Six musicians played together for the first time in a house in Jacksonville, Florida’s Riverside District: Duane Allman (guitar), Jaimoe (drums), Berry Oakley (bass), Dickey Betts (guitar), and Gregg Allman (organ and vocals).
Those who know me, know I’m an absolute FREAK about the Allman Brothers Band. Their music captivated me in the early 1990s and has never truly let go. Today was the day the whole thing started.
I thought I’d share some words from my dissertation on why this was particularly significant. (Apologies in advance for the lack of footnotes, they’re in the actual dissertation, but no easy way to have them here.)
Excerpted from Chapter 4 — “The Band Was So Good We Thought We’d Never Make It”: The Formation of the Allman Brothers Band
Dickey Betts likened the band that Duane Allman began to coalesce around him as one that developed in parts, like a Polaroid photograph. “Nobody knew what it was going to be,” but in terms of the music and the connection the musicians felt to each other, “We knew what we now had.” And that was something that honored each members’ individual roots, but was truly original in its approach.
First, Allman realized that forging ahead as a solo artist was not a path he wanted to take. “He wasn’t really hot on doing the solo album,” Betts recalled. “Rick Hall wanted him to do a Hendrix power-trio thing. But Duane was too warm and personal for that. He needed a lot of other guys to get that full sound he wanted.” As he assembled the pieces of his new band from January through March 1969, he sought a band of musical equals.
As Duane Allman courted Berry Oakley for his band, Allman began to join jam sessions with the Second Coming. In turn, another element of the photograph came into focus. As Betts recalled, “Berry told Duane the magic was happening when Betts was around, jamming.” The guitarists, whose styles and influences were divergent, sounded great together. “Duane’s melody came more from jazz and urban blues,” Betts shared, “and my melodies came more from country blues with a strong element of string-music fiddle tunes. . . . We were almost totally opposite except we both knew the importance of phrasing. We didn’t just ramble about.”
Part of that magic was in the harmony guitar Allman and Betts played together. “From the first time playing together,” Betts recalled, “Duane started picking up on things I played and offering a harmony, and we built whole jams off of that.”
“Dickey’s whole thing from the first time I met him was the harmonies,” Reese Wynans remembered. “He would come up with these great melodies, and he wanted to get harmonies going for them. . . . Duane obviously got on the bus with that and took it to a new level.”
“Berry and Duane were kind of getting used to playing with each other, getting ready to go into this new venture,” Betts recounted. “As we started jamming, we all realized that Duane and I playing harmony guitars together was something that we weren’t expecting to hear.” The influence for this derived from western swing. “Western swing bands from the 30s have always used the twin harmony guitars. A lot of the songs that we did were strongly influenced from that,” Betts said. “And that’s probably what I offered Duane . . . was that influence.”
The Polaroid image was coming more into focus; the trio Allman had envisioned with Jai Johanny (Jaimoe) Johanson and Oakley now included a fourth member, Dickey Betts. To Betts and his mates, the new band was something they all had long been searching for. “It was fun and exciting, and the band just sort of happened. . . . Duane had no idea that he would end up with this very different thing, but he was open to seeing what happened,” Betts shared. “I had been playing with Berry, and Duane kept coming and sitting in with us and exciting stuff started happening really quickly and naturally. We all felt like we had discovered the very thing we had been looking for, even if we didn’t know it beforehand. We all knew that something very, very good was happening. With Betts, the band added an element of country music to its base of blues, jazz, and psychedelia. “It was not a thought out process,” Betts shared years later. “It just formed naturally, like the band. If someone fit in the pieces, they stayed.”
Butch Trucks soon became the band’s second drummer. “Jaimoe was a real good drummer,” Betts recalled, “and once we all got in there, it was bigger and he wasn’t really able to handle the power. It just wasn’t his style. . . . We needed Butch, who had that drive and strength.” Richard Price agreed. “Butch was well known as a strong-in-the-pocket player, while Jaimoe was more of an embellisher. . . . [T]hings started happening with Jaimoe and Butch as soon as they played together.”
