The Allman Brothers Band's 25 All-Time Greatest Songs
Guitar World celebrates the timeless music of the Allman Brothers Band with this comprehensive overview of their 25 all-time greatest songs. For the rest of our ABB tribute, be sure to check out Gregg Allman 1947–2017: Bidding Farewell to a Southern Rock Legend.
25. “STORMY MONDAY”
At Fillmore East (1971)
The Allman Brothers Band were essential in bringing classic blues music to a worldwide audience in the late Sixties/early Seventies, and their masterful rendition of the T-Bone Walker classic “(Call It) Stormy Monday,” from At Fillmore East, introduced the song to a new generation of listeners.
Duane and Gregg had been playing the song for years as it was a staple in their set with the Allman Joys, basing their version on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s cover. Here, Duane and Dickey display their complete mastery of the blues idiom.
“My biggest blues guitar in uences would be T-Bone, B.B. King and Albert King,” said Betts. “A big part of Albert’s signature style was his use of extremely wide bends. He would bend notes all over the place while staying on one string at one fret; he could get four or five different notes out of one single position! Albert sounds sort of like a trumpet player on licks like these. On the Fillmore versions of both ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Whipping Post,’ you can hear examples of Albert’s influence on my playing in terms of using wide bends such as these.”
24. “HOT ‘LANTA”
At Fillmore East (1971)
Made famous as an impeccably recorded live performance at one of the legendary 1971 Fillmore East shows, this cookin’, jazzy instrumental, an ABB compositional collaboration, features a brisk swing groove in 3/4 meter—a “jazz waltz”—that recalls the feel of “Whipping Post” but is slightly faster and edgier, with Oakley laying down an aggressive and tastefully crafted walking bass line, lots of Duane’s and Dickey’s signature harmonized lead guitar melodies and some of Gregg’s most inspired and ambitious B3 playing ever.
The tune is based on a repeating blues progression in A minor that’s extended from the standard 12 bars to 13 (if counted in 12/8 meter instead of 3/4), via a dramatic and decidedly jazzy twist—a chromatically descending dominant seven sharp-nine chord, starting on the five, E7#9, and traveling down to C#7#9—before restating the intro organ riff as a one-bar turnaround.
Gregg, Dickey and Duane all take fiery, well-conceived improvised solos, two choruses each, that lead up to an exhilarating duet drum break. Not content, however, to just leave it at that and come back in with a restatement of the “head” (melody), the Brothers inject a clever ensemble interlude riff into the arrangement, built around the drum break, giving both the composition and their performance of it added richness and depth.
23. “NO ONE LEFT TO RUN WITH”
An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: 2nd Set (1995)
One of the highlights from the two excellent live albums the released by the ABB in the Nineties. Betts’ ode to the good old days and lost running buddies quickly became a tribute to Duane, Berry, Lamar and every other fallen brother—sadly added to over the next 20 years.
This live number features a signature Allen Woody bass line, great Haynes and Betts guitar parts, a growling Allman vocal and a spotlight on the three-man rhythm section, with Trucks and Jaimoe augmented by Marc Quinones. In other words, the whole Allmans enchilada. No wonder the song remained in heavy rotation until the final show.
22. “YOU DON’T LOVE ME”
At Fillmore East (1971)
“Everything Duane and I play on the extended ending of that track was completely improvised,” said Dickey Betts. “I played a piece of an old gospel song, some train sounds and things like that, and Duane picked up on those things and went off into his own improvisations.”
The success of the Allman Brothers Band exploded with the release of the incendiary masterpiece At Fillmore East, recorded over two nights in New York City, March 12 and 13, 1971. What is largely forgotten is that the band was originally the “special guest” opening act for Johnny Winter, but in short order the Allmans were switched to headliners.
“You Don’t Love Me” is an old blues tune originally written and recorded by Willie Cobb in 1960. In 1965, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy released a cover version on Junior Wells’ debut release, Hoodoo Man Blues, upon which the Allmans based their version. The band uses this track as a vehicle for a near 20-minute jam, comprising the entire second side of disc one. Duane and Dickey trade intensely burning solos through the first segment of the performance, joined by Thom Doucette’s harmonica.
