“THIS AIN’T NO fashion show,” Duane Allman liked to say. “We came here to play.” It was a mission statement that summed up what his band was about. It said: Take us as you find us, six southern dudes in denim and centre-parted hair, playing churchy white soul and home-cooked rock’n’blues on Hammond organs and Fender basses and Gibson Les Paul guitars. Ain’t no make-up round these parts.
Like his baby brother Gregg, Duane had been through a bogus Hollywood pop-star trip and come out the other end determined never again to be guinea pigs for someone else’s hype. Adhering almost fanatically to a purist vision of what came to be classified as “Southern Rock”, Brother Duane was nothing less than an evangelist. “This is a religion we’re spreadin’,” he would say of tours by the Allman Brothers Band.
“Duane didn’t have to speak twice,” wrote legendary Allmans roadie Red Dog in his Book of Tails (2001). “He was the leader. He was, and no disrespect intended, like our Jesus Christ. We followed him and his word.”
Duane Allman was a skinny peckerwood kid with ginger-blond hair and Furry Freak Brothers mutton chops, but when he jammed a bottleneck on his left middle guitar and burned up the frets on his sunburst Gibson he could sear your soul with the livid intensity of his touch. Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin discovered this when he played on sessions for them in Muscle Shoals and New York, and so did Eric Clapton when he asked the Pickett-dubbed “Skyman” to sit in on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Stories. Brother Duane it was who cooked up the immortal twelve-note phrase which that album’s title track so urgently needed.
“He’d always work standing up, and he had to have his amplifier turned wide open,” remembered Rick Hall, who hired Allman to play on the session that produced the Wicked Pickett’s version of ‘Hey Jude’. “He’d have the phones on and couldn’t hear the strength coming out the amp and it’d be jumping off the table. Like the bottleneck in Clarence Carter’s ‘Road of Love’ – you’d swear the world was coming to an end. He only did that particular break one time, it was a first take. He said, ‘That’s all I want to do. I’ll never feel it again.’”
Maybe Duane Allman knew he didn’t have a lot of time for second takes. Three years later, with just three Allman Brothers albums under his belt, he was dead.
“It’s really hard for me to believe that what we accomplished with Duane happened in two years – beginning to end,” says Butch Trucks, one of the Allmans’ two drummers and only one of three original members left in the band today. “I still think of him as bein’ here. He had the most profound impact on my life of ever person I’ve ever known.”
Allman’s impact wasn’t just felt by the brother and the band members he left behind, either. His ghost haunts the whole history of southern rock, from the sorrow-drenched homage that was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ through the Georgia rock’n’soul of the Black Crowes to the North Mississippi Allstars and the darkly funny new Drive-By Truckers album Southern Rock Opera.
Just as it lit the way for all the Skynyrds and Wet Willies of the ‘70s, so the Skyman’s spirit infuses the music of contemporary southern bands like Widespread Panic, the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies and Allmans offshoot Gov’t Mule. Duane was the walkin’, talkin’ embodiment of New Southern Manhood – the original Longhaired Redneck, the Righteous Brother of blue-eyed blues and moonshine soul.
“Duane Allman was probably more shook after seeing Easy Rider than Jack Newfield or Albert Goldman,” wrote Jerry Wexler, the man who put him together with manager and Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden. Anyone who recalls the climax of that 1969 countercultural classic, wherein Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are shot dead by a couple of grinning good ole boys, will understand what Wexler meant.
“We got into some close ones,” says Baby Brother Gregg, thinking back to the days when black drummer Jaimoe had just joined the Allman Brothers. “There were places we’d get turned away from eatin’: ‘What’re you guys doin’ with a nigger in the band?’”
Thus the Allman Brothers, the original southern hippies, started it all, playing righteous R&B with hair down to their asses, spreading their musical gospel of sonic integration coast to coast with a retinue of roadies and groupies in tow. They owned New York’s Fillmore East and cut a classic live album there. They tore up the Boston Tea Party with their harrowing treatment of T-Bone Walker’s ‘Stormy Monday’. They soothed Philly’s Electric Factory with Dickey Betts’ dreamy instrumental ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’.
