And oh, so far away
Have you ever been in one of those downtowns with the old hardware store right in the middle of it all? That's the way it was where I grew up. It was Sandlin's Hardware, and old man Sandlin had done fairly well for himself. There was always a kid associated with these businesses; a kid you knew. There was the strawberry blonde whose dad owned the pawn shop. There was the girl you dated whose dad owned the little grocery store. And there was the kid who wanted to be a drummer whose dad owned Sandlin's Hardware.
I've never understood drummers, actually. I know it's hard to do and I know the best of them feel the rhythm in some primal way that I never will. But let's face facts; white suburban kids who want to be a drummer usually desire this for one reason: They want to be in a band so badly they can taste it, but they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, even if the only instrument in the world was a Jew's harp. They usually come from families with money, 'cause drums cost more than a cheap guitar. And that's the way it was with the Sandlin kid.
This was back in the day when kids were paying good money to see The Kingsmen play Louie Louie or The Swingin' Medallions playing "Double Shot of My Baby's Love." The instrument du jour was the cheap ass organ, used in such hits as "(I'm Gonna Cry) 96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. The sound was, like the organ, cheap. But it was fun. The guitar players were usually relegated to the surf licks, and most of them had The Ventures as heroes. However, as we know now due to hindsight, the great guitarists who grew up in that period were honing their chops around the blues.
There's something nasty about the blues. Much nastier than what you'd hear at a frat party. Even if Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts were playing. The blues wasn't about funny fucking or funny breakups: The blues was about sex and death. Sex and Death are really all that matters to real artists in the end, you know. You ever heard Josh White sing St. James Infirmary?
So the Sandlin boy got pretty good on the drums and wound up with a couple of blonde boys from Daytona Beach, FL, in a band called the Hourglass. I went out to his house a few times when they were rehearsing. The lead singer had a gruff voice and played a little bit on the Hammond B3 organ. His brother was the guitarist. They both had way too long blonde hair and these muttonchop beards. It became clear that the singer was the extrovert, star-struck, wannabe and that his brother was the introverted artist. I was hearing things the introvert was doing with that tobacco sunburst Les Paul that I'd never heard before. But it was still gelling for him. It wasn't really real just yet. They were trying to play pop songs and the seams kept bursting into something else and no one was real sure what it was. Least of all, the drummer.
So, when the two blonde boys got fed up with playing small town armories as the Hourglass, and their first two Hourglass records didn't go anywhere, the introvert went back to Florida and the star-struck one went to Hollywood. The drummer went back to working in his dad's hardware store.
Rick Hall, who owned Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, heard about the introvert and hired him to do some backup work for Wilson Pickett. That turned into backup work for Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Otis Rush, Boz Scaggs, and some other notable folks. But the introvert missed his homies and was always going back to Florida to catch up on old times and new drugs.
The story goes that one night in early 1969, he set up the equipment and jammed with Dickey Betts (guitar), Barry Oakley (bass), Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (both on drums). The little jam lasted for almost three hours. When it was over, everyone was speechless. The introvert is said to have said, "It really frightened the shit out of everybody. Right then I knew -- I said, 'Man, here it is!' I told Rick I didn't want to do session work full-time any more. I had found what I really wanted to do."
So he called the extrovert and got him to come back from California and they wound up with Phil Walden who talked them into moving to Macon, GA. (One of the drummers, Butch Trucks, later said that they grossed $40 million and that Phil Walden fucked them out of ever last dime of it.) After a couple of so-so albums, Bill Graham got wind of them and in December of 1970 they played a gig at the Fillmore East. This gig got so out of hand that they kept Canned Heat waiting to come on until 3:30 AM. The next time they played the Fillmore, the essential Allman Brothers album was recorded live.
And there it is if you want to hear it. The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East. If you want to hear guitar work like it's never been done before or since, I'd suggest you listen to the introvert play on these tunes. You probably know him better from his work on Layla with Eric Clapton. You can hear him primarily on "Key to the Highway" and "Have You Ever Loved a Woman." But it's those bird sounds, like at the end of Layla, that he'd get out of his Coricidin© bottle on that Les Paul that no one ever forgets. Eric Clapton told a couple of folks I know that the introvert was the best guitar player he'd ever heard. Clapton never really took up slide guitar until he heard this fellow play it.
The doors began to open up big-time for the introvert around this time. Laura Nyro . . . Herbie Hancock . . . everybody with a good ear wanted him to do work on their stuff. But the good die young, it seems. Late one afternoon he was leaving Barry Oakley's house and ran into a truck on his motorcycle. I can tell you from personal experience that he wasn't feeling any pain before or after this incident. In fact, the amount of narcotics they gave him at the hospital in the couple of hours before he died were probably fewer than the ones he'd already done on his own.
He had been born on November 20, 1946, in Nashville, TN. He died in Macon on October 29, 1971. He would have turned 25 in 22 days.
I heard Duane Allman play several times, and I can tell you that there is not another guitarist of our age who could touch him. He wasn't a flashy guy. He'd stand there in one spot and look down at his hands as they produced the sounds only angels get to hear, usually.
I saw him a couple of times, just before he died, and they had added a new wrinkle to their shows. Around the middle, Duane would walk behind the huge stack of amps and come back a couple of minutes later. He'd have a different sort of glazed yet focused look in his eyes. He'd pick his Les Paul guitar back up and join back in the song in progress. And then, one by one, the other members of the band would walk off stage. Eventually, there he would be, alone, still playing the song. By himself. He would leave this world and go somewhere else: To a land where one electric guitar is all the band you need to hear music the way God himself hears it. This would last anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, depending on either his mood or the quality of the stuff with which he was corresponding on that little respite behind the amps. But I can tell you this:
Those few minutes were the most important musical moments of my life.
And I think he felt pretty much the same way about them.