During their journeyman days, Duane and Gregg Allman toured as the Allman Joys before moving to Los Angeles in 1967. Their new band in L.A., Hour Glass, would be their final project together before launching the Allman Brothers Band. Duane’s time on the West Coast proved bittersweet. He moved forward with his music, taking up slide guitar after seeing Jesse Ed Davis play “Statesboro Blues” with Taj Mahal. On a darker note, Hollywood hangers-on introduced Duane to harder drugs than he’d been doing down South.
The Allmans’ passport to L.A. came via brothers John and Bill McEuen. John played in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bill was the group’s manager. Upon their arrival, Duane and Gregg shared a house with the Dirt Band. They signed a recording contract with Liberty Records and issued two albums – Hour Glass and Power of Love. Neither sold well, though, or gave much hint of the fire to come with the Allman Brothers Band.
In 1981, I wrote Guitar Player magazine’s Duane Allman cover story. After it came out, I interviewed others who’d known Duane, including his best friend in Daytona Beach, Jim Shepley, and his early band mates Bob Greenlee and Floyd Miles. On January 27, 1985, I caught up with John McEuen, who graciously agreed to talk about Duane and Gregg’s time with the Hour Glass in L.A. Our conversation is published here for the first time. Whenever John quoted Duane or Gregg, he slipped into a slow, thick Southern drawl.
Did Duane ever play on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record?
No, Duane never played on our records. I played on one of his – I sang on one of ’em.
Do you remember which one?
It was Hour Glass, not Allman Brothers.
Did you know Duane very well?
Yeah. He lived with us. We were on our first road tour through the country, on our first hit with the Dirt Band, “Buy for Me the Rain.” And this crazy guy in St. Louis, a promotion man – I think that was the first time we ever saw somebody on speed, only we didn’t know what it was that made it possible for this guy to never sleep. Probably the first coke user we encountered. He’d come in, lay down on somebody’s motel room floor for about an hour and sleep, and then he’d get up and go for another 23 hours. His favorite group was a group playing in a bar down by the river in St. Louis, called the Allman Joys. My brother and I went down there to see them – they were great. Bill convinced them to come to L.A. and give him a shot at managing them. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but my brother Bill McEuen managed the Allman brothers for about two years – when they tried their L.A. thing. They came out and lived with the Dirt Band for the first five months. This was spring to summer ’67. The Dirt Band had a house in the Hollywood Hills. It was four floors. It was on Rodgerton Drive in Beachwood Canyon. There was a whole band staying there, the Dirt Band, and then another band moved in, and that was the Hour Glass. Both groups and assorted friends. It was a hippie crash pad of the ’60s because it was full of musicians and a couple of road guys.
What were first impressions of Duane?
I think my first impression was that he was the first great guitar player that I had ever seen up close. There were a couple of others that you had heard of – you know, Page and all those people, but you didn’t really know who they were yet. You knew that somebody in this group might be hot, but you weren’t sure if it was Eric Clapton or what. And prior to Duane, my favorite guitar players were Southern black guys that were halfway dead or blind or named after a fruit – or both! [Laughs.] Blind Lemon Grapefruit was one of my favorites.
One of the neat things about seeing Duane was it didn’t look like his hands were moving. I compare him to Clarence White. See, Clarence and he had one thing in common: It didn’t look like their left hand was doing anything. You can talk to anybody that’s ever seen Clarence play, and they’ll say his hand stayed right down by the fretboard, and it didn’t look like it was ever playing a chord position or anything. And with Duane, it kind of looked like it was out of place. He didn’t look like he was playing chords, and his fingers weren’t flying around a lot. He had very good economy of motion. Ever heard of Byron Berline, the fiddle player? Byron is left-handed, and it doesn’t look like he is doing anything. His hand looks too big to play the fiddle.
What happened when Duane got to L.A.?
Duane started playing sessions around town. One thing I remember is that when they played the Whisky, all of Three Dog Night came in to watch him do “Try a Little Tenderness,” and two weeks later put out their version, which is exactly like the Allmans’ version.
Did Duane do much jamming at the house?
Yeah, he played a lot of acoustic and electric. My brother introduced him to a song called “Key to the Highway,” and it was neat to see him getting turned on to that stuff. My brother is a manager. He manages Pee Wee Herman and Steve Martin. He managed the Dirt Band for 15 years, and worked with the Hour Glass, trying to get them a record deal. Only I think it was the newness of Hollywood, the lack of material, and the year. Bill was in his early career, and the Allmans were in their early career, and it just didn’t work. In other words, they’d open their set doing “Buckaroo” and close with “Norwegian Wood” [laughs]. We followed them a lot at the Aquarius Theater.
