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Talkin' Blues with the Groovemaster, Jerry Jemmott

Alan Bryson By

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Duane Allman

AAJ: You and Duane Allman were friends, and about the same age, so I was hoping you could share a bit of your first impressions. Dickey Betts once said that Duane Allman had a personality a lot like one of his heroes—Muhammad Ali. He seemed to have so much confidence, there's a great quote from Duane, "It's a rat race out there, but my rat's winning!"

JJ: [Laughing] Right, we were only about six months apart. What Dickey said is a good description of Duane, he was a fighter. He was a strong personality, and his look back then made him stand out, a long-haired blond hippie—that was new back then, it was the '60s and the beginning of the Flower Power thing.

From left: Duane Allman, Jerry Wexler, Jerry Jemmott

Of course, he was from the South, and he was very soulful—that's the thing I remember most of all about him. He had a lot of compassion for music and for people, and he was strong in that sense. That Muhammad Ali reference is really cool, because he fits that, he was strong, really strong.

And his brother Gregg says the same thing about him. Of course my connection with him was primarily about the music, and his passion about the music was really strong, he went for it. I remember Wilson Pickett started calling him Skyman, and later that somehow became Skydog. He was cool people, he was great.


AAJ: I read that he was renting a cabin down around Muscle Shoals, how about you?

JJ: Oh no, we stayed at the Downtowner when we worked together there. The funny thing is, we always met up at the airport coming in from Atlanta, so I'd always page him.

The last time we went down there, we both had misgivings about going down there, and we didn't want to go down there anymore.

AAJ: That was a different time for sure. Remember that Peter Fonda movie Easy Rider (1969), you know the rednecks in a pickup shoot a hippie at the end. Rednecks used to say they hated the movie, but at least it had a happy ending.

So here's Duane with shoulder length blond hair, and blacks and whites didn't hang together in the South back in the day—so how was it, were you guys able to hang out outside of the studio?

JJ: Well, we'd go from the airport by cab to the Downtowner, and we'd take a cab to the studio, and a cab back to the Downtowner. So we'd hang out there and jam, and do the same thing the next day. So we really didn't have much contact with the local town.

You know in 1967 and 1968 I had a huge Afro. I was the first kid in my school to have an Afro [laughing]. My barber died, I didn't know I was starting a trend, I couldn't get a haircut because my barber died. From 1961 on, I started letting my hair grow.

AAJ: When you guys worked with Aretha, were you and Duane with her in the studio, or where things dubbed in later?

JJ: Well he came in later. My first sessions with Aretha were just with the cats from Muscle Shoals, and then with the next series of sessions, somewhere along the line he came aboard.

AAJ: So she wasn't necessarily in the studio with Duane?

JJ: Oh yeah. He would have been there, all those sessions were done live. By live, I mean everybody who was going to be there on the session was in there at the same time. Cissy was in there with the Sweet Inspirations ready to jump on the background vocals as soon as we finished. The horns would come on later. It would be the rhythm section, and while we were playing they'd be figuring out their parts. Most of my sessions, like with B.B. King, were the same way. A lot of sessions were done live in those days.

Wilson Pickett Hey JudeAAJ: It's really kind of fascinating, you know Wilson Pickett's recording of "Hey Jude" is what put Duane on the map in the music world, and you were there with him for that. And it kind of went full-circle you were also there with him for the Herbie Mann sessions for Push Push, his first and only jazz outing, and the last full album he recorded. So you were there at the beginning and at the end.

JJ: That's true. And I remember talking with him after our last session together before the started his band, and I told him, "I'm not gonna do this anymore, I'm gonna stay in New York and do jingles and films." You know, there and in the studios in New York, I wasn't just playing. Without charts I was doing a lot of arranging and not getting any credit or pay for it—so I was tired, really burnt out. At that point I was only 22 or 23.

I remember Duane felt the same way, and he told me he was going home to start a band with his brother. And that's what he did, and I didn't see him again until the sessions with Herbie.

It's ironic, forty years later Duane's brother Gregg tells me a story that when he was in California he brother called him and said he was going to get a band together, so come back home, I've got this great bassist with these long fingers.

So when Gregg shows up, he asked Duane, "So where's the bassist with the long fingers?" and Duane told him, "He's up in New York, he's making too much money doing commercials and stuff."

Gregg told me Duane would tell him all kinds of stuff as they were coming up. They were only a year apart, but he played that older brother thing to the max with Gregg. That was just one of many things like that; Duane always had a plan, even to keep Gregg out of the Army.

But that was the thing about Duane, he had direction and he had conviction, and if he told you something, he could make you believe it.

AAJ: Of course by the time of those Herbie Mann sessions you'd played with all kinds of jazz legends, so I imagine Duane was relieved to see you and Bernard Purdie in the studio. Do you think that was intimidating for him in that setting?

JJ: Well we didn't call it crossover back then, but we'd been called in to basically crossover— and, like I said before, as musicians we weren't thinking it terms of labels, we were constantly crossing over. Now I call it downloading, you know, whatever you need to create the right fit is what you pull down.

So Duane was cool like that, playing different types of music, I don't think he was intimidated. They wanted lead guitar and slide, so that's what he did. He did his thing.

AAJ: How did you get the news about Duane?

JJ: When he had the accident I was in Atlanta going to a gig with Roberta Flack, and we were listening to the radio when a news bulletin came on.

Gregg told me that Duane never liked to ride with the pack—he had two speeds, park and 60, and I knew back then that he liked to drive fast, but that news hit me really hard.


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