When Duane Allman found his sound

by Alberto D. Prieto

Music is pain, a lament for failing to unite the broken pieces. Music is born from a broken heart and from absences. It is expressed through the personality of suffering, be it as a solo artist or in a band...there is always a moment of solitude, silent dialogue with the notes that brings tears to the eyes and causes blisters on the fingers. Music is pain.    

Howard Duane Allman
(20th November 1946, Nashville, Tennessee) had, well, a painful adolescence, because from dusk till dawn he sat in a chair looking for the lost sound. Not even lost; never found. What severe pain for a musician to never find his music. Because Duane Allman was already a star of the musical scene before the world had a chance to see it and died almost without him being able to warm up to his audience. Yes, he had time to find his sound. However, since music is pain, just when the alchemy of his light was created he had to leave his legacy to posterity.  

It is like distant stars in the sky. Born without anyone noticing, and once they reach their zenith the sky, in reality they no longer exist. Duane Allman left his relatives the material, endless income royalties for his work, and most importantly, a new paradigm of white blues and southern rock, pride at the bar, calmness in the eyes, aplomb in the interpretation of vital verse. And a sound: born from pain, blisters and fever. From tirelessly chasing a dream that disrupted his sleep each night, causing him to forget worldly obligations…fulfilling his destiny.  

After seeing B.B. King live in concert at the young, impressionable age of 13, Duane and his younger brother found their calling in life. The boy destined for the ephemeral glory tore through over the vinyls of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson he managed to collect at home and dismantled and sold his mother’s Harley piece by piece... With the money earned from this, he purchased his first guitar. Twelve years later, he would die beneath another Harley that, cursedly, trapped him like a finger on the fret and slid his body on the tarmac.  

If at the age of 15, his fingerprints were nearly erased by crushing the strings against the neck of a Telecaster, before the change of the decade, the young Duane was already a remarkable studio musician, whose abilities had drawn the attention of the greatest, from coast to coast. From Florida to California. The failure of Hour Glass, the first band he formed together with his brother Gregg in Los Angeles, left a legacy: Fame Studios hired them to accompany their recording sessions for singers in their catalogue.  

The secret to this small triumph he kept hidden in a little bottle of drugs that carried him to the precise fret, but in reality, what that bottle did was orbit his Strat and bring it to the confines of a new universe of sounds. With his guitar and him, along came new listeners and accompanists. During this journey, singers such as Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett joined along. And others, such as Joe Walsh, asking for the opportunity to test the weightless flotation of the slide.  

formed a new band with five more friends, amongst them, yet again his brother Gregg. High on endless, drug-fuelled sessions filled with whiskey and improvisation along the chords, Duane Allman, guitarist (one of them) and soul (including after his death) of The Allman Brothers Band, packed a Les Paul from ‘59 in his luggage and travelled to New York in the magical year of ‘69.  

Everything had led up to that change of decade, a number (69) of back and forth, up and down, perfect, that concentrated the palindromic tension of blues, rock, pop, psychedelic, jazz, soul and country. A crucial, tipping point year that would give birth to the dawn of progressive rock, heavy metal, concept music, funk, reggae and other fresh new sounds. Thousands of paths had orgasmically converged during the flower power parties that characterised the last years of the 60’s and, like every crescendo, its subsequent explosion would germinate in endless new paths.  

One of them that Duane Allman carried and kept hidden, like a treasure map, was a little bottle of Coricidin. It was the New York of Tom Dawd, the producer of Cream. Duane wanted to show him that if the three members of Clapton were the Holy Trinity, the Allman band weren’t a group of six by coincidence.  

