Duane Allman, the original co-lead guitarist in The Allman Brothers, and who remains one of that instrument’s greatest titans, a pioneer who in a breathtakingly short amount of time managed to trailblaze the entire rock/blues/jazz idiom, tragically died 45 years ago today at the age of 24.
For many people, although his musical career was staggering brief, Duane Allman still remains one of the greatest if not possibly the greatest guitarist of all time. That platitude is usually applied rather irresponsibly, but a clear case can easily be made for Duane Allman which quantifies that aforementioned statement. Nicknamed “Skydog,” Allman had a panache and organic skill to his instrument unlike many others who have gone on to legendary heights and status. He seemed to transcend his instrument and genre, employing relentless and soulful leads on the guitar, a rare kind of a one-two punch combination of speed and emotionality which when fused together, and acting in metaphoric and literal concert with the rest of The Allman Brothers which took from a musical playbook of sounds, electrified Deep South-styled blues. Being the rare band that not only played songs that stretched time and conventional imagination but also created hits, The Allman Brothers, led by the sonic panacea of Duane Allman, has remained for the ages in musical history, a key influence both for the musicians who followed and the fans who listened.
He formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1969 with his brother Gregg, one year his junior. With each memorable album — like the 1969 self-titled debut, the follow-up Idlewild South, and the spontaneous live masterpiece At Fillmore East — and on now legendary tracks like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Whipping Post,” “Mountain Jam,” “Blue Sky,” (which was one of his last with the band), and many, many other deep cuts spread across those aforementioned albums, Duane Allman played guitar throughout with a mind-blowing ease of intensity, running through lines and leads with expert precision and natural verve, having a clear-cut understanding of the basics of the genre he and The Allman Brothers manifested and expanded, and rising above cookie-cutter blues sounds. There seemed to be a deep understanding of sincerity coupled with the flash, dash, and pure fire that emanated from amplifiers every time the man plugged in. He also guested on scores of other artists’ albums to high-octane effect, such as with Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, and Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes. Unquestionably, Allman seemed poised to have a career in which not only would he be right at the top of the musician’s mantle with the success of The Allman Brothers, but also right at the top of having garnered a reputation as one of the finest session guitarists in the business.
Born Howard Duane Allman on November 20, 1946, in Nashville, Tennessee, his life came to a tragic and horrifying end when he died in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971. The band was just on the crest of massive success with their Eat a Peach album (a phrase that was attributed to Duane) when the tragedy occurred. Eerily, the Allman Brothers’ bass player Berry Oakley, who, after Duane’s death, was affected deeply, also died in a motorcycle accident near the same spot as Duane, only a few years later. The band soldiered on in the wake of Duane Allman’s death to superstardom, but everyone who followed in the guitarist’s large looming shadow and presence — and that included a small contingent of rotating guitarists who had the monumental task of filling his gargantuan shoes — always gave a nod to him directly or indirectly visually, metaphorically or sonically. Duane Allman’s legacy blankets the band in perpetuity, it essentially blankets the entire rock and blues genre. His sounds and approach to life and his instrument remain a dazzling example of what can be achieved in such a short amount of time, and how expansive, influential and powerhouse that time can be utilized.
The work of Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers and the other various songs he played on remain fresh and vital and important. His legacy still remains deep in the consciousness of millions of listeners, many of whom followed him since the beginning and reflect a spanning of generations who still revere Duane Allman and the work he did and the joy he put in. In hindsight, it’s telling that The Allman Brothers’ original name for the band was The Allman Joys, because joy is exactly what they gave people and what they continue to give people all these decades later. It remains a vivid sonic testament to the spellbinding talents of the band and especially Duane Allman, who should be remembered and celebrated all day today and discover, or rediscover how genius sometimes doesn’t need a whole mass of time to manifest itself, sometimes it can come in the form of a dazzlingly blindingly bright spontaneous force of extreme nature like a Skydog, effortless and free, stretching beyond and forever.