At the seven-minute point, the band stops and Duane ventures into a two-minute unaccompanied improvisation that is simply stunning, followed by an equally inspired solo turn by Betts. “What you hear was played in the spur-of- the-moment, which is exactly what the blues is all about,” said Betts. “You have to be fast on your feet, and react instantly to all of the sounds around you, allowing the music to happen in as spontaneous a way as possible.”
21. “SEVEN TURNS”
Seven Turns (1990)
The Allman Brothers Band had a lot to prove when they regrouped for the second time in 1990—namely if they could really make a run at the glories of the original golden era with new members Warren Haynes and Allen Woody. The title track of their comeback album answered a lot of questions.
A classic Betts, country-tinged rocker, it tipped its hat to Native American philosophy, offered “Blue Sky”–like uplift and featured Haynes’ slide and Betts’ leads side by side. The signature call-and-response vocal that closes the song came about naturally. Gregg Allman was shooting pool as Haynes and Betts worked out vocal harmonies and unconsciously answered their lines. Haynes had the good sense to recognize the missing piece to the puzzle.
20. “BLACK HEARTED WOMAN”
The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
Like “Whipping Post,” this early Gregg Allman–penned gem from the band’s debut album features one of their earliest uses of odd meter, opening with a bluesy, repeating one-bar ensemble riff in A that drops an eighth note from the last beat, resulting in a meter of 7/8, before giving way to a more “stable” groove, in this case 4/4.
The song’s funky, hard-driving verse sections are based on a clever twist on the standard 12-bar blues form that extends it two bars, with the two-dominant chord (B7) interjected after the five (E7#9) and the progression capped off by an octave-doubled ensemble break riff that brings to mind the soulful themes of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies repertoire.
Duane and Dickey both serve up inspired, fiery licks throughout the arrangement, their guitars panned hard left and right in the stereo mix, with punchy lead tones and aggressive string bends and finger vibratos. Gregg kills it vocally, Berry Oakley’s bass line cooks and Butch Trucks’ and Jaimoe’s percussion interlude/breakdown, featuring drums and congas, ushers in a dramatic minor pentatonic “tribal” riff that Oakley scat sings along to, adding intensity and soul to an already earthy melody.
19. “COME AND GO BLUES”
Brothers and Sisters (1993)
This underrated masterpiece, originally conceived by Gregg on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar in open G tuning, is built around a hauntingly beautiful, descending blues turnaround that repeats over a G bass pedal tone for the song’s verses. (Check out his stirring live solo performance video of the song from 1981 on YouTube.)
The full ABB reading of “Come and Go Blues” featured on Brothers and Sisters, with bassist Lamar Williams admirably stepping into the late Berry Oakley’s large musical shoes, develops the composition into a rather ambitious arrangement, with inventive instrumental interludes and ensemble breaks throughout and tasteful improvised solos by Leavell and Betts.
18. “ONE WAY OUT”
Eat a Peach (1972)
“One Way Out” is a blues song originally recorded (or so it seems) by Elmore James in 1960/’61. Before the Elmore version was released, however, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded it for Chess Records, releasing it in September 1961. He then re-recorded the song with blues guitarist Buddy Guy in 1963, and this latter version features the arrangement covered by the Allman Brothers, replete with the well-known signature guitar line. Elmore’s version was released posthumously in 1965, bearing a closer resemblance to the earlier Sonny Boy track.
The version released on Eat a Peach was recorded during the band’s final performance at Fillmore East on the night of the venue’s closing, June 27, 1971. It is included on the deluxe, expanded editions of At Fillmore East. The track fades in on Betts’ statement of the primary guitar lick, with the entire band dropping in 16 bars later as Duane emulates Sonny Boy’s harmonica lick with slide guitar. Dickey takes the first solo and it is simply stunning, with laser beam-like intensity and, probably, the greatest Les Paul/Marshall guitar tone ever heard.
Following a brief drum solo, Dickey and Duane trade four-bar licks, and during Duane’s last phrase, bassist Berry Oakley enters a beat early, briefly throwing the band off kilter. They quickly readjust, and this wrinkle is considered an essential part of the song’s charm. The Allmans’ version of “One Way Out” has been featured in many films, none more effectively than Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, used as the backtrack to a brutal bar fight.
17. “LITTLE MARTHA”
Eat a Peach (1972)
Duane Allman’s sole songwriting credit closes Eat a Peach on a wistful note, as it did every Allman Brothers concert of the last 20 years, piped through the P.A. Said to come to Duane in a dream and pieced together over the years, the lilting dobro duet with Betts is played in open Eb. Like so much about Duane, it leaves you wondering “what if.”
