When rhythm and blues met country and put on a white face in the mid 1950s, rock and roll was born and the new genre soon displaced jazz as the dominant popular music in American culture. Though it has suffered periodic lulls in the years since, especially recently, rock and roll must be considered the popular music of the second half of the twentieth century. And as such, rock and roll has been an integral part of American culture during that time. It emerged as the music of young America and has remained linked to that age group ever since. Through the years, young Americans have adopted the image of the music they listen to: the greasers of the 50s, the mop-tops of the early 60s, the hippies of the late 60s and early 70s, the punks of the late 70s, the metalheads of the 70s and 80s, and the grunge rockers of the 90s.
Yet, while Americans Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis led the infancy of rock and roll, it was England that produced the first great and most influential bands of the genre: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin. Even the Jimi Hendrix Experience was two-thirds British, and the American born Hendrix needed to cross the Atlantic to get his start.
So while Americans like Bob Dylan and James Brown remain icons of rock and roll, they were basically one-man shows. No matter how talented their backing bands were, the frontman remained the focus and the star. Yet, music, especially American music, has always functioned best as a collective effort. From Dixieland to Big Band to Bluegrass to Bebop, it has always been the combination of the interplay of the group and the artistry of the soloist that has made music special. Look no further than Miles Davis’ great sextet, responsible for Kind of Blue – quite possibly the finest album of any genre ever recorded. This group not only featured the incomparable Davis, but the legendary John Coltrane on tenor saxophone and the great Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on alto sax, backed by the world class rhythm section of pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. And still, it wasn’t merely the incredible skill of any of these six individuals that make the album so magical, but rather the way that they as group work together.
When then would America produce its top-notch rock and roll band? Brian Wilson was an absolute genius, and Pet Sounds remains one of the best albums ever, but by the time the Beach Boys finally gained their freedom from Murray Wilson and their record executives, Brian Wilson was too unstable mentally for the band realize their full potential. 1966 saw the emergence of both The Doors and The Grateful Dead, both formidable bands and rock legends. But the former’s career was too short and tumultuous, the latter more concerned with touring and too closely identified with their subculture to make a huge impact all at once.
In March 1969, a band came together in northern Florida that is worthy of the label as America’s first great rock band. Guitarist Duane Allman joined up with his brother Gregg (vocals and Hammond B3), bassist Berry Oakley, drummers Jai Johnny Johanson (Jaimoe) and Butch Trucks and guitarist Dickey Betts to form the Allman Brothers Band. These six men came from musical roots as diverse as American culture itself: Duane was fresh off a year long stint as the lead guitarist in the Muscle Shoals house band, where he worked with some of the finest soul acts in the country, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin amongst them. Gregg had played in rock and blues bands since his teenage years, and was a big fan of soul and r&b. Jaimoe was a huge jazz fan and had toured as part of the backing bands of both Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. Trucks had been in folk bands and was a member of a symphony orchestra. Betts came from a background rich in country and bluegrass, and was proficient on both the mandolin and banjo before he even picked up a guitar. Oakley was a native of Chicago, the place to which both jazz and blues flowed from the south and then to the rest of the nation. All these various forms of American music would come together to make this American rock band.
But it was that last form of music, the blues, which was the foundation that this band was built upon. The blues was the first form of music that could be called indigenous to this country and since emerging during slave times, it has been the river that has fed all the tributaries of American music. Granted, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and even Cream were blues bands at their very core. But these were British bands offering a British interpretation of American music. The members of the Allman Brothers Band were from the land where the blues began and their rock and roll take on the blues would be one of their hallmarks as a group – and one of the more interesting things ever offered by an American band.
There is another element characteristic of American music to be considered. While the majority of the music of the rest of Western culture (read: European Classical) relies on form and technical perfection, American music has its roots in Africa. The blues, jazz, and gospel, all these forms of American music grew out of the African-American culture in the south, and as such reflect an African perspective on music much more than a European one. And in the African culture it isn’t musical perfection that matters; it’s musical expression; it’s “soul”. Conveying one’s emotions is paramount.
Consequently, American music lends itself more to improvisation because no one feels the same all of the time. In order for the musician to convey his or her emotions at any given time, the song must necessarily vary. A certain amount of improvisation must enter the equation. This is why American music, from jazz on down to rock and roll has always lent itself to being a live art – best experienced in person rather than via a recording because each live performance gives birth to a new creation.
