The road goes on forever: “Song of the South – Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band”

By on June 9, 2017

The sad news of Gregg Allman’s recent death — on Saturday, May 27, 2017, at his home in Savannah, Georgia, from complications after a long battle with liver cancer — as well as the recent suicide of the Allman Brothers Band’s original drummer, Butch Trucks, reminds us that we’re fortunate to have great music documentaries like the critically-acclaimed Song of the South – Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band available to us any time we feel like reminiscin’ about one of the most respected American bands of the classic rock era.

You can now watch Song of the South — and its sequel-of-sorts, The Allman Brothers Band: After The Crash, which details the band’s history after the death of their legendary guitarist Duane Allman — whenever you like, they’re both are streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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Song of the South: Duane Allman and the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band — written and directed by Tom O’Dell for Chrome Dreams/Prism Films UK, distributed by our content partner MVD — takes a look at the bulk of Gregg’s big brother Duane “Skydog” Allman’s short life.

We follow him on a well-traveled road, from his early days in Florida, to his influential and solid guitar session work at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to his incredible collaborations with Eric Clapton in their band Derek & the Dominos, not to mention all of the periods playing music with his younger brother Gregg — in lots of cover bands all the way up to co-founding the Allman Brothers Band following their famous “Jacksonville Jam” concert — through the recording of two scorching studio albums and their stunning double-album Live At Fillmore East, leading right up to Duane’s tragic death after a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, at the age of twenty-four.

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Narrated by Thomas Arnold, Song of the South: Duane Allman and the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band focuses mostly on Duane Allman’s incredible legacy and the indelible mark he left on ’70s rock history with his sudden passing.

Allman — born Howard Duane Allman — is described in the documentary by his friend Sonny Fussell this way: “He just walked to a different beat,” but perhaps the most concise quote is from Scott Freeman, who says Duane Allman’s the greatest guitar player that ever lived.”

The 2-hour documentary also attempts to put into perspective how the band’s integration of the races and the attitudes about brotherhood were formed in the American South, and how the band dealt with issues involving race early on.

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After this fairly-brief overview of the varying social climates prevalent in the North and South of the country at the time, the documentary then dives into the stories of Duane and his younger brother Gregg, and their formative days, and how they both became fascinated with the blues and R&B by the time they were young teenagers in Daytona Beach, Florida.

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In addition to providing us with an incredible soundtrack of some of the Allman Brothers Band’s best-known songs — “Don’t Keep Me Wondering,” “Dreams,” “Midnight Rider,” “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and more — the film also provides several snippets of radio interviews with Duane Allman, including excerpts from a rare 1970 interview.

The documentary is also illustrated with numerous previously-unseen photos, many from private collections, and footage of the band’s Fillmore East performance in September of 1970, as well as some footage from the Atlanta Pop Festival courtesy of the Alex Cooley archives. There’s also rare footage of blues giant Albert King playing “As The Years Go Passing By” and showing us how its melody influenced the seven-note intro to “Layla.”

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Although the documentary is unauthorized and — besides Duane’s archival interview footage — none of the other Allman Brothers Band’s members appear in the film, but we do get quite a lot of on-camera contributors who discuss Duane and Gregg and the importance of the Allman Brothers Band, including many musicians who played alongside both men.

These contributors include: Ron and Howard Albert (engineers & producers at Criteria Studios); David Hood and Jimmy Johnson (of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section); Paul Hornsby & Pete Carr (both former co-members of The Hour Glass, Duane & Gregg’s late 1960s group; Ted Petrucianni and Sonny Fussell (two members of the Uniques, one of the initial outfits Duane and Gregg launched in the early 1960s); Willie Perkins (the Allman Brothers Band’s road manager between 1970-1975, and author of No Saints, No Saviors, his memoir about his time with Duane and Gregg Allman); Randy Poe and Scott Freeman (authors of the biographies Skydog and Midnight Riders); E.J. Devokaitis (band archivist and former curator at The Big House Museum, the Allman Brothers Band’s official museum, located in Macon, GA); and a host of other friends, colleagues and celebrated music critics, including Bud Scoppa, Robert Christgau and Mark Kemp.

