The Allman Brothers story is inescapably about the cultural forces at work in the American South in the post World War II era, the churning emotional climate responsible for the "New South" that emerged in the early '70s and culminated in Jimmy Carter's presidency.
This is the band that reclaimed rock 'n' roll from the British invasions of the 1960s.
Rock 'n' roll was rooted in the American South, in delta blues, urban rhythm and bluesand country music, but after its first flowering in the mid-to-late '50s, the Beatles spearheaded a recasting of the very nature of the music, reshaping the basic forms using ideas taken from a variety of sources, including the European folk and classical traditions.
By the time the British rock of '60s reached its apotheosis with the wild soloing jams of Cream, the differences between British and American rock were starkly drawn. The British version was innately theatrical, overstated to a near-operatic level. The American rock mainstream was epitomized by the softer, more introspective and country-oriented conception of folk rock and the West Coast Bands.
At the point where fans of American and British rock were squared off in an apparently irreconcilable battle, the Allman Brothers arrived to synthesize both traditions in a groundbreaking style that paved the way for the future development of the music.
Musically, the Allman Brothers were one of the most exciting live rock bands to ever take the stage. Lead guitarist Duane "Skydog" Allman played with the power, grace and originality few rockers ahve ever achieved, while Dickey Betts complemented Allman with a ringing, country-influenced style that created a distinctive two-guitar structure.
The rhythm section, powered by bassist Berry Oakley and the propulsive double-drum pulse of Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson, was capable of previously unheard-of rock drive as well as the tricky nuance of a jazz section.
Add to this one of the greatest white blues singers of his generation, Gregg Allman, and you have a band that litterally redfined the direction and possibilities open to rock 'n' roll.
The Allman Brothers not only created Southern rock, but also, by virtue of the harmonic inventions of Allman/Betts and the creativity of the rhythm section, anticipated the direction American jazz was moving toward at the same time. In their own way, the Allman Brothers were the rock equivelant of the legendary Miles Davis band that featured the interplay of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.
Appropriately enough, the Davis quintet of Kind of Blue fame was a key influence on the Brothers, but what made the group truly visionary was its ability to meld that influence with the seemingly disparate approach of the revolutionary British guitar band, the Yardbirds (a group that took its name from another legendary saxophonist, Charlie Parker).
Howard Duane Allman was born in 1946, and Gregg a year later, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The tragedy that would dog these brothers through life began stalking them early. Their father, a sargeant in the Army, was killed by a hitchhiker in a robbery while home on Christmas leave from the Korean War.
But their strong-willed mother, Geraldine, refused to give up on her kids. Mama A took a CPA course and raised the brothers herself. She sent the boys to Castle Heights Military school in Lebanon, Tennessee, but the youngsters were never too keen on formal education.
"I couldn't get it on in school," said Gregg Allman matter-of-factly.
In 1958 Mama A moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida looking for better work. The boys took the move hard. "My brother and I changed schools at that tender age," said Gregg. "It's a drag going to a new school in a different town. That's really devastating. So each summer we'd go back to Nashville to see my grandmother."
Across from their grandmother's the two boys heard a neighbor, Jimmy Bain, playing country standards while sitting on his front porch. Bain played songs like "Wildwood Flower" and "Long Black Veil" on an acoustic guitar, and Gregg asked if he could play it. As soon as he got the hands on that guitar Gregg was bitten by the music bug.
It was one of those trips back to Nashville, said Allman, that the brothers saw a glimpse of what would become their future. "In the summer of '59 we went to the Nashville Auditorium to see our first rock 'n' roll show. That was headlined by Jackie Wilson, and B.B. King was on the bill."
"Me and my brother had these seats way up at the top, miles from the stage. About halfway through he looked over me to me and said 'L'il brother, we got to get into this,' or something to that effect. We knew absolutely nothing about music."
"I can remember B.B. King walking out on the stage, and he had this guy playing a Hammond B3 organ, I had no idea what it was but it sure looked impressive. He started out playing "Rock Me, Baby" and I almost lost it. Every fiber of my exiistence was on fire."
Back in Florida the brothers began soaking up all the music they could get their hands on. Records and radio were their passport to an alternate reality away from the humdrum of school and life in the Eisenhower era.
