Randy Poe’s 2006 book Skydog: The Duane Allman Story
is the first and only definitive biography of the late Allman Brothers Band guitarist and is told from the perspective of those who knew him best: his friends, family and fellow musicians. Just recently published in paperback by Backbeat Books
, this new and fully expanded edition includes an entire appendix, which did not appear in the
hardcover, that meticulously details Allman’s guitars and gear. Billy Gibbons penned the foreword with a touching story of the two’s first meeting, when ZZ Top
was just a fledgling little trio from Texas and both bands got stranded in a club overnight during a New Orleans hurricane.
Poe spoke with Gibson about his book and his favorite guitarist. “Duane died at the age of 24,” said Poe. “His entire time with the band was just over two and a half years ? from March of 1969 to October of 1971. It says an awful lot about Duane Allman’s influence on American culture when the band he founded is still out there playing all these years later.”
How long have you been a fan of the Allman Brothers Band?
I was a fan from their very first record. I got to see them live in Kansas City and other places during the early 1970s. In fact, I once quit a job because the foreman wouldn’t let me leave early enough to make it to the ABB show on time. A man’s got to keep his priorities in order!
As you can imagine, it was a real thrill for me to get to meet most of the principals, as well as some of the former band members, over the years. I actually met Chuck Leavell sometime in the 1990s. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, in or out of the music business. The night we met, he was playing keyboards for Gov’t Mule at the House of Blues here in L.A. So that same night I also got to meet Warren Haynes.
I first met Gregg Allman in the Green Room at the Beacon Theatre a few years back. He and I were talking about Muscle Shoals when Jaimoe walked into the room. For those who might not know the history, Duane and Jaimoe first met in Muscle Shoals. If you know Jaimoe, you know he gives everybody a nickname. A year later, I go walking into the Green Room backstage at the Beacon, and Jaimoe shouts out, “Hey, it’s ‘Muscle Shoals!’” I figure it’s not a bad nickname to have.
I remember first meeting Derek Trucks backstage at the Greek Theatre. The Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” had just come out. I congratulated Derek on making the list, and he said, “It don’t mean nothing since Albert King’s not on it.” I got a kick out of his response, but I still think he was proud to have made the list ? as did Duane, Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes.
What was some of the best insight you got while researching the book?
The thing that came as the biggest surprise to me was finding out that Duane wasn’t a natural musician on the level of, say, Derek Trucks. In other words, Duane wasn’t born with the ability to pick up a guitar for the first time and just start playing it like a virtuoso. The people who roomed with Duane or hung out with Duane ? going all the way back to his school days ? told me he just practiced, practiced, practiced all the time. The guitar was strapped around him, or it was sitting on his knee, night and day, every day.
What did come naturally to him was some serious charisma. One interviewee after another told me that when Duane walked into the room, everything else stopped. There aren’t very many people who just have this aura that makes everything else disappear when they make an entrance. When he showed up, all eyes were on him.
While researching and writing Skydog,was there any anecdotal material obscured by years of rock and roll living that was hard to corroborate?
Actually, the hardest part was dealing with all the research materials that compounded what I ended up referring to as the “myth problem.” This is no exaggeration: I couldn’t depend on hardly anything that I read from other sources. The problem stemmed from the no doubt unintentional errors in the liner notes for the first Anthology album ? some of which were promulgated in earlier interviews by Duane himself. A lot of writers took every word of those notes as the gospel, but my first-hand research ended up dispelling so much of it.
Everything I read about Duane going to Muscle Shoals said that he went there because he’d received a telegram from Rick Hall, asking him to come play on the Wilson Pickett session that resulted in Pickett’s recording of “Hey Jude.” According to most of the writers ? well, according to all of the writers of the articles that I read ? Rick had heard the Hour Glass sessions that had been recorded at Rick’s Fame Recording Studios, and was so impressed with Duane’s guitar work that he sent a telegram to Duane, asking him to come play on Pickett’s session. In truth, absolutely none of that happened. When I interviewed Rick Hall, he didn’t know anything about the telegram story. In fact, I’m the first person to ever tell him that the Hour Glass had recorded at Fame. He had no idea.
The truth is Duane went to Muscle Shoals looking for work, and he ended up recording a number of sides with Clarence Carter and others before the Pickett session even took place. It’s all there in black and white on the tape boxes ? dates, session players, etc. Duane was already there. And when he first arrived, Rick had never heard him or heard of him.