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These contributors provide lots of inside info about the band which likely isn’t available in too many other music documentaries.

For instance, Ron Albert — who engineered albums for the Allman Brothers and Derek & the Dominoes — talks about how he would catch impromptu moments with the band with the tape rolling secretely during recording sessions at Criteria, in Miami, Florida, without the musicians knowing they were being recorded.

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Ron and Howard Albert’s interviews are eye-opening insights that give us a rare peek inside the studio, with anecdotes about the original six-man lineup of the band and how they made the music. Former road manager Willie Perkins also offers up a humorous look at the band as individuals, as well as discussing their group dynamic.

Paul Hornsby and Johnny Sandlin — who both played alongside the Duane and Gregg — speak reverently about Duane and Gregg’s personalities and their professional demeanor, and offer insight on how some of the Allman Brother Band’s signature sounds are evident in their earliest recordings.

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The documentary details the stories about some of Duane and Gregg’s early bands — including the Escorts, the Allman Joys, the Hour Glass and The 31st of February — and Hornsby provides a detailed account of how the Hour Glass’s recording contract with Liberty originated, and later fell apart, leading to Duane’s hiatus from Los Angeles and how this led to them booking time at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where their “B.B. King Medley” was tracked in early 1968.

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Another highlight is Muscle Shoals guitarist Jimmy Johnson, talking about Duane Allman’s skill as a session guitarist. He still appears to be in awe of Duane’s lead guitar work on Wilson Pickett’s version of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

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There’s some discussion in the documentary on how Duane Allman realized that he didn’t really want to be a studio session musician, he really wanted to be in a band, and we learn how he recruited some old friends – including members of the Florida band Second Coming (Reese Wynans, later of Captain Beyond and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble — and brought everyone to Macon, Georgia, soon convincing his brother Gregg to join, which of course led to the formation of the Allman Brothers Band.

The six-piece band — featuring twin lead guitarists, two drummers, an unconventional bass player and a Hammond B3 organist — wasn’t likely to attract record companies based in New York and Los Angeles, and actually led to the formation of the Macon-based Capricorn label by Phil Walden.

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Walden was in the process of forming his own label, to be distributed by Atlantic (Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler had advanced Walden $75,000 to form Capricorn) when an old friend named Rick Hall played for him Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude.” Walden was reportedly transfixed by the work of the guitarist on the session, and within days, he had travelled to Muscle Shoals and eventually made a deal to manage Duane Allman.

Another highlight is writer Bud Scoppa talking about the impact of the band adding Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson, former drummer and also a co-founder of Allman Brothers Band, who became the group’s spiritual center, adding quite a bit to their largely improvisational song-style through the introduction of jazz musicians like Miles Davis.

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There are stories about the songs, including Duane’s “Little Martha,” an acoustic track that appeared on Eat A Peach (Capricorn, 1972), one of the few pieces he wrote in his lifetime. It’s amazing to think that his recording career was less than a decade old at the time of his death.

There’s also a nice inclusion of the influence on the band by the late, great producer Tom Dowd, who played such an instrumental role in the recording activities of early Allman Brothers recordings, not to mention Duane’s work with Eric Claption on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor,1970).

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The documentary also details how — for the band’s third release — they decided to release a live double-album’s worth of two of the three concert recordings that had been recorded over the weekend of March 12-13, 1971, at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York, for what would become The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971).

One reason that the recordings were so powerful was that they’d been road-tested at some three hundred previous concerts over the previous year (the Allman Brothers Band were the opening act for Johnny Winter for many of these shows), showing off their instrumental jamming skills as they delved into country, rock, and blues to create epic jams that rocked out across the U.S. on FM radio stations throughout the rest of the ’70s.