Though they'd studied some trumpet in Tennessee, the first serious musical step taken by the brothers was Gregg's. In 1960 he purchased his first guitar, a cheap acoustic model from Sears, with money he'd saved up from a summer paper route.
"I wouldn't eat or sleep," recalled Gregg."
"I just wanted to play that damn guitar." Meanwhile Duane had started in on his obsession, motorcycles. His first, a Harley 165, was his prized possession, and he ran it right into the ground. "I tore up that bike," Duane told Tony Glover, "and Gregg learned to play the guitar."
Gregg taught his older brother a few things about guitar playing, and Duane soon became as keen to play as Gregg. The two brothers vied for the use of Gregg's instrument, but by the end of the year both of them had their own electric guitars.
"We really became friends at that time," said Gregg. "We were like typical brothers before that-fight every day."
Duane quit high school and became totally absorbed in music, hammering out his own style on a Gibson Les Paul. While Gregg finished up at Sea Breeze Senior High. Duane stayed home and honed his chops. He played by ear, picking up wide ranging influences from the local rock, r&b and jazz stations.
The two brothers spent plenty of time checking out the blues and r&b music scene, live and on records, listening to Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Ray Charles, B.B. King and Little Milton sides purchased in black neighborhoods across the tracks.
By 1961 the brothers were playing guitar in local bands. Their first gig was at a local YMCA, where they traded off on lead and rhythm guitars. In '62 they played in Y Teens and the Shufflers; in '62 they worked in another Daytona Beach band, the Escorts. While their Daytona Beach peers played "Wipeout" and imagined themselves as surfer and hot rod musicians, Duane and Gregg were aspiring blues rockers covering Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Chuck Berry.
Without directly participating in the civil rights movement of the time, the brothers were unwittingly striking their own blow for integration. In '63 they joined a band called the House Rockers, which backed a black r&b trio, called the Untils. It was a controversial decision at the time on the home front, but one that showed where the brothers' musical hearts were.
When Gregg graduated from high school in 1965 the two boys went on the road together for the first time as the Allman Joys.
Live recordings from around this time give the first glimpse of what they sounded like. They were covering tracks like the James Brown chestnut "I'll Go Crazy," with Duane handling the relentless round that powers the rhythm of the song and blasting through a lightning fast pre-funk Sly Stone guitar solo on the break.
The first time you hear Duane's playing is an unforgettable experience; he's one of those genius musicians whose personality imbues everything he plays.
His command of the tumbling rhythms of r&b guitar masters was awesome. And like a lot of guitar blues fans of the time, he was an avid fan of the Yardbirds, the British band that was revolutionizing lead guitar work under the direction of Eric Clapton, later Jeff Beck and finally Jimmy Page.
A band that was already capable of slamming out the rhythm patterns of James Brown's Famous Flames didn't need the Rolling Stones to show them how to play blues, but nobody could ignore the advances being made by Clapton and Beck.
Which brings us to an early recording of "Shapes of Things", a demo recorded at Bradley's Barn in Nashville and found on a closet shelf in Mama A's house where it had been sitting for 20 years, Duane's understanding of the mind-boggling new guitar techniques Beck was unleashing showed how prodigious his own talents were.
The instincts that would eventually make Duane Allman a consummate studio musician are already in evidence here. Duane was able to figure out how to play even the most complicated technical tricks after listening to the record a few times. Similarly, Gregg was able to sing convincingly well outside of what would become his natural style, actually outdoing Keith Relf's vocal on "Shapes."
These weren't the only pieces the brothers were soaking up like musical sponges. Incomplete performances of other Yardbirds tracks, Beatles songs, Motown r&b and even the brothers backing a girl group have also surfaced.
Like a lot kids their ages, the brothers were getting their hands on these records as soon as they hit the local stores. But learning them was another thing - the varied influences that would eventually coalesce into the Allman Brothers Band were flying fast and furious. In 1966 a compilation album called What's Shakin' came out on Electra Records. It included performances by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Eric Clapton's pre-Cream band Powerhouse, the Lovin' Spoonful and Blues Project keyboardist Al Kooper.