I think Duane was responsible for at least part of the myth because he had once told an interviewer that Rick called on him to play on “a trial session to get Pickett’s recording business.” In fact, Pickett had been recording at Fame for over three years at that point.
And then there are all the ridiculous myths that just keep getting told over and over, like how Duane was killed when his motorcycle hit a peach truck, resulting in the band calling their next album Eat a Peach. It’s total bull****, but folks want to believe it, so it keeps getting told. For those who don’t know, the album was actually going to be called The Kind We Grow in Dixie until Butch Trucks remembered a quote from one of Duane’s interviews. Duane had said, “Every time I’m in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace.” So, at Butch’s insistence, the title was changed to Eat a Peach.
I faced a lot of other hurdles in the never-ending search for accuracy. In some instances I’d have three different people telling me three different stories about one specific event. Since there was no way to ask the book’s subject how he remembered it, I sometimes just quoted all three stories and left it to the reader to decide which one seemed the most plausible.
But the person who hit the nail on the head was Reese Wynans. While I was trying to coax his memory about how Duane broke it to him that he wasn’t going to be in the band, Reese said he couldn’t recall the specifics. Then he said to me, “You’ve got a really difficult job trying to write this book because you’re getting a bunch of 35-year-old stories told by musicians of various repute.”
Truer words were never spoken. In the end, I know I came close to getting the overall spirit of the subject right because ? after the hardcover came out in 2006 ? I got an email from one of Duane’s closest friends, Deering Howe, telling me that I captured Duane exactly as he remembered him, warts and all.
How did the Allman Brothers Band lay the groundwork for the great wave of musicians who came after them?
I think the Allman Brothers Band made people all over the world aware of the fact that great rock music could be created by a group of guys from the South. If you think about it, there just weren’t any seriously successful rock bands from the Southeastern United States until the ABB came along. There were some one-hit wonders from time to time, and plenty of great solo artists from the South ? including Elvis ? but no band from that region was as consistent or as successful as the Allman Brothers. Their success inspired the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Charlie Daniels Band, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Blackfoot, Wet Willie, Black Oak Arkansas, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, and a host of others during the 1970s and ’80s. I was growing up in the South during the 1960s and ’70s, and I can tell you that the Allman Brothers instilled a lot of pride in that area of the country when they came along in 1969.
Though a very talented guitarist all around, Duane is probably best known for his Les Paul-driven slide playing, which is instantly identifiable. How did he come to develop his personal style?
The epiphany came when he heard Jesse Ed Davis playing slide guitar with Taj Mahal back during the Hour Glass days. In fact, “Statesboro Blues” was part of Taj’s repertoire. Like I said before, Duane wasn’t a natural talent. When he decided to take up slide playing, everyone else in the Hour Glass was miserable because it took him quite a while to get the hang of it. Paul Hornsby told me the only thing worse than listening to Duane’s early attempts at slide guitar was listening to somebody trying to learn how to play the violin. Duane told one interviewer that when he’d pull out his Coricidin bottle, the rest of the band would just put their heads down and say, “Let’s just play this one fast and get it over with.” But, clearly, he eventually got the hang of it.
By the way, one of my favorite parts of writing the book was doing the research on Duane’s guitars. It got so overwhelming that I decided to just add another appendix to the back of the book, with photos of ? and the stories behind ? as many of Duane’s guitars as I could get information on. He played a lot of Gibsons in his day. He started with a ’59 Les Paul Jr.; moved on to a 335; had a couple of goldtops; a Gibson L-00 pre-war acoustic; a cherry sunburst; a 1961 Les Paul Standard (that many people later mistook for an SG, but in those days it carried the Les Paul name); and, of course, he ended up with that legendary Tobacco Sunburst that Gibson chose to base their Duane Allman Signature on.
What has changed between the original printing and the new paperback edition of Skydog?
Well, in addition to the expanded discography, I also wrote a new afterword for this edition. A lot has happened in the ABB camp since I finished the hardcover manuscript in mid-2006, so the new afterword gave me a chance to expound on those things. Just as I was finishing the afterword, the news came out that Gregg had Hep-C, so the band’s future was an uncertainty at that moment. They had to cancel the Beacon Run and everything. But luckily he’s doing better now, so they were able to do a few shows this summer. Now it’s on to March of 2009, when the Allman Brothers Band will be celebrating their 40th anniversary.