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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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Duane sat in with Delaney and Bonnie in early October 1970 during their concert at Carnegie Hall, and he was starting to garner some attention in the press. Also it was probably in October that I heard the rumors about Duane Allman joining Eric Clapton's band, although it would be over a month before the Layla and other assorted love songs album would be released. He was still very far from stardom, but having seen him myself, I certainly thought of him as a musical giant. Decades later I learned he almost died of an opium overdose at the end of October, and missed a concert because he was hospitalized.

By coincidence, I happened to interview someone who met Duane on November 3, 1970, just a couple of days after he was released from hospital. That someone was Joey Molland from the band Badfinger.

As unimaginably hectic as Duane Allman's touring life was, and given what had just happened with the overdose, the question of why he would have made the effort to go alone to a Badfinger concert is intriguing. Was he still weighing Clapton's offer to join his band and come to England? If so, did he think he could he learn something from these British musicians that would help him make a decision? Or might it have been simple curiosity? Recall that news of the Beatles' break-up had stunned the music world earlier in the year (April of 1970,) and Badfinger were closely associated with them. In fact, they were often covered by the rock press as the Beatles' natural successors. Badfinger were famously one of the first bands signed by the Beatles' Apple label. Back in January of 1970 they had an international top ten hit single, "Come And Get It," that was written and produced by Paul McCartney. So a view from the inside would have been interesting.

Badfinger were in the middle of their first U.S. tour when they met Duane Allman in Atlanta, and that Tuesday night concert at the Emory University gym must have been down right strange. The tour's organization and promotion had been highly uneven, and on that particular night less than 30 people showed up—and Duane Allman was among them. One of the roadies, as well as an audience member, clearly remembered Duane Allman standing up front and studying Pete Ham during the entire concert.

The band would have been an unexpected surprise for Duane. Pete Ham was a blues fan who had played Freddie King's "Hideaway" on live shows all around the UK prior to "Come and Get It," and Liverpudlians Joey Molland and Tom Evans were hard rock and rollers. Judging Badfinger by their first hit would be like judging the Allman Brothers by "Midnight Rider."

According to the roadie, after the concert Duane introduced himself and went back to their hotel to jam with Pete on acoustic guitars. (In the accompanying audio you can listen to Joey Molland speak of Duane Allman.) Clearly that unlikely jam session would have made for a fascinating bootleg for guitar fans, and it would have also evoked some macabre interest. Duane Allman now had less than a year to live, and Pete Ham died in 1975. (Pete Ham is a member of the 27 Club, which refers to musicians who died at the age of twenty seven: Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Whitehouse.)

At first blush you wouldn't think Badfinger and the Allman Brothers had much in common, but there are actually a number of parallels, a few of which are almost eerie. Both bands formed in 1969. Both bands had two lead guitarists. Both bands had a lead guitarist who was also famous as a slide guitarist. The age difference between these two slide guitarists was only 4 months, and each had a girlfriend named Dixie. Like the Allman Brothers, Badfinger had a tragic history: the death of lead/slide guitarist Pete Ham, followed by the death of bassist Tom Evans. Another noteworthy happenstance, Badfinger's second album No Dice would be released the following week, on the same day as Clapton's Layla (November 9, 1970.) It included "No Matter What," the band's first hit single written by Pete Ham.

In terms of understanding Duane Allman's public persona and level of fame during his years with the Allman Brothers, Pete Ham's career is a near perfect point of comparison, and it is uncanny that their meeting occurred at such an eventful point in their lives. Duane would be turning 24 in only a few weeks, and Pete Ham in a few months—and both of their career trajectories were in the launch phase.





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