But that was before Duane died, and before Brother Berry Oakley, on the bass, followed spookily – almost literally – in his tracks. After those terrible losses – losses too deep for such young men to bear – the Allman Brothers unravelled on the grand scale. And the greater their success, the deeper their pain. Drugs, firings, lawsuits, further deaths – just one more Behind The Music special for your vicarious titillation.
Roadie Red Dog wonders to this day just how wise Duane was when he originally named his band Beelzebub.
“Looking back over the years, there seemed to be this cloud over us,” the Dog wrote one dark day in 1994. “Everything that happened just made us stronger and stronger until this day, when the chips are down and dirty, and we’re at the bottom of one of those friggin’ traps. But the Brotherhood will pull together, tighter and tighter each time.”
THE BROTHERS Allman were born in post-war Nashville, Tennessee, Duane (1946) preceding Gregg (1947) by scarcely more than a year. Tragedy hit them while they were still toddlers: on leave from the Korean War in December 1949, the boys’ father was murdered by a hitchhiker he’d picked up, leaving his wife Geraldine to raise Duane and Gregg on her own.
Tough and resourceful, “Mama A” – a revered figure among fans to this day – went to school to become a CPA, enrolling her boys at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. “Somebody suggested that she put us in an orphanage,” remembered Gregg. “She politely told ‘em to fuck off.” In 1958, in search of better work, Mama moved south to Daytona Beach, Florida – partytown USA.
In Daytona, said Duane, “white cats surfed and black cats played music”. In November 1960, after saving up money from a paper round, little Gregg Allman invested the princely sum of $21.95 in a guitar at Sears, Roebuck. Meanwhile Big Bro, in a harbinger of things of come, put money down on a Harley 165. Yet it was Duane who, dropping out of Sea Breeze Senior High School, mastered the art of rock’n’roll guitar.
“Duane was very, very intelligent,” says Gregg today. “He either had his head in a book, his arm around a woman, or his arm round his guitar. Those were the three things he did, and they were pretty much all he did.”
By 1963, with Gregg shifting to keyboards, the brothers were playing Chuck Berry and Hank Ballard covers in a mixed-race band called the House Rockers. “That’s when the trouble started in the family,” Gregg told Cameron Crowe. “’Goin’ to play with them niggers again?’ We had to turn my mother on to the blacks. Took awhile, but now she’s totally liberated.”
Like every other hip kid south of Mason-Dixie, the Allmans soaked up the blues, R&B and soul they heard on Nashville’s WLAC station. “That was the truth and light for sure,” Duane recalled with the fervour of a convert. Nor were the brothers deaf to the new sounds – from the Beatles to the Yardbirds – reaching them from across the waters. “My brother was a real big fan of Jeff Beck’s,” says Gregg. “I remember when we first heard ‘Over, Under, Sideways, Down’, he said, ‘Man, is this guy playin’ with thimbles on his left hand?!’”
In the summer of ’65, Duane and Gregg took it up a notch. They formed the Allman Joys, one of the tightest, toughest outfits on the Florida circuit. “They were the best thing I’d ever heard,” says Johnny Sandlin, whose Alabama-based band the Five Minutes found themselves playing in Pensacola the same night. “The Allman Joys played Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers songs, but they played them better than the Yardbirds and Bluebreakers did.”
Spotted at one club by Joe Tex’s Nashville-based manager Buddy Killen, the Joys signed to his Dial label and released what Duane himself admitted was “a terrible psychedelic rendition” of Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’. But it was in Nashville that they reconnected with Sandlin, whose Five Minutes had just been deserted by singer Eddie Hinton. “They were a strong outfit,” Gregg remembered. “It all fell together and we started cooking.”
A 1967 gig by the new band at Peppy’s a Go Go in St. Louis proved to be another watershed moment: in the crowd was Nitty Gritty Dirt Band manager Bill McEuen, who told the band afterwards he could get them signed to Liberty in LA – provided they came out to La-la land. Gregg had his doubts, but the thought of blondes in convertibles was enough to persuade them.
