Blues For A Brother
(first published in 'The Macon Telegraph', October 29,
It was 20 years
ago today that Duane Allman climbed aboard his purple Harley
Davidson Sportster for the last time.
It was late afternoon, and the leader of the Allman Brothers
Band was going home after a birthday party at the “Big House,” a
Victorian mansion at the corner of Rogers and Vineville avenues.
The band rented the house as a sort of communal living space.
The party was for Linda Oakley, wife of bandmate Berry Oakley.
At about 5:40 p.m. Allman, a thin man with long, straight light
brown hair, mutton-chop sideburns and a bushy mustache, turned
onto Hillcrest Avenue and headed west through the Cherokee
Heights neighborhood. As Allman descended a steep hill, a
flatbed truck coming the opposite direction turned across his
path onto Bartlett Street, He veered to the left, lost control
of his motorcycle, and was thrown about 50 feet.
Charles Wertz, the driver of the truck, told police at the time
that he stopped his truck halfway into the intersection after he
heard a crash.
“I saw a boy lying on the ground with a cycle going as fast as
it could,” Wertz said 20 years ago. “I walked over and shut it
An ambulance carried Allman to what was then called the Middle
Georgia Medical Center where he died of internal injuries on an
operating table a few hours later. No one was charged in the
The man Wertz saw lying on the road was a rock guitarist at the
peak of his fame. A few months earlier, The Allman Brothers Band
had achieved superstar status with its third album, “At Fillmore
East’ — still widely regarded as the quintessential live rock
album. Many have called Allman the best slide guitarist in the
history of rock. He was only 24 when he died.
Allman spent the first years of his life in Nashville, Tenn.,
the older of two brothers, Gregg Allman, a year younger, would
accompany Duane through most of his musical career. The Allman
boys suffered a tragedy in their early childhood when their
father, an army lieutenant on leave from Korea, was murdered by
a hitchhiker the day after Christmas, 1949.
The Allman’s mother, Geraldine, enrolled the boys in a military
school in Tennessee. In 1968 she moved the family to Daytona
Beach, Fla. Gregg was the first to show an interest in playing
guitar, but Duane learned by borrowing his brother’s instrument
(much to Gregg’s initial annoyance.) Gregg concentrated on
playing organ and soon the brothers, who emulated blues singers
like B.B. King and Little Milton, were mailing plans to start a
blues band of their own.
After high school, the brothers formed a band called the Allman
Joys, which toured through out the South. In 1967 they formed
another band, The Hourglass, and moved to Los Angeles to record
two albums for Liberty Records.
In 1968 Duane Allman left Gregg in Los Angeles to accept a job
as session guitarist at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. For
nearly two years his reputation spread as he contributed to
records by R&B stars like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and
His playing caught the attention of Phil Walden, a talent
manager from Macon. Walden had managed Oils Redding until the
singer’s death in 1967 and was trying to move into the rock ‘n’
roll field. He heard some of Allman’s playing on a Wilson
Pickett song, then traveled to Muscle Shoals to recruit the
young guitarist. Allman signed up without hesitation and set out
to build a band that could produce the sound he wanted.
Within a few months he found the right musicians at a
now-legendary jam session in Jacksonville, Fla. They were Oakley
on bass, Dickey Betts on guitar and Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny
Johanson on drums. They all moved to Macon, where Walden was
starting his own record label, Capricorn. Duane called Gregg in
from California to sing and play organ. The six man band made a
new kind of rock a complex style that stayed firmly rooted in
the blues and yet was capable of astounding improvisational
With their long hair and hippie lifestyle, the band members
turned heads in conservative Macon. With electrifying live
performances and two excellent studio albums, the band earned
critical attention and a small but loyal following. By the fall
of 1971, the success of “At Fillmore East” had caused this loyal
following to multiply. The band was working on a fourth album, a
creative breakthrough to be titled “Eat a Peach.”
It seemed like nothing could stop the Allman Brothers Band but
it was hard to imagine a more devastating blow than the death of
its guiding spirit. Johnny Sandlin, who now owns a recording
studio in Decatur, Ala., had known Duane Allman eight years by
the time of the accident. He had played drums with Allman in The
Hourglass and had moved to Macon to work as a producer and
talent manager for Capricorn. He still clearly remembers the day
of Allman’s death.
