Duane Allman: The life and legacy of a southern man

Duane Allman in the studio, wearing headphones, a flower-patterened shirt and waistcoat and holding a guitar.
Duane Allman: letting it slide.

At Fillmore East might be his most cherished legacy, but it was the seven notes Duane Allman contributed to the opening salvo of Eric Clapton’s Layla that made the young guitarist a rock icon. As it turned out, Duane played on much of 1970’s Derek & The Dominos album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, but it’s his timeless guitar riff and slide playing on the title track that’s most memorable.

During a December 1970 interview with Jon Tiven of the New Haven Rock Press, Duane explained how he got involved with the album in the first place: “Well, I went down there to watch them make that record because I was interested in it, I thought ‘Well now, the cat’s got him a band’, because I’ve been an admirer of Eric Clapton for a long, long time; I’ve always dug his playing, he inspired me a lot and I always just personally dug his playing. Figured I’d get a chance to meet him and watch this thing go down, y’know? So I went down. So when I saw him he acted like he knew me, like I was an old friend, ‘Hey man, how are you?’. And he said, ‘As long as you’re here we want you to get on this record and make it with us, we need more guitar players anyway.’ So I did, I was real flattered and glad to be able to do it.”

Duane might not have realised it, but Eric was likely even more thrilled to have him involved. Legend has it that Clapton heard Allman’s guitar solo on soul man Wilson Pickett’s cover of The Beatles’ Hey Jude on his car radio: “I drove home and called Atlantic Records immediately,” Clapton said. “I had to know who that was playing guitar and I had to know now.” It remains Clapton’s favourite guitar solo…

Pickett’s track was born at Rick Hall’s legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Duane was only 22 years old when he found himself working at the studio as a session musician. Fame produced sides for Atlantic Records, and Duane was on call when the label’s queen, Aretha Franklin, visited the small town. His slide playing on Franklin’s stunning cover of The Band track The Weight is sublime. Yet the track that caught Clapton’s attention almost didn’t happen.

“Pickett came into the studio,” remembered Rick Hall in Randy Poe’s book Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. “And I said, ‘We don’t have anything to cut.’ We didn’t have a song. Duane was there, and he came up with an idea. By this time he’d kind of broken the ice and become my guy. So Duane said, ‘Why don’t we cut Hey Jude?’ I said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I ever heard. It’s insanity. We’re gonna cover The Beatles? That’s crazy!’ And Pickett said, ‘No, we’re not gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Their single’s gonna be No.1. I mean, this is the biggest group in the world!’ And Duane said, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it – because [the Beatles single] will be No.1 and they’re so big. The fact that we would cut the song with a black artist will get so much attention, it’ll be an automatic smash.’ That made all the sense in the world to me. So I said, ‘Well, okay. Let’s do it.’

Pickett still wasn’t convinced. It took some unsubtle persuasion from Duane to seal the deal: “What’s wrong? You don’t got the balls to sing it?” That was the last straw for Pickett. He begrudgingly cut the song, an automatic smash as Duane had predicted.

As a musician, Duane Allman was a spiritual cat who, while infamously fuelled by alcohol and drugs, was always in touch with the power of music: “Miles Davis (early Miles) and John Coltrane and Robert Johnson, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters; see, you get a goal in mind, a note that you want to hit with your band and then you gotta go out on the road and your spiritual battery runs down. You get home and you listen to that stuff and say ‘Ah, there it is, I have it before me, I know what to do’, and you go out and do it.

His slide guitar work, always performed with a glass Coricidin pill bottle, and often in open E tuning, was the result of countless hours of hard work. His brief life – he didn’t even make the 27 club – was crammed full of iconic music performances, and shortly before his death he summed up his own legacy. “Develop your talent, man, and leave the world something,” said Allman. “Records are really gifts from people. To think that an artist would love you enough to share his music with anyone is a beautiful thing.”

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