This little-known album proved to be a touchstone recording for the Allmans. Two arrangements in particular interested the brothers - Butterfield's version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and Clapton's rendition of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," which was stylistically closer to his Yardbirds playing than the version he would later codify in Cream.
What's most striking about the covers of these tunes the Allman Joys recorded as part of their Bradley's Barn sessions is that the band was adding its own touches to the arrangements rather than parroting them.
Meanwhile the Allman Joys were touring the roadhouse circuit, travelling from gig to gig in a broken-down station wagon and establishing a reputation as a fierce live band. They were playing six sets a night, seven days a week, and the music just kept getting better and better. Drummer Butch Trucks, who was touring the same clubs with a band called the Bitter End, sat in with the Joys from time to time.
Buddy Killen of Dial Records saw the Joys play at the Briar Patch club in Nashville in '66, and liked what he saw enough to produce the band's first release, a psychedelic arrangement of "Spoonful" closer to Cream in spirit than the Butterfield version. Duane's guitar is drenched in fuzztone on the commercially-realeased single.
Other material recorded at the same time was eventually released as Early Allman, but Killen was less impressed with the r&b influenced originals these white boys had come up with, songs like "Dr. Fone Bone," "Gotta Get Away" and "Bell Bottom Britches" (a title that looked forward to the Derek and the Dominos sessions).
"He listened to the tapes," Duane said, "and said 'No man, you cats better look for a day gig - you're the worst I ever heard'."
The Allman Joys broke up in early '67 and Duane and Gregg headed for Decatur, Alabama, where they worked with a band called the Five Minutes that featured drummer Johnny Sandlin, keyboardist Paul Hornsby and bassist Pete Carr. After playing for a while the band moved to St. Louis and picked up where they had left off as the Allman Joys.
One night Nitty Gritty Dirt Band manager Bill McEuen caught the Allman Joys in St. Louis and collared them after the gig. The Dirt Band was riding high on the hit "Mr. Bojangles" and McEuen told the Allmans they could graduate from the chitlin' circuit if they moved to L.A. and signed with a major label.
They went out there to make two albums as the Hour Glass, an experience regarded at the time as painful and later an an embarrassment. The band was persuaded to dress up in psychedelic outfits and cover pop songs from a list offered by the producer.
But the most killing blow was that the company didn't let them play live as much as they wanted to. This was a band that wanted to play until dawn every night of the week.
"All we wanted to do was play," said Gregg. "We would have done small clubs in the valley, but they told us we'd blow the whole image if we did that."
One good thing that did happen during the band's stay in Los Angeles was that Duane started to play slide guitar. There are several conflicting, though not necessarily contradictory, accounts of how it happened, but they all concur on one fact: that it was Georgia guitarist Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" that Duane first learned to play slide on.
"I know exactly how Duane got into bottleneck," said bassist Pete Carr, who roomed with Duane while he was in Hour Glass.
"We were in L.A. and saw Taj Mahal playing in a club. Jesse Ed Davis was with him, and they did 'Statesboro Blues.' Jesse played slide guitar and really turned Duane on."
Gregg tells the story Duane had gone horseback riding and was thrown from his horse, injuring his wrist. While recovering he came down with a bad cold and was laid up in bed for weeks. Gregg brought him a copy of Taj Mahal's first album to cheer him up. Mahal's arrangement of "Statesboro Blues" was a virtual blueprint of the one that the Allman Brothers would later make famous. The two guitarists on Mahal's recording were Jesse Davis and Ry Cooder.
The next time Gregg saw Duane his older brother was playing slide guitar, using the glass Coriciden bottle that contained the medicine he'd used for his cold. From that time on, the glass Coriciden bottle became the trademark of Duane's bottleneck playing.
The Hour Glass records remain an interesting study in Duane and Gregg's versatility. Despite the band's misgivings about how the recordings were handled, there were some revealing moments on the two discs.
"Cast Off All My Fears," on Hour Glass, is a positive-thinking anthem characteristic of the late '60s and produced with a heavy fuzz-tone overlay reminiscent of the Blues Magoos. The song was written by Jackson Browne, who still hadn't recorded on his own at this time.