And it was these two characteristics that marked the early career of the Allman Brothers Band. The band toured incessantly, pulling close to three hundred live dates a year. On most Sundays they played free concerts in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. They played the now legendary Atlanta Pop Festival on Fourth of July Weekend in 1970. Bill Graham, probably the most famous promoter in the history of rock and roll, booked them for multiple dates at both his New York and San Francisco venues. The band was gaining a reputation as one of the premier touring bands in the country.
Every Allman Brothers’ show featured their takes on a number of blues classics. Their self-titled 1969 album featured a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” and 1970’s Idlewild South had a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”. Yet despite their touring reputation, neither album sold exceptionally well. A studio recording just couldn’t capture the essence of this band. They were a live act, and the dynamic between the members as they improvised, and the interplay between band and audience was where the magic happened.
The band was aware of it: “The stage is our natural element. We kind of get frustrated doing the records, so consequently our next album will be for the most part a live recording to get some of that natural fire on it” , Duane said shortly before their third album was recorded. The band’s manager and head of their Capricorn record label, Phil Walden agreed with the live album notion. Graham’s Fillmore East in New York City was the chosen site for the weekend of March 12th and 13th, 1971.
Two shows would be played each night and renowned producer Tom Dowd, who produced Idlewild South and previously worked with John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Cream and numerous other legends, was brought in to oversee the recording.
The four shows yielded Live At Fillmore East, considered by many to be the finest live album of all time. At the time of its release in July 1971, Rolling Stone claimed “Any comparison to anybody is fatuous” and called the band “the best damn rock ‘n’ roll band this country has produced in the past five years” . The improvisational nature of the content necessitated it being released as a double LP. Walden was met with opposition by Atlantic, in charge of Capricorn’s distribution. But Walden was able to change their mind: “I informed them that we had this brilliant marketing scheme that we wanted to sell it for $6.98 because we were trying to project this image of The Allmans as sort of the people’s band”.
1972’s follow up, Eat a Peach, contained three additional live tracks that didn’t make the cut for LAFE. In 1992, the seven tracks from LAFE were combined with those from Eat a Peach and two tracks of bonus material to create to double CD The Fillmore Concerts. It is this album that the Smithsonian should include as a defining cultural text. The Fillmore Concerts represents The Allman Brothers Band at their best, and consequently best represents an American band making American music.
Of the twelve songs on the album, six are old blues classics stamped with the Allmans’ harder, eclectic seal. Following Bill Graham’s famous “OK, The Allman Brothers Band” introduction, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” opens the album. It contains some excellent slide work from Duane Allman. The slide had long been part of the blues, as blues guitarists used it to more closely emulate the human voice with their instrument. But it was Allman who popularized it as part of rock and roll. Though a few other rock guitarists had used it before him, none did so as often nor half as well as Allman. Allen Woody, who played in the ABB in later years, once said, “George Harrison started playing slide after that Fillmore album came out. Eric [Clapton] was playing more slide, and where did [they] get it? From Duane. Duane is probably single-handedly responsible for most of the guys in England, later that played any slide”.
But it wasn’t just the Country Blues of McTell that were featured. There’s the Chicago Blues with Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out”, and Willie Cobbs’ “You Don’t Love Me”. The Delta Blues are represented by Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong”. There’s also the Texas Blues with T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday”. The album does a good job of illustrating the various styles of America’s seminal music.
But The Fillmore Concerts doesn’t rely totally on the material of others; there’s also plenty of original material. Dickey Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is amongst it. At this stage in the band’s development, Betts was not yet the driving force that he would become. This song represents one of his first written contributions to the band. Most likely rock and roll’s premier author of instrumentals, “Elizabeth Reed” represents Betts’ first, and probably best, foray into that area.
Yet, “Elizabeth Reed” isn’t entirely a rock and roll song. Betts has long admitted that there is a distinct Latin flavor to it. It also features the trademark dual lead guitars of Betts and Allman. The harmonizing guitars bring to mind the work Miles Davis did with John Coltrane and later, Wayne Shorter – all three big influences on the ABB. “We used our guitars like a brass section, playing all these harmony lines. Harmonies that sounded like they took a month to write were actually improvised” , Betts said.
However, Betts also contends “Western swing bands from the ’30’s always used that twin-harmony guitar, and a lot of the songs we did were influenced by that” . Wherever the influence came from (probably some combination of both), this song reflects several of the various elements that make up both American music and the music of the Allman Brothers Band. The dual lead, something not really seen in rock and roll before the ABB would later be used by both Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles – two other heavyweight American bands.