John McEuen, Steve Martin, and Jerry Garcia at the 1974 Golden Gate Bluegrass Festival.
Was Bill responsible for Duane and Gregg forming the Hour Glass?
No, Hour Glass was just the name of the Allman Joys after they came out to L.A. As a matter of fact, I’ve got the letter at home from Gregg, written on spiral-top steno paper. “Well, Bill, we’re ready to drive out to L.A. Here’s the picture you requested for publicity purposes.” And they’d taken a colored Polaroid picture! [Laughs.] I mean, this is like real seminal stuff. This is back when they were doing shows with The Bullet & The Missile. You know who they were? One guy without arms, and one guy without arms and legs? They’d lay the guy without arms and legs on the piano in a basket, and all he did was scream. They’d hold the mike to him. Duane used to say, “That guy had the best black scream for a white man you’d ever seen!” [Laughs.] They called themselves The Bullet & The Missile.
Duane with a Telecaster.
They [Hour Glass] did some funky stuff. Many times, we would come tearing around that stage at the Aquarius Theater, waiting for Duane’s guitar to quit bouncing. Because he’d take his Tele and throw it way up in the air, and it would come down and bounce around, and he’d pick it up and keep playing. He played that Tele for a while.
Was Pete Carr living at that house?
Now, what Petey did, a couple of times, was go in and play for Duane. Duane also first found his way to drugs through the L.A. connections. And he got so drugged. I remember one session I was watching where he could barely walk in, but he couldn’t put his guitar on – Duane couldn’t. I’ve never gotten into drugs, but I happen to be a guy who’s seen a lot of scenes like that, through the Hollywood life. There were years in the ’60s there where even though I was in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, everybody was working together, struggling together. I mean, one night I might be at a Mothers’ session, and the next night at somebody else’s session, or the Allmans were recording or we were recording. I was lucky enough to see all the bad influences of drugs. I remember that made a big impression on me: This guy is so great, and you can’t even tell.
Do you know what drug he was on? Was he into heroin yet?
Actually, no. I never saw him take any smack. I know he did some mescaline and stuff, but I didn’t know what it was that night. I didn’t bother to keep track.
He was a heavy smoker?
More of a cross of Jim Beam and drugs, kind of like a rock and roll version of Doug Dillard. [Laughs.]
The Hour Glass with Duane on a Stratocaster.
I understand that Duane didn’t start playing slide until he saw Taj Mahal in L.A.
That’s highly possible. I wouldn’t be the one to pinpoint that date, but that sounds about right. He was getting into it later on. When we first saw him, no, he wasn’t playing slide. This was April of ’67. This is when we met him in St. Louis.
What kind of a guy was Duane?
Duane was very friendly, in my opinion. You know what I mean? Some people might take drugs and be evil or whatever. Duane always struck me as being a friendly guy that was very talented as a player. He let other people be mean for him, I guess. [Laughs.] When they were living in our house, they were never any trouble. He was a real “sir” and “ma’am” kind of guy. That comes with the South sometimes.
I remember one time at the Atlanta airport I’d seen Duane when the Brothers were coming through. It was very close to when he got killed. He was starting to be straight again. I made some kind of comment. I said, “Duane, I hope you’re saving yourself for a few more years, so we can hear that pickin’ more.” And he goes, “Oh, I’ve got all that straightened out now. Everything is fine. It’s sure a great life, isn’t it?” He seemed to have a positive attitude, and it was coming out more and more. He said, “Why don’t ya git that banjo out, John, and play us a tune.” “Well, it’s in the middle of the airport here, Duane.” “I don’t mind if you don’t.” We were in a restaurant. “Well,” Duane said, “any person doesn’t want to hear the 5-string banjo – that’s their problem. Just play me a tune. And if they don’t like it, we’ll just punch ’em in the mouth.”
I enjoyed my brief times I was around him. You didn’t feel like you were around somebody that was gonna get pissed off and throw something at you. You know what I mean? It’s like there’s a drunk, and there’s a violent drunk. There’s a guy that can drink three beers and be obnoxious to everyone, and there’s a guy that can drink ten beers and just become everybody’s friend. Well, Duane, to me, was on the friendly side.
Was Duane straight very often?
Not in L.A. Most of the time in L.A., I didn’t see him that way. I saw him as deteriorating. I thought he was very sensible and straight when he came out to L.A., and what happened to him was what happened to a lot of people in L.A. It was so free and accessible, and he had such an immense talent with the guitar, the leeches glommed onto him pretty quick.
Who were his friends out there?
