When I was about 14 – and at the peak of my guitar-loving “discovery” years, a devotee of Guitar Player magazine, as open to (and obsessed with) Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground as Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson – I remember watching a History of Rock doc which had a featurette around rock’n’roll guitar players. I watched this doco over and again – but sometimes I would just watch the couple of minutes where it ran through the usual suspects: Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Beck, Van Halen…
I knew most of the players mentioned, loved them all too, or at least the best of their work. But when it referenced Duane Allman something happened – there’s just this tiny moment of footage. Duane with his drooping face, as if the weight of his hair and moustache were pulling it down, is mid-solo. It’s impossible to know if we’re 20 seconds in or 20 minutes in, either way the midway mark is surely just approaching. And this is spiritual-peak stuff. Duane’s sound is swirling and spiralling. The Skydog sending it skyward. He might as well be Coltrane unfolding those sheets of sound, or Miles Davis unable to take the damn horn of out of his mouth. In those few seconds of footage that would always – and still, forever – send a shiver, raise the hairs – I can hear the very best of rock running away with blues.
I had heard of Duane Allman before I’d seen the clip. I knew The Allman Brothers Band, knew the sad story that Duane had been killed in a crash, wiped off his motorbike. He was young. The band had only just recorded its landmark Fillmore recording. I knew some of the music – but mostly I knew about Duane Allman for his Clapton connection, his playing on Layla. That was enough to make me know that I liked him. And then this clip sent me into a tailspin. It was years before I connected it up to the actual Fillmore album; to one of the longer pieces (Whipping Post) on that album. But it was somehow better – more meaningful, more gut-pulling – than any of the other clips of Eddie and Jeff and Jimmy doing their best to make the guitar talk, or sing or scream as part of this edited-package assembled for the documentary.
Then I started to read a bit more, and more importantly hear even more. New albums by the Allman Brothers Band (they continued on – 40 years now and more since Duane’s death) the clue to travel back. To find the “classic” line-up. To find the soul and heart of this music, of where it started.
I like the very best of the Allmans – absolutely. And even if you have no interest in the southern (boogie) rock they helped to author I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s a key part of the development of rock – in a guitar-showcase sense at least. The twin guitars of Allman and Dickey Betts, the shape given to jamming, to allowing the spirit of just playing – and playing – to take over, to allow looseness within song structures, and yet to still bring ‘songs’ to the table. There was also – in Duane, and in the band that carried on after him – a pretty impressive knowledge of blues players and playing.
Even if you don’t care at all about The Allman Brothers Band – and it’s my suggestion that you should at least hear two or three of their key recordings (At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach, bare minimum, the self-titled debut too – and maybe on after Duane for at least Brothers and Sisters) – Duane Allman had an incredible track record as session player. There are so many highlights.
I’m working through them again now with the 7-disc box-set, Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective. Oh boy, is this ever something. A handily assembled Everything!
All that Allman Bros. stuff – and most of it is remarkable. But Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley and Aretha Franklin, Willie Walker and King Curtis are all on the box too. And Duane is on some of their very best stuff. There’s also cuts with Lulu, Ronnie Hawkins, Delaney & Bonnie, all these icons and footnotes, all these legends and just when you have him pegged as a blues/soul guy only he’s there playing with The Grateful Dead, or Laura Nyro, tracks too with Otis Rush and Boz Scaggs. And then there’s the stuff with The Hour Glass, the early bar-room band where he and brother Gregg cut their teeth, all Muscle Shoals and Nitty Gritty styled and shaped.
There’s so much there – but if you only heard The Allmans’ doing Whipping Post or Statesboro Blues that should almost be enough.
Then make sure you hear the Wilson Pickett version of The Beatles’ Hey Jude.
It has such a great feel. It’s far better than the original. It’s one of the best cover songs you could ever hear. That’s a young Duane Allman not guesting, simply working.
What I’ve come to admire most, with time, with hearing all of this stuff crammed into a short space, just a small handful of years ultimately, is that Duane Allman was simply prepared to work. There was a hunger. There was a need. A love. A great passion for playing – and for knowing that doing these sessions would enable him.
That’s why when you see that clip of him anchored by his own moustache but head still tilted skyward, the Skydog hunting out a new space to play in, as the notes can’t stay on the freboard long, nor can they circle only in his head forever, you can see, and hear, and feel that Fillmore material with The Allman Brothers Band as being his payoff. His chance to shine. To really soar.
And then he was dead at 24.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.