Into the past with Duane and Gregg through the reissue of four prefab titles
From its formation in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, the Allman Brothers Band would transcend its humble roots as a typical blues-rock outfit to become one of the most critically-acclaimed and enduring of American rock bands.
Although the ABB never sold a truckload of records – the band scored Platinum™ with three albums and Gold™ Record status with three others from among their 27 live and studio releases (not counting compilations) – their influence on rock ‘n’ roll and blues music continues to resonate to this day.
But before the Allman Brothers Band, there was just brothers Duane and Gregg Allman. Born in Nashville, Tennessee roughly a year apart, with Duane the older brother, they were young when their family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida where both brothers would attend high school. Both of the Allman brothers picked up on music at an early age with Gregg originally the guitarist in the family. Once Duane picked up the guitar, however, there was no looking back, and his dedication to becoming the “best” was legendary among fellow musicians. Perhaps the more talented of the two brothers, Gregg learned piano and keyboards and would develop a unique, soulful vocal style and solid songwriting chops.
Both brothers were teenagers when they began playing in their first bands at the dawn of the 1960s, inspired by a performance by the great B.B. King. Duane originally played guitar with a Daytona Beach band called the Escorts, before forming the Allman Joys with Gregg and touring throughout the Southeastern “garbage circuit,” as Duane called it. The Allman Joys would evolve into Hour Glass after a move to Los Angeles, subsequently recording a pair of albums for Liberty Records that got little love on the charts. When Hour Glass broke up, the brothers returned to Florida and ended up playing on demo sessions for a band by the name of the 31st of February, which included future ABB drummer Butch Trucks. The Allman brothers spent, all told, roughly five years wandering in the wilderness trying to find the musical voice they would later perfect with the Allman Brothers Band.
The Allman Brothers Band Recording Company and Universal Music have reached into the past to reissue several pre-ABB recordings by Duane and Gregg Allman. The four albums will be reissued on both CD and on vinyl for the first time in decades and include the Allman Joys’ Early Allman, a 1966 recording that didn’t see release until 1973; the two aforementioned Hour Glass LPs (1967’s self-titled debut and 1968’s Power of Love); and another posthumous release, Duane & Gregg Allman, which is comprised of the 1968 demo recordings for the 31st of February that were re-purposed as an Allman brothers album and released in 1972 to exploit the guitarist’s tragic death.
Early Allman (*** ½) may be the closest among the four recordings to the freewheeling spirit of the Allman Brothers Band. The Allman Joys – Duane and Gregg, bassist Bob Keller, and drummer Bill Connell – had spent months on the road touring the Southeast and were a tightknit group of musicians with chemistry forged on small stages. Recorded in August 1966 at the famed Bradley’s Barn studios in
Nashville under the aegis of legendary songwriter John D. Loudermilk, the Allman Joys had a tentative deal with Buddy Killen’s Dial Records. Only one song from what would become Early Allman was released as a single at the time, a breakneck cover of the Willie Dixon blues classic “Spoonful” which features Duane’s incendiary guitar leads. The single sold well enough locally, but failed to make a dent in the national charts.
Loudermilk urged the band to write its own material, and Early Allman includes several early compositions by Gregg, the most notable of which are the psych-drenched “Bell Bottom Britches” and the guitar-driven rocker “Gotta Get Away.” Much of the album sounds exactly like what it is, however – a patchwork quilt of disparate influences recorded by two vastly different producers (Loudermilk and John Hurley) – and released only because of tragic circumstances. As music historian Randy Poe wrote in his 2006 biography of Duane Allman, Skydog, “the Allman Joys’ sound is a mix of the Beatles, Animals, Booker T. & the MGs, and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels – with a Southern-accented singer and a lead guitarist clearly obsessed with his fuzz box.”
