The Allman Brothers Band: 40 Years Out
This is a band whose driving energy attracts rock audiences, but they also have enough blues, jazz, and gospel influences to appeal to more discerning tastes. One can think of the Allman Brothers as a gateway band, once an audience is hooked, it's easier for them to move on to the harder stuff. Indeed, the enthusiastic reception given to jazz musicians who sit in with the Allman Brothers is an indication that smooth jazz isn't the only way to reach a wider audience.
British blues/rock groups such as Clapton's Cream, famous for extended jams, provided an important starting point for the original members of the Allman Brothers, but there were a couple of important differences.
First, they began as relative unknowns and didn't approach music as the creme de la creme, competing with one another for the spotlight. Instead, they saw themselves as a brotherhood who served the music.
Secondly, many of their British counterparts tended to be serious aficionados of the blues. The purists, groups like Chicken Shack, did their best to replicate a sound that reached them via records from an exotic place across the ocean. By contrast, Gregg and Duane only had to cross the railroad tracks to hear the blues, a point that was driven home at the Beacon this year when Gregg introduced Floyd Miles, a friend from his adolescence, who was a local musician in Daytona Beach and mentor to him and Duane.
With the exception of Berry Oakley from Chicago, these were young Southerners who had naturally absorbed the music that surrounded them. They picked up what was going on in local clubs and churches, and they grew up with the 50,000 watt powerhouse WLAC in Nashville. At night between Royal Crown Hair Dressing commercials that promised "radiant obedience," young cats all over the South listened to WLAC to hear the latest R&B and blues records. For the Allman Brothers there was also Jaimoe, a veteran musician who had been on the road for years with acts such as Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, who gradually turned his somewhat younger bandmates on to his love of jazz. They began their careers covering the British invasion, but as they entered their twenties their skills and tastes were maturing. As the Allman Brothers Band they collectively began to do what came naturally and this aggregation of the music of the South became their unmistakable sound.
The Allman Brothers' Southern fusion was indeed something different. Musicians like Miles and Herbie Hancock incorporated the energy, excitement and beat of rock into their sound, using plenty of electronics to achieve something new and modern. The Allman Brothers took a different approach, they looked backward and away from technology. Eschewing synthesizers and guitar effects, they choose instead the electromagnetic Hammond B3 and other vintage gear, and sought inspiration in the golden age of jazz and blues.
This is an admittedly simplistic analogy, but imagine an American football field. One end is represented by edgy driving energy, heat and passion, a raw aggressiveness, and a simple directness. The other end stands for sophistication, complexity and virtuosity. The Allman Brothers often played around their own 40 yard line, 60 yards away from the golden age of jazz. The jazz fusion groups started at the other end of the field and moved 40 yards up field. These two approaches to fusion are separated by 20 yards, similar, but still on different sides of the field.
The Allman Brothers themselves would be the first to admit that their level of skill and understanding is no match for the great jazz fusion artists, but they did have one fundamental advantage. It's extremely difficult to unlearn technique, thus a opera singer, despite vocal gifts, would be hard pressed to match John Lennon's vocal on a simple song like "Twist and Shout," or Etta James' vocal on "At Last." Similarly, not every jazz musician can tap into what's going on in rock, and few rock musicians are comfortable in jazz. That's part of the Allman Brothers Band's contribution to modern music. Because they are capable of playing close to midfield, they've moved their fans with them in the direction of more demanding music. Moreover, something special seems to happen when players like Branford Marsalis and Randy Brecker crossover and join them on the rock side of the field.
During this year's 40th anniversary at the Beacon, every appearance included a tribute to Duane, a.k.a Skydog. He was a true alpha male, with a take-charge personality, an undeniable personal magnetism, and a record label in Macon, Ga., willing to gamble on his potential. In some ways the current band is an ongoing tribute to the band Duane founded when he was 22 years old. Beginning in March of 1969, his brief two years and seven months as the band's leader have left an indelible mark, even after the passage of nearly four decades.
After years as a teenager playing the Southern circuit covering radio hits, followed by a brief and thoroughly dreadful experience in Los Angeles with a label that used its contract as a straitjacket, he landed in Muscle Shoals, Ala., as a popular session player at FAME Studios. His playing on sessions with people like Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, John Hammond, King Curtis and Wilson Pickett would prove to be pivotal in landing a recording contract.
Beyond his guitar skills and innovative use of the slide guitar, Duane had a compelling artistic vision. He was eager to explore, experiment and take risks. Yet his most important asset might have been his leadership skills. Even though he was the band's unchallenged leader, he successfully engendered a common artistic vision and collective ego for the band. Dickey Betts has described Duane's personality as being similar to one of Duane's heroes, the boxer Muhammad Ali: supremely confident, bursting with energy, focused and driven, with an infectious enthusiasm.
"He was all about the music," is a common phrase used to describe him. He was open to new influences and quickly embraced and developed promising impulses from his band mates. During his time with the band there wasn't a hint of competitiveness or ego-driven rock star antics. On stage they wore their street clothes, there was no preening, no prancing, and other than facial expressions, they had what you could describe as a workman-like stage presence.
