The best 'jams' of rock
In November 1970 Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs appeared, which was the debut release from Derek And The Dominos - the first album by the band behind which was Eric Clapton, and in which the guitar of Duane Allman stood out. By that time the eldest Allman was already one of the most sought after session musicians in the USA and led ‘a band of brothers’ (although the only blood brother was Gregg) that would have followed him to infinity and beyond.
The album entered the top 20 in the US charts and Clapton asked Duane to join him for a pile of money and ‘become a rock star for good’. Duane was very fond of Clapton but he had blind faith in his boys so he let the job go and decided to focus on his band. He knew that when the six of them got on stage magic would happen and it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world found out.
Despite having two albums behind them, the four members of the band who were not named Allman - Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks - were struggling to make ends meet, while Duane was earning more than enough from his jobs as a session musician (or as a member of the Dominos) and Gregg was earning extra from songwriting royalties (he was the band's main songwriter at the time). But, as said, faith in Duane was infinite and he, like a good captain, was constantly handing out praise and positive energy. When he started to become famous for his collaboration with Clapton, he began to say in interviews, "I'm the famous guitar player, but the good one is Dickey".
They were building a loyal following and their live shows were the talk of the town, their price had doubled (although it was still a ridiculous, in today's eyes, $1,250 a night) and they were playing better than ever. Duane was clear, their next record would be a live one "to capture some of that fire we put out together on stage".
So when they were booked to play Fillmore East for a few days in March, it was decided to record the result. The band was third on a bill that also included Johnny Winter and Elvin Bishop's band, but by the third day they were closing the shows. Not even the great Johnny Winter could play slide after Duane and his boys had taken the stage.
And what happened during those days was the band's zenith, the moment when the stars aligned and the Allmans played like never before. Of all the great jam bands in the history of rock, the Allman Brothers were the best, and this album is definitive proof of that. The Grateful Dead revolved around Jerry Garcia and depended on his inspiration, Cream competed with each other rather than helped each other, but the Allmans were a band that followed the maxim of the musketeers: " all for one and one for all". Duane was the star, but that did not prevent Dickey Betts from shining at various moments, Berry Oakley from proving that he is one of the most underrated bass players in history or Gregg Allman's voice and Hammond B3 from sounding better than ever. Here it was all about the end result and the rapport with the others. Duane and Betts' guitars interweaved and harmonized as if they could read each other's minds, Oakley sometimes seemlessly joined in with them and Trucks and Johanson's drums never got in each other's way.
The album opened with Statesboro Blues, the song on which Duane had learned to play slide just three years earlier. By this time he was unrivaled when he put the little Coricidin bottle neck on his finger; but he played just as well without it. He is one of the few rock musicians capable of never boring anyone with his solos, with a musicality reminiscent of jazz musicians, and, like them, this band sought to go a little further but always within a coherent context. Maybe that's why the three best songs on the album are the three songs that exceed ten minutes, You Don't Love Me, In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed and the glorious Whipping Post, a song of 23 minutes in which not a second is left over. Duane delivers the first solo with his famous Les Paul of '59, from two minutes, and it is pure strength and speed, playing around with the level of intensity, raising and lowering the tempo at will, before Dickey Betts shines with an anthological solo on his '61 SG; one of the most beautiful ever made. At that point Gregg returns with the slowed down chorus and then Duane proves that he is the most inventive guitarist of his generation with a great final coda for the song.
The album proved that Duane was right to stick with his band. In the first week of September 1971 it reached number 13 in the US charts, beating even Layla's best position, and placing itself between the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and the Doors' L.A. Woman. They had made it, the Allman Brothers were rock stars in their own right, with their strange blend of blues, rock and jazz, and their Southern essence.
The tragedy is that there is an epilogue and it is that Duane did not live to enjoy his work, as on October 29th of that same year, he had a motorcycle accident and died a month before his 25th birthday. The Allman Brothers lived the rest of their days as rock stars but not their captain who, out of damn bad luck, became one more of the martyrs of rock & roll.