In his formative years, Duane Allman kept an open ear to different styles of music. ‘Everything influences you,’ he said. ‘As you go along, you pick up stuff. You just can’t help it. It’s just like how you learn to talk.’
All this musical input helped Allman become a talented and in-demand session musician. His greatest sideman contribution can be heard on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs; the band’s signature tune Layla was essentially just a set of lyrics with chord changes until Allman joined in. As Eric Clapton recalled: ‘It was only after Duane arrived and I’d said “Would you mind playing on the album?” that we sat down and composed the lines and things.’ Allman is also widely credited with the song’s opening riff, itself a reworking of the start of the melody to Albert King’s As The Years Go Passing By.
The six-piece Allman Brothers – co-founded with his brother Greg Allman – reflected a Catholic approach to styles in its fusion of blues and jazz. ‘As human feelings become more complex, as the world gets a little bit more divided and intelligent, complexity is the only difference between blues and jazz,’ Duane mused. ‘It’s all the portrayal of the feelings and the soul in a medium other than words.’
As well as blending rock, blues and jazz, the Allman Brothers often featured long, extended improvisations; Mountain Jam from At Fillmore East clocks in at a whopping 33 minutes plus and makes full use of the twin guitars of Allman and Dickey Betts for harmony and counterpoint. ‘There’s the rough layouts of the songs, and then the solos are entirely up to each member of the band,’ explained Duane. ‘Some nights are really good, and some nights ain’t too hot. But the naturalness of a spur-of-the-moment type of thing is what I consider the valuablest asset of our band.’
With the release of both the Layla… and At Fillmore East LPs, 1971 looked set to be the year Duane Allman went global. However, before the depth of his musicianship had fully been appreciated, in October 1971 he died following a motorbike accident, aged only 24.
Allman is best remembered for his slide work, and he left his mark on many players. ‘For a slide, I’ve always used a glass Coricidin bottle, just like Duane Allman,’ says one acolyte, Lynyrd Skynrd’s Gary Rossington. ‘He told me that a bottle sounds different than a steel slide, and I think it does, so I copied him. He was the best slide player who ever lived. He had such a great touch. He was always on pitch – never sharp or flat – and that’s hard to do.’