The two-drummer concept was a novelty in rock music then (and now). “I don’t know how to explain it other than our backgrounds,” Trucks shared in 1979. “We both started the same place, marching band in high school. Jaimoe went into jazz and I’m more into rock . . . folk rock, very simple patterns.” Trucks remarked that Johanson’s “patterns are more syncopated than mine.” Most importantly, he claimed, “[W]e both listen, that’s the key word. He listens to what’s going on in the band and so do I.” Of the two drummers Duane Allman remarked, “We’ve had them from the first because we knew we was going to be playing loud, and both cats can play everything they need to play if there’s two of them instead of one cat having to flog his ass off the whole night.”
Trucks remained in Jacksonville, eventually migrating to the community jam sessions Oakley had been organizing. It was at these sessions that Allman’s new band truly coalesced. “We had these big jams with a lot of drummers coming and going, but things started happening with Jaimoe and Butch as soon as they play together” Richard Price remembered. “They formed this strange symbiotic thing and melded into a terrific unit. Over a series of nights you could see something very substantial developing. The musical explorations, unfettered by the commercial forces of the music industry, invigorated the developing band.” “The jams in the park and free music helped the band come together,” Betts recalled. Soon, the guitarist remembered, “The trio had five pieces. We were all smart enough to say ‘this guy’s special’ about one another.” Johanson had long since forgotten his original reason for seeking out Duane Allman: making money. “The whole thing was just about playing music — no agenda, no egos–and it was good.”
The two lead guitar players, Allman and Betts, were the central focus of the band. It was a terrific combination of two virtuosos with similar roots but completely different musical styles. The guitarists, Reese Wynans recalled, “Complemented each other — they didn’t try to outgun one another — and the chemistry was obvious right away. It was just amazing that the two best lead guitarists around were teaming up. They were both willing to take chances rather than returning to parts they knew they could nail, and everything they tried worked.”
Betts and Allman were able to develop their twin guitar sound because of the proficiency of the rhythm section. “The reason that Duane and Dickey played the way they did was because of who they had playing behind them, which was Butch and me,” Johanson reflected. “We did things differently than anyone else — and then you had Berry, who was a guitar player who started playing bass because he had a chance to get a gig and get out of Chicago and on the road. Nobody played bass like Berry.”
It was a nearly perfect melding of styles and inspiration. Betts cites the influence of urban blues on Duane and Gregg Allman. “Their thing was like a real honest, truthful, chilling delivery of that music, whereas Oakley and I may have been influenced by the blues and were students of it, but we were more innovative. We would try to take a blues tune and, instead of respecting the sacredness of it, we would go sideways with it.”
The Allman Brothers Band’s reworking of the Muddy Waters classic “Hoochie Coochie Man” is based on the Second Coming’s arrangement of the song. While the band didn’t record it formally until 1970, this amped-up version appeared in its earliest setlists. Another example is a reimagined take of “Don’t Want You No More,” an obscure song by the Spencer Davis Group that spent one week (at number 100) on the charts in 1967. The Allmans’ instrumental version of the latter — with Allman and Betts playing the vocal melody on harmony guitars, kicked off the Allman Brothers Band’s first album. Yet despite the success the Second Coming had with these new arrangements, Betts recalled, “Berry and I were always missing something — a certain foundation — while Duane and Gregg didn’t quite have the adventurous kind of thing. So when we all came together, we gave each other a new foundation.”
On March 23, 1969, after several months of playing together in various iterations in and around Jacksonville, Duane Allman, Johanson, Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Reese Wynans convened at Trucks’s house to play. It was a jam session that has since entered Allman Brothers Band lore as the “Jacksonville Jam.” “We just set up the equipment and whipped into a little jam,” Allman said. “And the jam lasted two and a half hours. When we finally quit, nobody even said a word, man, everybody was speechless. Nobody’d ever done anything like that before — it really frightened the hell out of everybody. Right then I knew, I said ‘Man, here it is, here it is!’” Butch Trucks ascribed to the event a spiritual element. “It was like being born again, a revival meeting. We got saved that day.”
“I think by that time we kind of had a feeling of where it was going. It was pretty obvious what was working. Dickey and Duane were really having a good time with each other. We tended to get very introverted and experimental and jazzy . . . but very much pull into ourselves rather that put on a show,” Trucks shared. “[W]e were making music. And it was this particular group of people who all had the same philosophy. Different musical backgrounds, but what we were looking for at that time was that note. . . . And frankly . . . I had felt that before playing symphonic music, but this was the first time I’d ever really felt it playing a set of drums, playing rock ’n’ roll.
