Duane Allman - Biography
“Oh, man! Studios – that’s a terrible thing,” Duane Allman said in an unidentified interview quoted in Randy Poe’s 2006 biography Skydog. “You just lay around and you get your money, man.” Working in the studio may have been a grind for Allman, but it established his name; had he never played a note with The Allman Brothers Band, he would likely still be revered by a legion of admiring listeners.
In his short 24 years of life, Duane Allman was best known as the lead guitarist for the Macon, Georgia-based Allman Brothers Band. However, before that group became the defining Southern rock unit, the red-headed, mutton-chopped picker earned a heavy reputation among music industry cognoscenti as one of the premier studio musicians of the late ‘60s. He gained his first renown as a house guitarist at Alabama’s Fame Studios, where he supported the best-known soul singers of the era. He went on to do session work with some top rock talent as well; his career as a sideman culminated with his appearance opposite Eric Clapton on Derek & the Dominos’ classic Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs.
He was born Howard Duane Allman on Nov. 20, 1946, in Nashville. His brother Gregory Lenoir Allman – Gregg for short – was born 11 months later on a Virginia army base. On the day after Christmas in 1947, the boys’ father, army recruiter Willis Allman, was shot to death by a serviceman during a holdup. Raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, Duane began playing guitar in his early teens; he learned the fundamentals from an older schoolmate, Jim Shepley. He got hooked on blues and R&B listening to the influential Nashville station WLAC.
From 1964-68, Duane played lead guitar in a succession of bands that also included his brother Gregg on keyboards and vocals. The Escorts and The Allman Joys were little more than regional club acts (though the latter band cut a single with songwriter-singer-producer John D. Loudermilk, author of “Tobacco Road”). The Allmans’ act Hour Glass was signed to Liberty Records, where they cut two unsuccessful albums during a protracted and unhappy sojourn in Los Angeles.
In the spring of 1968, Allman – who was working relentlessly to develop his abilities as a slide guitarist – and Hour Glass went to Florence, Alabama, for sessions at Fame Studios. Owned by producer Rick Hall and located in the middle of a quadrant of towns known as the Muscle Shoals region, Fame had become the preferred studio for Atlantic Records’ soul sessions, and had been churning out hits for Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and others. The Allmans thought their sound could be captured best at the Southern facility, but their label disagreed.
In mid-‘68, the group split in frustration. Gregg remained in LA to record under the Hour Glass name with studio musicians, while Duane headed back south. He worked briefly with some of the musicians who would later form the core of The Allman Brothers Band. In September, he returned to Alabama and to Fame, and asked Rick Hall for work as a session player. Hall, who had such formidable pickers as Eddie Hinton and Jimmy Johnson on retainer, told the aspiring studio musician that he couldn’t pay him, but he could hang around if he liked.
In November 1968, Duane Allman was drafted to play slide guitar on “The Road of Love,” a remake of a flop single by the blind singer-guitarist Clarence Carter. (Hall owned the publishing on the song and decided to take another crack at it in the studio.) His impressive bottleneck work – the earliest example of his nonpareil slide playing --was heard on the Atlantic album The Dynamic Clarence Carter (1969); more importantly, that session led to Allman’s appearance on a major hit single.
Not long after the Carter date, Wilson Pickett showed up at Fame, ready to record but without any material in hand. Allman, who was in the studio, suggested taking a crack at “Hey Jude,” The Beatles’ explosive seven-minute single, which was then still climbing the pop singles chart. After some initial reluctance, Pickett recorded the song in an arrangement essentially crafted by the guitarist. With a regrooved coda pairing Pickett’s over-the-top screams and Allman’s blow-out guitar work, the “Hey Jude” cover became a hit right on the heels of the Fab Four’s No. 1 original, rising to No. 13 on the R&B charts and No 23 on the pop side. Ironically, when the track appeared on the album Hey Jude (1969), the axe man was listed on the sleeve as “David Allman.”
Miscredited or not, Duane Allman’s reputation as a top session player was made for good. The Pickett session also led to his enduring nickname – his old handle “Dog” was melded with Pickett’s affectionate sobriquet “Sky Man,” and the guitarist became known as “Skydog.”
In 1969, as the groundwork was laid for the debut of The Allman Brothers Band, Allman remained busy at Fame. He recorded a memorable solo on a version of The Band’s “The Weight” with Aretha Franklin; the track went to No. 3 on the R&B charts and No. 19 on the pop lists. He appeared on saxophonist King Curtis’ hit, Grammy-winning instrumental version of Joe South’s “Games People Play.” He cut some sides for a solo album that went unfinished. And he traded licks with Chicago blues guitarist Otis Rush on the album Mourning in the Morning (1969).
He capped his year in the studio by joining former members of the Fame house band at their newly established facility, Muscle Shoals Sound, for work on the debut solo album by The Steve Miller Band’s former guitarist. Boz Scaggs (1969) failed to even graze the charts on its initial release, but it contains some of Allman’s best pre-ABB work, highlighted by his stomping work on a 13-minute-long version of bluesman Fenton Robinson’s “Loan Me a Dime.”
Even after The Allman Brothers Band was established, Allman would return to the Southern studios where he made his bones. He played on sessions with Delaney & Bonnie (whose group would spawn the rhythm section for Derek & the Dominos), blues singer John Hammond, Jr. (who became a close friend), rockabilly vocalist Ronnie Hawkins, and soul singer (and Otis Redding’s former boss) Johnny Jenkins.
By August 1970, The Allman Brothers Band had released their self-titled debut album and had cut their sophomore release Idlewild South. At that point, Eric Clapton – then the most celebrated guitarist in rock, thanks to his work with The Yardbirds, Cream, and Blind Faith – had assembled a new group, Derek & the Dominos, which was set to record with producer Tom Dowd at Criteria Studios in Miami. Allman and Clapton were members of a mutual admiration society, and, through Dowd, the American guitarist was brought on as a session player to duel with his British peer.
Allman – who briefly played hooky from The Allman Brothers Band’s live gigs for the recording dates – appeared on 11 of the 14 tracks on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1971). The two guitarists’ fencing climaxed with the dramatic, lyrical coda on “Layla” (a song inspired by Clapton’s love for his friend George Harrison’s wife Patti). The collection initially peaked at No. 16 on the charts. It would reappear three times in ensuing years, and retains its status today as one of the great rock guitar albums.
Allman’s last gig as a studio sideman was also one of his most fulfilling. Jazz flutist Herbie Mann, who had met the guitarist at a show in New York’s Central Park in 1970, brought him in to work on his funk-oriented album Push Push (1971). It was a satisfying match: Allman was a jazz fan who revered Miles Davis and John Coltrane (and had unsuccessfully sought session work with Rahsaan Roland Kirk), and Mann was a groove-oriented player at home with Southern soul (and had used Allman’s old Fame colleague Eddie Hinton on a previous album). Push Push enjoyed a 23-week album chart run.
On Oct. 29, 1971, just four months after the New York sessions with Mann, Duane Allman was on his way to a surprise birthday party in Macon on the back of his Harley-Davidson chopper. Driving too fast, Allman swerved to avoid a truck in the road; he was thrown from his bike, which landed on top of him. He died without regaining consciousness at the Medical Center of Central Georgia, and swiftly passed into musical legend. Two compilations, An Anthology (1972) and An Anthology, Vol. II (1974), bring together his work as a bandleader and a studio sideman.
In September 2003, Rolling Stone named Allman No. 2 on its list of the greatest guitarists of all time, second only to Jimi Hendrix.