The final fourteen months of Duane Allman’s life were filled with events worthy of rock & roll lore, starting with him befriending Eric Clapton while they were both in Miami in the summer of 1970. Clapton was recording the great Layla album with Derek and the Dominos when Layla producer Tom Dowd mentioned that the Allman Brothers were in town. A fan of the band, Clapton rushed to watch them perform, asking Duane afterwards to stop by the studio to play on the record. Duane was one of the guitarists in the Allman Brothers Band (Dickey Betts was the other), and he was one of the greats. At the time, the Allman Brothers only had their impressive 1969 self-titled debut under their belt, but their amazing second album Idlewild South was released mere weeks after Duane’s interaction with Clapton in September 1970.
Layla brought Duane even more attention when it was released that November, and when March rolled around, the Allman Brothers Band played shows at the Fillmore East in Manhattan on the 12th and the 13th. At Fillmore East is a double album with tracks culled from both nights, and though there are only seven tracks, it feels like there are twenty. So easily and effortlessly do the Allman Brothers change speeds and direction, it’s like John Elway leading the Broncos 98 yards down the football field in “The Drive.” And as a listener, you feel like the defense that’s powerless to stop them. After a while you just surrender to them and let them take you wherever they go. I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it when listening to an album.
Before I really got into the Allman Brothers’ individual albums, I bought a double-disc compilation called Gold that covers their work from 1969 to 1979 when I was eighteen or so and enjoyed it a lot. It had all of their big hits: “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” “Melissa,” “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica,” to name their classic rock radio staples. (It also generously featured 6 out of the 7 tracks that originally appeared on the band’s self-titled debut, which was somewhat curious.) But there were some live cuts at the end of the first disc and the beginning of the second disc, and that caught my attention, since usually live tracks aren’t a part of greatest hits packages, and if they are, they aren’t awkwardly placed in the center of them. Of the four that close out the first disc, an epic thirteen-minute song called “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” stood out to me, and that quickly became my favorite Allman Brothers song.
I soon found out that “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and the other three tracks at the end of that first disc of Gold were taken from At Fillmore East, which is considered to be one of the very best live albums of all time and quite possibly the greatest live double album of all time. At Fillmore East was released in July of 1971, and just three months later, on October 29, Duane Allman’s life was cut short by a motorcycle accident. He was, tragically, just 24, the same age I am as I write this. It’s pretty amazing how much he contributed to rock & roll in just two years of recorded output. Although rock & roll had been born and bred in the blues of the American South, with many early rock & roll icons like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis emerging from southern states, the Allman Brothers introduced a new kind of southern rock with their 1969 debut.
Whereas the early rock & roll acts I mentioned played short songs of radio-friendly length in the singles-driven ’50s, the Allman Brothers were like a jazz band, thriving on the extended improvisation afforded by live performance. The post-British Invasion album era also allowed for longer studio tracks, which bands like the Allman Brothers took full advantage of. But make no mistake, the Allmans live is them at their most pure and true. Some of the leftover tracks from the Fillmore East concerts would make their next album, Eat a Peach (1972), a double album featuring both live and studio material. It was an obvious tribute to their recently departed guitarist, containing the last work he did in the studio on the final side.