Pop Culture

In memory of Duane Allman

No matter what the circumstances, deaths in the world of rock and roll tend to become romanticized over the years. It has less to do with the tragedy itself than it does with the warm memories that the music of the artists in question have continued to provide, and the sharp reality that there will be no more such music on the way.

What creative frontiers would Jimi Hendrix have explored if he lived beyond the age of 27? Where would Janis Joplin’s music have taken her if she didn’t pass away at 26? Exactly how would we have been entertained if Jim Morrison, Jeff and Tim Buckley, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, John Bonham, Sid Vicious, Keith Moon, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Otis Redding, Berry Oakley, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley, Gram Parsons and Frank Zappa, as well as many others, had been allowed to hang around a little while longer?

Outside of niches occupied by guitar fanatics and Southern blues-rock devotees, the name Duane Allman is often ignored. He wasn’t flamboyant. He didn’t live the stereotypical life of rock and roll excess. His most notable work came either as a session player for other artists, or as an unassuming member of a band he co-founded with his brother Gregg. And he is probably recognized the most for his work on the slide guitar, practically a lost art today.

Yet Duane Allman — who died about a month shy of his 25th birthday, on October 29, 1971, 35 years ago — was one of the most influential guitar players of his generation. His untimely passing in a motorcycle accident only a few months after the release of the now classic album, was as much of a blow to the world of rock as any of the aforementioned icons.

Man on a mission
The blues represents the fertile ground from which rock sprouted, and Duane Allman was on a mission from an early age to become a respected part of a tradition that included guitarists like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. He first grabbed a guitar at the age of 13, got an electric guitar from his mother on his 14th birthday and became entranced.

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    Duane Allman, a.k.a. "Skydog," personified the sub-genre of Southern blues rock. He, too, began as a session player, sitting in on recordings by artists like Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Delaney & Bonnie and Aretha Franklin. But together with brother Gregg, the Allman Brothers Band lifted the rock and roll profile of the Deep South to lofty heights. Duane was especially revered as a slide guitar player and was arguably the best who ever lived at it. Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident just shy of his 25th birthday, hitting a truck that had stopped in an intersection.

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    Jimmy Page made his name as a session player before joining the Yardbirds and eventually founding the New Yardbirds, or as they are more commonly known as, Led Zeppelin. Like others of his era, Page was a blues devotee. But he had lots of interests in culture and art outside of the blues, including areas of medieval lore and the occult, and they all eventually seeped into his imagination and are present in much of his music. Page will always be best known for Led Zeppelin, but it was his astounding growth as an artist that will mark him as a genius.

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Eventually he was discovered by the owner of a recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., which led to a full-time gig playing for other artists. But it also allowed Duane to be discovered by more prominent members of the rock world, including Eric Clapton, who heard him wail at the end of Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude” and just had to meet him.

Clapton and Duane Allman met up and played together in the studio after the Allman Brothers Band performed a show in Miami in 1970. That led to their collaboration in the seminal Derek and the Dominos’ album, The bond between Slowhand and Skydog became so strong that Clapton asked him to become a permanent member of his band. Of course, the bond between brothers proved to be stronger, and Duane politely turned down the invitation.

While Clapton is exceptionally good on “Layla,” Duane Allman’s slide transformed the album from an earnest homage to the blues that would provide filler during a lull in Clapton’s career into one of the landmark works of rock and roll.

The Allman Brothers Band and Derek and the Dominos both began to heat up in 1970, bringing Duane the attention he deserved. But it didn’t last long. Riding his motorcycle one day in Macon, he couldn’t swerve quickly enough to avoid a truck that had made a turn in front of him. He died a few hours after impact.

Clear and precise, like his playingThe memories of Duane Allman are clear and precise, just like his playing. There were few bells and whistles associated with him, no fuzz or tremelo effects to enhance the natural sound of his Gibson Les Paul. His picking was pure, much like that of the blues gods he emulated.

That unadulterated style reflected his personality. He was, by almost all accounts, a good-natured soul with a big heart and a carefree spirit. It seemed that whoever came into contact with Duane Allman liked him, although he wasn’t very tolerant of nonsense and especially media attention. He was a pleasant individual, but a forceful and intense presence as well.

Duane Allman wasn’t just a blues mimic. He developed his own Southern-fried rocking version of the blues. Fellow blues greats like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn — two Texans with generous splashes of Southern Comfort on their licks — became known more for the speed in which their hands picked and their fingers moved across the frets, although they are considered geniuses in their own rights.

Duane’s strength was in his blues instincts. He chose his notes carefully, allowing space to breath between them, but still capable of hitting the accelerator when necessary and wailing. While some guitarists overwhelm  a song with their power, Duane’s playing perfectly complemented the songs he played on while still projecting strength. Some of his long improvisations exhibit impeccable blues, rock and jazz influences, which is why “At Fillmore East” is such a staple in most music fans’ libraries.

The South owes a special debt of gratitude to Duane Allman and his brother Gregg. Naturally, there had been lots of acts that emerged from that region that went on to gain acclaim. But before the Allman Brothers Band, there hadn’t really been a rock band from the South that became a true success story. As a result, Duane and Gregg became inspirations to legions of Southern musicians. Over the years, the work of the Allman Brothers Band has influenced lots of artists, most notably the Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

He had the confidence and passion of an accomplished artist, but he also radiated the loyalty and trust of a good brother and friend to those who admired him. Although it has been 35 years since he passed, his presence is still felt and his music is still relevant.

Michael Ventre is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles. He's a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.