“My brother loved playing that kind of stuff, and I have to think there would have been more music coming out of him,” said Gregg.
16. “NOBODY KNOWS”
Shades of Two Worlds (1991)
The Allman Brothers are revered for instrumental masterpieces like “Jessica,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Hot ‘Lanta,” ‘Don’t Want You No More,” “Mountain Jam,” “Little Martha” and “Les Brers in A Minor,” but they have on occasion directed that instrumental magic touch to vocal tunes such as “Whipping Post,” as well as this tour de force from the band’s early Nineties incarnation.
Gregg Allman had derided the tune for being too similar to “Whipping Post”—both songs are in A minor with a 6/8 feel (as is “Hot ‘Lanta”)—but make no mistake; “Nobody Knows” is as powerful a track as any in the band’s history.
“ ‘Nobody Knows’ is one of the best lyrical songs I’ve ever written,” Betts said in ’91. “These are nice, abstract, poetic lyrics. I wrote that about as fast as I could write the words down, at 4:30 in the morning after rehearsal. [Producer] Tom Dowd had said, ‘We could use a tune as heavy as ‘Whipping Post” for this record,’ and I thought, Man, that’s a tall order! I sat down and those words just started flying out. In 30 minutes I’d written the whole thing, like I was writing a letter to someone.”
15. “MOUNTAIN JAM”
Eat a Peach (1972)
Based on the 1967 Donovan song “There Is a Mountain,” “Mountain Jam” served as an extended instrumental jamming vehicle for the Allman Brothers Band throughout the band’s long history. The first recording of the song is from one of their very first gigs, May 4, 1969; they also played the song on the very last night the Allman Brothers Band ever performed, October 29, 2014. This is wholly appropriate, as no song better represents the adventurous, experimental spirit of the band’s musical DNA.
Listeners get the first hints of “Mountain Jam” and the end of the album that precedes Eat a Peach, At Fillmore East, following the last strains of “Whipping Post” as the album fades out.
At nearly 34 minutes in length, “Mountain Jam” is a wild ride, through beautifully delicate harmonized guitar lines, intensely extraordinary guitar solos from Duane and Dickey, expressive Hammond organ work from Gregg, and lock-tight, swinging rhythm section work from Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Dickey and Duane burst into improvised harmonized lines, all the while displaying incredible chops and dreamlike Les Paul/Marshall stack guitar tones.
A furious tandem drum solo is followed by a deeply syncopated bass solo from Berry and a shift to a shuffle feel and reference to Jimi Hendrix’ “Third Stone from the Sun,” transitioning seamlessly to a 6/8 instrumental take on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
14. “STATESBORO BLUES”
At Fillmore East (1971)
For a great many of us—especially those who were teenagers in 1971 when At Fillmore East was released—“Statesboro Blues” represents the very moment the Allman Brothers Band blasted into our lives.
As an aspiring young guitar player, its impact was instantaneous. Duane Allman’s dramatic and distinct slide guitar intro grabs you from the very first note and, as the opening track on what would be the band’s breakthrough album, the hard-rocking, lock-tight sound and spirit of the Allman Brothers was now firmly set in stone. Even Michael Aherns’ understated introduction, “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band,” is now considered an essential part of the track.
“Statesboro Blues” was written by Piedmont blues guitarist/singer Blind Willie McTell, who first recorded the song in 1928, backing himself on acoustic guitar. Blues singer/guitarist Taj Mahal recorded a great version of the song on his 1968 eponymous debut, featuring guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and this version is the one Duane heard, inspiring him to learn to play slide guitar.
The story goes that brother Gregg had given Duane the album for his birthday, simultaneously giving him a bottle of Coricidan, a cold medication, as Duane was sick at the time. Inspired by the recording, Duane emptied the pills from the bottle and, wearing it on the ring finger of his fretting hand, taught himself to play slide guitar. Today, millions of guitarists the world over use bottle-type slides on their ring fingers—such as Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks— in emulation of Duane Allman.
13. “DON’T KEEP ME WONDERIN’”
Idlewild South (1972)
Rhythm and blues and soul were the two styles of music that had the strongest influence on Gregg Allman as a performer and as a composer. He had stated often that such artists as Ray Charles, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton were hugely influential on his singing style and musical sense. According to Gregg, “When I heard Ray Charles, I said, ‘That’s my goal in life.’ Ray Charles is the one who taught me to just relax and let it ooze out. If it’s in your soul, it’ll come out.”
