The Allman Brothers: A Rock Tragedy

WHEN BERRY Oakley died two hours after crashing his motorcycle on November 11, another chapter was added to the succession of tragedy which seems to be stalking the Allman Brothers and their manager Phil Walden.

The Allmans record for Walden’s Capricorn Records, a label named after his birth-sign.

People into astrology might well hold that the tragic role is Walden’s fate, for, although 11 of his company’s first 14 album releases have made the American charts, three of his greatest artists and closest friends have met tragically early deaths.

Walden was Otis Redding’s manager and was especially hard hit when, in 1967, the soul giant and his backing band the Bar-Kays were wiped out in a plane crash.

Then just over a year ago Duane Allman, that maestro guitarist, died when he crashed from his motorcycle and was crushed under a truck.

“Being fortunate enough to know Otis would be enough to fill anyone’s lifetime, but I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with Duane Allman too. Just being around such talents is incredible but now, tragically, they are both gone.” That was how Phil Walden spoke of it then.

Now Berry Oakley has died too, his death a dreadful mirror of Allman’s. It was while returning from a visit to Oakley and his wife that Duane Allman was killed, dying of extensive injuries after twice being revived with the “kiss of life”.

Oakley’s accident on Napier Avenue in Macon, Georgia, the group’s home town – and that of Redding too – happened within a mile of the spot where Allman had crashed.

Like Allman, Oakley was alive when they picked him up. In fact, he even made it home and it was there that he collapsed and died of head injuries.

To heighten the horror, two of the band’s roadies had also been involved in serious motorcycle smashes just a few days earlier.

SO THE future of the Allman Brothers Band has an even bigger shadow hanging over it, at a time when it had just seemed to be recovering from the earlier blow of Duane’s death and the remoulding of their music which that had forced on them.

It was the solid bass-lines of Berry Oakley which had laid much of the basis to the rocking amalgam of Southern influences, country, rock and blues, which made them one of the most exciting and innovative American bands of the past few years – a band which reached its zenith with the now classic Live At Fillmore East set, released here on Atlantic, the label which at that time handled Capricorn’s American distribution.

Phil Walden had been the catalyst behind the Allman Brothers, having started out as an agent in his college days by booking Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers.

It was from that outfit that Otis Redding emerged to record ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ at a Stax session in Memphis and change the face of soul music.

After Otis died, Walden swore he would never get so close to an artist again. Then Duane Allman happened along.

“I was looking for a rock artist to record, then I heard the guitar-playing on Wilson Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and when Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler told me the musician concerned was a young white cat named Allman, I thought: ‘That’s the guy I want’. So I flew down to Muscle Shoals to sign him,” recalls Walden.

Allman had been working in Muscle Shoals as a session man for such artists as Aretha Franklin – that’s his playing on ‘The Weight’ – Pickett, Clarence Carter and others.

“Rick Hall had recorded one album featuring Duane as a solo artist but it was too R&B orientated to mean anything to white audiences at that time and Duane was never really much of a singer anyway, so we bought the tapes back off Rick and none of that stuff was ever issued anywhere. As it happens I’ve still got the master-tapes sitting on a shelf at home.

“After that disastrous attempt at an album, Duane was pretty depressed so he decided to slope off down to Florida and sort of semi-retire.

“Then one day Duane called me and said he was ready to get a band together and start working again. He’d taken Jai Johnny Jonson, the drummer, from Otis Redding’s road band.

“Greg Allman was still out in California where he too had just recorded a pretty disastrous album, so we flew him back to Macon, pulled in guitarist Dick Betts, percussionist and drummer Butch Trucks and Berry Oakley, who came from Chicago, and we had ourselves a band.

“We started marathon rehearsals and then, 11 months later, everyone felt the Allman Brothers Band was ready to go out and play gigs.

“They wound up playing some fantastic sets. Duane Allman pushed himself into everything he did, in his personal life, his recording, everything. He was so much like Otis Redding in that way, he possessed true genius.

“In fact, Duane was so good that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Dick Betts is also one of the greatest guitarists in rock today.

“The Allmans had more than just class though, they all lived for music and, you know, rock music has a big heart. The Allmans once cancelled out on three big-money gigs so they could do a charity show to raise funds for a young girl who needed a kidney transplant.

“Because of their unselfishness, someone else lived and that’s Duane’s finest testament really. It counts for even more than the memorable recordings he has left us.

“I think rock musicians could do far more. They’ve got a voice, they are in a position to do something positive to help improve the world, but these people who spout off about the ‘Revolution’ are doing nothing constructive.

“Duane would often ask them what they were doing in practical terms to help improve things. He always said we need evolution rather than revolution and he and the rest of the band always lived by that creed.”

APART FROM anything else, it was the sheer professionalism of the Allman Brothers which impressed Walden: “I like artists who really seek perfection, no matter how much sweat and worry has to go into finding it.

“Duane was like that. He’d work for hour after hour just ironing out the most negligible rough-spot. He’d never stop till he got it absolutely right. In that respect he was like Otis.

“Duane and Otis, they’d create a session. I remember Otis would walk into a studio with just a bare idea in his head, then he’d tell the drummer what to play, the guitarist what to play and so on.

“Redding had incredible energy. When anyone else would have passed out with exhaustion he’d go on working for another eight hours to get things perfect. Allman would do exactly the same.”

As for the depleted Allman Brothers’ future, nobody is quite sure what will happen. Just before Oakley’s death, Walden had been planning to put together an anthology of the band and its members taking in things like Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’ and Aretha’s ‘The Weight’ on which Duane Allman played.

“We’ve just switched distribution of Capricorn from Atlantic to Warner Brothers but they are part of the same group and, anyway, we’ve still got a very special and personal relationship with Atlantic and Jerry Wexler. So we had no trouble in obtaining their agreement to let us use these tracks,” Walden told me.

“There will also be some very early things which the brothers recorded as the Hour Glass before they signed to Liberty under that name, including a terrific medley of B. B. King numbers which Duane put together.”

© Roger St. PierreNew Musical Express, 9 December 1972

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