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Duane Allman: a guitarist's guitarist, a life cut short

A biography of the Southern rock legend portrays a young musician who had just paid his dues when his intensity caught up with him.

By BOB KEALING, Special to the Times
Published February 15, 2007


Guitar god Duane Allman tempted fate one too many times.

That's one of the themes in Randy Poe's engrossing new biography, Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. Poe makes a case that his subject's all-consuming love of guitars, jamming and racially inclusive camaraderie was akin to a missionary spreading the gospel of Allman brotherhood.

Once Duane and the boys found their way, the revival tent of Duane devotees included a diverse group of musical heavyweights: Wilson Pickett, Herbie Mann, Eric Clapton and a legion of loyal fan followers.

Duane Allman was a guitarist's guitarist. Whether he was doing hired-gun work for Aretha Franklin in New York City, screaming down to Miami to jam with Clapton on the now iconic Layla sessions or blasting improvised slide blues riffs night in and night out, his short life was all music, all the time.

Readers are introduced to the tragedy very early in Duane and baby brother Gregg's life: Their father was murdered in a robbery when they were toddlers.

In 1957, their mother moved the boys to Daytona Beach. Poe takes us through the town's music scene of the early and mid 1960s and the brothers' early days as towheaded moptops in the Escorts. Poe paints a fascinating picture of how Allman learned guitar parts to his favorite songs, aided by his big toe.

Allman remained true to his convictions even as he and Gregg struggled through poverty-ridden days with the Allman Joys. He soldiered on despite no creative control in another false-start group, the Hour Glass.

After seeing Duane through all the dues-paying - including gigs in the Tampa Bay area - you can't help but feel a sense of excitement when it starts to gel in one magical 1969 Jacksonville jam session with the nucleus of the soon-to-be-famous Allman Brothers Band. It's a cinematic moment.

Duane blocks the door: "Anybody in this room not gonna play in my band, you're gonna have to fight your way outta here."

There was vindication for Duane's musical vision when Bill Graham chose the Allman Brothers to close the final show at his legendary New York nightclub, the Fillmore East. Graham did it over the demands of the Beach Boys, who threatened if they didn't close the show, they wouldn't play.

Throughout the book, Duane's self-destructive behavior is a constant and disquieting undercurrent. Poe argues that drugs - and a lot of them - became a necessity to keep up with the band's grueling tour schedule.

In October 1971, it all comes to a sudden end with Duane Allman's death in a motorcycle accident riding to a birthday party in Macon, Ga., a few weeks short of his 25th birthday.

Poe weaves the story in an accessible and engaging way, although it's disappointing there are no footnotes detailing how much access he had to principles in this story.

A generous number of photos illustrates Allman's career: young Duane and Gregg clowning around with bandmates before opening for the Beach Boys in 1965, a wonderful candid moment with Pickett in the recording studio, and a memorable photo with Clapton where Duane looks so fried a caption seems unnecessary.

Bob Kealing is author of "Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends."

THE BOOK

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story

By Randy Poe

Backbeat, 320 pages, $24.95