Happy Birthday Duane Allman: The Sideman Recordings of a Gibson Legend
Gibson SG and Les Paul legend Duane Allman is among the more mysterious of the profoundly influential six-stringers from the electric guitar’s most sonically formative decade.
Allman died young and until this year his recorded legacy had remained scattered; not repacked, unearthed and repeatedly rediscovered via reissues and compilations of nuggets panned from record label, studio and live recording vaults, like the still growing Jimi Hendrix catalog.
If not for his accidental death, Allman would have turned 67 on Wednesday, November 20. This year a superb memorial to Duane surfaced: a treasure trove of his studio recordings as well as very good examples of his playing with the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and others, packaged as the 129-track box Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective.
Combing through this definitive sonic study reveals much about his growth and development as a player as it lets listeners hear Allman’s evolution from derivative teenage picker to capable sideman to musical visionary. It’s remarkable how quickly he progressed. In 1965 Duane’s initial recordings with the Escorts, the earliest band he shared with his brother Gregg, creak with rote R&B and surf licks. Two years later in their successive group the Hour Glass, he traces the same sonic terrain as fellow fuzztoned fretmen in era-bridled outfits like the Seeds and the Electric Prunes. But in mid-1968’s Clarence Carter hit “The Road of Love” Duane’s slide guitar debuts like a muscular thoroughbred in its first race, rippling with the same hyper-amplified grace as this set’s performances of “One Way Out” and “You Don’t Love Me” by the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East.
Let’s take a look at 10 tracks that most fans of Allman don’t associate with his legendary canon:
• “Twice A Man,” Barry Goldberg Blues Band: This 1968 recording, cut mostly in Los Angles with Allman overdubbing his guitar in Muscle Shoals, didn’t propel the Bay Area bluesman with a penchant for the genre’s hard-core Chicago style into the same rarified air as Big Brother & the Holding Company, but it did give Allman a change to practice his slide chops. What’s surprising is how thin and weak his tone was at this point, given the boldness of his soon-to-emerge signature voice on slide.
• “Hey Jude,” Wilson Pickett: At a late 1968 session with “Wicked” Pickett, Allman proved his mettle as an apt foil for one of the most powerful vocalists of the day. Performing with the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Allman played call and response with the singer, creating a frenetic, vibrant solo to match the intensity of Pickett’s howl.
• “The Road of Love,” Clarence Carter: At roughly the same time as the Pickett sessions Allman laid down guitar overdubs on a handful of recordings by southern roadhouse kingpin Carter — who would go on to record his juke joint and frat house favorite “Strokin’ “ and the crossover hit “Patches.” “The Road of Love” was the recording that marked Allman’s arrival as a slide guru and was the first commercially released single to boast his full-bodied glass-on-steel sound.
• “Stuff You Gotta Watch,” Arthur Conley: In same month of the same year, yet another definitive soul session that included this tune and three more occurred. You can Allman’s single note crescendos and accents premiering licks he would later use in “Whipping Post.”
• “The Weight,” Aretha Franklin: Although the soul diva’s 1968 recording of this Band tune wouldn’t rise to top of the charts like so much of her other work in the ’60s and ’70s, Allman’s potent slide is an important part of its formula, and his performances with Aretha helped cement his relationship with Tom Dowd, who would produce the Allman Brothers’ early recordings. Allman would also play on King Curtis’ version of this song a year later.
• “Me,” “Reap What Your Sow,” “It Takes Time,” Otis Rush: This trio of titles aren’t distinguished numbers in the Chicago blues legend’s storied career, but the behind the scenes, in-studio 1969 collaboration between ES-335 giant Rush, Allman and producers Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites is a fly-on-the-wall fantasy today.
• “Somebody Loan Me A Dime,” Boz Scaggs: Allman played Dobro as well as electric guitar on mid-1969 sessions with Scaggs, and can he heard testing some of his ideas about texture and atmosphere culled from the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis on this superb performance of the Fenton Robinson tune.
• “Down in the Alley,” Ronnie Hawkins: Allman’s abilities as a studio ensemble player shine in the 1969 sessions that yielded this tune, where he both supported and led the arrangement along with a cast that included the great soul guitarist Eddie Hinton, the Sweet Inspirations vocal group and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
• “Beads of Sweat,” Laura Nyro: For a different region of Allman’s sideman work, check out his soulful playing on this session from Atlantic Records’ New York City studios for Nyro. He plays lead guitar in an A-list band that includes Nyro on piano, Cornell Dupree on guitar, bassists Richard Davis and Chuck Rainey, and percussionist Ralph McDonald. His call and response with Nyro is spot-on.
• “Come On In My Kitchen,” Delaney & Bonnie & Friends: One of three songs preserved from a live session on July 22, 1971, at New York City’s A&R Studios for radio broadcast, it’s a rare and beautiful recording of Allman in an acoustic setting playing slide on a Robert Johnson song.