Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective
There I was, combing through unmarked boxes of 45s at Euclid Records in New Orleans, when I came across a pristine 1968 Arthur Conley single on Atco: “Otis Sleep On” appears on one side and is backed by a cover of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Producer Tom Dowd, who cut it at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, slowed down the groove from the Beatles original to a ska pulse built around David Hood’s bass line. When Conley hits the bridge, an amazing ten-note guitar lick reimagines the melody with an against-the-grain rhythmic twist, almost as if Thelonious Monk were interpreting the figure. On the second pass, the guitarist plays a completely different variation. The guitar appears again after the last line of the bridge, turning George Martin’s descending “ha ha ha ha” rhythmic fill into a brilliantly jarring four-note climb-up. Upon listening to this for the first time, one might ask: “Who is this session guitarist with such intuitive genius?”
It could only be Duane Allman.
Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective collects this astonishing moment along with dozens of other small treasures in a well-conceived seven-disc overview of Duane Allman’s work. The box set, arranged chronologically by recording date, suggests that Allman’s fame and influence as the driving force in the Allman Brothers Band (alongside brother Gregg) is musically overshadowed by his far-reaching accomplishments as a contributor to other people’s sessions. Dates at Fame, and later at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, from 1967-69, include signature work Allman did with Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Otis Rush, and others. Additional recordings with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro, and Herbie Mann allow Scott Schinder to state matter-of-factly in the liner notes: “Even if he’d never formed the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman would be a crucial figure in American popular music.” Duane brought a unique spirit to every studio date he played on.
The recent controversy surrounding Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” is a useful prism for viewing the social accomplishments made by Duane and Gregg. Growing up in the South nearly fifty years ago, when Jim Crow was still the unwritten law of the land despite the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Allman brothers faced entirely different circumstances than teens do today. It was virtually illegal back then for blacks and whites to hang out together, and white kids who were drawn to black culture drew severe disapprobation. Long-haired guys were the target of redneck abuse along with blacks, creating an alliance of outcasts, and Duane and Gregg were outcasts from the moment they went in search of the blues that stirred their souls. The symbol of the Confederate flag, so casually parsed in Paisley’s song, was unambiguous in 1966, when the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement were part of the same struggle, as Martin Luther King tirelessly pointed out. In 1971, the Allman Brothers spent two days in an Alabama jail for the uncharged “crime” of trying to have breakfast in a Southern diner with a black man, Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, who was a drummer in their band. These proud Southern musicians couldn’t have made a more dramatic political statement than playing in an interracial group.
Southern rock, an outgrowth of the festival counterculture epitomized by Woodstock, was invented by the Allman Brothers Band and promised radical change throughout the Deep South. It would eventually become coopted by reactionary political influences, but during Duane Allman’s life—he died at age twenty-four, on October 29, 1971—Southern rock was a driving force behind the concept of the New South, a cultural revolution that would peak in 1976 with the election of music-loving Jimmy Carter as president. Duane and Gregg’s love of black music shaped everything they produced and set them apart from subsequent Southern rockers who were influenced more by British blues musicians than the African Americans who invented the form; Duane never saw Cream, but he sure saw B. B. King.
Tracing Duane Allman’s meteoric evolution, the box set opens with the brothers’ first recordings as they tried to formulate a sound. With their band the Escorts, they emulated Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland (the cover of “Turn On Your Love Light” that opens the set is remarkably similar to the Grateful Dead’s, but it’s unlikely the Allmans had heard the Dead in 1965). On Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” taken from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s interpretation, and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” clearly inspired by the original rather than Eric Clapton’s experiments with Cream, Duane’s guitar sounds like the fuzz tone buzz of ’60s garage rock characteristic of groups like the Blues Magoos.
The next vehicle for the brothers, the Hour Glass, was a period band that showed the tension between a group attempting to define its sound and a record company looking to make contemporary pop records. Gregg’s voice carries the pop performances during these years, but the best tracks were rejected by producers. It’s on these tracks, recorded in self-financed sessions at Fame, where Duane’s instrumental voice comes to the fore. Though little tangible success was met during the Hour Glass sessions, Rick Hall was so impressed by Duane that he hired him as a session player.
Duane’s one-chorus slide solo on Clarence Carter’s “The Road of Love” is a prelude to the classic sound he would demonstrate with the Allman Brothers Band. Duane reportedly suggested that Wilson Pickett cut the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” during the Fame sessions, and in the recording, Duane answers Pickett’s bloodcurdling screams in the frenzied coda with high-end guitar flourishes that, judging from the fadeout, were virtually endless. On “My Own Style of Loving,” Duane’s guitar engaged in a fierce call-and-response with Pickett on the verses, often duplicating the notes Pickett sang. His eight-bar guitar solo during the chorus just blew the lid off the track.