The importance of this song doesn’t end there. It also features a solo by the dual drummers of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe – the type of solo that not many rock bands before or since have utilized. Further, the version of “Elizabeth Reed” that appears on The Fillmore Concerts is a combination of the late and early performances from March 13th. When the compilation album was released in 1992, producer Tom Dowd wasn’t working under the time constraints he was in 1971. After listening to the master tapes of three times the song was performed in the four shows, Dowd felt this hybrid version best reflected what the band was capable of. Dowd’s work in this case, and with much of the rest of 1992 album, illustrates the importance the producer has in the album making process – whether the album be a studio or a live recording. Dowd is certainly a producer in the lineage of Phil Spector, though the bands Dowd dealt with were by no means interchangeable or unimportant parts as they were with Spector.
Still, the greatness of this album goes beyond styles and production and influence. Viewed simply as a musical offering, it’s absolutely jaw dropping. “One Way Out” shows Dickey Betts really coming into his own, ready to step out of Duane’s shadow. His solo on this piece is his best work on the album. But it is the bass playing of Berry Oakley that really drives the song. Current Allman Brothers Band manager Burt Holman refers to Oakley as “a bass player who thought he was playing guitar” . And it’s that aspect of his playing that propels this song. That characteristic has been a trademark of all of the five men to play bass for the Allman Brothers in their thirty-three year history.
At the same time, some credit must go to the drummers for allowing this to happen. Inspired by James Brown’s band, Duane Allman wanted two drummers from day one, and with two drummers, the rhythm section is much beefier, freeing up the bassist to be more melodic. There aren’t many other bassists who can do what Berry Oakley did on this song.
“One Way Out” also features another important aspect of American music: call and response. After Betts takes the first solo, the band breaks it down, and Betts and Duane Allman alternate four bar phrases, taking two apiece, as the solo baton is passed from one Les Paul to the other. Call and response had long been a part of American music, back through jazz and blues, but those 16 bars are the best example of it in American rock and roll.
Lastly, it should be noted that “One Way Out” is different from all the other songs on the album because it was not culled from the March 12th and 13th performances. Though the song was played those nights, when it was decided that a version of “One Way Out” would be included on Eat A Peach, Dowd thought the best version was from June 27, 1971 – an historic date in rock and roll history. Bill Graham had decided that the Fillmore East had run its course and decided to close it at the height of its popularity. The band he chose to be the last act ever to play the theater – none other than The Allman Brothers Band, who played from the early morning hours until sunrise in one of rock and roll’s most fabled concerts.
“Stormy Monday” features an incredible solo from Gregg Allman. While his primary role in the band is as a growling, bluesy vocalist, this song shows that Gregg is no slouch on the Hammond B3 either. The sound of that organ is as much a part of the Allman Brothers sound as the dual lead guitars, and Allman’s proficiency here makes it hard to believe that just two years prior he had never once played the instrument. While Al Kooper’s B3 work may have propelled Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”; it was Allman and The Doors’ Ray Manzarek who integrated the B3 as regular part of rock and roll music.
The most incredible solo of the album however comes from Duane on “You Don’t Love Me”. The basic structure of the song wraps up at the seven minute mark, at which point, Duane simply takes off, soloing for an additional twelve minutes! Often on his own, sometimes with the band backing him, Duane gives one of the most inspirational and well respected solos in rock and roll history, rendering the audience in an awe-inspired hush. At one point someone in the audience yells out above the silence “Play all night!” in what has since become one of the most famous audience captures ever. Years later, jazz critic Robert Palmer would say Duane was “the only ‘rock’ guitarist I had heard up to that point who could solo on a one-chord vamp for as long as half an hour or more and not only avoid boring you but keep you absolutely riveted” . That’s exactly what he does here, leaving no doubt that he was indeed one of rock and roll’s all-time greatest guitarists. The legendary Jerry Wexler says of him “I never heard a guitarist I found as satisfying as Duane”.
Duane finishes his solo by quoting a phrase from “Joy to the World”. Though he probably wasn’t mindful of it at the time, in doing so, he gave a nod to another important an element of American music: the African-American Church, which was invaluable in the contributions it made in shaping rock and roll music.
Yet, for all that individual mastery on disc one, disc two has more to offer, for it is there that the band best functions as a tight, cohesive unit – six men playing as one. “Hot ‘Lanta”, an instrumental with writing credits given to all six members of the band, opens the disc. Another song propelled by the thumping bass of Oakley, “Hot ‘Lanta”, features tight, single-minded rhythmic backing as each member is afforded a chance to solo and again showcases the trademark dual lead of Duane and Dickey.
