Duane was born in Nashville, Tennessee and lived there until he was twelve. At that time his widowed mother, Mrs. Geraldine Allman, decided to seek better means of employment and moved both Duane and his brother Gregg to Daytona Beach, Florida. The yearning for the Nashville sound stayed with the youngsters and fortunately for them the late night rhythm and blues radio shows of WLAC Nashville could be heard in Daytona Beach. Muddy Waters, Bobby Bland, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson were listened to incessantly.
As in the case of so many youngsters, Duane's road to music was started wit a Christmas gift - to brother Gregg. Duane was given a motorcycle while Gregg received a guitar. The bike was soon wrecked and Duane traded the parts for another guitar. Gregg, then taught Duane everything that he had already learned and Duane stayed with the guitar even though his brother went on to expand his own versatility with keyboard instruments.
In an interview with Ellen Mandel on Queens College radio station WQMC in New York, Duane was asked how he learned to play guitar. In his own inimitable style he replied, "The cat that taught me how to play guitar lives in New Haven. Jim Sheppley, Ol' Lightnin' Fingers. The first number one, taking-care-of-business man in Daytona Beach, Florida; the cat that had it all together if you wanted to learn anything. If you wanted to play something right, you'd go to him and learn it. The baddest cat. A very influential cat in my life, also. He's dynamite. The smokin'-est cat. I can't even talk about him, he's so hip. He glows in the dark. He hung the moon and tells the sun when to come up. Shepp is smokin'."
The Allman’s made their first public appearance at a youth center teen dance. They would play anything anywhere just to get the chance to play. At 16 they were making $41 a week in a group called the House Rockers. In 1965 they formed a four-piece group called the Allman Joys which was mainly a regional band and lasted for only two years. It was with the Allman Joys that Duane and Gregg recorded their first commercial release for Buddy Killen (Joe Tex's manager) on the Dial label. The song was their own rendition of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful," and was not a national success although it sold well locally.
In 1966, while on a national tour with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (which he currently manages), Bill McEuen spotted the Allman Joys playing in the St. Louis Gaslight district. The area could be described as being the underworld side of the South, really a funky cafe community. "It was like being drawn into a new musical form," said Bill in a telephone interview.
Duane's music then was mostly top-forty stuff including "Walk Away Renee" and some Curtis Mayfield material. Gregg at that time was singing set-ups for Duane's guitar breaks. In those days Duane was playing through a very early model blonde Fender Telecaster with Fender's 150 rock and roll strings. He used Vox Super Beatle amps, and a very popular model at the time with six ten-inch speakers and two horns. He had a distortion device somewhat like a fuzz tone that he actually attached on a little bracket connected to the volume and treble knobs. He frowned upon any "phony" electric sound, and used this device to play at little lower level and get more sustain. He also had an Echoplex tape delay unit. Sometimes they would have it connected to the P.A. and other times put it in the guitar breaks.
McEuen felt that because he had connections in the recording end of the business he could help the Allman’s get a contract. More than anything else he wanted to get their music across to the people. "When Duane played guitar he was part of the song, he was part of the lick, he was visually interpreting his music like when you watch John Lee Hooker or you got a chance to watch Hendrix. He was obviously totally glued and tuned in to those licks, and he knew that he wasn't just playing notes, that they were things that should communicate and when they did it was very exciting."
McEuen brought the band to the West Coast and put them up in a big house in Hollywood with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Duane, Gregg, Paul Hornsby on piano and Johnny Sandlin on drums (in the early stages Maybrun McKinley on bass) still calling themselves the Allman Joys, were making it big playing the Whiskey A Go-Go and then the Fillmore with the Buffalo Springfield where Steve Stills and Neil Young flipped over them.
From the beginning McEuen and Duane developed a strong relationship and respect which transcended ordinary manger-client relationships. "Duane and I would sit for hours in my front room playing guitar and we'd discuss the possibilities of getting that guitar up front, but we didn't know what kind of music to do it with because there weren't many guitar instrumentals that were making it, and Duane didn't sing very much. When he came to California he started getting interested in fingerpicking and acoustic music [for acoustic sound he played a Gibson Heritage]. He loved arpeggio picking and had a great ear. He could hear something, and in a half-hour have it down. He would listen to Hendrix' first album and say, 'Shit, man, that's good, but I can do that.'" He got the idea for "Statesboro Blues" after listening to the Folkways album "Country Blues".
The Allman Joys broke up in 1967 and formed a group known as Hourglass. They released two albums on the Liberty label which were, according to the Allman’s, not up to their own standards. They had the same opinion of the Liberty management. Liberty records at that time didn't let musicians go into the studio and prepare and record their own albums; they tried to direct them, and the band felt that the direction for this type of a group was totally inadequate. The first album was cut with his Fender Telecaster played through Vox amplifiers while the second was through the Fender Twin Reverb. But Hourglass never made it and the group soon collapsed.
Soon Duane picked up slide playing using a '57 Gold Top Gibson Les Paul, explaining why on WQMC. "I heard Ry Cooder playing some time ago and I said, man that's for me. And I got me a bottle and went in the house for about three weeks and I said "Hey man, we've got to learn the songs - the blues to play on the stage. I love this. This is a gas.' So we started doing it and for a while it was everybody looking at me and thinking, 'Oh no! He's getting ready to do it again!' Everybody just lowered their heads - start it off fast and get it over with. But then, I got a little better at it, and improved it, but now everybody's blowing it all out of proportion. It's just fine for me as a relief from the other kind of playing." He'd tune to a chord and play what he felt.
