Duane Allman’s initial love of music came from his father, Willis Allman, who was murdered when Duane was three years old. In a previous blog, Jim Shepley, Duane’s closest friend during his teen years in Daytona Beach, recalls, “Duane would say to me, ‘Gee, Jim, I remember my dad pickin’ and singin’, and that’s kind of where I always got my interest in music.’” Shepley, in turn, inspired Duane to play guitar, teaching him how to fingerpick blues songs and showing him the 12-bar blues of Jimmy Reed and B.B. King.
As Shepley points out, Bob Greenlee was another key figure in Duane’s musical development. As a teenager, Greenlee organized an integrated musical review that consisted of the Untils – four black singers – backed by the all-white Houserockers. Gregg and Duane Allman performed in the Houserockers before starting their own bands, notably the Allman Joys, Hour Glass, and Allman Brothers Band. Greenlee was also an outstanding student and athlete. He was captain of the 1966 Yale University football team and a 1967 fourth-round draft pick for the Miami Dolphins, a position he turned down to devote himself to music.
Shepley and Greenlee remained friends long after Duane’s death in 1971. During the 1980s, Bob played in the Midnight Creepers and put together Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band. He created an independent label, King Snake Records, and produced albums by Rufus Thomas, Lucky Peterson, Noble Watts, and Raful Neal. In 2004, he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The following interview took place on May 18, 1982. At the time, Bob was living on his family farm in Sanford, Florida, and producing an album for Root Boy Slim.
Could you tell me about your first acquaintance with Duane?
I think it was in a friend of mine’s basement. There was three of us who was playing blues in Daytona. I specialized in playing like John Lee Hooker. Jim kind of played like Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Duane played kind of like B.B. King. We got together to trade off a few licks. We didn’t really know very many of them. It took me a long time to figure out that John Lee Hooker was playing “Boogie Chillen” in an open chord. I finally had to have a black guy show me that it was in an open-A chord. Otherwise, I was always trying to play John Lee Hooker licks in a regular tuning. We just sat around and played – that was back when there were no unwound G strings or anything like that.
What year was this?
I would make it about ’59 or ’60. I was about 15. I was born in ’44.
How were you introduced to blues music?
I think the way all of us were turned on to the blues in those days was through WLAC, the radio station. That was pretty much how I got turned on to it when I was in about in the seventh or eighth grade. I started listening to it, and I remember sending away and getting this great big deal, like a radio antenna made out of iron, and setting it up outside my window to try to improve the way I could bring in WLAC. When you twist the dial and hear Jimmy Reed, you just have to go back and hear some more. That was how I felt about it.
There used to be a magazine, kind of like Song Hits or Hit Parader, called Rhythm and Blues. It was the same format that Hit Parader had, real pulpy, and had song words. I had to spend the summer with my parents in Michigan, and I saw this magazine. I started getting into buying 45s. I bought Elvis Presley 45s – “Heartbreak Hotel.” Then I started getting into buying these current blues records – say, “Further on Up the Road” by Bobby Bland, the early Bo Diddley stuff on Checker, Jimmy Reed records like “Honest I Do,” stuff like that. So that’s how I got into the blues. I became very into John Lee Hooker.
This is before you met Duane?
Yeah, well before.
Was Jim Shepley pretty much Duane’s best friend back then?
Yeah, he was. And he showed him a real lot of guitar in there. If I recall, Shepley was one year younger than me, and Duane was a year younger than him, in and around in there. And they lived in the same part of town. They lived pretty far south, down around the Port Orange area. The Allmans lived on Van, and Shepley lived on a street called Cardinal, which was maybe a half a mile away from there. I lived maybe another half a mile north. Yeah, I’d say Shepley was his best friend, and they both had motorcycles – I think they both had 165s.
Was Duane a quick learner?
Very, very, very quick learner. And quick to learn stuff off records too. Lots of times he would be able to help Jim and I figure out what was going on off of records. If we couldn’t pick it out, he could. Actually, all three of us were fairly quick at that. But when that’s all you’ve got to learn off of, then you learn to do it off of them.