But, what makes The Fillmore Concerts the definitive representation of March 12th and 13th, 1971 is the “Whipping Post” à “Mountain Jam” sequence. Previously, these two songs had been split between Live At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach respectively, but one listen to The Fillmore Concerts convinces anyone that these two songs were meant to be heard together. As “Whipping Post” ends on LAFE, one can hear Butch Trucks flashing the skills he gained during his time in the Jacksonville Symphonette, as his tympanis usher in “Mountain Jam”. But it is only on The Fillmore Concerts can the two be heard as they were meant to be – together, just as they were during the final show on March 13, 1971.
What further makes these two songs so special is that together they show the full improvisational skill of this band at the height of their powers. Improvisation has always been a part of American music, back to its jazz and Dixieland roots, and it was always a staple of the Allman Brothers Band’s arsenal – that is why they are best represented by a live album. Their work on these two tracks is proof that quality group improvisation is not reserved for jazz bands. The music here ranges from the sublime to the ethereal.
How abundant is the improvisation in these two tracks? The studio version of “Whipping Post” clocked in at 5:16 on the band’s eponymously titled debut, but is stretched to 22:37 here. Meanwhile, “Mountain Jam” is 33:47 long, and grew out of a previous late night jam session with members of the Grateful Dead as they collectively improvised on Donovan’s two minute and thirty-four second long “There is a Mountain”.
Like “Hot ‘Lanta”, both of these songs afford each member of the band a solo, including the drummers. Each solo is indicative of the unbelievable skill of its author – “We have rough arrangements, layouts of the songs, and then the solos are entirely up to each member of the band” , Duane said before the recording took place. Towards the end of “Whipping Post”, Dickey begins playing a few lines of “Frere Jacques”, which Duane soon picks up on and harmonizes along to, thus illustrating that good ears, not good chops, are the key to being a great player in an improvisational band. In such an environment, the most important thing a musician can do is listen to what his bandmates are doing, rather than focusing only on himself.
“Frere Jacques” isn’t the only song to be teased in this sequence. Two-thirds of the way through “Mountain Jam”, as the whole band joins back in following the bass solo, they tease Hendrix’ “3rd Stone from the Sun”, a song that to this day remains heavily teased by bands of the Allmans’ ilk. Five minutes later, Duane teases “Amazing Grace”, further illustrating the importance that the African-American Church has had in the development of American music.
Earlier on in “Mountain Jam”, Duane uses his slide to make bird-like noises, reminiscent of the work he had done the previous year on Derek and The Dominoes Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
However, the improvisation heard in these songs is not the “noodlish” drivel that plagues many of the bands to follow in the Allmans’ footsteps. In fact, it is much to the contrary. Dickey Betts’ solo on “Whipping Post” yielded the melody that would become “Les Brers in A minor” – Betts’ second instrumental which would appear on the band’s next album, Eat A Peach. Jimmy Guterman puts it best in the liner notes to The Fillmore Concerts: In other hands, the idea of extended jams that the Allman Brothers Band perfected during their early-Seventies heyday has deteriorated into long-winded show-off exercises. But one can’t blame the Allmans for that; it’s not their fault that their imitators turned out to be far less inspired, that few could replicate their devotion to the blues and their determination to burn their own trail. It’s worth remembering how lively and unprecedented these explorations were, especially the versions in this set, and how free-from once really stood for freedom in music, not lazy anarchy.
Still, if one were to cast aside all the group and individual excellence and were also to ignore all the representations of the roots of American rock and roll this album would still stand as Smithsonian-worthy because it epitomizes an era of American music, a bygone era – The Golden Age of Rock and Roll. From roughly 1966 to 1973, rock and roll was on top of the world, and saw an unprecedented run of creativity, ingenuity, and greatness. The Beatles moved from bubble-gum-pop to the some of the most innovative music ever created. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin reintroduced the blues to the mainstream in a whole new light. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the use of electric guitar. The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane led the summer of love. Woodstock took place. But by the mid-1970s it was gone, replaced by disco, and meaningless glam, arena, and stadium rock.
But The Fillmore Concerts is a perfect representation of this Golden Age. It truly captures what a music fan could experience at the Fillmore East, or San Francisco’s Fillmore or Avalon Ballroom on any given night during this time. It is the same thing that existed at Woodstock, at Monterrey, at Atlanta and Isle of Wight. It is the same spirit that the Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, and The Band brought to Watkins Glen in the summer of 1973. The time was ripe for this kind of music. Dickey Betts said, “We did everything we could against being commercial… It was musical telepathy. We were into individual expression. We were also lucky that the times were right for free thinkers. It was a free period” . And The Fillmore Concerts captures this happening at its zenith. Bill Graham’s associate, Alan Arkush, who saw innumerable shows at the Fillmore East calls those March shows “one of the greatest live performances I ever witnessed”.