However powerful the experience was for the five musicians, they all knew it lacked an element of power: vocals. Accounts differ slightly about how Allman came to bring his brother Gregg into the fold. The guitarist seems to have always intended for his brother to join the new band, but may have been too stubborn to call him right away. Johanson has always maintained that Allman had Gregg in mind from the very beginning. “Some people have said over the years that Duane was trying to do something different. Maybe they were fighting, but it’s not true,” he shared. “There was never a doubt that he would be the singer. He was just waiting until he had all the other pieces in place before he called Gregory, who was in L.A.”
Betts remembered the decision wasn’t as cut-and-dried. “We’d been rehearsing those five pieces and Oakley and I kept working on Duane to call his brother because we knew that the band was something special but nobody really sang as good as the band could play.” The brothers, Betts shared, “Weren’t speaking to each other. So we talked Duane into calling Gregg and asking him to come down.” Linda Oakley remembered Allman remarking to her, “We’ve got to get my brother here, out of that bad situation. He’s a great singer and songwriter and he’s the guy who can finish this thing.”
Whatever the story, Allman indeed called his brother Gregg, who then was in Los Angeles fulfilling Hour Glass’s Liberty Records contract. “The cats love to play,” Allman said to his younger brother. “They’re all really into their instruments, they sing a little bit but there’s not a whole lot of writing going on so I need you to come and sing and write and round it all up and send it in some sort of direction.” Gregg Allman has since called it “the finest compliment I’ve ever had.”
On March 26, 1969, Gregg Allman, just off the plane from Los Angeles, stepped into his first band rehearsal. He immediately noticed the band’s power. “Gregg was floored when he heard us,” Betts recalled. “They started playing and I mean it just knocked me out,” Gregg stated. “He went back against the wall,” Betts said, “and he said, ‘Jesus Christ, what a band!’”
With the younger Allman’s arrival, the band’s Polaroid was fully developed. “In the beginning it was so amazing I don’t even know how to put it into words,” said Betts. “We all knew we were on to something special because we’d been putting bands together for . . . years at that point.”
The band was the perfect foil for Duane Allman and the fulfillment of a long quest. “I can’t imagine any player they had in that first band that didn’t belong there. I don’t know how it could have been any better or anybody else they could have chosen that could’ve done a better job,” the Allmans’ former bandmate Paul Hornsby recalled. “You had six people that were just out there just slaying it. Duane is part of it and it’s a unit. It’s not just a lead guitar player out front it’s not just a lead singer. This whole thing was just one big glob of power.”
“When the six of us got together,” Johanson recalled, “we became what we were looking for and who we were looking for and it was clear as a bell. It was just a great bunch of guys playing and it was just so natural. We never talked about what we were doing or told each other what to do. Everyone just played.”
The new band played a mélange of southern musical flavors with a contemporary rock music flair. Nearly every element of the band’s influence was southern in origin. Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, and Berry Oakley had heavy blues influences. Johanson and the brothers Allman were seasoned rhythm and blues musicians. Betts had grown up playing and listening to country music. Trucks and Gregg Allman both played folk and folk rock. Johanson was steeped in the music and rhythms of jazz. Trucks brought to the band a classical influence. Oakley, and to a lesser extent Betts, brought with them elements of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. “We wanted to play American music,” Johanson recalled. And that was exactly what the Allman Brothers Band did.
The band was, however, a decidedly uncommercial venture. “The band was so good we thought we’d never make it,” Betts reflected.
Excerpted from “‘You Wanna Play in My Band, You Better Come to Pick’: Duane Allman and American Music,” Ph.D. dissertation © 2018 Bob Beatty
Post Script: This past weekend, I had the distinct privilege to participate in a few activities marking the golden anniversary of the band. On Friday 3/22, I gave a talk at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History and had a chance to sit in with the band that played that night on my favorite Allman Brothers song “Dreams.” On Saturday 3/23, I attended the historic marker dedication, the first in Florida, marking the location of the band’s first jams together. Here’s some video of the unveiling of the marker.
Some of you