Does oral history get at the story of an American rock institution, the Allman Brothers?
A Georgia-born, blues-indebted band, the Allmans have weathered more than their fair share of tragedy, but they manage to persevere, year after year. The group’s debut album came out in 1969, 45 years ago.
Oral history allows an author to recede into the background and let the story’s subjects narrate. Author Alan Paul provides an occasional paragraph and he shapes conversations, but his voice doesn’t dominate the book.
When it’s working well, reading One Way Out can feel like listening to intra-band conversations. Paul mainly talks to fans of the band, so he doesn’t tap into an entirely representative pool of respondents…but it’s a biography, not an opinion poll.
Wasting no time on background, Paul takes up with Greg and Duane Allman in early 1968, at which point they’d gotten a record deal in L.A. as the Hour Glass. Duane split, leaving Greg, the younger of the two, with the band’s obligations.
The elder brother headed to the studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, famous for its southern soul recordings. A man named Rick Hall ran the place, and even though he had a number of session guitarists already, Duane managed to squeeze onto the roster, gaining attention for his play at a Clarence Carter session. (You can hear Duane on a number of excellent Muscle Shoals tracks, including Aretha Franklin’s bluesy “It Ain’t Fair” and Boz Scaggs’s epic “Loan Me A Dime.”)
Hall signed Duane to a five-year deal, but the studio’s business-like approach didn’t vibe with Allman’s looser style. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records bought out the guitarist’s contract for $10,000. It proved a smart investment—Duane already possessed prodigious talent, he just needed the right outlet to express it. John Hammond Jr., another famous blues guitarist, marveled at Duane’s skills. Duane told Hammond he acquired them through a strict practice regimen: “I took speed every day for three years and played every night all night.”
Duane gathered an assortment of talent. Unusually for a rock band, Allman incorporated two men on percussion—Butch Trucks and Jaimoe (Jai) Johanson. Jaimoe once “asked Duane why he wanted two drummers.” Duane replied, “Because Otis Redding and James Brown have two.” Not a bad rationale. Jaimoe loved listening to Miles Davis and Coltrane albums, while Butch “had that drive and strength, freight train, meat-and-potatoes thing,” so they complimented each other well.
Back in California, Greg had been working on his songwriting—hanging out in the world of Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and the like. He eventually worked his way back to Duane and joined the group (at first, as their only songwriter). He also started playing organ and sang lead. The band honed its chemistry playing nightclubs.
Still, it took a while. A second album, Idlewild South, benefitted from the production of Tom Dowd, who produced Clapton’s blues outfit Cream. But it took a third release, At Fillmore East, recorded live, to capture the band’s electricity. That success exposed the Allmans to a larger audience. (“Layla,” the famous song recorded by Clapton—with Duane’s help as Derek and the Dominoes—also came out as a single in ’71, which helped build buzz.)
Unfortunately, the band got wrapped up in the deleterious side effects of rock and roll early on, and the damage started to show just as the band finally achieved success. In 1970, Twiggs Lydon, on the road with the band, stabbed and killed a promoter at a bar. Duane and three other band/crew members checked themselves into rehab in 1971. Duane died in a motorcycle crash in 1971, just weeks after the release of At Fillmore East. Bassist Berry Oakley died in 1972, also on a motorcycle, three blocks from Duane’s accident.
After these tragedies, the group struggled to handle its success. Greg released some solo albums. Later in the ‘70s, he testified in the drug trial of a band security man, adding further tension to the band. The Allmans took breaks and got back together; they tried different producers. People Magazine once wrote: “The Allman Brothers Band Finally Buries the Hatchet—and Not in One Another.” The band found ways to carry on … and so does Paul, even though this period in Allman Bros history lacks much momentum … or excitement.
The group never adapted its sound to changing times, so the rise of disco and punk’s rebellion against self-indulgent hippie bands swept them aside. But radio brought them back in the late ‘80s, in one of the first big waves of Baby-Boomer nostalgia, and they’ve been around ever since in various incarnations. They play a famous yearly series of shows at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. Rolling Stone recently reported that two members of the group plan to leave after 2014, “to dig even deeper into our various creative and musical endeavors.” Ch-ch-ch-changes continue.
The producer Brian Eno once observed that, “… if a group existed only to make music you’d value everyone’s contributions only in musical terms. But bands, like other entities, exist to perpetuate their own existence as a little subculture—and the qualities and talents for that are quite different.”
Like politicians, who (usually) want to pass legislation and also get reelected, rock bands endeavor to produce albums, but also to last. Society tends to value the first goal, but then be less impressed with the second … even though, paradoxically, the production that society demands stops once a band dissolves.
Paul reminds us that persisting in the face of all manner of hardship also requires unusual talent.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.