The name Duane Allman makes you think of the Allman Brothers Band and the birth of Southern rock—which uses the blues to create long, improvised electric guitar solos. But as I write in today's Wall Street Journal—in a preview of Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, a new seven-CD boxed set—the late guitarist actually paid his dues as a prolific studio musician on pop, rock and R&B sessions.
Duane and his brother Gregg grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., forming their first band—the Escorts—in 1965. The Allman Joys were next in '66. But the turning point for Duane came after they formed the Hour Glass in '67 and were signed to Liberty. Off they went to Los Angeles, where they recorded folk-rock and blue-eyed soul. Gregg told me last week they despised the work because the material was formulaic and processed. [Pictured above: Gregg and Duane Allman with Berry Oakley]
In '68, the brothers Allman returned home to Florida and formed the band The 31st of February. But soon, Liberty called Gregg and told him the band still had more time remaining on its contract. To free his brother, Gregg made a Sophie's Choice—telling Liberty he'd return if they let Duane and the rest of the band off the hook. Liberty agreed and Gregg returned to the West Coast.
Over the next several years—and even after starting the Allman Brothers band in 1969—Duane recorded as a sideman on lucrative sessions for a wide range of leading R&B and rock artists. The list is long and includes Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Soul Survivors, King Curtis, Otis Rush, Boz Scaggs, Lulu, Laura Nyro, Herbie Mann and many others.
Gregg told me that by '69, Duane was tired of being what he called a "studio robot." So the brothers formed their now-famous band, but to pay the bills Duane continued his studio work up until the Allman Brothers released At the Fillmore in '71, which put the band on the map.
The 129 tracks on the new box include Duane's searing guitar work on Eric Clapton's Layla. Gregg was in the studio that day watching his older brother record and told me he was at peace, lost in the music and competing fiercely with Clapton. "He played a little more guitar than Eric that day, but it was loving competition," Gregg told me.
Skydog was Duane's nickname—and a hybrid. His long red hair often hung down like the ears of a hound—earning him the name Dog. Then Pickett, enamored of the bird-like sounds Duane played on his guitar, added a Sky before the Dog.
Duane's future would be cut short. In October 1971, he was fatally injured when he veered away from a flatbed truck and lost control of his motorcycle in Macon, Ga. He was just 24 years old and his daughter, Galadrielle, was 2. Now Galadrielle is 43 and the boxed set's co-producer. It has been a 13-year journey assembling the box and discovering through music who her father was and what he had accomplished.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective, a seven-CD, 129-track box here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Duane Allman with Herbie Mann on Push Push (1971). Allman's signature solo starts at 3:35...