“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ ” kicks off with a dual slide guitar/harmonica lick, followed by a funky blues-like rhythm part laid down by Dickey Betts, abutted by slide guitar from Duane and harmonica from Thom Doucette. Duane plays a stinging, high slide solo that culminates with a syncopated band figure similar to those heard on “Black Hearted Woman.”
12. “LES BRERS IN A MINOR”
Eat a Peach (1972)
Like Betts’ earlier masterpiece, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” this majestic nine-minute instrumental, penned by the guitarist in 1971 and recorded by the ABB in the wake of brother Duane’s tragic death late that year, showcases Dickey’s eclectic musical sophistication as a composer and grasp of both jazz harmony and classical orchestration.
The piece begins with an extended, mesmerizing intro, featuring a highly interactive ensemble crescendo that swells from a whisper through a series of meditative tonal-center shifts, from A to G and back, performed in a “floaty” free-time feel and culminating in a climactic succession of loud, dramatic “orchestra hits,” in a way that brings to mind the opening strains from the first and second movements of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
Near the four-minute mark, Berry Oakley nimbly kicks off the tune’s main theme and establishes its brisk tempo with a growling, flat-picked bass riff, a repeating ostinato figure that outlines an A minor hexatonic tonality, over which Dickey and Gregg then proceed to double the tune’s melody in unison over a rich, syncopated percussion groove.
This is followed at 4:25 by an inventive, jazzy bridge, or interlude, that momentarily interrupts the driving 16th-note groove for about 20 seconds with a somber melody, set to an intriguing chord progression played with a half-time feel, followed by a return to the 16th-note groove and some inspired open-ended soloing and jamming, with each individual solo bookended and punctuated by tight ensemble riffs.
11. “AIN’T WASTING TIME NO MORE”
Eat a Peach (1972)
As the lead single from Eat a Peach, the first Allman Brothers Band album released following the tragic death of founding band member and leader Duane Allman, Gregg Allman’s heartfelt composition captures, in part, his feelings at one of the most difficult times of his life.
The lyrical content of the song deals with overcoming depression, with lines like, “Last Sunday morning the sunshine felt like rain, the week before, they all seemed the same… But with the help of God and two friends, I’ve come to realize, I still have two strong legs and even wings to fly,” and also, “You don’t need no gypsy to tell you why, you can’t let another precious day go by.”
The song is driven by Gregg’s rock-solid piano playing, supplemented by lyrical slide guitar playing by Dickey Betts, ably picking up the Duane Allman mantle, as well as gently flowing percussion from Jaimoe.
10. “RAMBLIN’ MAN”
Brothers and Sisters (1973)
Written by Dickey Betts in 1972, “Ramblin’ Man” was the Allman Brothers Band’s only top-10 hit single and the last song recorded by bassist Berry Oakley, shortly before his untimely passing in November of that year. Inspired by a 1951 Hank Williams composition of the same name, the song features Betts singing lead vocal.
“Ramblin’ Man” saw the Allmans reach a commercial peak and, together with other Betts-penned songs included on the album, represented a stylistic change in direction for the group, from their foundational blues-based and jazz-tinged rock to more of a country-pop flavor, while still upholding their credo of collective improvisation and the jamming spirit that the ABB has always embraced.
“Ramblin’ Man” was written and performed in the key of G, but the original recording was sped up in the mastering process, which, in addition to increasing the tempo by a few beats per minute, raised its pitch a little more than a half step, resulting in the finished track sounding slightly sharp of the key of Ab.
Along with other Betts compositions featured on Brothers and Sisters, namely “Southbound,” “Pony Boy” and the instrumental “Jessica,” “Ramblin’ Man,” represented Dickey’s emergence as one of the outfit’s principal songwriters, alongside Gregg, and demonstrated that the guitarist could admirably carry the torch as the band’s only full-time guitarist, as they chose, for the time being, not to replace Duane with another six-stringer, instead bringing in the very talented pianist Chuck Leavell as a second instrumental soloist.