It seems that the greater the talent Duane played with, the more creative and soulful his playing became. His slide intro and accompaniment throughout “The Weight” set the tone for one of Aretha Franklin’s great vocals; again, this track ends on a fadeout during Duane’s solo, and one can only wonder what the rest of it sounded like.
It’s not until 1969 (and nearly halfway through Skydog) that we finally see the genesis of the legendary outfit we know. Truly one of the greatest albums in rock history, The Allman Brothers Band introduced Duane as an instrumental leader on par with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jerry Garcia—but with a superior band and a partner in Gregg, who was not only the greatest white blues vocalist of his generation, but a writer capable of such masterpieces as “It’s Not My Cross To Bear,” “Dreams,” and “Whipping Post.” These songs are especially striking because they marry the finest moments of instrumental and vocal excellence we’ve heard from the earlier recordings with the most creative arrangement strategies. The harmony guitar lines, the stop time strategies, and the dynamics of the arrangements—contrasting fierce blaring passages with quiet, contemplative moments—all serve a larger purpose closer to the great jazz arrangers and classical composers. This is music of big ambitions, of ideas designed to change the world.
It’s fair to assume that once he got the Allman Brothers Band off the ground, Duane’s studio session days were over, but the chronological arrangement of Skydog shows that Allman continued to lend his talents, his sound, to the benefit of other artists even as ABB became established. Tracks from Muscle Shoals and, by then, Capricorn Records, where ABB was the flagship band, yield varietal contributions fronted by Ronnie Hawkins, Lulu, Johnny Jenkins, and John P. Hammond. Whoever was passing through, it seems, might have been graced with the stylings of Duane Allman.
Later, interspersed with ABB staples, Allman’s extracurricular activities included collaborations with Clapton, an uncanny rapport demonstrated on the Derek and The Dominos sessions, which add five tracks to this collection. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs seemed incidental, like Clapton’s step back from the excesses of supergroups, but the astonishing interchange between Allman and Clapton’s guitars created a new template for rock, and Layla became a cornerstone of a fresh improvisational style that drew inspiration from the 1960s jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Duane applied the ideas of modal improvisation popularized by Davis and Coltrane to the extended jams of the ABB, which were far more disciplined than most of what has followed in the jam band universe. Those compositions within compositions, embraced wholeheartedly by the other members of the group, produced a standard for live rock improvisational playing (as opposed to mere performance) that has never been eclipsed. In Duane’s last year, 1971, the accomplishments of the ABB finally overshadow his studio work, simply because most of the ABB tracks are live recordings, including tracks from the iconic March 13 recordings of “Statesboro Blues” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from At Fillmore East. The possibilities of other collaborations are intimated on an April 26, 1971, live recording of the Grateful Dead playing “Sugar Magnolia” with Duane joining in. This magnificent rendition of the song indicates how closely the Dead and the ABB were aligned and suggests what might have been had Duane survived even a few months longer.
His genius as a composer/arranger gets one final showcase during an Allman Brothers live performance for a WPLJ radio broadcast. Duane’s close friend King Curtis had just passed, and during a break in the show, apparently someone in the crowd called out for “Soul Serenade,” one of Curtis’s best-known singles. You can hear Duane muttering something to the effect of, “Yeah, I think I know how we can do it,” before leading the band into “You Don’t Love Me.” Midway through the song Duane breaks it down and is suddenly and beautifully segueing into “Soul Serenade.”
As Skydog reaches its end, it feels as though Duane is caught mid-sentence, having completed several tracks for his next album. He died before those sessions were completed, and Eat A Peach was released with more excellent live material, including the epic “Mountain Jam,” filling out a package that featured “Stand Back,” the Dickey Betts masterpiece “Blue Sky,” and Duane’s beautiful acoustic farewell, “Little Martha.”
The grace note on this package is the closing tribute written by Duane’s daughter Galadrielle, whose very name seems of a piece with the sense of mythic wonder that surrounded Duane’s life. “Every child who has ever lost a parent knows the same burning curiosity I feel,” she writes. “I searched every frame for more of him: his crazy collection of patterned shirts, his untamed hair and crooked teeth, the intensity of his eyes and his genuine smile. But, it is in the music on these seven discs where Duane finally can be found . . . His spirit shines through every song. The strength and surprising tenderness of his playing, his raw honesty and joyfulness remain as moving and meaningful as the day he played them.”