I know there was one in the band, a guy named Ralph Barr. Holly Barr helped him a lot, and he called her from the East went he went back. The guy in the band that she was married to was only in the band two years. She got out of that marriage and seemed to keep her sanity.
Did Gregg stay in L.A. after the Hour Glass disbanded?
Yeah. My brother worked with Gregg for a while after the Hour Glass split up. I’ve got the first recording of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.” Do you know anything about Gregg after that period?
Not too much.
Well, he went to work with a couple of guys from the Sunshine Company, which was a group my brother managed – the drummer Merle Bregante and a bass player named Larry Sims. They later went on to be the drummer and bass player for Loggins & Messina for about six years. Merle’s a well-respected drummer. Petey, see, was playing with them on some things. I got this recording I made sitting in the middle of them with a 15-inch recorder, headphones on, listening to them doing a “Not My Cross to Bear” that would put anybody to sleep. It is so slow! He’d just written it, and it was real emotional. It was good, though. I’ve always been a fan of Gregg’s singing.
Gregg told me he was really going through the wringer out there in L.A. when Duane went back to Muscle Shoals.
Yeah. I don’t know if he was going through the wringer as much as – everybody was what, 22 years old? One minute you’re important, the next minute it’s “Who?” One minute you sign a record deal and you’re getting a lot of publicity and you’re playing music and people are coming to the scene. The next minute you put out a record and it stiffs. I don’t think he understood what was going on.
One time Gregg came up to my place – I was living with my brother in a duplex in Laurel Canyon – and Gregg says, “Hey, John. I got a ticket for going through a red light. The judge doesn’t believe that I can use that car, so I need the pink slip to show the judge I didn’t steal the car.” I went back to my brother’s files – my brother had bought him a little Chevy Corvair, a $400 car, to get around town. This was after the Hour Glass had broken up and Duane had gone. So I got him the pink slip, and he sold the car and bought his plane ticket to Jacksonville that day. [Laughs.] So I helped start the Allman Brothers!
Did he ever settle the account?
Six years later. There was no purpose getting mad at somebody for doing something like that. They were up against the wall and doing something they had to do.
When was the last time you saw Duane?
That time at the airport. He gave me an Eat a Peach shirt. I played the song, he gave me a shirt. “I’m gonna give you my peach shirt here, John.” One thing about Duane is that he never seemed like he was a star. Like, he called up from the East after Dickey had been in the band for a while, and the comment was, “Hey, Duane called!” “What he have to say?” He says, “Well, we got a guitar player in the band that’s so good I’m playing rhythm now.” [Laughs.] He’d say, “Wow. This Dickey is one of the best gui-tar players I ever heard.” I’d say, “Duane! How can you say that? Just listen to your own amp.” He was willing to work with somebody. So he and Dickey got some good things worked out there for a while.
He certainly was unique.
There must have been something there. I can’t remember the names of any of the Outlaws – you knows, those guys who played [imitates fast soloing]. I happen to feel that there’s something to be said for someone like Duane, because he picked notes that people remember him by. I remember when he did that Wilson Pickett thing, how excited some people were. When you heard it on the radio, you knew that was Duane.
That was his first big studio project.
Yeah. The one I remember from that was “Hey, Jude.”
At that time, did his style seem “Southern” to you?
It just seemed different. It was a fresh approach from what you were hearing from other people. I remember one time we opened for the Allman Brothers Band in Oxford, Mississippi. I was standing right in front of the stage, just thinking, “Holy shit! This guy is still good!” This is when the Allman Brothers were just starting to get going. Strangely enough, half of the audience walked out on their performance.
I wonder why.
Because they were a Southern rock band – it was like playing country music in Nashville. It was right when they were starting to get big, but some of the people in some parts of the South weren’t paying attention yet. They were hotter news out of town.
Anything else you can remember about Duane?
I’m just thinking. [Long pause.] I don’t like drugs. The one thing that always pissed me off about drugs is the leeches that brought Duane all the stuff he either wanted or thought he wanted. All it did was reduce the amount of music that we have from him. That’s always pissed me off. Some people say, “Well, man, this guy can’t play unless he’s high.” I say, “Well, he could have played longer if he wasn’t high.” Not that that was what made him get killed in the motorcycle wreck, because it wasn’t. Duane had pretty much straightened his life out then.
I would say the coolest thing that I remember about Duane is how he’d stand and do the Skate, this little dance slinking back and forth while he was playing the guitar. The Skate was a dance where you move your feet like you’re skating. He’d go from one foot to the other, semi out of time – his own groove! But the thing that I remember, that defined him for me, is that even if you didn’t know anything about the guitar or even liked that sort of music, you could tell that he was good and that he was doing something that made you listen. Duane was one of those magical players.