“I was at the Capricorn office over on Cotton Avenue, and we
heard that Duane was in an accident,” Sand]in recalled. “He was
on a motorcycle all the time, and you just kind of expected an
accident. We had no idea it was going to be fatal. We just kind
of wandered up — the office is just a couple blocks from the
hospital. I guess it was real naive or stupid of me, but I had
no idea it was all that serious even after I got there. Then
Gregg came up, he was crying, all broken up. Then I realized it
was serious, then it came out that he died. “It was really sad.
It was really a strange day. We were all pretty young back
Walden, who has recently resurrected his once-bankrupt Capricorn
label in Nashville, Tenn., said he was on the first day of his
vacation on the Caribbean island of Bimini when the accident
occurred. Walden’s secretary reached him by telephone and told
him the bad news that night. He flew hack to Macon the next day.
Walden had the best and the worst luck when it came to the
talent he managed. He had found two great talents — Redding and
Allman — only to have death claim them both in their prime.
“Obviously, there was a great deal of sadness,” Walden said of
Allman’s death. “In addition to being a client and recording for
me, our relationship went far beyond that.
“He was a very very special person. He was the type of man that,
if you didn’t even know who he was and he was in a room with a
thousand people, you could sense or feel his presence. He could
fill up a room just by being there.
“Musically, he was in a very, very special place. I think in
terms of an overall guitarist, particularly a rock ‘n’ roil
guitarist, he was obviously second to no one. He just had
impeccable taste in his playing. That separated him from a lot
of rock ‘n’ roil players that tend to be judged by the number of
notes they play and how fast they play them. He only played what
needed to be played. He had total and complete control of his
Paul Hornsby, who owns Muscadine recording studio in Macon,
remembers Allman from the days he played music with him in The
Hour Glass and worked with him at Capricorn. Hornsby said he was
at home in Macon when Sandlin called and told him that Allman
had died. He said he was shocked by the loss, but not all that
“Duane lived a fast life,” Hornsby said. I wasn’t as surprised
as if it was somebody who lived a little safer. He lived the way
he did, and he had a good time every day.”
Hornsby said he remembers Allman as prankster who liked to shoot
out street light with a BB gun to amuse himself between gig on
the road. He also liked to booby-trap toile seats with small
“He was the only person I ever met who was really a genius,”
Hornsby said. “He didn’t have a lot of book education, but he
was able to focus everything in one direction, and that was
music. He was an Einstein on guitar.”
Joe Dan Petty, who now owns the Peach Cobbler shoe repair shop
on Vineville Avenue and plays bass in a rock band called the
Lifters, was working as a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band at
the time of Allman’s death.
Petty and Betts, who are lifelong friends, were in Bradenton,
Fla., that day. Petty recalled that Oakley’s sister called him
about 10 pm with the news. “It just knocked me out,” Petty said.
“I couldn’t even believe it. It left me speechless and in
tears.” Petty said he and Betts got in a car and drove up to
Macon as soon as they heard the news. “Everybody was real upset
it was a real heavy thing. The whole thing is real hard to look
“He was a real strong human being and well respected. There
wasn’t any (nonsense) about him. if he told you something, you
could pretty much believe what he said. And that left an
impression on me.”
Duane Allman’s death nearly put an end to the Allman Brothers
Band, but the other members of the band persevered. They added
key board player Chuck Leavell to fill the gap left by the
death, thinking it best not to try to replace Allman with
In November 1972. the band was dealt another blow, eerily
similar to the first: Oakley died after his motorcycle slammed
into a city bus just a few blocks from the spot where Allman had
crashed. Bass player Lamar Williams replaced Oakley.
The band actually had its greatest success after the deaths of
Allman and Oakley. In 1973 the fifth album, “Brothers and
Sisters,” produced “Ramblin’ Man,” the band’s first Top 10 hit.
Soon, however, the fabric that held the band together began to
unravel. The Allman Brothers Band split up in 1976, following
some mediocre recording efforts and the much-publicized drug
trial of the band’s road manager, John “Scooter” Herring. The
band reunited briefly for two for gettable albums in 1979 and
1981, then dissolved again. The band came back together in 1989
and has since toured successfully and produced two critically
But how would the band’s history have been different if Allman
had survived? There’s no answer to that question, of course, but
Sandlin says that doesn’t stop him from wondering.
“I tell you what,” he said. “I think about that all the time, I