Duane Allman, Skydog, Explained
By Lary WallaceAugust 8, 2014
Please Be with Me by Galadrielle Allman
JIMI HENDRIX lived nearly three years longer — that’s the kind of premature we’re talking about when we talk about the premature death of Duane Allman, who died less than a month before he would have turned 25. It happened when the motorcycle he’d been riding just a moment earlier came slamming down on top of him, crushing bones and viscera and sending him skidding 90 feet from all the momentum that comes with crashing, at illegal speed, into the rear end of a delivery truck.
A death like this — at that age and under those circumstances — leaves a lot to lament, and, since 1971, people have been lamenting plenty. They’ve been lamenting especially hard lately, this being not just the 45-year anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band’s formation, but also, we’ve been told, the year they will discontinue, this time for good.
The first time they considered terminating the band came with Duane’s death. He’d started it just a couple years earlier, with his brother, Gregg, doing the vocals and a cast of other talented musicians doing the rest. Few people seemed to question, then or now, Duane’s role as the band’s animating spirit, or at least as the kind of musician whose guitar is simply irreplaceable. That’s meant literally. When the band regrouped following the tragedy, Duane’s guitar was not replaced; they went ahead with just the one player. Duane’s was the kind of virtuosity people compare only to that of talents like Hendrix or Clapton. The band was at a loss as to how to continue without him, both spiritually and musically.
Somehow, they did. They’ve made plenty of successful music in the years since Duane’s death — some of their most popular music of all comes from the years immediately following — but there’s a clearly discernible demarcation between the music they made before that motorcycle crash, and the music they made after.
There’s a moodiness and a menace to the music Duane made, a soulfulness that only the touched can feel and the technically proficient can communicate. His sound was the triumph of feeling and virtuosity. For all the blues and ballads and good-time country-rock anthems the Allman Brothers have made post-Duane, they never did find for themselves a sound quite like his.
To their credit, they never expected to. They knew how special he was — and how absolutely crucial to their enterprise — even while he was alive. Before the Allman Brothers Band was formed, he and Gregg had had two less-than-successful bands — the Allman Joys and Hour Glass, by name — and it was in the period after those failures that Duane really made his name, as a session musician for FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
He did some sessions with Aretha Franklin; that’s his singular slide guitar you hear on “The Weight.” “The sound of his slide was well suited to her tone; their interplay was a conversation,” his daughter, Galadrielle, writes in Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father. “Duane was confident enough to echo the feeling and richness of her voice.” He’d long had an affinity for black music. Galadrielle comically excerpts a letter Duane wrote around this time to her mother — his wife — in which he expresses his intentions for the gigging band he was then putting together: “I hope to get a couple of black cats. […] They’re definitely good to have.”
It was a black cat who’d largely inspired him up to where he was then. Gregg even credits B.B. King with providing the moment Duane realized he wanted to make music his life’s pursuit. They were watching King perform, Galadrielle writes, while his hand “wrapped around the guitar’s neck and danced there, shivering and gliding over the strings, effortless, almost involuntarily. […] Gregg watched Duane staring at B.B. King’s hands with complete focus and astonishment. Gregg says he could almost see a decision forming on his brother’s face.” Duane leaned over to Gregg and this is what he said: “Bro, we got to get into this.”
Duane did a little bit of everything during those Muscle Shoals sessions. He even did the Beatles by way of Wilson Picket, handling accompaniment with the “Wicked” one on “Hey Jude.” It was entirely Duane’s idea to cover the song, one that met with some initial resistance among all concerned, but which would in fact prove to be Duane’s entrée to prominence at the studio. The solo Duane did on that song has been identified by Clapton as his very favorite by anyone, ever. “That break at the end just blew me away and I immediately made a call to Atlantic Records to find out who it was,” Clapton tells Alan Paul in One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. “It was one of the few times in my life where I had to know who that was — now!”
