Thursday, February 3, 2011

Duane Allman

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Duane and his brother Gregg had lots of opportunities to see great musicians. In particular, blues legend B.B. King made a big impression on young Duane. During a King show in 1959 Duane turned to his brother and said, “We got to get into this.” Two years later the Allman brothers quit high school and started their own band named the Escorts and then later the Allman Joys.

The Allman Joys were mired in mediocrity for five years before morphing into another unsuccessful group known as The Hour Glass. The Hour Glass’ record company wanted the group to be a pop band even though the band members desired a more bluesy sound. The two albums released by The Hour Glass flopped. However some of the songs from this period were resurrected and appear on the first and second Duane Allman Anthologies. The songs are radically improved from the originals mostly because Duane’s guitar is featured prominently.

The Hour Glass albums did manage to do one important thing for Duane’s career: they caught the attention of Rick Hall, owner of FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In November 1968 Hall hired Allman to play back up on a Wilson Pickett album. Duane’s performance on the record blew away Atlantic records producer Jerry Wexler and soon he was being used as a session musician on a bunch of R&B records. Allman recorded with such sixties and seventies legends as: Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Boz Scaggs, Percy Sledge, Otis Rush and jazz flautist Herbie Mann. Even after he formed his own band, Duane would often just show up at Muscle Shoals and jam with whoever happened to be recording that day. He didn’t receive any credit for these impromptu sessions and consequently it’s virtually impossible to put together a complete discography.

Duane soon grew weary of the limitations of session work and desired to start his own band. Allman recruited his brother Gregg to play keyboards and sing, Dickey Betts to play back-up guitar, Berry Oakley to man bass and Butch Trucks to drum. The Allman Brothers Band was formed. They soon became renowned for their live shows, especially in the Deep South. Even so, their first album didn’t sell well, not even cracking the Billboard’s Top 100. A track off the album, “Whipping Post,” would end up being one of their most adored concert numbers and in time would be hailed as a legendary rock song. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included “Whipping Post” in its list of The 500 Songs that Changed the Face of Rock and Roll.

The Allman Brothers Band released its second album Idlewind South in 1970. The album was met with critical acclaim and jumped onto the Billboard chart. That same month Eric Clapton attended an Allman Brothers concert. He met Duane after the show and a legendary all-night jam session ensued. The two had immediate musical chemistry and Clapton insisted that Duane be a part of his new band named Derek and the Dominos. Duane agreed and when he wasn’t touring with the Allman Brothers he would sneak off to Miami to record with Clapton. Their collaboration can be heard on the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Allman played on almost every track and contributed some of his best-known work. Duane steadfastly refused to leave the Allman Brothers despite Clapton’s offer to play with him full time. In 1971 the Allman Brothers recorded At Fillmore East, one of the best live albums ever recorded.

Fans responded enthusiastically to the release of At Fillmore East and the band was more popular than ever. Then on October 29, 1971 Allman was riding his motorcycle in Macon, Georgia when he lost control and crashed, injuring several internal organs. He died a few hours later, less than a month away from his 25th birthday. He truly was, to borrow Kurt Cobain’s metaphor, the star that burnt out instead of faded away.

In a bizarre and tragic coincidence the Allman Brothers bass player Berry Oakley died thirteen months later in Macon in much the same fashion. They are buried in neighboring burial plots in Macon.

Two posthumous albums were released of Duane Allman’s work: Duane Allman: An Anthology and Duane Allman: An Anthology Vol. II. The albums contain a variety of Duane’s session work and Allman Brothers band leading. Duane can also be heard on the Allman Brothers Band album, Eat a Peach, which the band was working on at the time of Duane’s death. The unusual title for the album came from an interview with Duane a short time before his death. When a reporter asked Allman, a noted pacifist, what he does for the anti-war effort Duane responded, “…every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace.”

Duane was proficient with every type of guitar but he is best remembered for his sublime slide guitar playing. What most people call a “slide guitar” is actually a technique not an instrument. Slide guitar is played two ways: the player can hold the guitar normally or horizontally. If it is held normally then the player puts what is known as a bottleneck, (because bottlenecks were the first materials to be used,) on the left hand and makes a sound by sliding the bottleneck up and down the strings. If the player holds it horizontally then a “steel” is used similar to the bottleneck and this is referred to as playing a “steel guitar”. Duane played the slide guitar using a bottleneck.

Duane’s tone on the slide was unique due to a couple of things. First he used a glass Coricidin Medicine Bottle. This is not actually long enough to cover the neck of the Les Paul. Consequently he never played full chords; he preferred to never reach beyond triads (3 string chords). He would hold the slide in such a way that the inside rim of the bottle would rest on the second knuckle of his ring finger. He would use the tip of his ring finger to position the slide and use his second finger to pinch the strings behind the slide and choke off any unwanted overtones. In order to achieve this Duane had his guitars set up with the action high and the frets low.

Duane’s fretted technique was also quite abnormal. He used a technique called circular picking instead of the standard perpendicular movement of the pick to the strings. This technique softens the attack and allows one to jump strings with a more controlled manner. Also, the fact that Duane was a lefty but played a right-handed guitar made him unique. It gave him unusual strength and control in his fretting hand and a very light touch with his picking hand.

In contradiction to the majority of rock heavyweights during his era, Duane Allman did not play a Fender Stratocaster. He preferred to play Gibson to Fender; he played a 59 Gibson Sunburst and a 68 Cherry SG. For amplification he generally used the Marshall 50 watt bass head. When a reporter asked him the difference between what he and Clapton played on the Layla album he responded: I played the Gibson and he played the Fender. Continuing to explain that the Fender had a “sparklier” sound and the Gibson had more of a “high-pitch screech.”

The legacy of Duane Allman will always be one of unreal talent and tragedy that is too real and too common. He was a brilliant musician that passed before his genius could be truly appreciated. The song “Free Bird,” which legendary Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd dedicated to the memory of Duane Allman, starts with the lines: “If I leave here tomorrow… Would you still remember me?” In the case of Duane the answer is a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

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