Bandleader Duane Allman Dies in Bike Crash

Remembering the Allman Brothers frontman

Guitarist Duane Allman uses a steel slide on an acoustic guitar in his hotel room before the Allman Brothers' performance in Spartanburg, South Carolina on October 17th, 1970. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Ol' Duane was married to his music, the truth be known," a close friend reflected after the funeral rites. "I guess him dyin' so young, though, was almost inevitable. He had a wild and reckless streak in him, and apart from pickin' his git-tar, he'd get...bored, I guess you could call it. On that account, he run through a lotta chicks and a lotta mean dope in his green time, and he purely loved to smoke up the highways on bikes that was too fast for him. You don't live long if you live...impulsive like that. Duane was basically just a good ol' country boy, but he could jump salty, too, now and again. Hell, I'll miss him, myself. I'm just sorry he had to up and leave America so early. He had a fat lot left in him to do."

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Duane Allman, the leader and driving force behind the Allman Brothers Band, died Friday, October 29th, from massive injuries received in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia. He was 24. He and the rest of the band had currently been in the middle of their first real vacation in more than two years.

Duane had been visiting the band's "Big House" to wish Linda Oakley, wife of the band's bassist Berry Oakley, a happy birthday. Shortly after leaving the house–around 5:45 PM–he swerved to avoid a truck which was moving in the same direction, but which he had evidently not seen in time after it had turned onto the street. The cycle skidded and turned over, apparently pinning Allman underneath as it traveled another 50 feet. Duane's girlfriend Dixie Meadows and Berry Oakley's sister Candy had been following him from some distance behind and had not seen the accident. They found him and stayed until an ambulance arrived. He reportedly ceased breathing twice in the ambulance but was revived each time by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He died after three hours of emergency surgery at Macon Medical Center.

Dr. Charles Burden, the attending surgeon, said afterwards that any of the injuries sustained–a collapsed chest resulting in massive internal injuries, including a ruptured coronary artery and a severely damaged liver–would have probably caused death, but that the combination of injuries left very little hope from the outset.

The news of Duane's death left his friends and relatives, and the burgeoning music community in Macon, in a state of shock. "Duane Allman's death is a very personal loss," said Phil Walden, the band's manager, "not only for the no-nonsense, straight-ahead music he created, but for the warm and sincere friendship we shared. To remember Duane is to recall his music, and that exactly is what the man was all about."

Johnny Sandlin, Capricorn Records' young head of A&R and a member of one of Duane's earliest groups, the Hourglass, said: "More than anyone else, Duane Allman was responsible for the musical revolution in the South," referring to the changes Duane had helped to bring about in many Southern musicians and the tremendous influence the band has had on the whole region.

Mrs. Geraldine Allman, Duane's mother, immediately flew in from Florida, where she still lives and where Duane and younger brother Greg spent most of their adolescent years. Duane's divorced wife, Donna, and his daughter, Galadriel, were also present for the funeral.

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Services were held the following Monday in Macon's Memorial Chapel. Nearly 300 friends, relatives and admirers attended. Duane's guitar case stood in front of the floral-wreathed casket, and the band's equipment was set up in the rear. At 3 PM the remaining members of the group, Greg, Berry Oakley, Dicky Betts, Jai Johanny Johnson, Butch Trucks, and the band's close friend, harpist Thom Doucette, took their places. They began with the familiar pattern of an introduction to a slow blues, and then from behind his dark glasses, Greg sang out: "The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down my cheeks." They played "Keys to the Highway" which Duane had recorded with Eric Clapton on Layla, then did "Stormy Monday" and "Elizabeth Reed." They played through the music they had been doing for the last year with Dicky playing for Duane in the places where Duane would have normally been heard and with the people who really knew Duane's music supplying from memory the missing lines to the long worked-out harmonies the band was famous for.

The young people in attendance began to applaud after each song and to respond visibly to the music. Red Dog, the legendary road manager of the group, encouraged the responsiveness, making it clear that the band's tribute to Duane lay in their performing their music for those who loved it best. While some of Duane's close musical friends sat and watched–they included the entire Muscle Shoals rhythm section with which he had cut many records, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett–others joined the band on stage.

Mac Rebennack, who had flown down from New York with Atlantic Records executive vice president Jerry Wexler, played guitar and Bobby Caldwell, formerly with Johnny Winters, joined in on drums. Delaney Bramlett gradually gravitated to the center and led everyone in a hair-raising "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which had people clapping their hands and crying at the same time. Delaney, by himself, then did a brief tribute to Duane, singing what he said was Duane's favorite song of his, "I Still Remember," and then one that he and Duane used to jam on, "Come in My Kitchen."

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Greg Allman then sang a couple of songs by himself. The last one he introduced as a favorite of his brother, a song he wrote three years ago and of which he said "I never much cared for it but I'm going to sing it to him." When he was done, the nave was cleared but then the group decided to come back and do one last song, the one they had been using to open their set for the last year and a half: "Statesboro Blues." When the band was finished, Dicky Betts took the Les Paul Gibson he had been playing–it was Duane's guitar–and stood it up next to Duane's guitar case in front of the casket, and walked off.

Jerry Wexler was then introduced to deliver the eulogy. Reading from a written statement, he frequently stopped to collect himself and managed to offer an affecting tribute to a friend and musician who he had first used on one of his sessions three years ago. Some of his statements included: "It was at King Curtis' funeral that I last saw Duane Allman, and Duane with tears in his eyes told me that Curtis' encouragement and praise was valuable to him in the pursuit of his music and career. They were both gifted natural musicians with an unlimited ability for truly melodic improvisation. They were both born in the South and they both learned their music from great black musicians and blues singers. They were both utterly dedicated to their music, and both intolerant of the faults and the meretricious and they would never permit the incorporation of the commercial compromise to their music–not for love or money.

"...I remember a magic summer night of music when Duane and Delaney sat on an outdoor patio overlooking the water both playing acoustic guitars as softly as they possibly could and both of them singing–Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rodgers and an unforgettable Jimmy Davis song called 'Shackled and Chained.' The music was incredibly pure–completely free of affect–and almost avoided personality as each of them gave himself over to the ineffable beauty of Southern gospel, country and blues music as only Southern musicians can.

"...Those of us who were privileged to know Duane will remember him from all the studios, backstage dressing rooms, the Downtowners, the Holiday Inns, the Sheratons, the late nights, relaxing after the sessions, the whisky and the music talk, playing back cassettes until night gave way to dawn, the meals and the pool games, and fishing in Miami and Long Island, this young beautiful man who we love so dearly but who is not lost to us, because we have his music, and the music is imperishable."

The service ended shortly after the eulogy with the band playing for a while after it ended. Later the band and their friends headed back to their Big House while many of the guests joined Phil Walden in his home. Interment will be at a later date.

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When Greg Allman performed by himself briefly during the funeral, he played on Duane's beautifully crafted antique guitar. When he finished singing he lowered his head and fingered the guitar nervously, and said, "This is a very old guitar, a very beautiful piece. It was made in 1920 and I'm very proud to have it." Then, looking up at the assembled guests, he added, "And I'm very proud that you all came."