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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.

Duane Allman got a boost by working with Eric Clapton, and Pete Ham was championed by none other than George Harrison. In fact, Duane probably learned from Pete that he was playing a Gibson SG given him by George Harrison. If Duane shared his experience of working with Clapton, Pete would have been able to tell Duane about working with him too at George Harrison's studio. Three weeks after Duane Allman met Pete Ham (November 24, 1970) Harrison made a point of showing up at Ungano's Club in New York City to introduce Badfinger to the American press. He sat in the front row with Pattie Boyd (Clapton's Layla) and recorded the show himself on a tape recorder he had recently purchased, and then played it back to the band in their dressing room.

George Harrison had been rather famously associated with Delenay and Bonnie. Badfinger, like Harrison, were enamored with their approach to music. In fact, to a certain extent they adopted it. No doubt there were some disappointed American audience members who came to their concerts to hear Beatlesque pop and were treated to shows that opened with extended jams of Dave Mason's "Only You Know and I Know," and "Feelin' Alright." (Search YouTube for Badfinger BBC concert to get an idea of what Duane would have heard.)

The reason George Harrison was able to introduce Badfinger in New York City is because his single "My Sweet Lord" had been released in America the day before, and his triple album All Things Must Pass was released a few days later on November 27, 1970. As a Duane Allman fan, over the decades I've come to associate him with putting slide guitar on the map in terms of rock music. In reality, George Harrison's crisp clean signature slide guitar on "My Sweet Lord" was an enormous redwood tree that overshadowed everyone. It's hard to exaggerate the impact of that recording. It was a number one worldwide hit, and was like crack cocaine for radio deejays. The tambourine you hear on "My Sweet Lord" was played by Badfinger's drummer, and to create his wall-of-sound, Phil Spector enlisted Pete Ham, Joey Molland, Tom Evans and Eric Clapton to play acoustic guitars.

George Harrison had assembled a stellar group of musicians for the album that included the members of Badfinger (John Lennon also used Badfinger on his Imagine album.) Harrison's album was incredibly well received by critics and was a tremendous commercial success—in America was a 6x Platinum hit. Let us recall, Eric Clapton's Layla had also been released in November. The cover was a painting of a woman who reminded Clapton of Harrison's wife Pattie Boyd, and the album itself was art-as-therapy for the lovelorn Clapton. His photo was nowhere to be seen on the cover, and his name did not appear—it was a Derek and the Dominos album. There were certainly plenty of people in record stores who had no idea it was an Eric Clapton album.

As a result, it didn't even chart in the UK, and in the US it peaked at 16. The single "Layla" didn't make it into Billboard's Top Ten. Now it is rightfully regarded by many as Clapton's greatest work, but in 1970 it was, by rock star standards, a flop. Brother Duane's association with Eric Clapton was no doubt an important boost, but certainly less than he might have anticipated. Obviously, in terms of recognition it paled in comparison to Pete Ham's close association with George Harrison.

George Harrison had been overshadowed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the Beatles, but his debut as a solo artist was nothing short of astounding. In May of 1971 he was suddenly the most successful of any of the Beatles as a solo artist. At this time, Badfinger gained renewed attention when the white hot Harrison himself decided to produce their third album Straight Up! This album included their third international hit single, "Day After Day," which featured a slide duet with George Harrison and Pete Ham, and Leon Russell on piano.

Progress on the album was delayed when Harrison decided to organize the first major benefit rock concert for the people of Bangla Desh, and had to give up his role as producer. The concert was held at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971 and featured George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, and Badfinger. George Harrison shared the spotlight with Pete Ham when they performed an acoustic version "Here Comes the Sun." It was a long way from the hotel jam session with Duane Allman—two sold out Madison Square Garden concerts which produced another number one international triple album (Grammy Album of the Year), and a hugely successful film that broke daily box office records at the time.

As the Concert for Bangla Desh was going on, the Allman Brothers were taking a rare two week break from touring. The previous month, July 1971, At Fillmore East, a double album of only seven songs, was released. Around the middle of March Tom Dowd had recorded the band over two nights at the Fillmore East. The Atlantic label had initially rejected the concept of releasing these long jams, but thankfully their manager, Phil Walden, not only convinced them to do it, but got them to accept the Allman Brothers' demand of offering the double album at the price of a single LP. Bottom line alarm bells must have been going off everywhere at Atlantic, but it turned out to be a brilliant idea. The band was able to finally present themselves as the masters-of-live-music that they were. It was an entire concert, impeccably recorded, and it was a double album that fans with hippy finances could afford to buy. In contrast to their first two studio albums, it took off immediately.

During the final weeks of Duane Allman's life, the seeds sown during his band's relentless touring came to fruition. In October 1971 their new live album was certified gold, and at long last they had some money to spend. Now they were flying first class, and Duane even allowed himself to think out loud about the band owning a plane for touring. Another sign of their changing status was evident when Rolling Stone magazine decided to do a feature article on the band.
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