Musically things progressed better than anyone could have imagined. In the second half of 1970 Tom Dowd, the legendary producer, took Eric Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert in Miami. Blown away, Clapton ended up inviting Duane to guest on his monumental Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor, 1970) album as Derek and the Dominoes. This greatly increased Duane's visibility and generated considerable buzz in the rock press. The Allman Brothers first two studio albums had been moderately successful, and then in March of 1971, two years after they formed, they decided to capture what they did best. The result was the landmark, At the Fillmore East, a double LP with only seven songs, produced by Tom Dowd. It was a tremendous critical success coming on the heels of Layla and even as a double live LP it went gold and managed to reach number 13 on the album charts.
By this time Duane was drawn more and more to jazz, he was particularly captivated by Davis' "All Blues," John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," and the improvisation of Tony Williams, Larry Young and John McLaughlin on the LP Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency! (Polydor, 1969). So after their final Fillmore gig, he remained in New York and spent two days in the Atlantic studios recording Herbie Mann's Push Push(Atlantic, 1971). Interestingly, Jerry Jemmott (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) who also played on Push Push, were special guests at the Beacon this year. No doubt if Duane had lived, this would have been the first of many guest appearances with jazz musicians, but tragically it proved to be his first and last.
Perhaps the murder of his close friend King Curtis in the summer of 1971 helped him to realize that drugs and alcohol were threatening his future. In any case, he seemed determined to turn things around and checked himself into a rehab clinic in Buffalo, N.Y. After his release he returned to Macon, Ga., eager to finish the next LP, but this was not to be. He was killed in a motorcycle accident the day after his return.
In the emotional aftermath of Duane Allman's death the band coalesced around his memory and returned to the studio to record three more songs to finish their next LP Eat a Peach (Island/ Mercury, 1972). As a tribute to Duane they released it as a double LP with additional live material from the Fillmore recordings making up the second LP. It was very well received by critics and was even more successful than At the Fillmore, climbing to number 5 on the Billboard charts.
They began to play very large venues and make some serious money. This, together with the loss of their leader, meant that it wasn't just about the music anymore. Nonetheless, Gregg, despite his ongoing problems with substance abuse, used his melancholic state to his artistic advantage. He recorded Laid Back, an impressive solo LP, which, as the name implies, has little to do with the Allman Brothers Band. It's dark mood reveals a heavy heart, his singing is powerfully honest and soulful, and the playing and arrangements are perfectly suited to the overall feeling.
This recording in particular demonstrates the natural connection to the music of the South that characterizes these young Southerners. Likely without conscious planning, there are gospel, blues, jazz, folk and country influences throughout. With "Multicolored Lady" and "Queen of Hearts," Gregg took the blues to a new place in terms of musical structure and lyrics, laying out emotive stories worthy of a country western classic: "I got on the bus in Memphis, destination Rome. Georgia ain't no paradise, but a place I could call home."
The producer, Johnny Sandlin, recruited the best players from the Macon scene, along with notables like David "Fathead" Newman and Cissy Houston. But it was his call to Chuck Leavell, the young pianist, that would have a lasting effect on the music world. (See my 2008 AAJ interview with him for an in depth account of these events.) His playing on the LP and the impromptu jam sessions with members of the Allman Brothers who stopped by the studio, led to him being asked to join the band.
In the fall of 1972 sessions for the band's next LP, Brothers and Sisters(Capricorn, 1973) were underway with Leavell now in the band. He gave the band a boost of youthful vitality, but more importantly, his skillful, intuitive and emotive playing gave the band a whole new range of colors. But in November of 1972 after only two songs were recorded, tragedy struck again. Berry Oakley (bass) was killed in a motorcycle accident only blocks away from where Duane had been killed. Throughout this period Gregg had been devastated by grief and now his problems with substance abuse only intensified. Still, he managed to hold together and contribute three new songs, all, not surprisingly, were blues numbers.
Betts, no longer in Duane's shadow and not sharing the stage with another guitarist, began to blossom. His "Blue Sky" and 9-minute instrumental "Les Brers in A minor" on the previous Eat a Peach LP had been impressive follow-ups to his "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." On Brothers and Sisters he wrote four new songs as "Richard Betts," which in contrast to Gregg, were joyful and upbeat with a country flavor: "Ramblin' Man," "Jessica," "Southbound," and "Pony Boy." The LP was excellentarguably the Allman Brothers' best studio recordingand by far their biggest commercial success, charting at #1, with "Ramblin' Man" reaching #2 on the singles chart.
Given the loss of two key members, the fame, recognition, and renumeration that come with a #1 album and hit single, and his immense musical contributions to the band from the beginning, it is perfectly understandable that Betts felt justified in carving out a leadership role for himself. Yet without the force of Duane Allman's leadership, it is also true that the emergence of Betts as the de facto leader of the band marked the beginning of the end of the golden age of the band.
A few years later the departure of Leavell, Jaimoe and bassist Lamar Williams to form their own group, Sea Level, marked the definitive end of the golden age. Over the ensuing decades the band would dissolve and reunite in various combinations, with occasional high points, but it wasn't until the dawn of the new century that some of the old magic returned.