“Ramblin’ Man” gloriously showcases Betts’ signature lyrical soloing style, which is characterized by owing eighth-note rhythms, rolling melodic contours, soar- ing, pedal steel–like bends, smooth legato phrasing and the frequent use of the major hexatonic scale, a sound that is regarded by many as his musical calling card.
Guitarist Les Dudek made a guest appearance on the track, providing the arrangement’s signature sweet harmony leads, which he layered by overdubbing single-note parts.
Idlewild South (1970)
“Revival,” A.K.A. “Revival (Love Is Everywhere),” represents Dickey Betts’ first songwriting credit with the band. “ ‘Revival’ started out as an instrumental tune,” said Betts. “In fact, we would refer to that first instrumental section of the song as ‘The Gypsy Dance.’ When I wrote it, I had the image of gypsies dancing around a fire in my mind, and I tried to conjure that spirit in the music.”
The song opens with Duane Allman’s strummed acoustic-guitar rhythm part, followed immediately by an evocative, bluesy harmonized guitar line. Once again, the influence of modal jazz is present, as the song moves seamlessly through different tonalities, such as major, natural minor and the Dorian mode. Drummer “Jaimoe” Jai Johanny Johanson is featured on percussion on the track, lending a Latin feel. This Latin feel, also present on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” was inspired in part by Latin jazz as well as the Latin flavors South Florida musicians like Mike Pinera (Blues Image) were incorporating into their music at the time.
“In writing this tune—or any of the instrumentals—you have to decide what you are trying to do, and then see if you can make it happen,” said Betts. “These are the mental tools I use to help guide me through, to find the proper direction for whatever piece of music I am working on. I used this approach for songs like ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’ ‘High Falls’ and ‘Revival.’ Just like the use of words in the telling of a story, every note is of essential importance in crafting a successful instrumental.”
After this initial minor-key instrumental section, the song moves back into a major key for the uplifting gospel-like vocal sections.
Brothers and Sisters (1973)
Brothers and Sisters was the first album to feature neither Duane Allman nor Berry Oakley, both of whom had died tragically in motorcycle accidents over the previous two years. Quite incredibly, the band pulled together to create the most successful album of its entire career, on the strength of such powerful Betts compositions as “Jessica,” “Southbound” and the band’s only Number One hit, “Ramblin’ Man.” Brothers and Sisters sold over a million copies within a month of its release, and to date over seven million copies worldwide.
“Here’s the story which has been told many times,” recalled Betts. “I had a general idea of a melody and a feeling for ‘Jessica,’ but I couldn’t get started on it; nothing was really adding up. My little girl Jessica, who at the time was an infant, crawled up to me and I started playing to her, playing to the feeling of the innocence of her personality. And soon the whole song just fell together. The song was justly named after her for providing the needed inspiration.”
“Jessica” also displays the influence of some other elements that were important to Betts’ musical development, such as the playing of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “Django only used two fingers to fret with,” said Betts, “so I devised a melody that I could play with just the index and middle fingers.” Additionally, Betts’ ancestry includes the fiddle players of Prince Edward Sound, which is located in eastern Canada just above Nova Scotia.
“These fiddle players were known for possessing a very distinct style,” explained Betts, “and the style of the Prince Edward Sound fiddlers sounded just like the fiddle playing of my dad and my uncles. This provided me with an instinct for a melodic approach to playing. One of the best examples of this influence coming to the fore is ‘Jessica.’ ”
7. “IN MEMORY OF ELIZABETH REED”
Idlewild South (1970) and At Fillmore East (1971)
This is the first of many distinctly original instrumental songs Dickey Betts would write for the Allman Brothers Band and, like “Whipping Post,” its true power, breadth and scope came to fruition in the live setting. It remains one of the most recognizable songs in the band’s catalog, and was a staple in the live shows from the song’s inception until the band’s final shows in 2014.
Said Betts, “[Late Allmans bassist] Berry Oakley and I inspired each other’s improvisational creativity while we were in Second Coming, the band that presaged the Allman Brothers. One of our favorite things to do was to jam in minor keys, experimenting freely with the sounds of different minor modes. We allowed our ears to guide us, and this type of ‘jamming’ served to inspire the writing of songs like ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ and ‘Les Brers in A Minor.’ We were both fascinated with the modal jazz improvisation of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, such as that heard on Kind of Blue.”
“ ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ was inspired by a woman I knew named Carmella. At the time, she was involved with a friend of mine, but something started to happen be- tween her and myself. She was a very seductive, sultry, secretive woman, and I thought our little cloak-and-dagger romance was a beautiful image for a song. She and I would rendezvous in this old abandoned graveyard by the river, which was the place I liked to go to write songs. I wrote just about everything there at that time; I wrote ‘Blue Sky’ there, too. When I wrote this song for her, the gravestone next to where I was sitting happened to say, ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’ so that became the song’s title.”
An essential signature element in this song is the brilliant use of harmonized guitar lines, present in both the initial “intro” section of the tune as well as the main theme and the harmonized melodic lines that wrap up each guitar solo section.
“I first discovered harmonized melodies from listening to western swing music, like Bob Wills, where the melodies are harmonized by guitar, pedal steel, piano and violin,” said Betts. “Devising harmonized guitar parts became something Duane and I really enjoyed working on together. We would let our imaginations guide us as to what the harmony line should sound like. Of course, the presence of these guitar harmonies became essential to the sound of the Allman Brothers Band.”
Eat a Peach (1972)
Gregg Allman said that he wrote and threw out 300–400 songs before he wrote his first keeper: “Melissa,” in late 1967, shortly after Duane traded a beloved guitar to get Gregg a quality acoustic. Allman said that he picked up the guitar not knowing that his brother had tuned it to open E.
“I just started strumming it and hit these beautiful chords,” he said. “It was just open strings, then an E shape first fret, then moved to the second fret. This is a great example of the way different tunings can open up different roads to you as a songwriter. The music immediately made me feel good and the words just started coming to me.” The brothers Allman cut the song first in 1968 with Butch Trucks’ 31st of February, a demo that was eventually released under the misleading name “Duane and Gregg Allman.” After Duane’s death, as the band finished a few tracks for Eat a Peach, Gregg took out his old favorite.
“We needed some more songs and I knew my brother loved ‘Melissa,’ ” Allman explained. “I had never really shown it to the band. I thought it was too soft for the Allman Brothers and was saving it for a solo record I figured I’d eventually do.” Everyone agreed that the song was excellent but lacked an instrumental section to put it over the top. Dickey Betts took a tape home and worked out the compelling fills and solos that finalized the tune. “The next day was Gregg’s birthday,” Betts recalled. “I walked in and said ‘Happy birthday, brother’ and laid my guitar part on them.”
5. “NOT MY CROSS TO BEAR”
The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
Along with “Dreams,” “Not My Cross to Bear” is the second of two songs that Gregg had in his back pocket when he traveled from Los Angeles to join the new band in Jacksonville. And, again, it’s remarkable that he wrote such a deep, world weary blues at such a young age, promising a departing lover, “I’ll live on, I’ll be strong,” a promise that seems primarily determined to convince himself.
In a demo recorded in Los Angeles in January 1969, the song is structurally complete and Gregg’s vocals are already deep and true, but it also provides keen insight into what the band added: a sure groove and steady time through the deepest, slowest blues and two contrasting but equally powerful guitar voices, with Duane and Dickey playing solos that bleed, cry and gnash just as surely as Gregg’s simply phrased, powerfully emotive vocals.
No song better encapsulates the way in which the Allman Brothers Band delivered on the elusive goal of countless hippie rockers who loved Muddy Waters: playing blues that were equally original and rooted in the classics.
The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
Gregg Allman said that he arrived in Jacksonville to join his brother’s new band with a catalog of 22 songs. His confidence in his songwriting flagged as the first dozen songs were rejected, before he got to “Dreams,” which he always maintained was the only song he ever wrote on a Hammond organ. (He generally preferred guitar or piano.) The song’s minimalist lyrics read like a blues haiku, anchored by the existentialist dread of being haunted by redemptive dreams so distant you can’t even dream them.
The song, which was immediately worked up by the band, became a perfect skeleton to hang their interpretation of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s modal jazz explorations. With a bass line directly pinched from Davis’ “All Blues” and Jaimoe playing drum fills from the same song, Duane Allman played a deeply moving two-part solo over a simply swinging two-chord vamp. It is the only classic Allman Brothers song to feature one instead of two guitar soloists, with Duane playing a “straight” solo, then picking up his slide to kick the song into overdrive.
Like so much of the debut album, “Dreams” remained a live staple until the last show. It is arguably the band’s spiritual core.