They quickly realised they’d made a horrible mistake. Rechristened the Hour Glass by a company that had no understanding or appreciation of the Joys’ musical roots, the group – Duane, Gregg, Sandlin (drums), Paul Hornsby (keyboards), Mabron McKinney (bass) and Jesse Williard Carr (guitar) – reluctantly colluded with their makeover into a psychedelic southern Rascals. Playing blue-eyed pop soul midway between Dusty In Memphis and bad Box Tops, the sextet was stashed in grotty motels and togged out in comical flower-power togs.
“I don’t think the company really knew what the hell we were,” Paul Hornsby told me in 1985. “They kept calling us a Motown band, just because it sounded black. They didn’t know anything about the southern black R&B scene.”
“My brother said, ‘Screw y’all, I’m outta here’,” Gregg remembers. “And they said, ‘Well, that’s okay if Gregg stays and sings with our studio band’. And I did stay, and my brother was really mad at me. But right before he left Hollywood, on his birthday – November 20th, 1968 – I took him a bottle of pills for a cold he had, plus a copy of the first Taj Mahal album with Jesse Ed Davis playin’ slide. Well, about three hours later he called me and said, ‘Baby brother, git over here.’ And he’d dumped all the pills out of the bottle, washed the label off, and was playin’ bottleneck. The next time I saw him, he was just burnin’. It really put a new charge in him. He entered a new musical universe.”
DUANE ALLMAN had barely gotten home when a telegram arrived from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, asking him to come play on a session at the illustrious Fame studio. Studio boss Rick Hall had remembered Duane’s playing from a one-off Hour Glass date and wanted to spice up a Wilson Pickett session.
“Rick liked my playing a lot,” Allman recalled of the 27 November date that produced Pickett’s hit version of ‘Hey Jude’. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just go home and get your gear and move up here?’ So I rented me a little cabin, lived alone on this lake, with big windows looking right out on the water. I just sat there and played to myself and got used to living without a bunch of jive Hollywood crap in my head.”
“Duane’s whole career spun off that Pickett session,” said Muscle Shoals rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson. “It’s amazing how one incident, one session, can change a person’s life.”
“I used Duane as a session player with virtually everyone,” Jerry Wexler wrote in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues. “He was always more than a sideman or soloist; he had the mind of a producer and would come up with scores of righteous suggestions…”
Wexler figured Duane Allman wouldn’t stay a sideman for long, which was why he alerted his friend Phil Walden to the guitarist. Walden, who’d built up the biggest stable of soul acts in the south on the back of managing Otis Redding, was intrigued – particularly when he got wind of the band Skyman was forming down in Jacksonville, Florida.
By March 1969, Skyman had the framework for his new southern rock vision: Berry Oakley on bass, country boy Dickey Betts on second guitar, and Butch Trucks and Jai Johnny Johanson (“Jaimoe”) on drums. All that was missing, once Eddie Hinton had turned him down, was a singer. Time, then, to swallow the ol’ pride and summon baby brother back from La-la land. A single jam session in Jacksonville was enough to convince everyone involved.
Come summer ’69, bankrolled by Phil Walden, the group moved to Macon, Georgia. Home was a two-room crash pad at 309 College Street. “We threw some mattresses on the floor,” says Butch Trucks. “We’d come in after rehearsing, take some Psilocybin and play stickball in the main room at four in the morning. I think the only reason we stayed alive was that we were so goddamn weird that nobody knew what the hell to do about us.”
Settling for the name the Allman Brothers Band after junking the inauspicious Beelzebub, the entourage soon proved popular with local lovelies. According to the Dog, the first orgy at 309 College Street occurred the night after the band posed naked in the late Otis Redding’s creek for the gatefold sleeve of their debut album on Phil Walden’s Capricorn label.
For Walden the Allmans represented a new, enlightened Southern pride – the same pride that tickled northerners like Wexler. (“The phenomenon,” Phil told writer Frye Gaillard, “is that people are remaining in southern communities to record and perform.”) For all the band’s subsequent bitterness towards him over the bad deals they signed, Walden believed in them enough to keep them on the road through two disappointing sellers, The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South.
