Friday, December 26, 2014

"Skydog": The Life and Legacy of Duane Allman

Even though it has been almost 45 years since legendary guitarist Duane Allman last performed onstage or in a recording studio, and even though there have been several articles written about him within that 45-year span of time, I figured that it was time for me to put my two cents' worth into this discussion. Hey, better late than never, right?

My first introduction to Duane as a guitarist was rather unpleasant, to say the least. I was three years old when the song "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos was beginning to receive airplay on radios all over America in March of 1971. Having little knowledge or awareness of hard rock music at the time, I became terrified when I first heard Duane's wailing, high-pitched slide-guitar solo on "Layla". It was unlike anything else that I had ever heard before, and it scared the hell out of me.
As I became more aware of guitar playing, I found myself beginning to appreciate Duane Allman's contribution to "Layla", especially after hearing the full-length version of the song. I began to understand Duane's talent as an interpreter of blues guitar to the point that whenever I hear "Layla" now, I can't help but feel stupid for having been so terrified of the song back in 1971. The naivete of youth makes us all feel like idiots in the long run, I suppose.

My appreciation for Duane Allman as a guitarist would grow on me as I became more aware of his work with the Allman Brothers Band. It was during this time that I realized just how talented he was at being versatile as a musician. His ability to combine blues music with jazz and hard rock seems effortless when listening to songs like "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" (an instrumental written by fellow Allman Brothers' guitarist Dickey Betts while sitting in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia), along with other notable songs like "Whipping Post" and "Stormy Monday".
One could make the argument that Duane Allman was the American equivalent to such British contemporaries like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and I personally don't believe that such a comparison would be too much of an exaggeration. Like Page, Clapton and Beck, Duane would begin his career working as a studio musician before attempting to form bands of his own. And also like Page, Clapton and Beck, Duane was gaining recognition for his talent at improvisation when it came to performing with different artists in the studio during the 1960s.

Duane Allman with Wilson Pickett during the "Hey Jude"
recording sessions in November of 1968

From 1961 until the time of his death, Duane Allman had recorded numerous guitar tracks for different artists whose music ranged from rock and pop to R&B and soul. Throughout the decade, Duane was able to earn a living by traveling to different studios and working with such artists as Doris Duke, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Otis Rush and Boz Scaggs, to name a few.   
It was his work on Wilson Pickett's rendition of The Beatles' song "Hey Jude" in November of 1968 that brought Duane Allman's name to the attention of other notable artists in the music industry, including guitarist Eric Clapton...

 "I remember hearing Wilson Pickett's 'Hey Jude' and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. I had to know who that was immediately---right now."

Ironically, Duane had to talk Pickett into adding a cover of "Hey Jude" to the list of songs for his album. After its release in 1969, Pickett's version of "Hey Jude" would reach number 16 on the pop music charts, and it secured full-time work for Duane at the FAME/Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Not bad for a guitarist who had dropped out of high school in Daytona Beach, Florida so that he could focus his attention on having a career in music. 

The Allman Brothers Band in 1969 (left to right): Duane
Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Jai Johanny 

"Jaimoe" Johanson, Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks

It was also in 1969 that Duane and his younger brother Gregg were forming the Allman Brothers Band. The two brothers had attempted to form a couple of bands during the 1960s, but were unsuccessful in their efforts. 
After Gregg was having a difficult time working as a studio musician for Liberty Records in Hollywood, California, Duane gave Gregg a phone call from Jacksonville, Florida telling him to come back so that he could join a new group that he was putting together. Duane himself had grown weary of working as a studio musician and wanted to form a band that was unlike any other at the time. Gregg agreed to the offer, and then flew back to Jacksonville to join his brother.

The Allman Brothers Band were Duane Allman (guitar), Gregg Allman (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Dickey Betts (guitar, vocals), Berry Oakley (bass), Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanson (drums, percussion) and Butch Trucks (drums, percussion). In May of 1969, the band would take up residence in a friend's apartment building at 309 College Street in Macon, Georgia, where they would be met with disapproval by conservative locals in the city because of their long hair and liberal attitudes towards music, psychedelic drugs and racial integration. Duane would later move into a separate apartment at 1125 Bond Street in Macon.

The Allman Brothers' self-titled debut album was released on Atco/Capricorn Records in November of 1969 and was received with little accolades (it sold less than 40,000 copies). However, the group would form a bond with each other during the recording of this album, and that bond would become a literal brotherhood by the time their second album "Idlewild South" was released in September of 1970. In March of that year, the band moved into a large, Victorian-style house at 2321 Vineville Avenue in Macon which Berry Oakley's wife (named Elizabeth) had rented. The house would come to be known simply as "The Big House".   

 "Skydog" and "Slowhand": Duane Allman (far-right) with
Eric Clapton (center) and the other members of Derek
and the Dominos in 1970

While working on "Idlewild South", veteran producer Tom Dowd received a phone call to inform him that Eric Clapton would be working on an album with his new band at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida during the month of August, 1970, and that Clapton wanted to know if Dowd would be available to help produce the album. The name of Clapton's new group was "Derek and the Dominos", and the working title for the album was "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs". 
Upon hearing the news from Dowd, Duane indicated that he would love to drop by Criteria Studios and watch Eric Clapton and his new band record the album, if it was okay with Clapton. Duane called Dowd later to inform him that the Allman Brothers Band would be in Miami to perform a benefit concert on August 26th. When Clapton learned of this news from Dowd, he insisted on attending the concert, saying, "you mean that guy who plays on the back of (Wilson Pickett's) 'Hey Jude'?...I want to see him play...let's go."

