Southern Rock and The Allman Brothers: The ReRebirth of the Blues

Written by WL Woodward

In March 1971 the Allman Brothers started a three day gig at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East with Mountain opening, then the Bros., and headlined by Johnny Winter And.  I did a Copper column a few months ago on Felix Pappalardi from Mountain and an intrepid reader who was going to college in Connecticut in 1971 wrote to tell us he had attended the last of these performances on Sunday.  Apparently Bill Graham was so impressed with the performances by The Allman Brothers on Friday and Saturday that he switched acts and made the Bros. the headliner on Sunday.  Johnny Winter was more than a little ticked off.  He responded as a boy from Texas would, and pulled a Jerry Lee Lewis who in the 50’s had a similar thing happen on one of those multiple act tours with Little Richard.  Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” had just gone number 1.

Jerry Lee, the tour headliner, was told on one particular evening he was playing before Little Richard who would headline.  Jerry Lee ended his set with ”Great Balls of Fire”, one of his crowd favorites where he danced on the keys, played standing up, and generally tore up the song.  That night he ended by pouring gasoline on the piano and setting it on fire.  He stalked off the stage, passed Little Richard, and said, “Follow that!”

Winter didn’t actually set anything on fire, but came close with a set that brought the house down.  Followed by the Allmans on a live set that has been immortalized on arguably the best live recording of any rock performance anytime anywhere.  Live at Fillmore East.  My only regret is they didn’t record Johnny’s set.  Cannot imagine being there that night, and I know a guy who was.  And he went there to see Mountain!  Wow.


As Jimmy Johnson, guitarist for the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section said here, Southern Rock was born down there in Alabama after Duane discovered the bottle slide and talked his way into Rick Hall’s studio.

But this is more than a story about a guy learning a new skill.  It’s about one of the early air bands in 1972 Connecticut.

Air bands have always had their detractors.  After all there’s a million out there with no equipment needs or visible skills.  And there are none you can point to as an influence.  But if you have just the right group of guys and one has a bag of herb, magic can ensue.  Oh, and one guy who knows how to roll.  Got to have that guy.

I was part of one the most well-known air bands on Ash Drive.  We had signature songs and we all played different instruments based on how much one had absorbed from listening to these tunes more than 86 times.  Depending on the mix of people we could do the entire Thick As A Brick album.   We did a rendition tracking with ”Soul Sacrifice” played by Santana at Woodstock in August 1969 which caused quite a stir among the 7 or 8 people we knew,  mostly because frankly I nailed the drum parts.  It was impressive, unless you were a real drummer sitting there going “hey wait a minute..”  But that was one of the rules of air bands.  No one can actually know the instrument.  Who needs that shit.  We’re creating here.

Our best tune was “You Don’t Love Me”, the 20 minute live and full album side version from “Allman Brothers Live at Fillmore East”.  We were known from Ash Drive to one block right behind our house on Denslow St. west two blocks to Old County Rd.  Then there a few houses north and then east skipping most of the houses on our street except these two weird guys at the corner who lived together and said they were ‘professional bowlers’.  I didn’t find out what that meant until I went to college.

This particular afternoon we were on stage in my bedroom on the second story of a Cape Cod stylehome.  Mom worked the evening shift as a waitress so the proverbial studio red light was on.  We were 12 minutes into the song and Skins was tracking Duane’s solo beautifully, when in the middle of the track we heard my little brother add a vocal.

“Mom’s Home!”

Now.  If this had happened to Duane Allman when he was 16, history might have been altered.  Instead it was happening to us and we knew there was no time for timidity.  First order of business was getting rid of the ashtrays full of cigarette butts and roaches.  Second order was to finish the song.  Everyone knew their role.  In charge of ashtray content disposal was Bob Monaghan and Ray Perlioni.  Because I was actually playing I had no supervisory role, which became critical because Bob and Ray, knowing time was crucial, took the expedient route and just tossed the full ashtrays out of my bedroom window.  Which happened to be just above the back door and my mother.

I spent a number of years trying to explain this incident to Mom to no avail.  What she could not understand was how much this music was affecting, infecting, dissecting, and resurrecting our generation.  This is more than a story about one of the early air bands in CT.  It’s about a band that took the blues and reformed it into a new world.

An early part of our generation had experienced the Rolling Stones, Cream de la Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Dylan, Hendrix and many others who in the late 60’s resurrected the blues and sealed B.B. King’s tour schedule success forever.  Duane Allman steeped himself in that whole movement, and as one of the Muscle Shoals Swampers learned his craft in the studio and found his muse.  He was the guy who could talk a studio full of rednecks and one black guy into covering a Beatles song.  “Hey Jude” went to number 13 on the US R&B and 23 on US Top 100 for 1969.  And started the Duane Allman buzz.

The example of “Hey Jude” is a prelude to Duane leading the world of rock into a new interpretation of blues and rock, melding them with jazz into versions of blues standards that blew up earlier interpretations and started the movement to be called Southern Rock.  Bands like Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop Band, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Wings ( OK that last was just to see if you were still awake) came out and kept pushing the genre.  But the best was the first.  The Allman Brothers gave homage to the original writers of the tunes they were playing and then ripped the shit up, put it in a bottle, called the genie, then once the genie emerged punched him in the gut with long but incredibly well organized jams revolving around the theme of the original but using arrangements reminiscent of Fletch Henderson and always returning to the magic of the muse.  Fantastic stuff, but unfortunately the innovation was fairly short lived.

Duane died in a motorcycle accident in October 1971, age 24, 7 months after that Live at Fillmore East gig and 3 months after the album’s release, listed by Rolling Stone as the greatest live rock LP and there is no one close.  Toy Caldwell, guitar player extraordinaire for Marshall Tucker, died in 1973, same year his song “Can’t You See” was released with their debut album.  Lynryd Skynryd seemed to be around forever but a plane crash in 1977 took out key players.  Lowell George, the tortured leader, primary songwriter, and premium slide player of Little Feat died in June 1979.

The whole genre bloomed and wilted in less than a decade.  But the muse was so powerful bands like Allman Bros, Marshall Tucker, Little Feat, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, and Son Of Lynryd Skynryd still play to happy crowds, joined by folks like Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and the Derek Trucks Band (WITH Susan Tedeschi) that do carry the muse with them.

I’ve heard music by all these guys, and have been impressed so many times especially by Trucks and the boys.  Duane Allman once said that if you really wanted to play great guitar you needed to spend a summer listening to Miles’ “Kind of Blue”.  And I believe he did just that.

The only cut I will put in here is a Willie Cobbs song “You Don’t Love Me” from that Fillmore East concert.  Now if any of you audiophiles have lasted until this sentence I will say I do my best to listen to your recommendations of classical, Gregorian, folk, etc. to try and get what you’re talking about.  So I’m cashing in favors, and for your own good.  Please sit down, crank this up, and listen all the way to the glorious end.  You will thank me later.

By the way, that’s Duane’s 22 year old brother Gregg on Hammond B3 and vocals.  We just lost him last month.  But that voice.  Shiver me timbers.

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