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The life of Duane Allman: the man who invented southern rock

Duane Allman is one of the most lauded guitarists of all time. Whether it be in the Allman Brothers Band, Derek and the Dominos or even Hourglass, as a guitarist, Duane Allman is right up there with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and other pioneering figures. He effectively started southern rock by blending blues, rock, jazz and country. Although he tragically passed away in 1971 aged only 24, the impact Allman had in his short life was monumental.

Growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, he would first learn to play the guitar from his brother, Gregg, who picked up the basics from his summer trips to their grandmother’s home in Nashville, where a friendly neighbour gave him lessons. It was Gregg’s interest in the guitar that would culminate in his older brother Duane becoming a guitar hero.

In 1960, Gregg went into a Sears department store intending to buy some gloves. However, he returned home with a Japanese-made Teisco Silvertone in what would prove to be his first-ever guitar. Whilst he concentrated on the six-string, his brother Duane became the bane of the neighbourhood, riding around on his Harley 165 motorbike. Gregg would sometimes give Duane lessons, even though Duane was left-handed, and slowly he became irreversibly fascinated by the instrument and, quite often, fights would break out over the guitar. Before too long, Duane had wrecked his motorbike and swiftly traded it in for a Silverton of his own. A hard worker, within a year, Duane’s playing had come on leaps and bounds, and his mother eventually bought him a Gibson Les Paul Junior. 

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One night in Nashville, the brothers shared a life-changing moment. They went to a concert of blues guitar hero B. B. King, and afterwards, Duane said to Gregg: “We got to get into this”. Galvanised, Duane concentrated hard on his craft and became the better guitarist of the two. The brothers started playing in public in 1961 and performed in a string of local bands. Duane dropped out of school in an effort to make it as a musician, one of his early bands, The Escorts even supported The Beach Boys in 1965.

Shortly after The Escorts disbanded, Gregg had graduated from high school, and the brothers formed The Allman Joys. Together, they performed throughout the south and eventually made their home Nashville. Things moved quickly for The Allman Joys, who then transitioned into Hour Glass and moved to LA in 1967. 

Riding the wave of momentum, the band signed to Liberty Records and released two albums, but the brothers felt creatively stifled. Liberty wanted to create a band in the image of The Byrds or Iron Butterfly, ignoring the brothers’ blues inspired style. Suffocated by the music industry, the band broke up in early 1968 and the brothers returned to Florida.

During this period of limbo, Duane began learning the slide guitar. On his birthday in 1968, he was at home recovering from an elbow injury he’d suffered after falling from a horse. As a birthday present, Gregg bought him the debut album by blues legend Taj Mahal and some Coricidin pills for the pain.

“About two hours after I left, my phone rang,” Gregg recalled. “‘Baby brother, baby brother, get over here now'”. When he got to Duane, he found his brother had poured the pills out of the bottle and washed off the label, and was using it as a slide. He was playing along to the track ‘Statesboro Blues’ with no problem at all. 

Duane Allman performing at Fillmore East, 1971. (Credit: Ed Berman)

“Duane had never played slide before,” Gregg said, but “he just picked it up and started burnin’. He was a natural”. Not only would the track become an Allman Brothers staple in the years to come, but it had helped Duane to perfect his iconic slide guitar skill. During this time, Allman’s playing in Hour Glass had earned him work at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, after he’d caught the attention of the owner, Rick Hall. He worked with a host of legends including Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Wilson Pickett and Delaney & Bonnie. Most notably, he contributed to Wilson Pickett’s 1968 album, Hey Jude, which alerted none other than Eric Clapton to his skill as a guitarist. Looking back on first hearing the record, Clapton 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 immediately – right now”.

Shortly after, The Allman Brothers were formed. They headed up to New York and started recording, without ever having played a show. Their debut, The Allman Brothers Band, was recorded in September 1969 and released in November. Their second album, Idlewild South, was released in 1970 amidst a hectic touring schedule. Playing live with The Allman Brothers, Duane Allman would finally meet Eric Clapton

The two bands hit it off and headed back to the studio in Miami where Clapton’s then band, Derek and the Dominos, were recording their sole album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton and Allman bounced off one another with giddy excitement and would spend all night trading licks. This rapport would lead to Allman featuring on nearly all of the album’s tracks, and strangely, it would become his best-known work, although he was never a full-time member of the Dominos, turning down offers to enter the fold permanently. He did play twice live with them though, on December 1st, 1970, in Tampa and the next day in Syracuse, New York.

The last record Duane made with The Allman Brothers was At Fillmore East in March 1971. Tragically, Duane’s longstanding fascination with motorbikes ended in a fatal motorcycle crash whilst the band were on a break from touring and recording. A massive blow for the world of music, Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd dedicated their classic hit ‘Free Bird’ to Duane’s memory. Famously, during Skynyrd’s show at Knebworth in 1976, Van Zant said to the pianist, Billy Powell: “Play it for Duane Allman”.

This wasn’t the only way Duane Allman made an impact on popular culture. His unmistakable bottleneck sound became utilised by other southern rock musicians and became a vital facet of the southern sound. Dickey Betts, Derek Trucks, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles all took their cues from Allman’s playing. An all-American player with an all-American sound, this was Duane’s true magic.

Duane Allman was a legend. Almost single-handedly establishing a genre of music, his versatile technique lives on through the records he made in his life. For anyone wanting to replicate the southern sound, Duane Allman should be your go-to guide.

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