Were you in the Houserockers and Untils?
Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs
Yeah, I formed that band. See, when I was away at school in North Carolina, I was influenced by seeing Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs and a couple of these North Carolina-type R&B sets [bands]. I guess they call it “beach music” now. One was the Rivieras, another was the Catalinas. They were from Charlotte, and that’s where Maurice Williams was from. Remember the record “Little Darlin’”? Well, the first one was by the Gladiolas, and it was later covered by the Diamonds. The Gladiolas was on Excello, and that was Maurice Williams. Apparently Excello owned the name “the Gladiolas.” Excello, of course, is a legendary blues label, having Lightnin’ Slim, Arthur Gunter, Lazy Lester, all those people. I got into these rhythm and blues sets at the same time as having a parallel interest in blues. So I got back home from school and I thought I wanted to put together a set. So I got with my friend Eddie Hartje, who played the piano. We found this drummer named Rick “Stick” Spencer, who was kind of a burned-out case. He had a real funky old Cadillac. He’d been on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis and some of these early rock and roll guys, and me and Hartje and Rick “Stick” Spencer were the band.
We got four black guys as singers – two from Augusta, Georgia, named Elmore and Cecil Lampkin, and these two other guys who were from the Daytona-New York axis. They were more sophisticated. They would go up from time to time to New York. They were a little bit more into, like, Jackie Wilson and some of the doo-wop acts. That was Floyd Miles, who was on the road with Clarence Carter later and was a real good rhythm and blues singer, even now. The other singer was Floyd’s nephew, although actually he was older than Floyd. He was named Tootie – I don’t know if his last name is Miles or not. Floyd and Tootie would sing the kind of sweet songs – the Gene Chandler tunes, the Isley Brothers tunes. “Shout” was like the big crowd pleaser at the time. And then we would have the Lampkins doing, say, “Driving Wheel” and blues material.
Floyd Miles influenced Gregg quite a bit.
Oh, yeah. He did. Floyd’s a real pivotal figure because he was in there real early. In fact, he was in a band before the Untils, the most fabulous singing ever – it was called the Pearl Notes. It was Floyd, blind Charles Atkins, who’s a brilliant singer, Petey, and this girl called Valletta Sipp. I wanted to hire the whole Pearl Notes, but it just didn’t work out that way because I was reluctant to fire the Lampkin brothers because they sang the blues so great. I couldn’t stop listening to them do “Driving Wheel” and stuff like that – those Jimmy Reed tunes. I was too deep into the blues.
Was Jim Shepley in the band before Duane?
Neither were in the band at the beginning. At the beginning, it was me on guitar and saxophone, Hartje, and the drummer, all playing through one Fender Twin. And the singers also singing through one Fender Twin. The entire band was coming out of one Fender Twin, and we played the Pier in Daytona, which was a big club. Then I would go away to school, and Shepley came back and played in the set. He was in it before Duane. I’d known Duane, but it was just getting together and playing the blues.
Then one summer I came home, I was getting ready to set it up, but Shepley’s out of town. So I called over to Duane and Gregg’s house – I didn’t know Gregg at this time. I got this guy on the phone, and I said, “Hey, listen. I’m trying to get a hold of Duane Allman because I need somebody to play guitar down at the Pier.” He said, “He’s out of town.” Jim was out of town too because there had been some kind of a problem – I think it had to do with stolen beer. They had buried the beer, and they were afraid that somebody was going to find their fingerprints or something. I couldn’t believe it. So this guy, who turned out to be Gregg, said, “Listen, I’d like you to let me play some guitar.” I said, “Well, I can dig that. That’d be fine.” Because I had pretty much given up playing guitar at this time. I was playing saxophone.
By this time, we’re up to maybe the very beginning of the Beatles era – I’m gonna say ’63. I’d started doing it in ’61, and I did it again in ’62, and Duane would come in
and sit in. It was pretty much the only blues, or rhythm and blues, set in town. There weren’t any rock and roll sets, except Allen Page & The Del-Tones, but that was kind of like white-boy music, and I was violently opposed to that. Pretty much Duane and Jim were too. So I said, “Sure, Gregg, come on.” He had his own drummer and his own bass player. Gregg came over and we started gigging. We had a blind singer who was pretty much an influence on Gregg too, named Charles Atkins. If anything, he was more of an influence than Floyd, because he sounds more like Bobby Bland, who I think obviously influenced Gregg more than the sweeter-type singers. So we went to work – the usual lousy money. We might have been making $40 a week, or $50.
