On November 20, 1946, legendary guitarist Duane Allman was born in Nashville, Tennessee. His unparalleled guitar work, songwriting and inspiring presence helped earn his namesake band a deserved place in the pantheon of rock and roll, and made him an icon.
As the principal architects of Southern rock, the Allman Brothers Band forged this new musical offshoot from elements of blues, jazz, soul, R&B and rock and roll. Along with the Grateful Dead and Cream, they help advance rock as a medium for improvisation. Their kind of jamming required a level of technical virtuosity and musical literacy that was relatively new to rock & roll, which had theretofore largely been a song-oriented medium. Duane Allman and Dickey Betts – The original guitarists in the Allman Brothers Band – broke that barrier with soaring, extended solos. Combined with organist Gregg Allman’s gruff, soulful vocals and Hammond B3 organ, plus the forceful, syncopated drive of a rhythm section that included two drummers, the Allman Brothers Band were a blues-rocking powerhouse from their beginnings in 1969. Moreover, their success paved the way for other bands from the South, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, and the Charlie Daniels Band.
The group formed around the nucleus of Gregg and Duane Allman. Younger brother Gregg initially taught and encouraged Duane to pick up the guitar. As far back as 1961, with Duane dropping out of school in order to master the instrument, the brothers played in bands around Daytona Beach, Florida, where they grew up under their Mother's watch. They formed the Allman Joys in 1965, combining the Southern blues and soul influences that they’d grown up hearing with the rocking sounds of the British Invasion bands (especially the Yardbirds). Evolving into the Hourglass, the brothers and their bandmates recorded a pair of albums in Los Angeles for the Liberty label, one of which (Power of Love, 1968), foreshadowed the sound that would fully emerge with the Allman Brothers Band. (pictured left: Duane Allman used this guitar during recording sessions for the Derek and the Dominos album Layla, 1970. He also played the guitar during concerts recorded for the album At Fillmore East, 1971. “Duane” is written on the back using old frets.)
The Allman Brothers Band evolved out of jams in Jacksonville, Florida, involving Duane and members of the Second Coming (guitarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oakley) and the 31st of February (drummer Butch Trucks). Another drummer, Jai Johanny Johanson (a.k.a. “Jaimoe”), was a veteran of the soul-music circuit, having played with Otis Redding and others. A magical five-hour jam among the musicians at Trucks’ house cemented the union and prompted this remark from Duane: “Anybody who doesn’t want to be in my band is going to have to fight his way out the door.” Gregg was summoned back from California, where he was unhappily fulfilling a contractual obligation as a solo artist. The Allman Brothers Band were officially formed in March 1969 and signed to Phil Walden’s fledgling Capricorn label, which became the main driving force of the Southern-rock insurgence of the Seventies.
During the early stages of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane also worked as a session musician at Fame Recording Studios, where he acquired a reputation as the guitar player in the South. During 1969 and 1970, his blazing fretwork graced records by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter and King Curtis, with whom he formed a close friendship. His contributions to the double album Layla...and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos (led by Eric Clapton), cannot be overestimated.
“He was a complete guitar player," once noted Jerry Wexler, producer and vice-president of Atlantic Records, of Duane's prowess as a sideman. "He could do everything: play rhythm, lead, blues, slide, bossa-nova, with a jazz feeling, beautiful light acoustic – and on slide guitar he got the touch. Duane is one of the greatest guitar players I ever knew, and one of the very few who could hold his own with the best of the black blues players.”
Duane was also the linchpin of the Allman Brothers Band, lighting a fire under the other members. In Gregg’s words: “My brother was one of the most intense people I’ve ever met. When he was playing, he just pulled it out of you. I don’t care if you were dog-tired or half asleep, something happened... it was like he demanded it from you.”
The group’s first two studio albums - The Allman Brothers Band (1970) and Idlewild South (1971) - contained classic songs like “Dreams,” “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider” and “Revival.” Both were hard-hitting announcements of the Southern-rock sound. However, it was in concert that the band burned brightest. Led by Duane’s searing guitar, the Allman Brothers Band’s live shows left devoted fans in their wake. The March 1971 concerts recorded for At Fillmore East in New York caught them at their peak. Sadly, the Allman Brothers Band – and the entire music community – was dealt a catastrophic blow when Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia, on October 29, 1971. He was 24.
The Allman Brothers Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. At the ceremony, Duane's family accepted the honor on his behalf, with Gregg sharing a poignant tribute: "In honor of the greatest friend, brother, guitar player and inspiration I've ever known, my brother Duane. He was also the first to face the fire, he was my greatest motivation."
In this clip, the surviving members of the Allman Brothers Band perform "One Way Out" at the 1995 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. A scorching live version of the song featuring Duane Allman appeared on the 1972 Allman Brothers Band album Eat A Peach.