“They can say what they want to about Phil, but he went out on a limb for them,” says Johnny Sandlin. “I had the greatest respect for Atlantic Records, but they didn’t think they could sell this band. And Phil pushed it through.”
“We just said, Screw you,” says Butch Trucks. “We had found this religion. The epitome was when we opened for Iggy and the Stooges in Detroit, and when we got up and played, maybe 15 or 20 of those kids got it; the rest of ‘em just stood there with their mouths open. And it was one of the best shows we played on that tour. We had this capacity, if the crowd wasn’t into it, to just drop this barrier between us and them.”
The orneriness paid off as the Allmans became, in Phil Walden’s words, a true “people’s band”. Like the Grateful Dead, with whom they shared several stages, they brought the rock’n’roll tribes together, often playing for free when they didn’t have paying gigs set up. Favourites from the first two albums – Dickey’s ‘Elizabeth Reed’, Gregg’s epic ‘Whipping Post’ – became staples of a set that was all about returning to primal American roots after the late ‘60s years of mind-warped psychedelia.
Twin drums, twin drums, a gospel organ and a roaring, gravelly monster of a voice dredged from the bowels of the south’s subconscious – ladies and gennelmen, the Allman Brothers! The band played nearly 500 dates in two years, travelling in a Winnebago that doubled as a mobile bordello.
Through Atlantic staffer Tom Dowd, who produced 1970’s Idlewild South, Duane Allman connected with another of his heroes. Learning that Dowd was working at Criteria in Miami on Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos project, Duane dropped strong hints that he’d love to drop by. Next thing he knew, he was an honorary Domino.
“I went down to listen, and Eric knew me, man, greeted me like an old friend,” Allman gushed. “The cat is really a prince — he said, ‘Come on, you got to play on this record’ — and so I did.” Some of Skyman’s finest playing can be heard on the Layla versions of blues staples like ‘Key To The Highway’ and ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’.
Back in Macon, Duane and the Allmans lent their services to Johnny Jenkins’ Capricorn album Ton Ton Macoute, a swamp-rock classic by a man who’d inspired Jimi Hendrix and hired the young Otis Redding to be his singer. Imagine Dr. John’s Gris Gris transplanted to the pine forests of Georgia.
“Johnny lived down where they made what they called stump liquor, and the guy had drank so much, why he’s still alive I don’t know,” says Gregg. “I remember drinkin’ with him one time and he spit out this big hunk o’ blood. So he just swallowed some ice cubes real fast and said it didn’t feel so bad.”
The Allmans weren’t in such great shape themselves. Class A substances had made their inevitable entry into the brothers’ lives, and Duane’s exposure to the heroin use around Clapton and the Dominos didn’t help.
“The only big run-in Duane and I ever had was about drugs,” says Gregg. “In the beginning, I don’t know, I guess somebody turned me on, and then I turned him on. And it got real crazy, and pretty soon the whole band was doin’ it. Right there in Macon, Georgia.”
FEW MORE definitive notes exist in the Allmans’ repertoire than the ones that open their live version of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’, captured in mid-March 1971 at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York.
The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East remains the key Allmans artefact: with its Jim Marshall cover portrait of the group in front of their amplifier cases, the double album underscored the point that this was first and foremost a road band.
Somewhere between Cream’s Wheels of Fire and the Dead’s “skull and roses” live double – between blues pain and free-festival jam – Fillmore East is all about interplay. “There was really a certain degree of telepathy, because we created a lot of things right on the stage,” Dickey Betts later said. Another generous helping of this telepathy can be found on the extended treatment of Donovan’s ‘There Is A Mountain’, aka ‘Mountain Jam’, on Eat A Peach, the album the Allmans began in the summer of ’71.
Brother Duane would never see Peach’s completion. Taking a brief sabbatical from the group’s relentless touring schedule, he spent the early part of October detoxing from heroin before chilling out back in Macon. On the night of 28 October, with Fillmore East in the Top 10 on the album chart, Skyman spoke to Red Dog. “We got it made now,” he told his favourite roadie. “We’re on our way. Ain’t gonna be no more beans for breakfast.”
