©1991 Dan Maley




Blues For A Brother
(first published in 'The Macon Telegraph', October 29, 1991)

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 off.”

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 accident.

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 Clarence Carter.

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 leaps.

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 then.”

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 instrument.”

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 surprised.
“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 firecrackers.

“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 back on.
“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 another guitarist.

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 acclaimed albums.

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 really do.”


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