After the concert, Duane met with Clapton and asked if he could come by the studio and watch some of the recording sessions. "Bring your guitar", Clapton replied. "You've got to play." The rest is history.
Although "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" didn't do well in sales after its initial release in November of 1970, the title track "Layla" would go on to become one of the most memorable songs in rock music, and it would help launch Duane Allman's reputation as a guitarist even more as time passed.

After ten years of working as a session guitarist and constant touring with his own band, Duane Allman was beginning to reach the pinnacle of recognition for his contributions to the rock music industry. The 1971 live album "At Fillmore East" (the Allman Brothers' third album) was receiving high praise from the music press and would ultimately give the Allman Brothers Band their first gold record by October of that year.
Sadly, Duane Allman wouldn't live to see his band continue having success.

Duane Allman performing live in 1971

During a vacation from touring, Duane drove his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle over to "The Big House" from his new home at 1160 Burton Avenue in Macon's West end to help celebrate the birthday of Berry Oakley's wife Elizabeth. After staying for a little while, Duane left and began heading out of Macon, traveling West on Hillcrest Avenue during the early evening hours of October 29, 1971. 

At approximately 5:45 p.m., Duane was driving fast towards the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Bartlett Street when a flat-bed truck with a lumber crane attached to it made a sudden right turn onto Bartlett in the opposite lane on Hillcrest and stopped in front of him. According to eyewitnesses who were at the scene, Duane was driving his motorcycle at least 20 miles over the speed limit when the truck turned onto Bartlett from Hillcrest. Duane tried to swerve into the left-hand lane in order to avoid the vehicle, but ended up clipping the back of it and was literally sent flying through the air before hitting the pavement with his motorcycle landing on top of him. Both he and his motorcycle skidded 90 feet before finally coming to a full stop, with Duane pinned underneath it.
Duane was rushed to a nearby hospital with severe internal injuries. Despite the efforts made in trying to save his life, Duane Allman was pronounced dead several hours after arriving at the hospital from the scene of his accident. He was 24 years old.

Whatever his reasons were for traveling on Hillcrest Avenue that particular evening, Duane would never reach his destination.*    

Duane's Harley-Davidson motorcycle after his wreck on
October 29, 1971

Just a little over a year later (November 11, 1972, to be exact), Allman Brothers' bassist Berry Oakley would end up dying of cerebral brain swelling from a skull fracture three hours after crashing his Triumph motorcycle into the side of a city bus as he was entering Macon, Georgia on Napier Avenue. What makes his crash so disturbing is that it took place only two blocks over and 100 yards away from where Duane had his motorcycle accident the previous year. Berry was also 24 years old at the time of his death.

Despite both tragedies, Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band would continue recording albums and touring well into the 1970s, '80s, '90s and into the 21st century, adding new members along the way before finally calling it quits after performing their last concert at New York's Beacon Theater on October 28, 2014---one night before the 43rd anniversary of Duane Allman's death.

Duane Allman and Berry Oakley's grave site at Rose Hill
Cemetery in Macon, Georgia

Just above the banks of the Ocmulgee River in Macon, and past a pair of well-used railroad tracks that wind their way through the city, there are a pair of graves on a hill near the back section of Rose Hill Cemetery enclosed within a wrought-iron, gated fence that face Northward. Within that pair of almost-identical graves are the last human remnants of a legacy which helped put the city of Macon, Georgia on the map of rock music history. It is here that the bodies of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley remain in their final resting place. 
Apart from the Allman Brothers Museum at 2321 Vineville Avenue (a.k.a. "The Big House"), there are no other monuments, markers or statues commemorating the existence of Duane Allman or Berry Oakley in Macon except for a bridge and a highway named after them, along with a small historical marker just to the right-hand side of those two adjoining graves in Rose Hill Cemetery. I guess the fact that the Allman Brothers Band spent time hanging out and writing songs in that cemetery during their early days in Macon is a monument to them in itself. 

It is my hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to visit that grave site. And when I do, I know that I will end up walking away having wiped tears from my eyes and shaken off a cold, bitter chill that will have crept down my spine as I remember Gregg Allman's sad, haunting lyrics that close the song "Melissa" from the Allman Brothers' 1972 album "Eat a Peach", which happened to be Duane's favorite song that Gregg wrote in 1967, and was recorded by the Allman Brothers Band five years later in Duane's memory...

"Crossroads, will you ever let him go?
Will you hide the dead man's ghost? 
Will he lie beneath the clay, 
or will his spirit float away?
But I know that he won't stay
without Melissa."

One more thing: While I'm in Macon, I will also remember to eat a peach for peace.

*According to one account, Duane was driving back to his home on 1160 Burton Avenue to gather presents and a cake to take back to "The Big House" for Elizabeth Oakley's birthday party.

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