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Here’s an excerpt from Mikal Gilmore’s excellent article about the Allman Brothers Band that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1990, which details how the two brothers came to love the music that was so influential on their own playing:

Early on, both Duane and Gregg found themselves drawn to music of loss and longing — particularly the high-lonesome wail of country music, and the haunted passions of urban and country blues.

Gregg had been the first to leap in: He had listened to a neighbor playing old-timey country songs on an acoustic guitar, and at 13, he worked a paper route and saved money to buy a guitar at the local Sears and Roebuck.

While Gregg was slogging his way through school, Duane started playing his brother’s guitar — and to his surprise and Gregg’s initial annoyance, discovered that he had a gift for the instrument.

Soon, Duane and Gregg each owned electric guitars, and Duane would hole up with his instrument for days, learning the music of blues archetype Robert Johnson and jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.

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After Duane and Gregg saw a B.B. King show during a return visit to Nashville, Duane’s mind was made up: He and his brother were going to form a blues band of their own; in fact, they were going to make music their life. Duane continued studying numerous guitarists, including King, Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James and French jazz prodigy Django Reinhardt, as well as the emerging British rock guitarists — especially a young firebrand named Eric Clapton — and the guitarists who were playing for soul artists like James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

Duane also began paying attention to saxophonists like John Coltrane, to hear how a soloist could build a melodic momentum that worked within a complex harmonic and rhythmic structure. Meantime, Gregg began favoring jazz organists like Jimmy Smith and Johnny Hammond, and developed a special passion for sophisticated blues and R&B vocalists like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ray Charles and Roy Milton.

But there was more to the brothers’ quest than a mere attraction for music that took painful feelings and turned them into a joyful release.

The Allmans — in particular, Duane — seemed intent on forming bands as an extension of family ideals, and they often invested these bands with the same qualities of love and anger, loyalty and rivalry, that they had practiced at home.

In a way, this family idealism was simply a trend of the era: The 1960s were a time when rock bands were often viewed as metaphors for a self-willed brand of consonant community. But in the Allmans’ case, the sources of this dream may have run especially deep. After all, their real-life family had been tumultuously shattered, and forming a band was a way of creating a fraternity they had never really known.

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Song of the South focuses quite a bit on Duane Allman’s influential guitar playing, fusing blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll styles (and later, progressive country, due mainly to fellow Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickie Betts) that is still revered by musicians and fans alike today.

They became pioneers in a rock sub-genre that popularly known as Southern Rock, a neologism that the band members themselves didn’t care for at all, particularly as time went on, during the 1970s and beyond, when the name was applied to other bands who turned it into something else entirely.

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In its August 1971 review of the At Fillmore East album, Rolling Stone described the Allmans as “one of the nicest things that ever happened to any of us.”

Indeed, much of the documentary focuses on the band’s brotherhood, and how those bonds were tested once again, a year after Duane’s death, in November 1972, when bassist Berry Oakley followed Duane Allman to the grave.

Gregg Allman — who in 2012 wrote a very impressive memoir, My Cross to Bear, which we encourage you to check out — was laid to rest on the afternoon of June 3, 2017, near his brother Duane Allman and bandmate Berry Oakley at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia, after a private service at Snow’s Memorial Chapel that was attended by former president Jimmy Carter, ex-wife Cher and many of Allman’s bandmates, including Jaimoe and Derek Trucks, his children Devon, Layla and Delilah Island, his niece (and Duane’s daughter) Galadrielle, his lifelong friend Chank Middleton and his manager Michael Lehmen.

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Again, we’re thankful we have great music documentaries like Song of the South and The Allman Brothers Band: After The Crash to remind us of the Allman Brothers Band and their brotherhood — you can watch both films over on Night Flight Plus — and we’ll always be thankful for recordings by the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman’s solo work that we can listen to as well, anytime we want. We’ll catch you further on up the road, Gregg and Duane, it does indeed go on forever.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Mojave Son

    That was an awesome article about the foundation of Southern Rock. Thanks Bryan.