While the Allman Brothers Band will be celebrating their 40th anniversary next year with special projects and a tour, it’s hard to fathom that 37 of those years have gone by without one of the very siblings in the band’s name, lead guitarist Duane Allman.
When he died in October 1971 in a motorcycle accident on the streets of his hometown in Macon, Georgia, the 24-year-old had already made a huge impact on both fans and fellow musicians. Nicknamed “Dog,” and then “Skyman” (the latter given to him by Wilson Pickett), his moniker then morphed into “Skydog.”
Fittingly, Skydog is the first biography on the slide guitar master, and features a forward by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Randy Poe is a longtime music journalist and current president of Leiber and Stoller Music Publishing. The paperback version of Skydog with revisions and updated info has just been released. Rocks Off spoke with Poe via cell phone while the author was at his son’s sports practice—hopefully dodging any fast-moving hardballs.
Rocks Off: Although he’s #2 on the list of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest guitarists of all time, if you ask the average person to list the greatest rock players, you’d get Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Townsend, Richards…but Duane’s name would probably never come up. Why?
Poe: That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book. He’s been kind of forgotten. Part of the reason is that he died right before the band really took off. I mean, if you asked the average person to name an Allman Brothers song, they’d say “Ramblin’ Man,” which was a hit after Duane was gone. Also, he didn’t reach some apex in his career like Hendrix and Joplin and Morrison had. And he wasn’t the voice of the band – that’s a key thing. When Duane died, the unsuspecting person could go out and buy [the first Duane-less record] Brothers and Sisters and not even know he was gone.
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There was such a huge jump in quality in Duane’s music from those pre-ABB Hour Glass band records to the first Allman Brothers release. Do you think that’s because in between he had done so much session work with soul greats like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Clarence Carter?
Absolutely! Plus, he’d taken up the slide guitar. He just fell in love with it after he heard Jesse Ed Davis play with Taj Mahal. Once he got into that, it really ramped everything up a lot. Plus, Hour Glass never really got to do the kind of jamming that that Allman Brothers band did very early on. [ABB percussionist] Jaimoe had also come in with all that jazz influence, which Duane really liked.
Rock snobs know that it’s Duane who does a lot of the heavy-lifting playing on the classic song “Layla,” and he even brought that famous first seven note lick to Clapton’s attention. But again, the average classic rock fan – even one who’s heard and sung it a thousand times - doesn’t even know about Duane’s playing and involvement.
Well, they almost didn’t know about Eric since they put Derek and the Dominoes on that album! The whole thing didn’t even become a hit initially until the disc jockeys started playing the whole album track of “Layla” instead of the single, which faded out before the good stuff even got there. And Duane was gone by that time. And that lick that Duane brought was a speeded-up version of a [vocal melody] on an Albert King song, “As the Years Go Passing By.” But it worked!
Have you heard anything from Gregg Allman or any of the band camp on the book? I know Gregg really disliked Scott Freeman’s Midnight Riders band biography. He made that quite clear when I interviewed him some years ago.
I don’t want to speak for Gregg, but I did talk to Devon, his son. He called me and said he called his dad and said, “Don’t worry, it’s good.” Later, I was told by a friend of Gregg’s that he went to Gregg’s house, and the book was on his coffee table. I took that to be a good sign. I didn’t write it to make anybody happy or unhappy, I wrote it as I saw it and as stories were told to me by people who were around Duane, including Gregg. The Allman’s manager did call me and said that Gregg wanted me to inscribe one of the books to their mother, so that must have meant he liked it.
Finally, what bands or performers are out there today that carry on Duane’s musical influence?
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The most obvious of course is [current ABB guitarist and nephew of ABB drummer Butch Trucks] Derek Trucks. He picked it up beautifully. I’ve seen videotape of him when he was 10 or 11 years old just being Duane. He really had the slide parts down beautifully. But the influence is vast. I saw a show of a concert in Hyde Park in London, and a guy in Sheryl Crow’s band is playing slide guitar, and I saw acts that I didn’t even know were doing it. I thought that if it hadn’t been for Duane, you wouldn’t have all these rock and roll slide guitarists around today. Or at least not the huge number of them!
-- Bob Ruggiero
For more information, visit www.skydogbook.com
Skydog: The Duane Allman Story, by Randy Poe, 316 pp., $16.95, Backbeat Books