It was Pickett, incidentally, who put the finishing touches to Duane’s nickname, “Skydog,” a conflated two-parter that’s always encouraged dispute about its own precise provenance. Rick Hall, founder of FAME, had already been calling him “Dog” for years, “because he looked like an old hound dog with his big ears and hanging-down white hair,” as Hall tells Paul. Then Pickett, who loved to dole out nicknames, took to calling him “Skyman” for the way, Hall continues, “he loved to have a toke. He’d go in the bathroom, then come back and play his ass off. ‘Skyman’ and ‘Dog’ kind of merged into ‘Skydog.’”
Duane was learning a lot at Muscle Shoals, and accomplishing a lot too, but when his brother came knocking, letting him know he was starting a new band, the call was impossible not to answer. As the Allman Brothers Band started to form, Duane had high hopes for it, hopes that he expressed in a letter to his cousin Jo Jane, which his daughter is able to quote:
I have two lead guitarists (me and another guy), two drummers (one is black, he worked with Otis Redding right up till when he got killed), bass, and Gregg playing organ and singing. Sounds good, huh?
I quit my staff position in Muscle Shoals because all these people up there kept telling me how rich I was gonna be in a few years from just kissing the boss’s ass and playing EXACTLY WHAT THE BOSS WANTS. I told the motherfuckers that I was the boss in that department and would they excuse me but I heard the highway calling me.
That’s the way Duane had always been, a seeker and a searcher, defiant of authority with a hankering for the open road. That last was a character trait transcending the figurative. Two years before his death, he managed to violate eleven laws — that’s 11 — on just one bust on his motorcycle. One of these violations, the decisive violation, was doing 65 in a 20.
It makes sense that Duane’s first guitar was bought only after he’d driven his first Harley till it was good for nothing but the sum of its parts. He converted the parts into currency that was converted, at last, into a Gibson Les Paul Junior. Incidentally, Galadrielle is named for the Princess of Elves in Lord of the Rings, but Duane once said that if she’d been born a boy instead, “I would have named her Les Paul Allman.”
Though Gregg was the younger of the two brothers — Duane would always call him “Baybro,” as if they were separated by much more than a year — he was the first to start playing the guitar. But Duane kept picking up Gregg’s guitar, and often, Galadrielle tells us, “wouldn’t pass the guitar back. At first, Duane took it from Gregg as much to piss him off as to play it, but soon couldn’t put it down. Gregg stayed by his side and listened, showing him things and learning from him, wondering how Duane took to it so fast.”
At 15, he’d be sitting there playing in the living room when his mother came home from work, “with reddened fingertips and a crick in his neck,” writes Galadrielle. When she woke up in the morning, he’d still be sitting there playing, “in the exact posture he had been in the night before. [...] When she asked him what he was doing, pushing himself so hard, he said, ‘Mama, I’m searching for my sound. I’d go hungry to play this guitar.’”
It wasn’t the kind of habit that depreciated with exercise, either; like most habits, it was a self-perpetuating pursuit, always enlarging. When he and Gregg took their act to the stage, his habit seemed to grow exponentially. Galadrielle goes so far as to say that his life’s purpose “found its expression in performing.
Standing onstage and launching into a song tested him every single time. Once he figured out a riff, he started searching for the next piece of the puzzle, and there were always new passages to learn and new licks to try. The weight of his guitar strap over his shoulder, his instrument’s smooth neck gliding under his palm, the thickening of his fingertips and the quickening of his responses, all of it thrilled him. He was doing what he was born to do.
This is the kind of texture and nuance Galadrielle manages to sustain throughout the entire length of her book. It really is a remarkable feat, especially given that she’s writing about a father she never knew, painstakingly interrogating others’ memories in order to do so. Please Be with Me has a wistful, elegiac quality that never becomes morose or maudlin.
The new band’s sound finally came together because “Duane was smart enough to see what ingredients were missing from both [of our previous] bands.” That’s what Paul is told by Dickey Betts, anyway, who was Duane’s co-guitarist and who should certainly know. “We didn’t have enough of the true, purist blues, and he didn’t have enough of the avant-garde, psychedelic approach to the blues. So he tried to put the two sounds together, and that was the first step in finding the sound of the Allman Brothers Band.”
