The Allman Brothers? Sure, that's Duane Allman's back-up group - he left them to join up with Derek & The Dominos, right?
Wrong. "I did two gigs with them," Duane recalls. "I played Syracuse and Tampa, and I was gonna make the whole tour, but it took like ten weeks - and I got my own fish to fry." The fish-frying was in the form of a lot of gigs with the Allman Brothers Band, including almost 21 straight days in December, all over the country.
What about him being singled out as the guitar "star" of the band? "I don't think anybody who's ever heard us would get on that trip," he says. ”See, our band is a band, and we work like a band. In a way though, I actually hope people get a delusion like that, if it’ll get 'em down to hear us - and then we'll open up their eyes right."
In mid-December the Allman Brothers did the Fillmore East, and any doubts about their togetherness were pretty well squished right into the cracks in the floor. Duane (also known as Skydog) takes his share of solos, but everybody cooks together, from brother Greg on organ and vocals, to Dicky Betts on lead guitar, Berry Oakley on bass and occasional vocals, and Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson on double drum sets, with help from Thom Doucette on harp and percussion on some gigs. On stage the Brothers can go from powerhouse soaring stomp rock, to fluid and flowing tone poems in sound just like southern mountain water runnning rough over rocks and smooth on sand; they're into each others heads, they make a total music that has little to do with ego or flash.
"You wanna play in my band," Duane says, "You'd better come to pick, not to show off your clothes - it ain't no fashion show." The Allman Brothers are a group that loves to play, and it shows. Some groups come off like they can't wait for the set to end so they can get to the party; with the Allmans, the set is the party. (The late show at the Fillmore on Saturday ran almost twice as long as it was supposed to, they didn't want to quit and the audience wouldn't let them.)
The average age of the band is almost 25, and they've all been playing music for many years, in many different groups. Duane and Greg being brothers, have naturally been together the longest; their first gigs were at Y-Teen dances in Florida. They were in a lot of rock and blues bands in the south, first trying to learn Beatle tunes, later getting into blues through the same school that practically every bluesman in the country went to: the late night R&B broadcasts on WLAC radio, from Nashville, Tennessee. "We heard all them people there; Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and so on,” Duane recalls. ”And that naturally led back to the older blues cats like Robert Johnson. Wheew - what can you say about him? And others too before him, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson - you know Blind Willie's "Dark Was The Night"? I got shivers when I heard that." They were in a group together called the House Rockers, made $7 a night - "the big time. man," Duane laughs. "We really wanted to get it together, to hear that damn music being stomped out. That's what I love, to hear that backbsat popping, man, and that damn bass plonking down, Jesus God! That was the damndest group, we would set fire to a building in a second." Later came a group called the Allman Joys, and their first record, Willie Dixon's ”Spoonful" - "a terrible psychedelic rendition," as Duane describes it. The record didn't sell much, and when they brought the producer some original material later he wasn't interested.
Somehow Duane and Greg wound up in California, in a group called the Hourglass. They made a couple of albums, but "there wasn't any of the good stuff on either one of ’em," Duane said. "They'd come in with a box of demos and say, ’Okay, pick your next album out.' And we'd say, 'That’s not where it's at at al .' And then they'd get tough, so okay, ve'd try it. But there was no warmth, no feeling at all in anything we were associated with and we couldn't relate to it, or work for it, so we just split.” The Hourglass did a brief southern tour and ended up doing some recording at Rick Hall’s Muscle Shoals studio. Hall dug Duane's guitar work, and when Wilson Pickett booked some studio time, Hall called in a "bunch of folks” to be the hack-up session men - including Duane, up from Florida. "We cut "Hey Jude", the whole album, and Rick really liked my glaying on that - he said, 'Why don’t you just go home and get your gear an move on up here - you can play anything that comes through the door' - the Hourglass had broken up by then and I wasn't doing nothing except drinking and jiving around, so I said okay. I got a little cabin on the lake by myself and just sat there and played, getting used to living without a bunch ot jive Hollywood crap in my head."
Duane did a lot of R&B sessions then, people like Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin. Arthur Conley and King Curtis - most in Muscle Shoals. But for the work with Aretha, Atlantic flew the whole band in to record in New York.
In the meantime all the other future members of the Allmans were working in different bands on the southern circuits. Berry Oakley came down from Chicago with the Roemans (Tommy Roe's old back-up band), and he and Dicky (who grew up in the woods of Florida} had a band together for a year or so, playing clubs in Jacksonville. Butch Trucks, the drummer, had a band too, and for awhile Duane and Greg played in that - and the two bands kept crossing each others paths in Sunday afternoon park gigs, jammed and juiced together. While Duane was getting it together doing sessions the rest were talking, and one day in Jacksonville they all sat down to play. ”We played for like two hours straight, without stopping," Duane remembers. "And when it was over nobody said a word, we just looked at each other. And I knew right then that that was what I wanted."
For awhile Duane commuted back and forth between Muscle Shoals and Jacksonville, taking a few more clothes back to Florida each trip - and finally he just didn't go back. "I told Rick that all I wanted to do was play with these cats." They found a manager named Phil Walden who laid out a lot of bread for equipment. "Without Phil Walden, there'd be no Allman Brothers," Duane says. "He believed in us and helped us in every possible way.” The Allmans were his first rock act, he managed people like Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding and others.
So with the addition of Jai Johanny Johanson (from groups like Ted Taylor, Clifton Chenier, Joe Tex, Otis Redding, etc.) on drums, the band was complete. While they were getting tunes together Duane continued to do occasional sessions. The first non-R&B session was with Boz Scaggs (ex-Steve Miller Band) on his first LP, later Duane played on several tracks of blues singer John Hammond’s "Southern Fried" LP.
The Allmans began to tour around the country and released the first LP on the Capricorn label . . . and Duane continued his session work and jamming. Most famous of course in rock circles is his work on the Derek & The Dominos "Layla" album. The way it happened sounds almost like a Hollywood script: "Tom Dowd, our producer, happened to mention that Eric was going to be cutting some stuff in Miami," Duane says. "So I asked him to be sure and call me, cause I wanted to come and watch and see what Eric was up to - you know, musicians are like that, they like to keep track of what other players are doing. I've been a big fan of his for a long time. I drove from L.A. to San Francisco once, just to hear him play. So l went to the sessions. and he knew me, man, he greeted me like an old friend - the cat’s just really a prince. And he said, 'Well come on, you got to play on this record' - an so I did, we made the whole album. I'm really proud of my playing on that - outside of our records, that's my favorite."
Then the Allmans' second LP ("Idlewild South") was released and tours followed. Duane found time to back up Laura Nyro on one song on her newest LP and speaks highly of her ability. He still does session work from time to time, but his main interest is the Allman Brothers.
”We're all together, man, we all found our place. Ain't nobody going nowhere, ain't nobody firing nobody," Duane says. And Berry adds, "We're doing what we want to do more than anything else - and if we can make a living at it too, that's just beautiful."
They're now at work on the third LP - at this writing, plans are for a double set; one live, one studio. Duane grins widely. "It's gonna be a mother, man."
There'll be a lot of people waiting.