After the resounding thud that was the Allman Joys first single, and the lack of a possible follow-up, Loudermilk recommended that the band move west to Los Angeles to pursue their fortune. The band lost two members with the move, so the brothers merged with another Southern band called the Men-Its, incorporating that band’s Paul Hornsby (keyboards), Mabron McKinley (bass), and Johnny Sandlin (drums) and casting their lot with manager Bill McEuen, brother of their friend John McEuen, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
McEuen quickly found the band gigs in the area and secured a deal with Liberty Records, a once-successful label that had pop hits with teen idols like Bobby Vee and Gary Lewis & the Playboys and which had released rockabilly legend Johnny Burnette’s early ‘60s hits singles. At the label’s urging, the Allman Joys changed the band name to the more contemporary “Hour Glass” and entered the studio with staff producer Dallas Smith to record. It would be a tumultuous experience for the Allmans, as the pop-leaning Smith was an ill-fit for the band’s blues-rock sound. Smith layered excessive production onto the band’s performances, including horns, strings, and backing singers – all of which clashed with Duane’s vision for the band’s music.
As it is, Hour Glass (** ½*) is a fair-to-middlin’ slab of brightly-polished blue-eyed soul with just the slightest hint of Southern grunge. The songs given the band to choose from are mostly treacly, pop-oriented marshmallows on which the label owned the publishing. Still, with only a single original song on the LP, Gregg managed to salvage something from the mess with exemplary performances that display his impressive range as a singer. The lead-off track, “Out of the Night,” is a Vegas-styled pop-soul tune designed to skyrocket up the charts, for which Gregg provides a crooning, jazz-flecked vocal. A very early Jackson Browne song, “Cast Off All My Fears,” is introduced with odd studio sounds before jumping into an upbeat soul-rocker with a too-short solo by Duane dirtying up an otherwise too-slick production.
Curtis Mayfield’s “I’ve Been Trying” should have provided the band with something meatier to sink their teeth into, but the song’s simulated Motown production (harmony vocals, swelling orchestration) rob the performance of any bite. Lose the horns and Ed Cobb’s “Heartbeat” might have been a hit single, with its Mitch Ryder-styled vocal delivery and galloping rhythms. Gregg’s lone original, “Got To Get Away,” is a proto-psych gem with raging keyboards and raga-styled guitars buried in the mix (again with the damn horns!). The biggest problem with Hour Glass was Duane; more specifically the lack of his brilliant guitar playing. The man was developing into one of the best six-string maestros of his generation and his talents are criminally-underutilized on these eleven songs.
As Poe describes the album’s song selection process in Skydog, “the band went through a box of acetates and picked out several by songwriters with familiar names…the songs might as well have been by Irving Berlin or John Philip Sousa.” Poe quotes Hour Glass member Paul Hornsby, who remembers “we were just naïve Southern boys – we wanted to please everybody, so we did just about anything they told us to do. They suggested that we cut a lot of bad songs, unfortunately.” In his 2012 autobiography, My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman remembers the recording of that first Hour Glass album as “a horrific experience,” adding that “we hated the whole process, because every time we tried to loosen it up a little bit, they would stiffen it right back up. They’d force us back into the pop bullshit that they wanted us to do. Duane would try to get some kind of groove going, and they would shoot him right down.”
Liberty Records continued to push Hour Glass as a soul-pop outfit or, worse, as Gregg’s backing band. Hour Glass fared much better with its follow-up album, Power of Love (***); although they were saddled with the clueless Dallas Smith as producer once again, they got to pick and choose the songs they would record, which included seven Gregg originals alongside material from “Southern friends” like Dan Penn and Spooner Oldman, Eddie Hinton and Marlon Greene, and Don Covay. In My Cross to Bear, Gregg recalls that “we felt better about Power of Love than we did about the first album, but we were still getting really fed up about not having any gigs or cash,” referring to the label’s restriction on the band playing too often in the L.A. area for fear of “overexposure.”
Still, Smith’s largely-sterile production for the album robbed the band of its onstage vitality and Southern-fried identity. Although the horns and backing singers are gone, in their place are the dying vestiges of psychedelic-era production tricks. The band was also finding new footing after the departure of longtime bassist Mabron McKinley, who was replaced with another band friend, the young guitarist Pete Carr, who knew little about playing bass. Still, Power of Love stands head and tails above its predecessor, and even with Duane seething at Smith’s involvement, which caused him to be emotionally-detached from too many performances, he still manages to cut deeply at times with his instrumental skills.
