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Duane Allman & Eric Clapton: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Two Guitar Heroes

Doug Collette By

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These two books suggest fate decreed Eric Clapton and Duane Allman collaborate on the masterwork that is Layla.

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story
Randy Poe
Hardcover; 320 pages
ISBN: 0879308915

Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek And The Dominos
Jan Reid
Hardcover; 160 pages
ISBN: 1594863695

Great guitarists are no less a fascination to each other than to the music loving, guitar-hero worshipper, perhaps more so. Why else would Jim Hall and Pat Metheny, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters, and last but not least, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman play together? Two recent books detailing the triumph and tragedy of the latter two make it seem as if fate decreed Clapton and Allman would collaborate on the masterwork that is Layla.

Much has been written on the genesis of Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, Clapton's most famous piece of work. At least some of the writing depicts the means by which Allman jump started the sessions for this pivotal album when he entered but a short way into them (see Gene Santoro's liner notes to the 20th Anniversary Edition). The revelation, if you want to call it that, of Jan Reid's book is that there isn't much more to say about the album than the music itself states so eloquently and passionately.

Say this for Reid though, he does an admirable job as an academic researcher. Delving ever so thoroughly, perhaps more than anyone before him, into the story behind the Arabic folk legend on which Clapton named the song and album, Reid also explores the background of the great English guitarist himself. That enquiry leads inevitably into a similar outline of the roots of his American counterpart. The subsequent tale of the dissipation of the inspiration that led to the formation of Derek And The Dominos is a familiar story of self-indulgence and personality conflict, but with a crucial difference: the music preceding the downslide is transcendent.

What distracts from all this solid work is the high-strung means by which the author relegates the less-than-lurid aspects of the story to the background. Reid re-emphasizes to a fault the soap-operatic convolutions involving Clapton, his friend Beatle George Harrison and the object of their affections Pattie Boyd—Harrison's wife and Clapton's paramour. These goings-on eventually take as much precedence in this melodrama as the chemistry by which Clapton and Allman created, through their guitar work and the overall musicianship of The Dominos, what is arguably the greatest rock album of all time.

Reid's interviews with Bobby Whitlock are the primary source of insight into this phase of Clapton's career. Having become estranged from Delaney & Bonnie, the keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist (who also contributes insight to the Duane Allman biography, particularly in reference to the Dominos' recording sessions), ends up living with Clapton in England for a period of time. He plays an integral role in the composing process that evolved into the Layla album and helped in the assembly of the Clapton band. His boyish enthusiasm encouraged Clapton in those positive musical activities, yet his nonchalance about the substance abuse surrounding the group is notable as well.

Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek And The Dominos thus becomes a natural starting place from which to proceed to Randy Poe's book, the first attempt at a comprehensive biography of Duane Allman. Depicting a man of good humor, endless passion for music, and an addictive personality more hooked on the joy of playing than on drugs and alcohol, it makes perfect sense that the Southern guitarist lit the fire under Clapton and the Dominos to sustain the creative spark at the heart of Layla and bring it to fruition in all its agony and ecstasy.

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story is a fast-paced read full of essential detail. It's an unusually suspenseful biography as it documents the evolution and demise of Duane and brother Gregg's Hourglass band, the 31st of February with Butch Trucks, and The 2nd Coming with Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley. In doing so, it makes the grouping of the original line-up of The Allman Brothers Band seem, like so much else in Allman's tale, the work of destiny. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons' foreword is an unexpectedly touching piece of mini-drama: only obliquely touching upon the precise yet abandoned style of Allman's slide playing—the distinctive likes of which centered him as a musician, solidified his reputation among peers like Gibbons, and ultimately stood as a metaphor for his reckless personality—it effectively sets the scene for the story to follow.

Poe does a good job of putting the most significant issues in their proper historical contexts. There's an implicit commentary on the concert business when he discusses the ABB's work at The Fillmore auditoriums of the late impresario Bill Graham. The author's allusions to Allman's drug and alcohol use, as in the recounting of a New York radio interview, serve to illustrate the intensity of the guitarist's personality, not just use it as fodder for gossip and/or innuendo.


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