Boz Scaggs and Delaney and Bonnie. He even lent his chops to jazz musician Herbie Mann.
After a few months at Muscle Shoals Duane returned to Jacksonville where the nucleus of the Allman Brothers Band formed. Duane called Greg in L.A. and explained what he was doing and suggested that Greg join them and take up the vocal duties (along with the keyboards). By the spring of 1969, the Allman Brother Band had come together. Greg joked in the same Rolling Stone interview noted above that the band was going to go to Woodstock to watch the concert but decided against it saying they didn’t want to deal with the traffic.
The band relocated to Macon, Georgia (the place that has become identifiable with the band). The band recorded their debut album, The Allman Brothers in 1969 in New York City. The album sold well in the southern United States but did not chart nationally. But their second album, Idlewild South (named after the house in which they were living in Macon) brought them national attention by charting on the Billboard charts.
While playing a date in Miami in 1970, Duane had a chance to meet Eric Clapton. Clapton (he had just started recording the Derek and the Dominos record in Miami) had wanted to meet with Allman for quite some time and the meeting brought the pair together that night leading them work together on the Layla and Assorted Love Songs recording (which to many may be one of the finest examples of guitar oriented rock from that period). Duane’s slide work on that recording continues to hold up as a great example of what made Duane Allman a legendary guitarist.
Over two days in March 1971, The Allman Brothers Band recorded their concert at the Fillmore East in New York City. That recording became a classic rock and roll recording showing the Allman Brothers at their absolute peak up to that point and set the table for what could be expected from the brothers going forward.
Three months after the release of the Fillmore recording, fate intervened when Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon. On October 29th, 1971, Duane hopped on his Harley Sportster and began down the road. A truck hauling lumber and a lumber crane made a left turn in front of him. In an effort to avoid the collision, Duane turned the bike sharply to the left but ended up striking the back of the truck. He was thrown from the bike that came down on top of him. He died a few hours later as a result of massive internal injuries. He was 24 years old.
The Allman Brothers have continued on since Duane’s death with incredible successes over the year. But to many you can still feel the empty spot in their recordings and performances that were once filled by Duane. In the same vein as Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix, it’s hard to imagine what they would have accomplished had they lived on beyond their short time.
We know precious little about Duane as he was a relatively shy man who went out of his way to avoid the press and photographs. But what has been placed on his tombstone seems to sum up his life in a few short sentences.
“I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love where I find it and I will offer it to everyone who will take it … seek knowledge from those wiser … and teach those who wish to learn from me.’
image: By Ed Berman (Duane Allman - Fillmore East - 6/26/71) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
, via Wikimedia Commons