Hinton’s “Down In Texas” is one such moment; a greasy Southern jam with shuffling rhythms and gospel-tinged keyboards, Duane’s razor-sharp solos gleam like shards of broken crystal. With a more aggressive mix – bring up the keys, more guitar, more emphasis on Gregg’s vox – the song could have been a hit. The Penn/Oldham title track is another winner, with emotional vocals, a soulful melody, and an overall authentic Stax-styled sound while the band’s exotic instrumental cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Is Flown),” featuring Duane’s mesmerizing electric sitar playing and a jazzy soundtrack could have been a hit single. Although Gregg had yet to hone his songwriting skills to ABB levels, tracks like the passionate “Changing of the Guard” or the lively “I Still Want Your Love” display signs of future songwriting brilliance on the part of the younger Allman brother.
Oddly enough, even after releasing two commercially-underperforming albums, Liberty Records – perhaps still enthralled by Gregg’s potential as a solo artist – agreed to let Hour Glass record a third album. Taking back control of his band, Duane took Hour Glass to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record, with the band handling production itself with guitarist Jimmy Johnson engineering the sessions with Eddie Hinton’s assistance. The band members were pretty psyched with the results, Poe writing in Skydog that they would “return to Los Angeles, and let Dallas Smith and Liberty Records execs hear exactly what the Hour Glass was all about – a Southern band playing blues-fueled rock.” The label’s reaction was, to be generous, not very positive. Poe quotes Hornsby saying “Dallas Smith hated it. We played it for him and he thought it was horrendous stuff.”
The label refused to release the album and, in spite of the band’s accomplishments during a short time – recording two albums, opening dates for bands like the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and the Animals – Duane decided to go back “home” to the South, where Hour Glass eventually broke up and the band members went their separate ways. At loose ends, Duane and Gregg were knocking around Daytona Beach when they ran into their old friend Butch Trucks, who was drummer with a band called the 31st of February (which also included guitarist Scott Boyer and bassist David Brown, who would later form the Southern rock outfit Cowboy). The band had recorded its self-titled debut album for Vanguard Records (released in 1968) and was looking to expand their sound with an additional guitarist. They found eager players in Duane and Gregg.
Working with producers Henry Stone and Steve Alaimo out of Stone’s Tone Studios in Hialeah, Florida the newly-expanded five-piece band recorded demos in anticipation of their sophomore album, and began playing around the region with the Allmans in tow. With Gregg returning to L.A. to fulfill contractual obligations to Liberty, the 31st of February fell apart although it would be resurrected, in a way, with the formation of the Allman Brothers Band a year later. Those demo recordings, however, wouldn’t see the light of day until after Duane’s death in a motorcycle accident in October 1971.
Now called Duane & Gregg Allman (*** ½*), what the album lacked in quantity (only nine songs), it more than made up for in quality, the band displaying a unique musical chemistry. Writes Poe, “unlike much of the Hour Glass’s recorded material, the 31st of February tapes sound like a band. And Gregg’s voice has greatly matured – he comes off more soulful, more sincere. In places, the group evokes the Allman Brothers Band – which isn’t too surprising, as it included half the original Allman Brothers line-up.” For these reasons and more, Duane & Gregg Allman is an enjoyable album that, with some actual attention to the production, could have easily passed for an early ABB release.
Gregg’s haunting vocals and Duane’s ethereal guitar take Tim Rose’s folk-rock standard “Morning Dew” to an entirely different dimension while bluesman Scapper Blackwell’s “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” is afforded the full scope of Duane’s recent obsession with slide-guitar. An early version of “Melissa” is simply gorgeous, a sort of proto-ABB song that hints at bigger things to come while Brown’s “I’ll Change For You” is an atmospheric romantic tune with a Marshall Tucker Band vibe years ahead of the Southern rock era. The results leave the listener wanting more – which they’d get with the Allman Brothers Band’s self-titled 1969 debut album.
Taken altogether, these four reissues provide fans with an invaluable roadmap to the evolution of the Allman Brothers Band from the half-formed dreams of two brothers to a reality that carried on long after the deaths of key band members. Not all the music here is up to the standards set by the ABB even on their first album, but with the talents involved, each of the four LPs has its charms. More importantly, they showcase the immense talents of Duane and Gregg Allman as they developed a sound entirely their own and took it to the world.
***** Excellent, a masterwork by any standard (i.e. pizza & root beer)
**** A very good but slightly flawed album (hot fudge sundae without whipped cream)
*** Meh, an unremarkable album (but still better that a boot to the head)
** A boot to the head
* Really, why was this abomination ever released? (i.e. a root canal by a drunken dentist)