I have always thought that when we speak of best guitarists, Hendrix is out of the conversation, he’s the best and the most important guitarist who ever lived, a kind of off-planet alien or mythical God who is one level above the others. But when I get asked who then is my favourite among the rest of the mortals, without a doubt, Duane Allman. The oldest of the Allman brothers is the guitarist who has most moved me with his solos, despite his career being tragically cut short. Without turning 25 years of age, he managed to leave his mark on music, not just as a member and founder of the Allman Brothers Band, but also on the back of his session work which is what we’re focussing on here. (We’ll leave out, however, his incredible collaboration with Eric Clapton in Derek & The Dominos, since his appearance on Layla is as a member of the band and not a session player).
Wilson Pickett - Hey Jude (November 1968)
In November of 1968, Duane Allman had already been a part of two different bands, the Allman Joys and Hour Glass, along with his brother Gregg, but after they broke up for lack of commercial success, he was bandless. So he didn’t hesitate when Rick Hall, owner of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, wrote him an invitation to join the session players in his studio. Hall had discovered him when Hour Glass recorded some demos there in April of the same year. His first session was with none other than Wilson Pickett. There was no material programmed so Duane suggested recording Hey Jude by the Beatles, the single that had reached #1 on the charts since September, Hall and Pickett thought this was nonsense, but the singer decided to give it a try. The final result left everyone slack-jawed and wide-eyed, Pickett couldn’t believe it, and started calling Allman “Skyman”, which combined with his old handle ‘Dog’ led to the eventual “Skydog”. Hall got on the phone straight away with Jerry Wexler, the head-honcho at Atlantic Records, to listen to the cut in the ear piece. He was so impressed, he signed Allman to a 15,000$ contract, which was a ton for a session player at the time. When the single was successfully released in England, Eric Clapton called it “the best solo I have ever heard”. An absolute explosion that made Hall tone down the well-known background vocals to give Allman’s guitar a more starring role. A guitar that wasn’t his legendary Les Paul but a Stratocaster with a Fuzz Face plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb. But to put a ‘yes but’ to a nearly perfect song, we have the fact that Hall cut him off when he was absolutely on fire... to the point where Jimmy Johnson, one of the players present, called it the birth of Southern Rock.
Clarence Carter - Road to love (December 1968)
Another truly legendary recording, Road To Love by Clarence Carter, cut shortly after Hey Jude, is supposed to be the first recording with Duane on slide guitar. Over time he would become the most prominent slide player in history, but in these first steps he was already outstanding. It’s enough to hear the singer scream “play that thing now!” before a solo and right after whisper, “I like what I’m listening right now”. We agree with you Clarence.
Aretha Franklin - The Weight (January of 1969)
What can possibly go wrong with having one of the best voices of all time gets together with one of the best guitarists of all time? Simple answer: nothing. And, to top it off, the material chosen was one of the best songs Robbie Robertson ever penned, The Weight. This version follows the same scheme previously used by King Curtis, with Duane also on slide guitar opening the number and plucking to perfection to Franklin’s voice. (Duane is still using the Strat).
Boz Scaggs – Loan Me A Dime (May of 1969)
Pure Glory, Duane brings out the influence of B.B.King on one of his most delicate, expressive solos, it is pure emotional energy on a work of art that reaches the heavens with this version of Loan Me A Dime by Fenton Robinson with Boz Scaggs (ex-Steve Miller) in charge, who also delivers a heartfelt vocal interpretation. Of course, once Duane rips into the final solo with the amazing support of the Swampers, we are all ears. This time he has all the space in the world and he uses it right. For those who think Duane is just a great slide and Les Paul player, they should listen carefully to this song, one of the last he used his Strat on, and possibly the best blues he ever played outside the Allman Brothers, a band that had had their first rehearsal just a month before this recording.
Lulu - Dirty Old Man (September of 1969)
Lulu was the darling of British pop, so much so, she represented her country at the Eurovision Festival that year, but Jerry Wexler wanted to give her a more solid platform, so he brought her over to record at Muscle Shoals along with his favourite guitarist. The results can’t compare to those reached by her fellow countrywoman Dusty Springfield on Dusty in Memphis, but Duane manages to shine on this Dirty Old Man composed by Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie.
Johnny Jenkins – Down Along The Cove (November of 1969)
Johnny Jenkins was the leader of the band where Otis Redding got his start, and the man who involuntarily, led to his recording in Stax. At the end of the 60s, he signed with the newly created Capricorn Records, the label that had formed after the Allman Brothers. So the participation on this album was familiar territory for Duane who played on several songs from his debut with the company. One of the best examples is this cover of Down Along the Cove by Bob Dylan, where he shines his own light with his slide work, this time with his Les Paul and his mate Berry Oakley on bass.
Delaney & Bonnie - Living On The Open Road (April 1970)
By the time Duane recorded this song in New York, in the spring of 1970, his ‘59 Gibson Les Paul Standard Cherry Burst was absolutely magical. The fluidity of his phrasing on slide is absolutely masterful. Oddly enough, Delaney had requested Wexler to get Ry Cooder to play slide but he suggested giving Duane a try and the two ended up being good friends. Perfectly normal if we listen to the gift he gave on songs like this one.
Laura Nyro - Beads Of Sweat (May of 1970)
All the songs on this list appear on one of the two volumes of essential compilations An Anthology. All except, unaccountably, this gem that unites the velvet voice of Laura Nyro with Duane’s guitar. A match made in heaven where Duane shows that he’s more than prepared for his time with Clapton and the Dominos that same summer.
Herbie Mann - Push Push (July 1971)
July of 1971 saw the appearance of the mythic At The Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers, the record that made them stars, but Duane wasn’t resting on his laurels. That very month he teamed up with jazz flutist Herbie Mann on his album Push Push. Mann had recorded with Chet Baker, Count Basie, Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan, but since the late 60s he had been toying with fusion, funk, and soul. For his part, Duane touted his biggest influences of the day were Miles Davis and John Coltrane; the record Kind of Blue, being his favourite. The title song of the record is based on a funk ‘groove’ and houses one of the most spectacular solos in Duane’s career. His handbook phrasing on his Les Paul is instantly recognisable just after 3 mins and 18 seconds. The sky was the limit. The only ‘yes but’ on this record is the horrible album cover with Herbie showing us his hairy ‘wolf chest’.
Cowboy - Please Be With Me (September 1971)
When Galadrielle Allman, Duane’s only daughter, decided to publish a book on her father, she didn’t choose one of the the Allman Brothers’ songs as the title, but called it Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, as one of the last songs Duane recorded before his tragic motorbike accident on October 29, 1971. This song appears on 5’ll Getcha 10, the second record by Cowboy, a band that had landed a contract thanks to their friendship with Duane, and whose members would wind up forming part of Great Southern, Dickey Bett’s band. It is a lovely country folk ballad with beautiful harmonies, but what turns it into a masterpiece is Duane’s slide work on a dobro, enough to make a stone cry. Especially if we take into account that one month after they recorded he would be dead before reaching 24. How far could he have gone? That is one of the more frequently, and tragic, asked questions in rock history.