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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.

Had I not lived in Daytona Beach, I doubt I would have been among the initial thirty-some-thousand who bought a copy of the Allman Brothers Band's self titled album. It was released on November, 8, 1969 and of course it got plenty of promotion in their home town. Although I didn't expect too much, I did swing by the Montgomery Ward's record department to pick up a copy. It didn't floor me, but the tight 33 minutes with dual lead guitars and two drummers did manage to stand out. The reluctant skeptic was now interested in the band. Nonetheless, their first album was a commercial disappointment for their label. They were playing for free in parks to gain a following, opening for other bands to keep gas in their Winnebago, and Duane continued doing session work to stay afloat financially. They ended 1969 at the Fillmore East, third on the bill after Blood Sweat & Tears and Appaloosa.

Although they were third on the bill, they gained a very powerful supporter, the legendary Bill Graham, owner and proprietor of the Fillmore East & West auditoriums. Graham recognized their talent and respected their approach and originality. A year and a half later, when he decided to close the Fillmore East, it was, appropriately, the Allman Brothers Band whom he allowed to take the stage last.

Initially Graham's support took the form of putting them on bills with artists they admired, or artists whose fans were likely to appreciate the Allman Brothers Band. Less than three weeks after their debut at the Fillmore East they were in San Francisco at the Fillmore West on the bill with B.B. King and Buddy Guy. (In the accompanying audio Jaimoe talks about that concert and more.) A couple of days later Gregg and Duane were once again in Los Angeles, at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, a venue on the Sunset Strip where they had headlined in 1968 as the Hour Glass. As the Allman Brothers Band they were now supporting Ten Wheel Drive. Earlier this year I asked lead singer Genya Ravan if she remembered that gig: "Well, that night I sat in with them and sang 'Stormy Monday' and that song never sounded better. I can only say it was a testosterone moment and I loved it. Real men, real music!"

Back on their home turf in Georgia, they opened for Santana in Atlanta in March of 1970, and were the opening and closing act at the three day Atlanta International Pop Festival in July. During the summer they had also gained exposure by opening for the group Mountain. Looking over their concert dates you'll find that in May 1970, a year after the band formed, they played two concerts in high school auditoriums. One was at their alma mater in Daytona Beach. Having graduated a year earlier, that escaped my notice, but even if I had known, given the venue I doubt I would have made an effort to go—of course now it is frustrating to think I missed such an opportunity. They were steadily building a fan base, but clearly a long way from stardom.

In February 1970 the band had begun recording Idlewild South, their second album, under the tutelage of veteran engineer Tom Dowd, whose credits go back the giants of the bebop era. Fortunately for the Allman Brothers, he was also working with Eric Clapton in 1970. The Allman Brothers Band played in Miami at the end of August as Eric Clapton was there to record the Layla album with Tom Dowd.

Dowd took Clapton and his band to the Allman Brothers' concert. Bobby Whitlock, keyboardist and vocalist with Clapton's Derek and the Dominos, already knew Duane from his time Delaney and Bonnie. He remembered the gig well, and gave a telling indication of where the band was at in September of 1970. According to Whitlock, the Allman Brothers Band was set up on the flatbed trailer of an 18 wheeler in the parking lot of the Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida. He laughingly recalled that bales of hay had been placed before the trailer to keep back the throng of 175 people who had gathered there. His party crawled under the truck and sat directly in front of the stage, resting their backs against the bales of hay and looking straight up at the band.
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