I don’t know of any modern musician who was more naturally tuned in to the musical cosmos than was Duane Allman. Unless it was Jimi Hendrix. Ultimately, I think Duane comes out ahead.
Uneducated in music, unschooled in the very notion of being a musician, lacking in social skills, Duane followed his inner guide: follow the groove, hit the note and find the chicks. Or, as he said, appreciate the “peaches.” There are not many artists who were completely devoted to wine, women and song, but Duane was one of them.
Musically, Allman had much more in common with such jazz contemporaries as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins in following the groove and improvising than he did with fellow Southern rock guitarists. He and such aerialists and high-wire walkers as Miles followed their muse wherever it took them. The Allman Brothers Band’s instrumental jams went on long, unpredictable and fascinating journeys, but they always found a pathway to a satisfying conclusion.
I thought it was interesting that when my friend and colleague Grover Lewis was following the Allmans for a story for Rolling Stone, he and Duane had a profound and bitter misunderstanding. Grover, who liked to sport black velvet blazers, pressed Levis and highly-shined black cowboy boots and quote famous writers while on assignment, pressed the wrong Duane button and experienced a blowup.
As his brother Gregg spelled out in his memoir, My Cross to Bear, Duane could be explosive. His last words with Gregg were a bitter argument over cocaine. Yet they always loved each other.
His friends said he had only two switches on his Triumph motorcycle: FAST and OFF. It was the same in his life.
His work is finally collected on the seven-CD boxed set Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, coming March 5. Even without talking to the record label or the producers, I know why it has taken so many years to put this together. Considering the number of the artists on here, the number of record labels these cuts are pulled from, the number of songwriters and song publishers involved, the amounts of rights and clearances needed to release a work of this magnitude is nightmarish to contemplate.
The 129 songs on Skydog begin with his work in the early groups the Escorts, the Allman Joys, Hour Glass, 31st of February and the Bleus. It progresses through his extraordinary work as a session player with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. There’s the amazing picking on the 13-minute “Loan Me a Dime” from Boz Scaggs’ debut album, not to mention the phenomenal playing with Eric Clapton on Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” and more. Of course, there are numerous tracks from the Allman Brothers Band’s catalog.
In all of this collection’s cuts from throughout his short career, you hear the connecting thread of Duane’s fluid, kinetic lead guitar lines goosing the songs along, pushing them, bringing them to life. No two guitar lines were ever alike, and there was never any aimless guitar noodling. There was just pure melodic spark and energy.
Contemplating all of his recorded work, it is truly mind-boggling to realize that he died at age 24. Had he lived, who knows what might have flowed from his vivid imagination and boundless enthusiasm for the new.
The package ends with “Little Martha,” the song that is inscribed on Duane’s tombstone.
NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.