The Allman Brothers Band were, to all intents and purposes, created by Southern soul Svengali Phil Walden (friend and manager of Otis Redding, and head of the world’s greatest soul music booking agency) to capitalise on the burgeoning popularity of open-ended improvising bands like The Grateful Dead.
In common with The Dead, the Allmans featured a double-drummer rhythm section, with splendidly-named Butch Trucks joined by Jai Johanny Johanson from Otis’ backing band.
Gruff-voiced organist Gregg Allman was like a more proactive equivalent of Pigpen McKernan, while the twin lead guitars of Dickey Betts and ace Muscle Shoals session guitarist Duane ‘Skydog’ Allman could, frankly, run rings round Jerry Garcia and Bobby Weir. They had longer hair too.
The band burst onto the scene in 1969 with a shot of rhythm and blues which provided a welcome antidote to Acid Rock overdose. Their raw electric blues signalled a return to basics after the dizzy flights of the hippie culture.
Within a couple of years, the Allmans had become the ultimate jamming band, their reputation boosted by Duane’s dazzling slide guitar guest appearance on Derek & The Dominoes Layla, and cemented by the band’s 1971 live double album At Fillmore East, with its side-long version of Whipping Post.
Atlantic‘s Jerry Wexler had initially been reluctant to underwrite such indulgence, but in the wake of the live album’s huge success, there were no such misgivings when Eat A Peach – the follow-up double album (and a mixture of studio and live material) – featured one even longer track spread across two entire sides . . .
An exploratory half-hour opus based on Donovan‘s There Is A Mountain (apart from a section 28 minutes in where Duane takes a brief diversion through Will The Circle Be Unbroken) Mountain Jam was drawn from the very same Fillmore East concerts that had produced the live double, and offers an exemplary lesson in just how rewarding Southern Rock could be, before dullard boogiemeisters Lynyrd Skynyrd ground the life out of it.
Fluid and energising throughout, the guitar interplay is intricate and generous, and even the drum solo is interesting, thanks to the subtle snare flurries that scud along so smoothly.
The firmer backbone that the Allman’s R&B roots brought to their sound is best represented on a live cut of One Way Out, where Duane and Dickey’s thrilling guitar joust echoes the previous album’s Statesboro Blues. Their country influence, meanwhile, comes through most strongly on Betts’ Blue Sky, a welcome pretext for another suitably sky-soaring guitar duel.
Duane Allman died in a motorbike accident while on his way to bassist Berry Oakley’s house on 29 October 1971 – a few months before Eat A Peach was released. He was just 24.
The band continued without him; the old two-guitar interplay between Duane and Dicky Betts being changed to a closer relationship between Betts’ guitar and Berry Oakley’s bass. But fate struck again a year and two weeks after Duane’s death when Berry Oakley’s motorbike slammed into a Macon city bus on 11 November 1972.
Oakley remained conscious and seemed unhurt, despite being thrown about 20 yards.
He refused to get in the attending ambulance and instead got a lift home with a passing motorist. A short time later he turned pale and began talking incoherently. Friends dashed him to the Medical Center of Central Georgia where he died, apparently of a brain concussion, about 20 minutes after admission.
Oakley’s accident happened only three blocks from where Allman was killed, also while riding a motorcycle. Both were 24 years old when they died.
The group was augmented with bassist Lamar Williams and pianist Chuck Leavell to complete its fifth album, Brothers and Sisters, which topped the charts and spawned the number two single Ramblin’ Man. But the group split up in acrimony after the release of Win, Lose or Draw in 1975.
The Allmans re-formed in 1978, this time returning to the sextet format, with Allman, Betts, Trucks and Johanson being joined by guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies for the gold-selling Enlightened Rogues (1979).
Two more albums, Reach for the Sky and Brothers of the Road (for which David Toler replaced Johanson and Mike Lawler was added on piano) were released before the band split again.
Following the release of a boxed set retrospective, Dreams, in 1989, The Allmans again re-formed, with Warren Haynes on second lead guitar and Allen Woody on bass, and have recorded and toured extensively since. The Allman Brothers Band celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2009.
The band’s road manager, Twiggs Lyndon, was arrested for murder on 30 April 1970, following the stabbing of a New York City nightclub proprietor.
Jai Johanny Johanson