As the album was recorded, Hendrix and Janis Joplin had been dead for half a year, and Jim Morrison and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan were to follow soon. The very theater where the album was recorded was only to survive another three and a half months. The age was slipping by fast, but somehow, this album provides a perfect two hour and twelve minute long snapshot of it.
For example, the practice of “sitting in”. In this era, there was a real fraternity between musicians, and is evidenced on The Fillmore Concerts. Saxophonist Rudolph “Juicy” Carter guests on “Hot ‘Lanta”. Longtime friend on the band Thom Doucette adds harmonica to four tracks. Even more, Elvin Bishop, who shared the bill with the Allmans that weekend, his pianist Steve Miller, and percussionist Bobby Caldwell, join the band to perform Bishop’s “Drunken Hearted Boy” as an encore to “Whipping Post” à “Mountain Jam” to close out the album. The song’s 12-bar blues structure, the same basic structure that has been the backbone of every form of original American music ever created, makes it easy for all nine musicians involved to easily tear through the number.
As the song finishes, the crowd screams for more, to which Duane playfully retorts “That’s all for tonight, thank you. Hey listen, it’s six o’clock. Y’all look here. We recorded all this, this is gonna be our third album. You’re all on it. We ain’t gonna send you no check, but thanks”. Still the last audible sound on the track is the same audience that earlier pleaded “Play all night!” still screaming out “More!”. That type of playful and inspired interaction between performer and audience just doesn’t exist anymore.
Even the original album’s cover represents the feeling of camaraderie that existed at that time, especially within this band. While the front of the album featured the band seated in front of the venue, the other side of the album jacket pictured the band’s road crew in a similar pose. They truly were the Brotherhood that they claimed to be. How many other bands would feature their road crew on the album cover? But then, how many other bands had a crew that boasted characters such as the Legendary Red Dog, Joseph Campbell (who would be the inspiration for a character of the same name in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) and the late Joe Dan Petty (who would go on to form the band Grinderswitch).
For The Allman Brothers Band as a unit, this album is their crowning achievement. It represents the original line-up at their peak. Just seven and a half months after it was recorded, and shortly after it was certified as their first gold record, Duane, the band’s founder, leader, inspiration, and greatest talent, was tragically killed in motorcycle accident in the band’s adopted hometown of Macon, GA. Eerily, Berry Oakley would suffer the same fate just a year later, only two blocks from the site of Duane’s accident.
The two horrible tragedies were only the beginning, as more death, obscene amounts of drugs, constant in-fighting, and bitter contract squabbles with management would mar the band’s future. But none of that can ever take away from the brilliance and importance of this band and this album. It was on the single-handed strength of this album that Capricorn established itself as a viable record label. It was because of its success that the so-called “southern rock” genre was able to develop and become a legitimate movement throughout the seventies. Without the Allman Brothers Band and The Fillmore Concerts there would have been no Lynyrd Skynyrd, no Marshall Tucker Band. This was also the first highly successful live album. Without it, there would be no Frampton Comes Alive, no Waiting for Columbus, no Live Rust.
The Allman Brothers Band was America’s first great rock band. While they were not and could not be an answer to the Beatles, they were an answer to the Rolling Stones and to Led Zeppelin. “These players were grounded in the blues in a much more significant, intimate, and real way than British bands,” said Atlantic Records’ head and rock legend Jerry Wexler. And they were. They were an American band, playing American music from the place where it and rock and roll was born – the American South. Their then manager, Phil Walden, called them “Southerners, living in the South, playing Southern music” . That much is true, but it came from a man who made his living pushing the “southern rock” genre. As Gregg Allman once said, “Rock and roll was born in the South; saying southern rock is like saying rock-rock” . Pigeonholing this band as “southern rockers” does them a disservice; they were infinitely more than that.
And it should not go without mentioning that they were an integrated band from the American south – no small accomplishment for a band from that area. While The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly and the Family Stone may have been integrated before the emergence of the Allman Brothers Band, one came from a more accepting England, the other from the grossly liberal Bay Area. Neither came from the racially charged South at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tension.
The Allman Brothers Band had seemingly all the roots and influences of all the varied ingredients of American music, and The Fillmore Concerts is the best of example of them displaying those very influences, as well as their incredible musical skill. The album captures a slice of American life, and more importantly American music, that unfortunately no longer exists. When producer Tom Dowd spoke of the remastering process he used for the 1992 release he said “Now that we’ve got the original 16-track tapes preserved on digital, we can send the 16-track to the Smithsonian” . Whether Dowd meant it or not, those tapes, and this album, are certainly deserving of that honor.