The next afternoon, Skyman stopped by Berry Oakley’s house to wish the bassist’s wife, Linda, a happy birthday. Leaving shortly before 6 pm, he swerved to avoid an oncoming truck, skidded and flipped over before being dragged for fifty feet along the street. Internal injuries killed him after three hours of emergency surgery. He was 24 years old.
The shock decimated the band and its extended family. Mac Rebennack’s wife Lorraine, who flew down for the funeral with her husband and Jerry Wexler, called it “sad beyond anything I had ever experienced”. Wex gave a grief-choked eulogy.
“Right at the beginning it was incomprehensible, and unacceptable,” says Butch Trucks. “But I guess humans have a way of denying the fact, and blocking it out. We actually were gonna take about six months off and think about what to do next, but after about two or three weeks we were all goin’ stark ravin’ bonkers. And for musicians the only way to heal is to go play music.”
Just how much the band healed is a matter of conjecture. “At that time, at our age, we didn’t really know how to grieve,” says Johnny Sandlin. “Most of us had not lost many people, and a lot of us didn’t grieve properly.”
Hardest hit of all was Berry Oakley, for whom Duane had been a virtual mentor. “It absolutely destroyed him,” says Butch Trucks. “The next year, for the whole year, he was just a zombie – always just completely fucked up and unable to deal with life.”
Almost a year to the day after Duane’s crash, and a mere three blocks from the site of that accident, Oakley slammed his motorcycle into the side of a Macon city bus, dying hours later of a brain concussion. He too was 24. “As much as I hate to say this,” says Trucks, “Berry’s death was almost a relief, ‘cause it put him out of his pain.” With keyboardist Chuck Leavell already added to the lineup, Oakley’s place was taken by Lamar Williams.
The dynamic of the Allman Brothers Band had already changed irrevocably. “Duane was a very strong leader,” Phil Walden told me in 1985. “After he died there was a real struggle between Dickey Betts, who leaned very strongly toward country, and Gregg, who probably found country music offensive.” One can hear this tussle on Brothers and Sisters, the 1973 album that represented the group’s efforts to pull together in the wake of its double tragedy – most obviously in the tepid country rock of Betts’ ‘Ramblin’ Man’, a huge hit single.
“You get a hint of ‘Ramblin’ Man’ on Eat A Peach with ‘Blue Sky’,” says Johnny Sandlin, who produced Brothers and Sisters. “Generally their harmonies had been very pentatonic and blues-based, and when Dickey wrote ‘Ramblin’ Man’ it was very major, very up-sounding, and it took a while to enjoy that.”
“After Brothers and Sisters, it did become less of the Allman Brothers Band and more of the Dickey Betts Band,” admits Butch Trucks. “It came to where he wasn’t just leading us but to where he was dominating us. And most of that was our fault: we were so fucked up, he was the only one doing anything.”
The internal friction did little to stop the Allmans becoming one of the biggest acts in mid-‘70s America. (With the Dead and the Band, they were one of the three groups to play 1973’s Watkins Glen, the 600,000-strong gathering in upstate New York.) Not for nothing were they one of the principal inspirations for Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
“After Berry’s death, it just got completely out of control,” says Butch Trucks. “After Brothers and Sisters came out, all hell broke loose. All of a sudden we’re flyin’ around in these goddamn chartered planes, and everybody’s got their own hotel suites… and everybody’s fucked up 24 hours a day. Women everywhere, cocaine everywhere. We absolutely lost sight of what we were all about. In Bill Graham’s book, he says he remembers the night the Allmans pulled up to Madison Square Garden and each one of them had their own limousine, and he said that’s the end of the Allman Brothers right there. That was when we lost that brotherhood – we became these fucking rock stars, we became what we had despised at the beginning.”
“I remember certain high spots, but what I really remember is bein’ afraid a lot,” admits Gregg. “I don’t know, when my brother went… you never know how much you’re leanin’ on somebody ‘til they die. And that pissed me off with myself, and pissed me off with him for dyin’. It was just a whole circus of changes, man.”