How many nights were you working?
Every night [laughs] – of course! And then Gregg would say to me, “Listen, we’d like to do some of these Beatles tunes on our breaks.” I couldn’t really say no, because everybody was getting shit money, so I said okay. And they would sing “Boys” – to me, it was just absolutely heretical. To me, for a white guy to presume to sing was really out. I thought it was sort of unfair, in a way. I thought the music just belonged to black people, and that they could sing so much better that I couldn’t conceive of anybody singing it and sounding good. Of course, Gregg didn’t sound good, so I got kind of bummed out. I was thinking, “Wow, I’d sure like to ease this guy off the band.” I didn’t really be so blunt about it. I think I got it around by Shepley being back in town. I started cutting Gregg’s pay, you know, and they were about ready to leave too, because Duane got back about the same time.
But by this time Duane hadn’t played in the band?
No, I don’t know that he ever did play in the band, to tell you the truth. If he did, it was when I was in prep school or maybe during my freshman year at Yale. Because about that time Duane came back, and Gregg and the drummer and the bass player, Van Harrison, left and formed the Escorts. I got Jim Shepley, which is what I wanted all along, because he played like [Bobby Bland guitarist] Wayne Bennett – sitting down with a kind of a fat hollowbody Gibson. I was looking for a Wayne Bennett guitar player, really. But Gregg was good. You’ve got to realize that in those days the standards for what was good in guitar were really, really bad. Nobody was good. Nobody was good on the records – on a local level. We had no idea about that kind of stuff.
According to Gregg and Jim Shepley, Duane was in the Houserockers for a while.
That would have probably been when I was not there. I think that would have been during the winter times. Well, my mind’s a little foggy. I guess maybe the second summer I was there he did. The first summer, the whole summer went by, and I played all the guitar and the saxophone, and Jim would come up and try to figure out what I was doing. And I was pretty basic. Say, when we would do “I Found a Love” by the Falcons, we would do it in F, so I would take a capo and move it up to the fifth fret, so I could do these riffs that I would normally do in C, just so I could get the [sings the song’s riff]. The idea of just moving my fingers up to a barre chord and doing the riff hadn’t occurred to me.
Once we were drinking vodka and Cecil Lampkin, one of the guys from Augusta, showed me how to bend a string. And this was like the skies opening up. When I learned about bending strings, then I finally figured out that I would be smart to take a B string and move it down to G, so I would be able to bend it, because dealing that those big Black Diamond G strings was very difficult. Anyway, so the next year the Houserockers picked up this piano player named Abe, and then we got a bass player, a guy named Board, from Smyrna. And about then I think Duane and Jim did both start moving in there and kind of trading off.
Actually, I do remember Duane playing with the Houserockers one time. We were playing up at the Pier, and we did “Need to Belong” by Jerry Butler, with all this real pretty Curtis Mayfield type guitar. This black guy was just mystified. He came to Duane and he said, “Man, how do you tune that thing?” And Duane just looked at him and said, “Like it is. Like it is.” At that time, he was really starting to get ahead of it. He was sounding good too. He always seemed to have a nice, loose, easygoing feel.
Did you know Duane very well?
Yeah, I knew him pretty well. He was a real good guy. He always seemed to be real energetic in those days, and funny. The impressions I have of him is he was full of energy and real witty and liked to get high on the most primitive stuff that was around then, like glue. I remember once going over and bumming tubes. There was this guy Bill Saul, a big, heavyset guy from Tennessee. Duane and I went over there and saw his girlfriend was there. Her wig was off and her false teeth were out. She was a real wreck. We were sitting there, and he said, “Duane, when are you gonna come play guitar for me?” Duane said, “Oh, very soon, Bill, very soon. Listen, have you got a tube?” Bill showed us his blue top collection – he had a great big shopping bag that was totally full of blue tops. We bummed two or three tubes from him and went back. This is later. This is the Martinique days – the Martinique was a club that you moved in to after the Pier, because it sold liquor. The Pier was like a teen club.
