A book review
On March 23, 1969 a young guitarist, with a reputation as a hired studio gun on several of the best R&B records of the era, invited a group of musicians to his Jacksonville house for a jam session. Hours later, the playing was over, and every musician in the room was energized by the experience.
Duane Allman, the man who’d gathered them together that day, stood in front of the open doorway and said, “anybody in this room not gonna play in my band, you’re gonna have to fight your way out of here.”
He called his brother Gregg home from California, and the Allman Brothers Band was born. Their fusion of rock, blues and jazz gave birth to a new genre of music, simply (and somewhat deceptively) called “Southern Rock.”
But the original band would only exist for two and a half years, until Duane died in a motorcycle accident, four days after checking out of rehab.
“Skydog” chronicles a story that’s been told before, in Scott Freeman’s “Midnight Riders – The Story of the Allman Brothers Band.” But what makes Randy Poe’s excellent biography a worthy addition to the canon is his focus on Duane Allman’s evolution as a musician. Poe largely eschews the band’s well-known tragic elements for a detailed look at the life of a single-minded performer who reshaped American music.
The Allman Brothers were an interracial band in a segregated South, featuring two drummers when such a thing was unheard of. Their music hinted at jazz, but could rock like the English Invasion groups Duane and Gregg emulated with their first band, while staying rooted in blues traditions.
No one had even imagined a sound like the Allman Brothers, until Duane Allman invented it that fateful day in March 1969.
“Skydog” – the nickname was given to him by Wilson Pickett – shows that it wasn’t an easy road.
With bands like the Allman Joys and Hourglass, Duane Allman enjoyed a reputation for flashy playing that made he and his brother a hit in the “garbage circuit” – clubs and roadhouses throughout the South who welcomed the band’s mix of blues and Yardbirds covers.
Their first break came when recording sessions done with songwriting legend Jim Loudermilk led to a West Coast contract with Liberty Records, at a time when old time labels were trying to capitalize on rock and roll.
The experience was a double-edged sword for Duane. On the plus side, his band frequently shuttled up to San Francisco for shows at the Fillmore West. There, they met concert promoter Bill Graham, and laid the groundwork for their legendary “Live at the Fillmore East” album.
Duane also picked up slide guitar, after seeing Jesse Ed Davis play “Statesboro Blues” with Taj Mahal one night in Los Angeles. The Allman Brothers would later copy Davis’s arrangement of the song and make it famous.
But Hourglass never found its musical voice, making two forgettable albums. Eventually, Gregg chose to work off their record contract in L.A., while Duane went home to look for studio work.
His first stop was Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals; he’d made some friends when Hourglass recorded a blues-based album there (which Liberty later rejected). Studio owner Rick Hall told Duane he had plenty of hotshot guitarists on the payroll, but that he could hang out and see what transpired. Eventually, his work on Wilson Pickett’s cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” – which Duane suggested to the incredulous singer – got him noticed.
In short order, Allman’s distinctive playing was heard on records by Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Arthur Conley and others. Later, he made his mark on Boz Scaggs’ debut, one of the first albums made at the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Sound studio.
Soon, the Allman Brothers Band’s trajectory would begin in earnest. Two and half years later, Duane Allman was dead. Though his brilliance is to many fans a tragic footnote in the band’s 40-year history, “Skydog” makes clear that though the Allman Brothers could carry on in his absence, they would not have existed without Duane.
The book also explores Duane Allman’s work with Eric Clapton – their mutual admiration society meeting, shared taste for excess during the making of “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” and Duane’s short touring life (three shows) as a member of Derek and the Dominoes.
Poe breathes life into this seminal period of American roots music, and one of the era’s most important figure’s coming of age.
In an earlier review of “Skydog,” it was stated that the book “suffers from a lack of source material – the bibliography is several pages long, but Poe conducted few, if any, of his own interviews.”
That is incorrect. In a 3-page acknowledgments section, Poe thanks several individuals for their participation in the book, including ABB members Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavall. This reviewer regrets his error, and hopes that correcting the record within 24 hours of posting the article will mitigate the unfavorable impressions it caused.
Too much time is spent on the already well-documented post-Duane Allman Brothers era. When he focuses exclusively on Duane’s music, especially through the insights of people like Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler and the various members of Allman’s early groups, “Skydog” is a solid biography.