The Allman Brothers arrived with Butch Trucks (whom today, his nephew Derek plays the slide with mastery in the current formation of the Brothers) and Jai Johanny Johanson (another 'session man' from the days of Fame) with two drums –the light needed power-, Dickey Betts as (the other) guitarist and Berry Oakley on the bass. They arrived to The Big Apple feverish from the blues, with the mercury about to burst, filled with progressive ideas. The strawberry-blonde man with a southern moustache arrived, exploding like a supernova, restless to harvest the seeds he had planted months ago, when all his moods finally came together in a delirium: sick in bed, he had heard, amongst fever sweats, the dreamlike slide of 'Statesboro blues' played by Taj Mahal. That forgotten cover hit the precise fret, and Duane, after emptying the bottle of pain reliever, no longer wanted to lower the heat of his fever anymore. The Coricidin on his ring finger had inaugurated his authentic sound, the sweet slide of Duane Allman that, garnished with the spicy sharpness of the volume knob turned to maximum, served to teach everything to an entire generation.    

Rehearsing in cemeteries, soaking the inspiration in liquors and other herbs they carved out the grooves of two LPs full of inspiration, officially launching ceremoniously the luck of white blues and southern rock. With nods to folk and the beginnings of progressive rock—with a Gibson ES-345 semi-hollow and a Les Paul Cherry Sunburst. With eternal instrumentals filled with different melodies that forged approaches, junctions, endings, outcomes and private sub-stories to stir up passions of their own. With little pearls at the bottom of a glass of bourbon. With a sound so unique and necessary that it hurts to imagine what would have become of us without him. And what we would have done before him.  

not only lent his surname to the group. With his ability and genius he also gave to life to guitars that until then were unaware of what they were capable of.  

The most intense glow of the Allman Brothers was, in any case, on stage. Therefore, no one was surprised that 'At Fillmore East', their next album, a live recording from March ‘71 on that stage in New York, was like registering an explosion and, vinyl groove to groove, in high definition. It was released in the summer: only three and a half months before Macon, Georgia, when all the band members would go out to eat lunch during a break of recording sessions that would later fill the posthumously released 'Eat a Peach'. That part of the sound legacy, Duane left behind in the masters at the studio. Yet there was another. Even more important. The imprint of his sound he left behind in the greatest recording studios in the business of the six strings.  

denied it (of course, for damage control), but some say that Pattie Boyd rebuked Clapton, amongst liquors, that she was so amazing she had inspired 'Something' by George. They say that, in pain, he alleged that, bit by bit, he knew how to win and snatch the lover from the arms of the ex Beatle composing for her the great 'Layla' that gave name to the only disc of Slowhand with Derek and The Dominos. And they say that however almighty the god of the guitars was capable of stealing, dethroning the blues from even the black people of Mississippi, it wasn’t until he convinced Allman to accompany him in the recording sessions of the LP that 'Layla' began to take shape. To the extent that the powerful personality of the song, which he rounded out—and made it so worthy that Pattie could boast of being his muse— was the work of Duane. For starters, he brought out the brutal riff from his ’57 Les Paul Goldtop that begins the song. Converting a resounding version of regret --"there is nothing I can do..."-- from Albert King in 'As the years go passing by' into one of the most recognizable arrangements ever undertaken by six strings. And as it finishes, Allman improvised with the slide alongside the piano with Jim Gordon the closing, the cry of a thousand cats coming out of the bottle of Coricidin that the Southern devil fastened with his left ring finger.  

doesn’t have much to say, of course. If music is pain, that a redheaded demon brat perfected a god’s creation, that is extreme pain.  

The short career of Duane Allman, two studio albums and a live recording with The Brothers, did not prevent him from reaching the category of a magician, despite meeting his light too soon. His doglike appearance, his predilection for mixing substances and sound, leads one to believe that there was something of an alchemist in his ability to be ubiquitous and that his six strings were (and still remain) in various worlds: blues, southern rock, jazz and soul... Duane drank those liquors since he was a youngster at the gramophone in his home and he fed himself from those essences, making them his own. And in his combustion engine, he made a hidden and unmistakable mix, like the sound of a Harley.  

Slide, everything slides, even the motorcycle on top of me. And afterwards, the sound of absence. Music is pain. We arrived too late to your sound; you had already left. But here, you keep on shining.