3. “MIDNIGHT RIDER”
Idlewild South (1970)
Gregg Allman’s theme song came to him almost whole in a ash of inspiration. “ ‘Midnight Rider’ hit me like a damn sack of hoe handles,” he said. “It was just there, crawling all over me. And about an hour and 15 minutes later I had the rough draft down…and was putting it down on tape.”
The only problem was that Allman’s inspiration came in the middle of the night and drummer Jaimoe was the only band member he could nd to record a demo—and besides, he was locked out of the Capricorn Records studio. When studio managers said to leave them alone after being woken up at 3 a.m., Allman and roadie Kim Payne broke in. Along the way, Payne contributed a crucial line that completed the song: “I’ve gone past the point of caring/some ol’ bed I’ll soon be sharing.”
With his other bandmates nowhere to be found, Allman put a bass in the hands of the awoken road manager Twiggs Lyndon, showing him how to play the distinctive lick running through his brain and telling him to play absolutely nothing else. After wildly flipping switches trying to turn on the studio boards, Payne managed to get tape rolling and Gregg recorded a demo of “Midnight Rider” with himself on 12-string guitar, Lyndon playing rudimentary bass and Jaimoe on drums, or maybe percussion—no one’s recollection is quite clear on that.
They all say, however, that the final version differed little structurally from the quickly recorded demo, other than Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ subtly sweet guitar work, which put the song over the top, creating a haunting, simple, perfectly crafted classic that will be played long after we are all dust in the wind.
2. “BLUE SKY”
Eat a Peach (1972)
“Blue Sky” is a gentle ballad-like song with a country feel, revealing the country influences present in the songwriting style of Dickey Betts. He wrote the song as a tribute to his wife, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig, who was of Native American descent.
Eat a Peach was the first album released after the passing of Duane Allman, and “Blue Sky” represents one of his final recordings with the band. Played rarely in concert at the time, a great version featuring Duane is available on S.U.N.Y. at Stonybrook: Stonybrook, NY 9/19/71, self-released by the band in 2003. “Blue Sky,” Dickey Betts’ debut as a lead singer on an Allman Brothers album, features beautifully inspired harmonized guitar lines from Dickey and Duane.
“When we originally recorded ‘Blue Sky,’ Duane and I tried all different kinds of harmonies until we found the one that best suited the song,” said Betts. “We found that the softer-edged harmony was what worked best. In many instances, the relationship between the melody and the harmony changes to a combination of thirds and fourths, and this is exactly the case with ‘Blue Sky.’ The initial guitar melody in the song is based on a scale known as E major hexatonic, which is the same as a standard major scale, but the seventh tone is removed, resulting in a six-tone major scale. The very first melodic line in the song, however, was not harmonized by another guitar.”
1. “WHIPPING POST”
The Allman Brothers Band (1969) and At Fillmore East (1971)
Of the many timeless classic rock songs residing in the Allman Brothers Band canon, “Whipping Post” stands as the heavyweight champion of them all. Released originally on the band’s eponymous debut, the song’s full power was realized in live performance, captured in all its brilliance on the band’s watershed double live album, At Fillmore East. At 22 minutes in length, this version comprises the entire fourth and closing side of the album. It is widely revered as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
This live version showcases everything original—and everything truly extraordinary—about the Allman Brothers Band: distinctly original music, soulful, expressive vocals and lyrics from Gregg Allman, fiery, virtuoso guitar playing from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, and jazz-like musical intricacy and precise band interplay.
“Whipping Post,” written by Gregg Allman, started out as a basic slow blues in A minor. While initially working on it in rehearsal, bassist Berry Oakley said, “Hold it! I have an idea for this tune—let’s work on it tomorrow.” And the next day he came in with a completely rearranged, re-imagined structure and feel that became the “Whipping Post” we all know. He had reworked the intro into an odd 11/8 meter that somehow sounds perfectly suited for the song. From there, Duane and Dickey began to forge their unique harmonized guitar lines.
“When Duane and I would work on harmonizing guitar parts, we didn’t use any kind of technical approach,” said Betts. “We didn’t study the structure of the scales or spend time figuring out on paper what should work. We approached harmonizing guitar parts in the same way we approached vocal harmonies: we would try a few different ideas, and go with the one that sounded the best to our ears. Usually, I’d have a certain sound in my mind that I was after, and we used a ‘trial and error’ method to find it.”