Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Literature: Skydog: The Duane Allman Story by Randy Poe

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story is necessarily a fast read. Clocking in at a slim yet respectable 266 pages (plus discography and bibliography), biographer Randy Poe captures a life lived quickly, brilliantly, in the best Romantic sense, recklessly and briefly. Author Poe’s credentials include former executive director of the Song Writer’s Hall of Fame, current President of Leiber and Stoller Music Publishing Company, as well as widely published author and critic. Poe’s association with his biographical subject began when he and his sister, both pre-teen, wandered down a pier on Daytona Beach on a Summer’s day in the early 1960s to see and band, and more specifically, who was playing lead guitar. The guitarist was a young Duane Allman.

Gratefully, this biography focuses only briefly on the Allman brothers childhood, emphasizing their Tennessee roots and the murder of their armed services father. Poe spins a tale of the brothers growing up in Florida and Georgia and, in a stepwise fashion, introduces all of the musicians who would eventually become not only the Allman Brothers band, but Cowboy, Dickey Betts’ Great Southern and the Capricorn Records rhythm section.

Along the way is documented Duane Allman’s rise as a studio musician whose function as such both cemented his fame and helped fund the fledgling Allman Brothers Band. Pivotal among Allman’s many studio swings was his suggestion and appearance on Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude.” Needing material for the recording and not knowing how to read charts, Allman suggested Pickett record “Hey Jude,” a song Allman knew. Originally the Muscle Shoals management’s conventional wisdom was the Beatles had just charted with their song and there would be no market for a Pickett version, Allman countered that precisely because Pickett was black and the changes they would make to the arrangement. The song was a hit an ensured Allman’s participation with Boz Scaggs (“Somebody Loan Me a Dime”), Aretha Franklin (“The Weight”), and King Curtis (“Games People Play”), the latter two sporting Allman’s fine slide guitar.

Among his studio work, Duane Allman was developing a vision for a band. The result was a two guitar front (Allman and Dickey Betts) over a two drummer rhythm section (Butch Trucks and Jai Johnny Johnson). Rounding things out were Gregg Allman on keyboards and Berry Oakley on bass. Poe details how the first recording came together in a matter of days and the second (Idlewild South), because of touring and Duane’s studio work, a matter of years. Then there was Layla. After Layla there was At Fillmore East, the recording that changed everything for the Allman Brothers Band. And, only a few months after the Fillmore Shows, Poe details the end of the Duane Allman era.

The biography does not stop with Allman’s tragic death. Poe rapidly details the course of the band over the next 30 years, including solo projects by Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts. The author describes the firing of Dickey Betts and describes the current projects of all involved. The book includes as extensive a Duane Allman discography as possible, considering the guitarist propensity of just showing up and playing uncredited on dates. Another section describes the guitars used by Allman and where they are today. Finally, there is a lengthy bibliography, detailing Poe’s written and interview sources. Revealed here is that Allman’s only daughter, Galadrielle, whom he abandoned along with her mother, was at work on a book about her father’s music.

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story is a bracing tale of cracker genius, set in the only environs appropriate, the South. The true gravy here is a mini-history of the Muscle Shoals music scene in the late 1960s as well as the illumination of Allman’s Benny Goodman-like egalitarianism regarding race and art. The book reveals there was much to like and dislike about Duane Allman, just as there is in all of us.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006