With the recent death of Gregg Allman, the music of The Allman Brothers Band has once again been thrust into the spotlight of mainstream music. Their occasionally operatic country-rock and blues-minded compositions were always grounded in the humidity and heat of the South, but they managed to incorporate a handful of genres into this mélange of familiar sounds. The band was a proving ground for a host of ideas and musical philosophies. As a collective, they were always pushing the boundaries of their roots rock inspirations, giving people a glimpse of what these rustic rhythms could accomplish given the right combination of ability, tenacity and motivation.
And while the band has always had its rigorous defenders, there have also been those who see them as little more than meandering country jammers, a band whose work is less the result of careful direction than it is a glimpse into the roots of the blues and country. But if you simply see the band for its open-ended live jams and rural imagery, you're only seeing a vague outline of the band's full potential and relevance. The Allman Brothers Band was a group of musicians who saw the inherent possibilities within this expansive sound and ushered in a movement where folksy melodies and country narratives could be used to address a wide range of ideas and experiences.
The roots of The Allman Brothers Band go all the way back to Daytona Beach, Florida, when brothers Duane and Gregg Allman formed their first band, The Escorts, in 1964. They eventually became known as the Allman Joys. Later, a friend introduced them to R&B and soul music and opened an entirely new world from which to draw inspiration. After some time spent in St. Louis in 1967, they were courted by a Los Angeles recording executive and convinced to move to the West Coast, where they changed their name to Hour Glass and recorded two albums for Liberty Records.
This iteration of the band then disbanded, with Duane moving to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to pursue a career as a studio musician. Gregg stayed in LA to fulfill obligations to Liberty Records, who saw potential in him trying his hand as a solo artist. The brothers eventually got back together in Miami to record some demos with The 31st of February, a band that included future Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. While Duane was in Muscle Shoals at FAME Studios, however, he came into contact with artists such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. After recording a successful cover of "Hey Jude" by The Beatles with Pickett, Duane was signed by FAME to a five-year recording contract.
It was during this time that Duane put together a band that included Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby—he also brought on drummer Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanson and bassist Berry Oakley to jam with him at his home on the Tennessee River. As these musicians began working their way into a cohesive musical group, Duane's vision of a band that didn't adhere to the usual stereotypes was slowly beginning to take shape. FAME eventually sold the band's contract to Phil Walden and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who snapped up the band and their music for $10,000. They were to be the cornerstone of Walden's new Atlantic Records-distributed Capricorn label.
In March 1969, Duane and Johanson moved to Jacksonville, Florida, to get away from the rigid studio environments. They invited everyone to come jam with them, and these sessions led to the formation of The Allman Brothers Band. Dickey Betts joined as second lead guitarist, while Trucks came on as the band's second drummer. Shortly thereafter, keyboardist Reese Wynans joined, and the band began performing free concerts around Jacksonville with a rotating cast of supporting musicians. Gregg eventually left LA, joined the group as lead singer and also took over keyboard duties from Wynans.
They headed into the studio for their debut with engineer-producer Adrian Barber, but it proved to be a commercial failure upon release. Their sophomore album, "Idlewild South," suffered from the same commercial disinterest, but through a crazy touring schedule (300 shows in 1970 alone), the band's reputation for amazing live performances was drawing people to their music. The band decided that their music would best be served by recording a live record. And "At Fillmore East" was recorded over the course of three evenings March 11–13, 1971, at the Fillmore East in New York and immediately climbed to No. 13 on Billboard's top pop album charts, being certified gold in October of that year.
This live environment was exactly what the band needed to strike an emotional chord with a much larger audience. People could hear what the band was doing live and feel the energy and power behind their performances. Songs such as the Blind Willie McTell-penned "Statesboro Blues," "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" are cast in an entirely new light under these circumstances, giving each track a primal rock determination that seemed to have been lost in their studio counterparts.
"At Fillmore East" was the start of the band's meteoric roots rock rise to fame, a time when they were becoming more than just a regional curiosity and found themselves labeled as Southern rock saviors, although their music was never strictly based in any genre. They went on to create a lasting influence on a handful of aesthetics and countless aspiring musicians, and this whirlwind of sustained success began with this record.
The Allman Brothers Band was more than just a collection of friends and jam band associates—they were a group of artists whose common musical visions spurred them to experiment with the foundations of country, folk and rock music in ways that had yet to be fully explored. And across these three nights, they showed that there is still a good deal of mystery and boundless emotional gravity left inside these rural sounds.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.