One of Duane's closest friends was Jerry Wexler, head of Atlantic Records and one of the most perceptive men in the recording industry. I asked him how he first heard of Duane. "My first knowledge of Duane came when Rick Hall played for me on the telephone from Muscle Shoals a playback of Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude," which Rick had just finished producing. I was knocked out by the lead guitar I heard all through the record, and because I was familiar with the several session guitarists in Muscle Shoals I realized I was hearing a new player. It was Duane, of course, and I asked Rick to put him on the phone. That was the beginning of a close relationship, business and personal.
"Rick Hall had Duane under contract and I purchased it from Rick for Atlantic Records for $15,000. At this time it was a steep expenditure, because Duane didn't sing, write, nor did he have a band. I was encouraged to buy Duane's contract by Phil Walden, who became his manager and who built the Allman Brothers Band. Phil set up Capricorn Records, backed by Atlantic, which became the distributor for Capricorn, and the Allman’s were Capricorn's first, and ultimately most successful, project."
At that time Duane was playing a Gibson Les Paul gold top and a Gibson SG through two 50-watt Marshall amps driving two Marshall cabinets containing eight J.B.L. D-120F speakers. Sometimes on gigs he would play through a Vega P.A. system. In studio work he also used a Fender Stratocaster with Fender Twin Reverb amp. He never modified his equipment in any way throughout his career.
Wexler continues, "while the band was being formed, we used Duane as a session guitarist with Aretha Franklin, Delaney and Bonnie, King Curtis, Boz Scaggs, Ronnie Hawkins, and Eric Clapton. These sessions were cut mostly in Criteria, Miami; Atlantic, New York; Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
"Duane loved to play and he loved hanging out with musicians and music people. He came to visit with me often, at my houses in Florida and Long Island."
There would usually be other musicians around such as Delaney, Curtis, Doctor John, and Eddie Hinton. Duane taught Eddie how to play bottle slide; he used a little glass pill bottle, Coricidin type, and once wrote to the manufacturer telling them what he used them for and they in turn sent a whole case to him. He used to give these out to his admirers.
Wexler goes on, "His playing was incredible. He played great, authentic blues, and he phrased like the great black guitar players, playing beautiful melodic segments. He was a masterly player, way beyond the chops problem - and being born and raised in the South, the blues came naturally to him. He didn't have to learn them off phonograph records. He was a great acoustic guitar and dobro player. [He used a Gibson Heritage and a National Steel]. He even produced a slide effect manually when he wanted to. He played excellent bossa nova and jazz when needed, and when he jammed, he showed a good grounding in bop, and played a terrific country guitar, a la Hank Garland or Chet Atkins, as the spirit moved him.
"He loved B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Slim Harpo and Eric Clapton. We discussed Eric often, and Duane felt that Eric was the one foreign-born player who had it all the way. No, there was one other, Robbie Robertson. Duane put Robbie in the top category. Also he loved Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson; and shared a passion for these two artists with Delaney Bramlett, and it was something incredible to hear when they got together and played the songs of these two great Delta artists on acoustic guitars. I remember them playing outdoors on the deck of my house on Gardiner's Bay on a still summer night. They did songs like 'Shackles and Chains' as a slow, soulful ballad, 'Sweet Dreams' and many Jimmy Rogers songs. Duane even sang a little bit."
Duane Allman's personal philosophy of life was very simple and basic. He once said, "Everything's the same everywhere. There are nice folks, and ass-holes, and you have to learn to distinguish between the two in order to get by. And someone who's an ass-hole to somebody may be a nice folk to somebody else, so you've got to learn to be nice to everybody, and show everybody respect, that's the only way people respect you. You've got to have mutual respect and a little bit of love, if you can round it up. And don't be afraid to share what's inside of you with other people. That's the only way you're ever going to get free or have any fun all, either. So just rock on, and have you a good time. If I have a choice between having a good time and a shitty time, I'm going to have me a good time. I've had enough shitty times."
Probably the greatest session work that Duane ever did was on the Layla album with Derek and the Dominoes featuring Eric Clapton. Tom Dowd, producer with Atlantic, invited Duane to come to the session and one of the finest rock and roll albums ever produced evolved from this. Eric had asked Duane to sit in when he heard he was in the studio and the rest is history. His entire career can be followed in the album "Duane Allman: Anthology" on the Capricorn label (2CP0108).
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It was quiet in Macon's Memorial chapel that day but not for long. Hundreds of people - relatives and friends - gathered, talking, crying about something they still could not believe had happened. The band performed that day at the service like they had never done before; blues, with more meaning now than ever. They played "Stormy Monday," "Elizabeth Reed," and "Keys to the Highway." The harmonies and counterpoint of Duane and Dickey Betts weren't there, however. Delaney was, though, and so was Dr. John. Jerry Wexler delivered the eulogy. As he later described it, "There was a short sermon, and my few stumbling words - and a lot of Allman-style soulful southern rock and roll. Not rock. Rock and roll."
Washington Irving once said
"There is a remembrance of the dead, to which we turn even from
the charms of the living. These we would not exchange for the
song of pleasure or the bursts or revelry."
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