“Ok. The Allman Brothers Band.” – Pretty much the entire intro to the classic Fillmore East album.
Anybody who knows me has probably asked themselves, “Man, is he STILL listening to the Allman Brothers?” Well, in a word, yes. It’s difficult for me to put into words how important this band’s music is to me. Of all the hundreds of bands I’ve ever seen or listened to, I find no one to whom to compare the ABB. (There are many bands and performers whose music I’v loved. But for me there are four bands – Beatles, Stones, Springsteen/E Street, Allmans. And then everybody else).
As far as I’m concerned not only are the ABB in the top echelon of rock bands ever, they are the greatest band America ever produced. Why do I think these guys were so great? (“Were,” because they performed their final show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theater in New York. I was there on the previous Saturday, October 25th, my (I think) fifteenth and final time seeing them.)
Because prior to them, no one had fused together rock, blues, jazz and country in the way they did. And not only did they do that, they did it at the highest possible level of musicianship.
Formed in Jacksonville, FL in 1969, their first album was released that same year. Side One Track One, “Don’t Want You No More,” was a song by the Spencer Davis Group. It had lyrics but the Allmans chose to do it as an instrumental. It runs right into “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,”a Gregg Allman original. Listen to Duane’s gorgeous, perfect solo on the intro to the latter and then Gregg, one of the greatest blues singers ever, white or black, lay it down:
The Allmans were a fusion of a couple of different bands and styles. Duane and his brother Gregg had kicked around in a variety of bands that played not only blues but pop. Of one of their early pre-Allmans albums Duane said, “It’s cats tryin’ to get off on things that cannot be gotten off on.”
Duane also did session work, mostly at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama backing the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. (I think it was this R&B/soul background along with his great blues feel that differentiated him from his peers). The only other session musicians from that era I can recall breaking out are Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and country icon Glen Campbell.
Dickey Betts had been playing in a band called The Second Coming. While both he and Duane had legitimate blues and country backgrounds, Dickey always seemed to have the edge with pure country. One of his big influences was a band called Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Their genre is listed as Western Swing (and the Allmans do swing).
Dickey especially credits Wills for the idea of using harmonized guitar (and fiddle) which typically means one instrument plays the melody line and the other plays the same line a couple notes higher on the scale. It makes for a thicker, fuller and, well, more harmonious sound.
By late 1970, the Allmans had recorded and released two albums to some critical acclaim, little fanfare. As good as those albums were, this was an improvisational band that had to be seen live to really be appreciated. And so they toured relentlessly, up and down the East Coast and around the country.
Many of their initial concerts were held for free (imagine!) at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The guys eventually came to realize that they needed to record themselves live. And so what better place to do it than the Fillmore East, where owner Bill Graham (and the entire staff) had fallen in love with them and their sound. They played there so many times they were almost considered a house band and in fact, were one of the bands that played on closing night.
So in March of 1971, they recorded themselves there on three legendary nights. The subsequent release – “At Fillmore East”- is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest live album of all time. It’s a perfect compendium of their sound at the time.
If you have eleven minutes to spare, you really should check out this video from the same venue the prior year. It is one of the few videos extant that features Duane. And it just so happens it’s the classic “Whipping Post.” (Frank Zappa got so tired of hearing audiences request it that he finally covered it. It’s here if you’re curious.)
Note – The Fillmore East album came out six months after the gig. Last time I saw the band I paid an extra 15 bucks and walked out the door 2 1/2 hours later with that night’s show on CD. Incredible.
Personal note – In 1971, I was going to a lot of concerts. My friends suggested we go see the ABB at Fillmore East (I was living in NY). I had no idea who they were but I figured, sure why not. But we instead decided to go see them in Central Park later that summer.
And so the good news is that yes I did see the original Allmans and yes they were great and yes my mind was blown. However, we blew the chance to see the legendary Fillmore East thing. To which I can only say —
Tasty tidbit – Bruce Springsteen and his cohort Steve Van Zandt were big ABB fans and managed to get themselves on the bill with them in Jersey. Compared to both bands’ later fame, relatively speaking, nobody had heard of either of them. (Springsteen didn’t have a record out for another two years). Duane supposedly showed Van Zandt how to play slide.
To my knowledge, no recording of this momentous shifting of the tectonic plates exists. But yes this is the exact same tour where I first saw the Allmans at the now-defunct Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. (Cowboy sucked). Now if only the ABB had let Bruce come to a meeting across the river in NY a few months later I could be telling you that I saw both of them on one bill. (See above reaction)
Gregg’s song of lonesomeness on the road, “Midnight Rider,” has been covered by everybody from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Garth Brooks. Here’s the original ABB cut (and here’s a nice cover by a country band called Little Big Town. Along with a special guest).
Next – Surviving Duane’s death and evolution of their sound. And stardom.