Play All Night!: Duane Allman and the Journey to Fillmore East
- By Bob Beatty
- University Press of Florida
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Charles Caramello
- December 2, 2022
An erudite, exuberant look at the early Allman Brothers Band.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was home to the storied FAME recording studio, its founder and producer Rick Hall, and its impeccable house musicians, the Swampers. Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin cut records at FAME, as did the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd (who gave the Swampers a shout-out in “Sweet Home Alabama”).
The virtuoso guitarist Duane Allman played on sessions at FAME in 1968-69, including the recording of Wilson Pickett’s stunning cover of “Hey Jude.” In the documentary “Muscle Shoals” (2013), house guitarist Jimmy Johnson recalls that session:
“When it goes into the vamp, it goes into just an unbelievable groove…Duane Allman was playing such great guitar fields that something happened…and all of a sudden there was southern rock. That was the beginning of the Allman Brothers Band.”
Drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and bass guitarist Berry Oakley — also playing sessions at FAME and informal jams with Allman — formed the nucleus of the future ABB. In March 1969, in Jacksonville, Duane recruited a second lead guitarist, the superb Dickey Betts, and a second drummer, Butch Trucks. When vocalist and keyboardist Gregg Allman, Duane’s younger brother, joined the others, ABB’s quintessential six-man line-up was in place. Though other line-ups would follow, none would surpass the original.
Bob Beatty places this origin story of ABB at the midpoint of Play All Night!: Duane Allman and the Journey to the Fillmore East. “Not a biography of Duane Allman nor of the Allman Brothers Band,” Beatty writes, Play All Night! instead weaves a complex story about Allman as a visionary “musician and band leader,” ABB as the vehicle and incarnation of his vision, and ABB’s performances at Fillmore East in March 1971 and the resulting live album At Fillmore East “the truest fulfillment” of it.
Beatty first tracks Duane through his apprenticeship with cover bands on the Southern circuit; his journeyman work with his band Hour Glass; his return to the South after a rough year in California; and his creation of the Allman Brothers Band. Beatty then tracks ABB through two years of fruitful touring and two studio albums (critical successes but commercial failures), to the seminal gig at Fillmore East and Duane’s death, on its heels, in a motorcycle accident. An epilogue traces ABB from its peak in the early 1970s through a low point in the 1980s and revival in 1989, to a second peak, with a fine new line-up, from 2001 to 2014.
In Duane’s vision, as Beatty portrays it, ABB would focus on “musical virtuosity” and on “individual expression through live improvisational music,” not on “chasing pop hits.” It would play countless (often free) concerts, using the stage, rather than the studio, as rehearsal space, and making “audiences an important part of the music.” And it would be egalitarian, each member having license in playing style and access to playing time, with Duane as “leader” but not frontman — “allies working together,” as Duane put it, “sharing a mutual love.”
As time has proven, ABB realized Duane’s vision of profoundly organic and communal music; “six musicians in deep, constant musical conversation in front of an appreciative audience,” in Beatty’s words. As Gregg Allman put it:
“We played for each other, we played to each other, and we played off each other.”
Such demanding, rigorous, and bold improvising, with each musician “staying in the moment while simultaneously anticipating where the music is headed,” when done right, resulted in “hittin’ the note,” the band’s term for the elusive moment, musical and spiritual, when all elements perfectly align.
Industry flacks, at that time, lumped ABB and Lynyrd Skynyrd together as the avatars of a hyped “Southern rock.” Though both bands indeed were Southern, blues-based, and electrifying, they shared neither images nor aesthetics. ABB were intense hippies playing soundly structured but highly improvised, jazz-inflected music; Skynyrd were rowdy rednecks playing closely notated, highly rehearsed rock songs. Skynyrd accented product, in a word; ABB, process.
The truer match to ABB was the Grateful Dead. Though the Dead owed more to folk and bluegrass than to blues, and though ABB, as Beatty observes, “did not follow the Dead’s unbridled, free-form style [but] hewed more closely to arrangements,” both groups were steeped in psychedelics and schooled in jazz (particularly Coltrane and Miles) and favored expansive compositions, spontaneous solos, and lengthy jams. Both also used dual drummers on full kits along with commanding bass guitarists to drive the rhythm behind the solos.
Beatty himself has arranged a tight, rhythmic chronology here to generate narrative drive behind his skilled (though not, of course, spontaneous) elaborations of material. Play All Night! features both a solid structure and clean, varied prose. One can question his frequent bundling of quotations that repeat the same point, or his adopting of “the fan voice” in an otherwise thoroughly researched, scholarly book, but these are quibbles.
ABB has prompted a robust shelf of secondary literature, including at least three band histories, individual biographies of Duane and Gregg, various memoirs, and many volumes of sheet music. Willie Perkins, the band’s tour manager in the formative early 1970s, just released his diary, and publishers have announced two Allman books for the coming year. A valuable addition to this line-up, Beatty’s illuminating study is a must-read for ABB aficionados.
Charles Caramello is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, VA.