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The Allman Brothers Band

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The Allman Brothers Band was an American rock band formed in Jacksonville, Florida, United States, in 1969 by brothers Duane Allman (slide guitar and lead guitar) and Gregg Allman (vocals, keyboards, songwriting), as well as Dickey Betts (lead guitar, vocals, songwriting), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Butch Trucks (drums), and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson (drums). The band incorporated elements of Southern rock, blues, jazz, and country music, and their live shows featured jam band-style improvisation and instrumentals.

The group’s first two studio releases stalled commercially, but their 1971 live release, At Fillmore East, represented an artistic and commercial breakthrough. The album features extended renderings of their songs “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post”, and is often considered among the best live albums ever made. Group leader Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident later that year, and the band dedicated Eat a Peach (1972) in his memory, a dual studio/live album that cemented the band’s popularity. Following the motorcycle death of bassist Berry Oakley later that year, the group recruited keyboardist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams for 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, which, combined with the hit single “Ramblin’ Man”, placed the group at the forefront of 1970s rock music. Internal turmoil overtook them soon after; the group dissolved in 1976, reformed briefly at the end of the decade with additional personnel changes, and dissolved again in 1982.

The band reformed once more in 1989, releasing a string of new albums and touring heavily. A series of personnel changes in the late 1990s was capped by the departure of Betts. The group found stability during the 2000s with bassist Oteil Burbridge and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (the nephew of their drummer), as well as saxophonist Charlie Schaeffer, and became renowned for their month-long string of shows at New York City’s Beacon Theatre each spring. The band retired for good in 2014 with the departure of the aforementioned members. Gregg Allman died from complications arising from liver cancer in May 2017. The band has been awarded seven gold and four platinum albums and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Rolling Stone ranked them 52nd on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004.

The Beginning

Gregg Allman on the band’s 1975 tour

Duane Allman, and his younger brother, Gregg, grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida. Gregg was first to pick up the guitar, but his brother soon surpassed him, dropping out of high school to practice constantly. The duo formed their first band, the Escorts, which evolved into the Allman Joys in the mid-1960s. When a black friend introduced Gregg to R&B and soul music, they began to incorporate it into their sound. By 1967, the group spent time in St. Louis, where a Los Angeles-based recording executive discovered them; they consequently moved out West and were renamed the Hour Glass, cutting two unsuccessful albums for Liberty Records. Duane moved back to pursue a career as a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, while Gregg stayed behind in Hollywood bound by contractual obligations with Liberty, who believed he could hold a solo career. The two were apart for the first time for a year but managed to reconvene in Miami, producing an album-length demo with the 31st of February, a group that included drummer Butch Trucks.

 

At FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Duane Allman became the primary session guitarist, recording with artists such as Aretha Franklin and King Curtis. Duane suggested to Wilson Pickett they record a cover of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles; the single went to number 23 on the national charts. FAME signed Duane to a five-year recording contract, and he put together a group, including Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby. Duane recruited Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) after hearing his drumming on a songwriting demo of Jackie Avery, and the two moved into his home on the Tennessee River. Allman invited bassist Berry Oakley to jam with the new group; the pair had met in a Macon, Georgia, Georgia club sometime earlier, and became quick friends. The group had immediate chemistry, and Duane’s vision for a “different” band — one with two lead guitarists and two drummers — began evolving. Meanwhile, Phil Walden, the manager of the late Otis Redding and several other R&B acts, was looking to expand into rock acts. FAME owner Hall became frustrated with the group’s recording methods and offered the tracks recorded and their contract to Walden and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who purchased them for $10,000. Walden intended the upcoming group to be the centerpiece of his new Atlantic-distributed label, Capricorn.

Duane and Jaimoe moved to Jacksonville in early March 1969, as Duane had become frustrated with being a “robot” of those at FAME. He invited anyone who wanted to join to the jam sessions that birthed the Allman Brothers Band. Dickey Betts, leader of Oakley’s previous band, the Second Coming, became the group’s second lead guitarist, while Butch Trucks, with whom Duane and Gregg had cut a demo less than a year prior, became the new group’s second drummer. The Second Coming’s Reese Wynans played keyboards, and Duane, Oakley, and Betts all shared vocal duties. The unnamed group began to perform free shows in Willow Branch Park in Jacksonville, with an ever-changing, rotating cast of musicians. Duane felt strongly his brother should be the vocalist of the new group (which effectively eliminated Wynans’ position, as Gregg also played keyboards). Gregg left Los Angeles and entered rehearsal on March 26, 1969, when the group was rehearsing Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” Although Gregg was initially intimidated by the musicians, Duane pressured his brother into “singing [his] guts out.” Four days later, the group made their debut at the Jacksonville Armory. Although many names were kicked around, including Beelzebub, the six-piece eventually decided on the Allman Brothers Band.

Guitarist Warren Haynes, seen here in the late 1990s, joined the band for their second reunion.

