Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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The actor James Dean once said, "If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he's died, then maybe he was a great man." James Dean is perhaps the charter member of a modern subset of such individuals who, due to modern technology, live on in the consciousness of others. They remain frozen in time—ascendant, vibrant, and youthful.

When you think of James Dean, chances are you can visualize his magnetic good looks with a brooding expression that oozes bad-boy attitude, a hint of danger, and cool. He only appeared in three films, and yet he was the first actor nominated posthumously for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He is still regarded as one of the most significant film actors of all time, someone who moved seamlessly from subtle to intense. He died at the age of 24 in a traffic accident, in the prime of life, with a body of work that promised spectacular things to come.

In his own unique and rebellious way, Duane Allman joined the ranks of this club. By substituting only a few words it is remarkable how well the above description fits Duane Allman. A musician with a magnetic personality that oozes self assurance, a hint of danger, and cut-the-crap cool. A musical icon who only appeared on a handful of albums under his own name, yet is still regarded as one of the most significant rock guitarists of all time. A musician who moved seamlessly from subtle to intense. He died at the age of 24 in a traffic accident, in the prime of life, with a body of work that promised spectacular things to come.

Membership in this club is not simply a matter of dying young, famous, and talented. Timing and a special career-arch are prerequisites. To join this club your career has to be in steep ascendancy, with the perception of tremendous untapped potential. Think of Michael Jackson and what comes to mind? Now imagine if Michael Jackson had also been killed in a traffic accident when he was 24. That would have been in 1982, just as Thriller was released. Imagine if that were your lasting image of him—timing is everything.

The above description of Duane Allman is actually somewhat misleading. James Dean and Michael Jackson were huge stars at 24, but that was not the case with Duane Allman. As I reflected on Duane Allman's 70th birthday and thought back to the first and only time I saw him, I realized how easy that is to forget. He now occupies his rightful place in musical history, but it's striking how significantly his star has risen over the decades since his death.

Before the age of the Internet, bands without famous members rarely gained more than a metropolitan or regional following. With a bit of luck you might learn of a good out-of-town band by seeing them open for someone else if they were booked on a tour circuit that included your area. Even if you were enthusiastic about what you had heard, it wasn't easy to follow up on it. At that time, truly making it nationally was generally a function of being signed by a major label. That increased the odds of having a hit single, a good review in the national rock press, and a national television appearance.

During Duane Allman's life, his band had neither a hit single, nor a national television appearance. A couple of months before his 24th birthday I had a chance to see him live. For younger fans who discovered Duane Allman well after his death, here, within the context of those times, is how I remember his public persona and what it was like to see him live.

In 1968, as the Summer of Love was morphing into the Age of Revolution, my family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida from the suburbs of Washington, D.C.. Although Washington didn't have quite the counter-culture vibe of New York City's Greenwich Village or San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, we did have Georgetown, DuPont Circle, and the Ambassador Theater—our local version of the Fillmore. That September I would be starting my senior year of high school, and I was old enough to drive and escape the suburbs. It should have been hard for me to leave, but my parents had made Florida sound like we were moving to a tropical paradise like Hawaii, so I was eager to get there.

Daytona Beach, as I soon discovered, wasn't Waikiki. At that time it was a sleepy little Southern town of just over 40,000 people that attracted retirees, a seasonal influx of Canadian snowbirds, NASCAR fans, and spring breakers. Segregation might not have been legal, but in some ways it was still very real. My new high school, from which Gregg Allman had graduated some years earlier, and out of which Duane had dropped, had only a handful of black students. Blacks lived on the mainland, to the West of the train tracks. Whites lived primarily on the peninsula, which is a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Halifax River. Mrs. Allman had left Tennessee and resettled there ten years earlier with her sons Duane and Gregg.

At the time I had no clue who Duane and Gregg Allman were, but as I started my senior year of high school, they were within walking distance from me, just a few blocks down Peninsula Drive. But the window of opportunity to meet them closed quickly. Gregg soon returned to Los Angeles and Duane made his way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to break into the session scene. I do remember hearing Duane Allman's name a few times at school, they were, after all, local heroes, but I smugly discounted any tales about the Allman Joys or the Hourglass as they were then called.

During the fall of 1968 there was no dearth of rock music: Cream's Wheels of Fire, Jeff Becks' Truth, the Beatles White Album, Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, The Band's Music from Big Pink, Creedence Clearwater Revival's self titled album, Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, and although it took a while to break nationally, Johnny Winter's Progressive Blues Experiment. In 1969 the rock tsunami continued: The Beatles' Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin's self titled album, King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King, Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, Sly and the Family Stone's Stand!, Blind Faith's self titled album, David Bowie's Space Oddity, Santana's self titled album, Jethro Tull's Stand Up, The Chicago Transit Authority's self titled album, and Taj Mahal's self titled album—and those are just some of the more obvious rock releases. When the Allman Brothers Band formed in the spring of 1969, there was no void waiting to be filled, and the world wasn't looking for the next guitar hero.
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