Duane Allman: A Matter of Influence (Relix Revisited)
Duane was born in 1946, a year before his brother Gregg, in Nashville, Tennessee. The boys’ widowed mother moved the family to Florida but Gregg and Duane visited their grandmother back in Tennessee during the summer. Their obsession with music dates back to one of those visits, a story that resonates because it connects them to the kind of epiphany that every music lover experiences. Gregg and Duane went to a concert in Nashville by Jackie Wilson and B.B. King that inspired them to form a band. Back in Florida, the brothers began to play together in various groups. Though they both started out on guitar, Duane advanced quickly as a player. It didn’t take long for other musicians to start noticing him.
“I was playing in Pensacola on the beach with a band called The Five Minutes,” says drummer and later producer Johnny Sandlin. “One night the Allmans played there. We played inside in the bar and they played outside on the patio, which was for the younger kids. We went to see them on our breaks and they just blew us away. Duane was the best guitar player I’d ever heard. He was the greatest even before he started playing slide. He’d play one of those Yardbirds songs and it was just amazing the way he could manipulate the volume control on the guitar. He could play where it sounded like backwards guitar.” The brothers joined up with Sandlin’s band, eventually moving out to St. Louis and working under different names. “We had a pretty decent band with The Five Minutes and when we hooked up with Duane we felt that nobody could stop us,” says Sandlin, “and Gregg was such a good singer.” In St. Louis the band built a following and became managed by Bill McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. McEuen brought the group out to Los Angeles, where they recorded two albums under the name Hour Glass. The experience was bitter. “We were used to playing four nights a week and we never thought about image or anything,” says Sandlin. “When we got out to L.A. it was like everything was turned upside down, it was more about your image than your musical ability. We were signed to Liberty and they wanted us to make hit singles and be like Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.” The only positive to come out of the L.A. experience was that Duane started to play slide guitar. “Duane was sick and he was taking some Coricidin and he used the empty bottle for a slide,” says Sandlin. “He had heard Taj Mahal’s The Natch’l Blues, at that point Jesse Ed Davis was playing slide with Taj. Duane really took to it and started learning to play it. He started playing it on three or four songs during our sets. He was a little rough at first. But ‘Statesboro Blues’ was on that record and I guess that’s the arrangement Duane took it from. It took him a while to get the intonation down but by the third or fourth gig he really had it. It made it all the more frustrating that we weren’t able to play live.”
The band went to Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Alabama and cut some demos that they felt represented their sound, including the very good “B.B. King Medley,” but Liberty rejected the tapes. “They said, ‘We hate it, we don’t put out stuff like this,’” Sandlin recalls. “We put our heart and soul into it and everybody loved it, it still sounds good to me to this day. But they didn’t like it, so that was really the end of the band.”
Rick Hall liked Duane’s playing so much, though, that he asked him to join the session team at Fame [see article on Fame pg.37]. House guitarist Jimmy Johnson already knew Duane from producing the Hour Glass demos.
“He could play rhythm, acoustic, anything you want,” says Johnson. "He couldn’t read a chart but he had this amazing talent. You hear this all the time but Duane really had it. He’d hear a song one time and you didn’t have to tell him – you play any chord in the song and he would know right where it was. “We would always talk about guitars. He played a Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul. He always used a Fuzz Face. That was basically for distortion. He’d line up about ten of those nine-volt batteries and he figured out a way to drain the power in those batteries down to about a third. He always said that they sounded ten times better when they would almost be powered out. It gave him the more textured distortion he was looking for.” Johnson was particularly impressed with Duane’s thirst to play. “He had the guitar in his hands at least eight to ten hours a day,” Johnson recalls. "I don’t know anybody who did that. He was such a prolific player, he knew everything about his guitar, about the neck of his guitar, where to play, how to play, where the sounds were, the best place for the good sounds. People that bend strings like he did, there are pushers and pullers, and Duane pushed more than he pulled. He’d put two fingers together and get two strings and bend them up, you didn’t see him pulling them down, it was mainly pushing up. “When it came to slide, forget it,” Johnson laughs. “I think part of what made his sound on slide is how familiar he was with the instrument. He did it out of love, y’know? Sitting around the studio he always had the guitar around his neck, playing it, even when he wasn’t on a session. He made me feel bad. I was saying, ‘God, I gotta get me on the Duane Allman program.’ That’s how special he was.”
Within a year Duane made his reputation as a session star. He was on the historic Aretha Franklin Soul ‘69 sessions and even suggested material for Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett to cover. “Duane never really liked being a studio guy, showing up at ten in the morning and playing whatever was required,” explains bassist David Hood. “But he was good at it. We played on a lot of good records together. One of the songs that was his idea to cut was the Percy Sledge version of ‘Kind Woman,’ the Buffalo Springfield song.”
Hood also recalls the legendary anecdote in which Duane convinced Wilson Pickett to record “Hey Jude.” “We had all gone to eat lunch and Duane stayed back at the studio with Wilson and convinced him to cut the song,” says Hood. “It was a really unusual thing to suggest because it was a big hit for The Beatles at the time and the idea of taking them head on was a pretty far-fetched idea but Duane thought it was a good idea.”