The Allman Brothers Band have generally been considered one of the pioneering bands in Southern rock, although the group distanced themselves from the term. Guitarist Dickey Betts was most vocal about this classification, which he considered unfair: “I think it’s limiting. I’d rather just be known as a progressive rock band from the South. I’m damned proud of who I am and where I’m from, but I hate the term ‘Southern rock.’ I think calling us that pigeonholed us and forced people to expect certain types of music from us that I don’t think are fair.” Gregg Allman also saw the “Southern rock” tag as redundant, saying it was like saying “rock rock”. The band was certainly at the forefront of the genre’s popularity in the early 1970s; the breakthrough of At Fillmore East led their hometown of Macon to become flooded with “Southern rock” groups. Despite this, the group has continued to remove themselves from the term. “The problem I have is a lot of people associate it with rednecks and rebel flags and backward mentality. That has never been representative of the Allman Brothers Band,” said guitarist Warren Haynes.

 

The group largely infused hints of the blues, jazz, and country into their music. They all avidly shared their record collections with one another during the early days of the band. For example, Betts was into country music and the guitar work of Chuck Berry, while Trucks was largely into groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. Duane and Gregg Allman grew infatuated with rhythm and blues in their teens, collecting records by James Brown, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf. The brothers were also heavily influenced by guitarist Taj Mahal and his 1968 eponymous debut album. It was this influence that led both to their discovery of their now famous slide guitar style. Drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson largely introduced the group to jazz. While Betts commented that he was interested in artists such as Howard Roberts prior, Jaimoe “really fired us up on it,” introducing his bandmates to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Duane Allman was also inspired by Howard Roberts, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, and Kenny Burrell. The source of the band’s modal jamming in their earliest days was Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” and Davis’ “All Blues,” which Jaimoe occasionally stole from: “I did a lot of copying, but only from the best.” This type of jazz-infused jamming is expressed in the instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, which focuses heavily on improvisation. “Whipping Post” was notable for its inclusion of blues-ballad themes, and became one of the most popular (and longest) compositions. Later, Betts generally led the band in a more “country” direction following Duane’s passing; their only hit single “Ramblin’ Man” was considered so unusually “country” for the group they were initially reluctant to record it.

Duane Allman created the idea of having two lead guitarists, which was inspired by Curtis Mayfield; “[he] wanted the bass, keyboards, and second guitar to form patterns behind the solo rather than just comping,” said Allman. Their style and incorporation of guitar harmonies were very influential on later musicians. “The pair also had a wide range of complementary techniques, often forming intricate, interlocking patterns with each other and with the bassist, Berry Oakley, setting the stage for dramatic flights of improvised melodies.” Dickey Betts’ playing was very melody-based; “My style is just a little too smooth and round to play the blues stuff straight because I’m such a melody guy that even when I’m playing the blues, I go for melody first,” he said. His listening of country and string bluegrass growing up influenced this considerably: “I played mandolin, ukulele, and fiddle before I ever touched a guitar, which may be where a lot of the major keys I play come from.” He later characterized their style as “question and answer, anticipation and conclusion,” which involved allowing each musician’s downbeat to arrive in a different spot, while also keeping consideration of the bass guitar lines. 

The group also held an improvisational approach to live performances, which connected the band with jam band culture. “Jazz and blues musicians have been doing this for decades, but I think they really brought that sense that anyone onstage can inspire anyone else at any given time to rock music,” said Haynes. “We sure didn’t set out to be a “jam band” but those long jams just emanated from within the band, because we didn’t want to just play three minutes and be over,” said Allman.  Rolling Stone referred to the group as “without question the first great jam band, and they took the jam to heights that it had not previously reached.”

The Allman Brothers Band were considerably influential in the Southern United States. Their arrival on the musical scene paved the way for several other notable Southern rock acts — among those Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie — to achieve commercial success, and also “almost single-handedly” made Capricorn Records into “a major independent label.” Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, writing for Rolling Stone, wrote that the group “defined the best of every music from the American South in that time. They were the best of all of us.” He went on to call the band “a true brotherhood of players — one that went beyond race and ego. It was a thing of beauty.” The band’s extended popularity through heavy touring in the early 1990s created a new generation of fans, one that viewed the Allmans as pioneers of “latter-day collegiate jam rock.” AllMusic praised the band’s history: “they went from being America’s single most influential band to a shell of their former self trading on past glories, to reach the 21st century resurrected as one of the most respected rock acts of their era.”

In 2012, an official historic marker was erected on the site of the July 1970 Second Atlanta International Pop Festival near Byron, Georgia. The Allman Brothers Band had played two sets at the festival, which was a significant event in their career. The marker text reads, in part: “Over thirty musical acts performed, including… Macon’s Allman Brothers Band on their launching pad to national fame.” Official sponsors of the marker included the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association, The Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House, and Hittin’ the Note. In 2003, the band released a recording of their festival opening and closing performances, Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival: July 3 & 5, 1970.

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