Duane Allman: A Matter of Influence (Relix Revisited)
Though his time as a studio musician brought Duane to the attention of Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who signed him to a contract, his goal always remained to lead his own band. Between sessions he began work on a solo album, pieces of which have emerged over the years, but it was never completed. Instead, Wexler turned Duane’s contract over to Phil Walden, who was starting Capricorn Records and wanted to record Duane leading a trio. When Duane showed up with his band, though, it was a sextet – he and his brother with bassist Berry Oakley and guitarist Dickey Betts from the Jacksonville band The Second Coming and two drummers, Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks.
“Duane called me to come hear the band in Daytona,” recalls Sandlin, who became Capricorn’s house producer. “It was one of the earliest gigs and may have been a glorified rehearsal. It was wonderful. You could sense that this was the beginning of something.”
In September 1969 The Allman Brothers Band recorded its first album that included the classic songs “Dreams” and “Whipping Post,” but the band’s reputation was made onstage, especially during the free Sunday concerts at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park that inspired a generation of musicians to play the loose-limbed improvisational music that became known as Southern Rock and lives on today in the jamband aesthetic.
The style combined the energy and dynamics of blues-based guitar rock with the modal improvisations introduced by jazz visionaries Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The Allman Brothers didn’t really catch on at radio even after making an outstanding album in 1970, Idlewild South, but Duane became a household name after joining with Eric Clapton to make what may be the greatest rock record ever, Layla and Other Assorted Rock Songs.
Producer Tom Dowd decided to make the next Allman’s release a live album, recording on March 12 and 13, 1971 for what became The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East. It was a breakthrough recording that sealed the group’s reputation. Promoter Bill Graham chose them to headline the final show at the Fillmore East that July. Three months later Duane was gone, killed in a motorcycle accident on October 29.
When an artist dies at such a creative peak there is always an open question about what they would have achieved had they lived. Those who knew Duane felt he was on the verge of even bigger things. Tom Dowd, a veteran jazz engineer and producer, called Fillmore East “the greatest fusion album I’ve ever heard.” Sandlin agrees. “They talk about Southern Rock,” he says, “but Duane was heading toward jazz. He was listening to Miles and Coltrane. He loved Coltrane. Duane was working on an arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things.’”
Warren Haynes has followed through on Duane’s interest in combining rock and jazz elements through Allman Brothers compositions like “Kind of Bird” and in Coltrane-inspired jams with his own group, Gov’t Mule. He recently marveled at the fact that the ABB is celebrating its 40th anniversary the same year Davis’ Kind of Blue turns 50.
“Now it makes sense,” he says. “At the time they seemed further apart. It’s interesting when you think about Duane’s roots in blues and R&B. As he was growing as a musician, jazz musicians were becoming much more important to him. He talked a lot about how important Coltrane was in influencing him. It’s almost a cliché to say that you’ve been influenced by John Coltrane these days because it’s so obvious that he’s an icon. But for somebody in the early ‘70s to actually take that influence into a rock or pop sensibility was quite a stretch. Perhaps Duane helped to make Coltrane a universal influence in ways he didn’t even realize, the same way that people like Duane and Clapton contributed to the rediscovery of Robert Johnson.”
Bonnie Bramlett and her daughter Becca will be among the many guests to join the Brothers during the Beacon run, remembering not just Duane but Delaney Bramlett, who died last December. Duane played on the Delaney and Bonnie album Motel Shot, and Delaney played “Come On In My Kitchen” at Duane’s funeral.
“We knew each other from back in the day, even before the Allman Brothers, when Johnny Sandlin was the drummer,” says Bonnie. “Oh, Delaney and Duane just hit it sooo off. They were like brothers.”
In Bonnie’s ruminations about the days when “we were all not famous together” she pointed out a different kind of influence that Duane was part of.
“Back then there weren’t many white people doing the black expression,” she says. “We just did what we liked. We liked to play the blues. We were aware that we were crossing color lines, not only with black musicians being played on white stations but with white musicians being played on black stations. There was never a picture of Booker T and the MGs on their album cover. Delaney and Bonnie got signed to Stax and they thought we were black. And Duane was a big part of this because he played on all the Atlantic stuff with Aretha and Wilson Pickett and other R&B singers.”
Bonnie’s observation was particularly poignant because just as we were talking, Barack Obama was in the midst of crossing the ultimate color line by taking the oath of office as President of the United States.
“The color lines were being destroyed by the Muscle Shoals guys and the Memphis guys,” she concludes. “It was a sign of the times when we went from just doing what we wanted to do to becoming successful by doing it.”