Shepley and Duane were much closer. I was about two years older, so I was just a little bit more advanced in learning these little blues things. I’m sure you can learn them off sheet music and tapes and all that crap nowadays, but back then it was a mystery how this stuff was done. You couldn’t learn it from local guitar teachers because they were into, like, “How High the Moon” and that kind of crap. You’d just have to pick it up from whoever you thought might know it. And the rockabilly guys didn’t anything about it. If you knew the solo to “Honky Tonk,” that was about the summit of what was going on in guitar in those days. So once you’d mastered that, you were sitting on all the technique you would ever need. So you just poke around and try and pick it up off of black cats, if you could. The beach was very, very segregated then.
Did Duane spend much time in the black side of town?
Some time, I’d say. Yeah. I don’t know if he pulled any of that duty where you had to go into the black area and pick them up and take them to work, but that’s what we did originally. We would have to go and pick up the singers, the Untils, and bring them down to the Pier, because in those days, if you weren’t a yard man or a maid or an entertainer of some kind, you were considered not to belong on the beach side of the river. So I would have to be their sponsor, so to speak. To bring a friend over to the watch the show, they’d have to fit in this back room and look out.
This horrible thing happened one time – this is an awful story. There was this back room where the Pier fisherman would have lockers to keep their gear, and it would double as a dressing room. And this one guy came one night, a friend of one of the singers. They wouldn’t let them out into the actual Pier where the kids were, so he had to look through this window, and the window happened to be where this fan was. There was a screen on the outside. The music started getting heavy – we started getting into some heavy rhythm and blues – and the guy just watched closer and closer until he finally stuck his face in the fan. It was horrible. But that was the stage of things. Hank Ballard had played the Pier a couple of times, and that was another great inspiration – seeing the Midnighters – because they were a real great-sounding set.
Duane Allman playing a Fender Stratocaster with Hour Glass.
Did you stay in touch with Duane while he was in the Allman Joys and Hour Glass?
Yeah, I stayed in touch with him then. I saw him right after he cut the Layla album. I went over to Daytona and saw him. We went over and jammed at a black club called George’s Place. By that time, he was real deep into what he was doing with the Allman Brothers. I remember sitting there, and these black people were just bemused – they didn’t know what the fuck was going on. All of a sudden a bunch of white guys came in, carrying amps and shit, and we started playing. But instead of playing like black music, we went up and played an Allman Brothers set. I remember he set off on a solo and Gregg would sit there and kind of whisper to me, “He ain’t through yet.” I’d say, “When the fuck are we gonna break back into the tune?” “He ain’t through yet.” Duane would be doing great-sounding stuff, but he really wasn’t plugged in to what was going on in the joint. The black band came up, and they were gonna do “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” They said, “Hey, Duane, why don’t you stay and play ‘Grapevine’ – it’s a great tune.” He was, “Oh, no, no. I don’t want to play ‘Grapevine.’” By that time, he was involved in what he was doing a lot more. Of course, he had just come back from an Eric Clapton session, and he had just played some timeless stuff, no question about it.
Isn’t this about the time he started getting into harder drugs?
Yeah, I think so. The one time we went to see him in New Haven, Shepley and I, and we said, “Listen. We want to give you some hash.” Duane said, “No hash, no pot. I’ve got to have either cocaine or smack. The pot and the hash are too disorienting.” That’s what he said. Of course, that’s what we wanted to be – disoriented. So that was kind of where he was coming from at that stage.
The Allman Joys
How did he change over the time that you knew him?
