by Ryan McKeeman
Duane Allman died tragically in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971 - weeks before his 25th birthday. “Skydog,” as he was known to his friends, was just entering his prime. Six months earlier, The Allman Brothers Band recorded their first live album, At Fillmore East (1971), at New York’s legendary East Village venue. As you listen to the record and feel the guitar groove, you get the impression that Skydog must have invented the slide guitar. He was so comfortable and natural on that particular quality of the instrument that it had become his calling card. But the story of his sound on the slide guitar is a story of chance. Duane might not have ever found his sound but for his younger brother’s thoughtful gift on his 22nd birthday in November 1968.
In 1967, Duane and his “baby brother” Gregg (just 1 year and 18 days his junior) were in a group called The Hour Glass based in Los Angeles. After a chance meeting with the members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, they signed a deal with Liberty Records that would ultimately yield two studio albums - The Hour Glass (October 1967) and Power Of Love (March 1968) - but only a handful of live shows. By then, Duane was already an accomplished guitarist - having dropped out of high school in 1962 to focus on music - and though his licks were inventive and creative, they were still confined to the pop sound that Liberty was trying to market.
Duane grew frustrated with the lack of shows that Liberty was able to book for his young band and decided to leave Los Angeles near the end of 1968, but before he left the brothers went horseback riding. As fate would have it, Duane’s horse slipped, throwing him briefly to the sky before breaking his left arm - his guitar-playing arm - on the fall.
For weeks, Duane was unable play and was so upset with Gregg that he wouldn't take his calls or even see him. By November 1968, Duane had developed a cold and was still holding on to the grudge with Gregg. Unsure how to make things right, Gregg did the best he could for Duane’s 22nd birthday - he gift-wrapped Taj Mahal's debut album and a bottle of Coricidin pills, knocked on Duane’s door and ran - leaving the presents for his older brother.
Two hours later, Gregg received a phone call from Duane, “Get over here baby brother...quick!” Likely inspired by Jesse Edwin Davis’s playing on the record, Duane had emptied the Coricidin bottle, washed off the label and made an impromptu slide. Able to move his arm in the sling just enough to play, Skydog dove into the new technique and within just two hours had made it his own. (Gregg still has that Coricidin bottle, for what it’s worth.)
After leaving Los Angeles, Duane returned to the south and made his way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama where producer and sound engineer Rick Hall gave him a shot as a session musician for Wilson Pickett, with whom Rick had developed a strong relationship on earlier tunes such as “Mustang Sally.” Skydog was one of the first guys with long hair and the hippie look to record down in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section (“The Swampers”), but Rick Hall “had never heard a slide guitar played like Duane could play.”
With all the history of Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios (be sure to check out the documentary), perhaps the most relevant to Skydog was the fact that W.C. Handy came from the area. An educated musician, Handy was known as the “Father of the Blues” because he was the one of the first to write down the old traditional blues songs at the turn of the 20th century (and is credited with standardizing the modern 12-bar form that we all now know). It’s fitting that this rich history of soulful music, and specifically the blues, happened to be the setting for the brilliant collaboration with Wilson Pickett.
Now this was still the 60’s. In the rural south. The Civil Rights movement was still fresh and Segregation had only recently ended...and not always willingly. Racial tension was still high in Alabama at the time and the political climate for the free-love hippies was not exactly welcoming either. There was always a slight problem for the all-white rhythm section going out with a black artist - that’s something to which The Swampers had become accustomed - but there was nothing as bad as a hippie going out in rural Alabama at that time, and that was new for everyone.
One day, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett stayed back at the studio while the rest of the band went out for lunch. During the break, Skydog suggested to Pickett that they cover “Hey, Jude” by The Beatles, which was climbing the charts (The White Album was just months old). Pickett was known for his ego and was interested in finding and distilling his own sound at the time; not making covers. Even Rick Hall thought Skydog was crazy, but they did it anyway.
Eric Clapton later said, "I remember hearing Wilson Pickett's 'Hey Jude' and just being astounded by the lead break at the end. I had to know who that was - right now." Several sources cite this guitar solo by Duane Allman as Clapton’s favorite...of all time. Duane Allman played such great guitar fills that something amazing happened, and it was in that moment that Duane first recorded the sound of Southern Rock - what would later become The Allman Brothers Band. It was a sound that left a lasting impression on the fans and fellow musicians alike.
Duane met drummer Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson shortly after recording “Hey Jude” with Pickett while living in his cabin down on the river in Muscle Shoals. Then bassist Berry Oakley came down and according to Jaimoe, “Boy, the three of us, I had never played music like that. That was pretty much the base of what became The Allman Brothers Band.” The Allman Brothers Band officially formed in Jacksonville, Florida and released two studio records together, The Allman Brothers Band (1969) and Idlewild South (1970), both of which fell flat commercially upon initial release. Then Clapton, a huge fan of Duane’s after having heard “Hey Jude,” invited Skydog to play on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) with Derek & the Dominos down in Miami, Florida. Reports suggest that the two were inseparable during those months in the studio after the first all-night jam session. Oh to be a fly on the wall that night.
Things picked up for The Allman Brothers Band in 1971, but they began to realize their appeal lay largely in their live performances and that experience could not properly be captured in the studio. The group decided to record a live album over the course of three days at Fillmore East in New York’s East Village - in March of 1971. The result is regarded as one of the greatest live recordings ever and it’s likely none of this - “Hey Jude” with Wilson Pickett, the collaboration with Eric Clapton on “Layla,” and the birth of The Allman Brothers Band (and Southern Rock) - would have been possible without that fateful horseback ride just three years earlier. Here’s to happy accidents!