With both Gregg and Dickey tentatively embarking on solo careers – Gregg’s with 1973’s Laid Back, featuring a soulfully reworked ‘Midnight Rider’ – the Allman Brothers became less fraternal with each passing year. Win, Lose or Draw (1975), cut during a year of fundraising gigs for Phil Walden’s pal Jimmy Carter, was the sound of stagnation.
“By the time we got to Win, Lose or Draw, there wasn’t much togetherness left,” concedes Johnny Sandlin. “It was the hardest and most frustrating album I’ve ever produced. Dickey didn’t wanna start recording till late, or Gregg would show up two hours late. You could never get a quorum. The original name of the band Sea Level, the side project formed by Chuck and Lamar, was Waiting For Gregg.”
It didn’t help that a bunch of other southern rock acts – notably Lynyrd Skynyrd, but also ZZ Top, the Outlaws, .38 Specials and others – were stealing the Allmans’ thunder. Next to Skynyrd’s feisty Ronnie Van Zant, standing up for ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in a good-humoured vendetta against Neil Young, Gregg was a sad spectacle, ditched by girlfriend Cher after nodding out in his food one too many times.
Red Dog: “In 1976, we were back on the road, but things were getting worse with the Allman Brothers. It was more messed up than ever and trickling down to the road crew… There was a lot of pressure. We were arguing among ourselves, and there was trouble brewing deep.”
When Gregg chose that year to testify against Scooter Herring, a road manager who’d been dealing drugs, it derailed the band. Two years later the Allmans reunited, with Leavell and Williams axed, for Enlightened Rogues. There was little to suggest that it – or many of the albums and tours that followed sporadically in the ‘80s – was motivated by anything other than money.
“I went into a big slump for years and years,” admits Gregg. “I came out of it briefly with ‘I’m No Angel’ in the ‘80s, but then I stopped writing altogether. Not purposely, but there was nothing there. My spirit was just kinda broken.”
Although embraced by a new generation of Deadheads and tie-dyed jam-band fans – their annual run of shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre is now the stuff of rock legend – Baby Brother barely made it to the end of the ‘90s. Fittingly, perhaps, his rock bottom arrived the night the Allmans were inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, in early 1995.
“When Willie Nelson brought us up on stage, he turned to me and said, ‘You alright, boy?’ And I said, ‘Willie, I am not alright.’ I was about to fall down, I was so fucked up. I went into rehab the next day. And I did it this time.”
Five years later, with Gregg and Butch and various other members of the Allmans entourage in recovery, another original member was in trouble – Dickey Betts, whose drinking and drugging were badly affecting his playing. For Gregg, it was time (or a convenient excuse) to yank out “the bad tooth”.
“Now it’s back to like it was when my brother was there,” claims Baby Brother, beaming about the new album the band recently finished recording in Hoboken. “You just can’t have all that crap goin’ on and plan on gettin’ anything accomplished as far as creation goes. When all this happened, it lit up off me like I’d been cured of some terrible disease. And I tell you what, there ain’t a whiff o’ country in it anymore.”
Others are unconvinced by the rationalisations. “I would pose the question, ‘What in hell do you have to do to get kicked out of the Allman Brothers Band?!’” guffaws Johnny Sandlin. “I don’t see how on earth Gregg can sit there and put Dickey down. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!”
Last word, as the group readies itself for another long slog on the road that never ends, goes to a born peacemaker.
“I do not want to, in any way, shape or form, denigrate Dickey Betts,” says Butch Trucks. “When it comes to melodic rock’n’roll guitar, no one has ever done it like Dickey did. But I think what happened is that, little by little, the rest of us came to our senses, and now it’s back.
“Right now I am just so happy about Gregg. I’ve known him for 35 years, and it’s only in the past three years that I could even sit and talk to him. Two years ago I thought the Allmans were over. And now I think we’ve just finished the best record we ever made.”
Many thanks to Bert Holman, Kirk West, Kandia Crazy Horse, Mark Kemp, Alan Paul and Andy Schwartz
© Barney Hoskyns, MOJO, December 2002