In certain ways, he didn’t change at all. In terms of his personality and just being funny and being a good guy, he really didn’t change at all. But his approach to the music changed from being a student to being a master. Early on, he would look to me to show him stuff, and Jim, and then we would be just kind of equals. Back when he was in the Allman Joys, we all thought they could cover a variety of stuff, and we did more like all soul stuff. We would do “We’re Gonna Make it” by Little Milton or “Love Light” or “Don’t Cry No More” by Bland and stuff like that. They’d do that live, but they’d also do “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Nowhere Man,” or “Elusive Butterfly of Love.” They did some horrible shit tunes. I saw the Allman Joys once in Trudy Heller’s in Greenwich Village. I think it was my freshman year in college. It was Duane and Gregg and Mike Alexander and Maynard Portwood. I came down there, and they had dressed up in Nehru suits or Beatle suits or something. They did some good tunes, but they also did some awful tunes. They did, like I say, “Elusive Butterfly of Love,” “Nowhere Man,” and just stuff that really wasn’t anything like the bag that they were later gonna get into.
The one thing that I have to give Duane the most credit for was his vision of choosing to go with the blues. Because he had been through some real commercial sets. And at some point, he made an incredible decision to go with the real blues-oriented framework. I thought that was a great breakthrough. The Hour Glass was a great-sounding set, but I didn’t think the music was anywhere near as distinctive as what they came up with the first couple of albums as the Allman Brothers. When they came back [as the Hour Glass], they were really playing real well, but they weren’t that different. They were doing B.B. King tunes. They’d long since quit doing the Beatles covers and the awful Top-40 stuff, but they still hadn’t really developed the real, total commitment to the blues style that they had with the Allman Brothers. They were still doing stuff like “Keep on Trying” by the Impressions and what I call more like the “sweet-sounding” stuff. The only one that I can really think of with the Allman Brothers that sounded like that was “Please Call Home.” You know, the I-VI-IV-V type stuff.
Did Duane have other unusual musical tastes?
Duane, oddly enough, was really into that first Elton John album. I was really surprised. He said, “Hey, you got to listen to this album,” and he put on “Your Song.” He said, “This is great – listen to this.” I thought, “Wow, this doesn’t sound like what he would be into.” But he really loved that.
Do you remember any other music that turned him around?
I am assuming that he was pretty turned around by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whereas I had kind of heavy bias against it, because I was deeper into soul music. I had more of an attitude about it. Of course, the parallel thing was he was never out of the blues. B.B. King had really done a thing. And I don’t know who started him playing slide.
He was living with Pete Carr out in L.A. when he was in Hour Glass, and they went to see Taj Mahal one night. Duane saw Jesse Ed Davis playing slide on “Statesboro Blues,” and started teaching himself how to play slide.
Yeah. I just saw Pete – he sold me his studio gear.
What was Duane’s relationship with women back in the Daytona days?
He was with Patty, and she was something else. She wasn’t, in fact, a perfect, faithful wife – that’s for sure. He really dug her, though. Like many rock and roll musicians, I think he wound up with women who can relate to what they are doing, rather than like with very feminine types. You know what I mean? She was kind of – “boyish” isn’t the word I’m after – but she was one of the guys, kind of. The idea of groupies was unheard of, but there was a certain kind of chick who could hang out well with guys, and then there were chicks who hung with chicks, who were feminine and thought about, like, feminine things and clothes and whatever it is that chicks think about. Duane would be more into a chick who could adapt to talking about the things the various guys would be doing – getting high and stuff like that.
Did he marry Patty?
Jim Shepley mentioned he went out with her after Duane did.
Yeah. I went out with her one time too. Duane quit seeing her when I was away at college. At that point, I’d only see him in the summertime. It must have been around 1967, ’68.
Did you ever know his girlfriend Dixie?
No, her I didn’t know. I met her one time in Macon, when we went through there and Gregg produced a demo session for me and Shepley and the set we were in in Connecticut.
That was right after the Fillmore East album was recorded.
Right, exactly. It was the next day.
What was Gregg’s relationship with Duane like? Was he more of a follower?
Yeah, he was. Duane was so much more dynamic as a person. Gregg was a lot more laid back. He just was more of a follower. I’m sure that’s cropped up again and again in your interviews with people who knew him back then. But he was younger, and he really looked up to Duane and let Duane handle stuff. In the early years of the Allman Brothers, he was very much under Duane’s wing. And plus they had Phil [Walden of Capricorn Records] taking care of stuff. Gregg was very happy to kick back, stay high, not think about too much, and sing.
