Anybody with a goal needs a role model or hero through whom they are inspired and educated. As a musician, I find it extremely helpful to read biographies written about my idols. By reading about someone’s life, you can learn enormous amounts about their character, their journey to success, their struggles, and how to apply their experiences, and resultant wisdom, to your own life. Often times a retrospective look can easily identify the positive factors contributing to a person’s life and achievements, and point out the negative, helping future generations avoid the same pitfalls.
My most recent read was “Skydog – The Duane Allman Story,” written by Randy Poe. The Allman Brothers are one of my all-time favorite groups, and Duane, one of my guitar heroes. This book is the definitive biography of the man and the group, and truthfully tells the tragic tale of their haunting success. From Duane and Gregg’s’ early childhood, to Duane’s sudden death, to the 2000 era Beacon Theater concerts, this comprehensive book has it all.
One of the great lessons I learned from this book was about the power of a team, or a group of people with a unified goal. Much like a sports team, a band needs people at different positions to function maximally. This could be drummers and bassists, songwriters and businessmen, personalities – there are many dynamics that make up band chemistry. Duane and Gregg had each achieved moderate success in the late 60s, but it wasn’t until that fateful jam with Dicky Betts, Butch Trucks, Berry Oakley and Jaimoe Johansen, that they became a force to be reckoned with. When this band, just like a sports team, was “on,” there was no stopping them.
Another interesting thing about the Allman Brothers was their mixture of “high” and “low” art. All hailing from the South, their music was drenched in Blues, Country and Folk traditions – the music of the people. These musics are typically orally communicated (no written music), lacking sophisticated harmony, and designed for purpose – emotional relief, work song, etc. Conversely, the Allman brothers were heavily influenced by Jazz music, mainly John Coltrane and Miles Davis. This music emphasized intellect, complex harmony, and extended instrumental improvisation. Fusing elements from all of their influences, the Allman Brothers created a unique new sound, combining the Blues feelings with Jazz improvisation, instrumental compositions and Rock music. This blend gave birth to some of the most original songs in Rock n’ Roll, like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Midnight Rider.”
Unfortunately, the bands’ greatest commercial success would come after the death of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Just 25, Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in the bands’ hometown of Macon, Georgia. Not long after, and just three blocks away, Berry Oakley, 24, was also killed in a motorcycle accident. The death of these two key members was a crushing blow to the group, who were in the midst of recording their most famous album, “Eat a Peach.” Much like other bands with iconic fallen leaders – Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones – the Allman Brothers’ losses thrust them into a new musical direction, paying tribute to the deceased, while trying to fill their void. When “Melissa,” “Ramblin’ Man,” and “Jessica” skyrocketed the Allman Brothers into commercial stardom, it was a haunting success that should have been shared by all.
Ultimately, this book is a great read for any Allman Brothers fan or Rock n’ Roll history buff. Outside of the ABB, Duane was an active sideman who contributed to many sessions, most notably Derek and The Domino’s’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” His story is riddled with appearances and anecdotes from many cultural icons, connecting the dots between the ABB, British music and American Pop. A unique, inspiring, and tragic saga, “Skydog – The Duane Allman Story” is a must read for any aspiring musician.
“There ain’t no revolution, it’s evolution, but every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace.” – Duane Allman