The two really did complement each other with their guitars. “Duane loved the way Dickey got sounds out of his guitar that Duane could never replicate,” writes Galadrielle, “and he told him so. Dickey said he felt the same way about Duane’s playing. They raised the bar for each other. They vowed to keep talking as things arose, if either of them felt the need to.”
Duane certainly wasn’t afraid of confrontation; his assertiveness is well attested to. Jonny Podell, the Allman Brothers’ booking agent, tells Paul that Duane was “the only person who ever intimidated me in my life. If he walked into a room, I became instantly speechless.” Thom Doucette does nothing to contradict this, telling Galadrielle that “Duane wouldn’t waste his energy on petty shit. If there was a problem, it was out in the open and over in a hot minute. Duane was right up in your face; there were no corners or dark spots.”
This healthy habit of mind, however, became hindered by heroin. His assertiveness grew the claws of aggression, and Podell, so deeply affected by Duane’s intimidating qualities, noticed that Duane himself was overwhelmed by commanding forces: “I always felt he was a tough Southern motherfucker who wasn’t scared of nothing and he had met his match. He wanted to stop [heroin] but couldn’t. He had met the devil and he knew the devil was stronger. It was a process of coming to grips: ‘I can’t live with something being bigger than me.’ He had met his match and it was called heroin.” Galadrielle takes an altogether more nuanced and knottier view of the problem, believing that her father’s hard aggression actually caused the drug abuse, for reasons quite complex: “Duane prided himself on cutting through bullshit with a clear head but this power struggle [with producer Dallas Smith] got under his skin and he started leaning harder on chemical assistance to keep his spirits up.”
Ultimately, Galadrielle writes, “Duane’s charm and intelligence were being pulled under a wave of arrogance, and dark moods.” He would say “paranoid things that made no sense,” which scared his wife no end. Out on the road all the time, he was cheating, too. “When things went dark with him, Donna thought Duane could just stop coming home altogether, or he could come home so changed she wouldn’t want him there. She wasn’t sure which would feel worse. This life she had built with him was so fragile.” Duane overdosed from eating too much opium, and was in the hospital recovering for two days.
None of this behavior made Duane Allman a freak among the Allman Brothers, to put it mildly. And, throughout it all, his playing remained transcendent, his industry and diligence undiminished. The riff to “Little Martha” was just a little something he picked off his guitar one morning after dreaming of Hendrix, who’d just died. Clapton invited him to join his band for the Layla sessions, whereupon Duane did absolutely nothing to make Clapton doubt his previous impressions of Duane’s playing. The rockologist Scott Janovitz believes it was Duane Allman who brought out the very best in Clapton, and Reese Wynans, a keyboardist who jammed with the Allman Brothers in the beginning and helped them find their sound, certainly saw this phenomenon at work for himself:
I had never heard anything like Duane Allman and his slide guitar. He played it like a violin or saxophone. It was just the weirdest instrument and most unbelievable sound and his phrasing was impeccable and his ideas were over the top. When he sat in with us it lifted the whole thing up and I had an immediate, extremely positive reaction, as did everyone else.
When Duane died, there was no one left in the band with that same ability to make others better. Nor was there anyone with a sound so raw and honest — “unafraid,” in his daughter’s phrasing, “to look ugly or sound desperate.” A lot of what was in his sound he’d taken from jazz-horn players and blues singers, guys not even on the guitar, because that tone is something he was always striving to work in there, to make a part of his instrument and a part of his style.
The band’s pianist, Chuck Leavell, says in One Way Out that, after Duane died, his own “attitude was to relax, play the best I could, and find the right places to contribute. No one could have replaced Duane and I think it was a good call not to have another guitarist come in, to take another direction.”
That attitude, shared by the band as a whole, turned out to be a winning one. The Allman Brothers would experience some amazing success after Duane, but their story since then has been a prolonged falling-part, a big old mess of member changes, rehabs, inconsistency, discontinuations, and terrible intergroup acrimony. Skydog somehow held the thing together — with his virtue and virtuosity, with his command of sorcery and witchcraft, with his undying driven desire for realizing a brand-new perfect. With him gone, who was there who knew the way? And who was willing to take them there?
Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.
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