Duane, on the other hand, was out hustling sessions. He was just more aggressive about stuff. We wanted him to come down and hang out on the sessions when Gregg was doing it. It’s ironic that Gregg was the guy who helped us, because Jim and Duane were the real good friends there. But Gregg was real steadfast – he’s a real good guy. He and Floyd Miles had the famous Greyhound bus pact. One day they were going up to Macon, before the Allman Brothers were formed or anything, and Gregg and Floyd at that point were about equal in having a chance to make it. Johnny Sandlin was producing a little single on Floyd, and everybody thought Floyd was gonna be like another Arthur Connelly or Percy Sledge. And so they had this little pledge on the Greyhound bus that whoever made it first was gonna help the other. In all fairness to Gregg, he’s tried to help Floyd again and again. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to get Floyd in the studio now and do a little rhythm and blues single, although I don’t know what kind of market there is for that kind of record anymore.
Derek & The Dominos, sans Duane: Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle.
You mentioned speaking to Duane right after the Layla session.
Yeah, I did. He came back and he said, “Boy, I burned Clapton. I really put one on him.” He was very humble too. He was really thrilled to have been asked to play on the sessions. But at the same time, he felt he was really the first one who was to the top of the mountain there on the sessions – I couldn’t agree more. Something that has always puzzled me about Eric Clapton is that after Cream, he surrounded himself with a better guitar player whenever possible. And I think it’s admirable. Lots of people would still be trying to do something like Cream, where it’s just a total guitar freak-out type of thing. I don’t know Eric Clapton, but that always did puzzle me. It sure makes for great records, though – particularly “Layla.”
In a recent interview, Clapton credited Duane with coming up with the beginning of “Layla” and the main lick.
Well, that’s one of the all-time great ones. That’s for sure.
Jim Shepley mentioned that Duane was getting egotistical toward the end.
I would say that’s true, but having gone this Root Boy Slim thing, I can see how that happens. After a while, I think you quit being able to relate with people on the basis of them being people, since most of them aren’t relating to you in that way. They relate to you on the basis of you being some kind of star, so you just start to treat other people in the way they treat you. If they want to treat you like some kind of god, you have to treat them like some kind of subject. Duane was egotistical to some degree, but no more than lots of other people. And I think coke is a big factor in that.
When was the last time you saw Duane?
’Long about the time of the The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East album. In fact, I rode that motorcycle that he killed himself on, so it must have been quite soon before he died. I rode it that night I was talking about, when he’d come up from the Layla sessions. It was brutally fast, with horrible brakes. I came back and I said, “Man, this thing is fucking unsafe.” The front brake was non-existent, the rear brake was really bad. It was a fast fucking bike, and highly dangerous. It was too fast, and it didn’t have any stopping power. It was fun to ride – it was great to get high and ride the thing. But like I say, the brakes were bad on the thing.
Do you have any favorite memories of Duane?
Going over to get those tubes from Saul’s was great. And then I remember one time we went over and were sniffing glue in the black area. That was a great memory – we were just sitting around in the car. Most of them are non-musical. They’re just times where you’d sit around and he would just tickle you by being so funny. In those days, music wasn’t so glamorized. The whole thing of rock and roll as an industry and how it supplanted the movies as the glamour, the so-called art form – that’s real
recent. In those days, it was something we did because we liked it, and not because we thought it would get us dope or chicks or anything. If anything, it hurt in that area. Chicks were more into athletes and crap like that. You did rock and roll because you had to, you really felt driven to do it. You really liked it and wanted to do it. I wish it was that way today, although there wouldn’t be so many good guitar players. In those days, if you were real serious about music, you went into jazz. If you just felt that way about rock and roll or blues, then you stayed with it. But there was no status involved at all – quite the opposite. But it was what we had. So that would be it – it would sitting around, playing the blues, me and Shepley and Duane, just trading those blues licks around.