Gregg Allman once famously pointed out that the phrase “southern rock” contained a redundancy – after all, rock and roll was born in the American South. “You may as well say ‘rock rock’,” Allman noted. True, perhaps, but there’s no denying that at the turn of the ‘70s a new type of rock and roll emerged – one rooted in a smoldering blend of blues, jazz, country and R&B, and often served up by way of extended improvisations. Indisputably, the first group to bring all those elements together, and infuse them with earthy southern traditions, was the Allman Brothers Band.
Ironically, had it not been for the tragic death of soul legend Otis Redding, in 1967, the Allmans might never have come together. In the wake of Redding’s passing, his manager, Phil Walden, turned his attention away from R&B and toward rock and roll – albeit rock with a distinctly southern vibe. With an advance of $70,000 from Atlantic Records, Walden set up the Atlantic subsidiary, Capricorn Records, and set out on a talent search.
One of the first musicians to catch his attention was Duane Allman, at the time a little-known guitarist doing session work at Muscle Shoals Studios. Upon hearing Allman’s guitar work on Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude,” Walden become determined to sign him and build a band around him. After some personnel shuffling, the Allman Brothers Band was formed in 1969.
“Duane did some early recordings that didn’t result in the formation of the Allman Brothers Band,” Walden recalled, in 1998. “Later we used some of those cuts on the Duane Allman Anthology album. Things went forward, but even after the band came together we still didn’t have a singer. Gregg was on the West coast and he didn’t join the band for several weeks, or maybe even for a couple of months. When he did come in he sounded great, of course, but even after Gregg got there, if the Allman Brothers played an hour set, probably 40 minutes of it would be instrumental. For a lot of people the vocals were afterthoughts, to break up all that music. I thought they sounded spectacular.”
Settling into a lineup of Duane, Gregg, Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson, the Allmans first performed mostly in northern Florida and South Georgia. Their first show outside the south occurred in Boston, where they opened for the Velvet Underground. The northern music press was baffled not only by the band’s newfangled music, but also by their shabby wardrobe.
“Most of the press didn’t understand what the band was trying to do, musically,” Walden pointed out. “Most of those press guys, at the time, were into bands like The Who or other English groups. The comments I heard that night were things like, ‘You know, you ought to dress up those guys a bit.’ I remember Duane made one of his classic remarks, which was, ‘If you want to go to a fashion show, I suggest you go to the garment district. But if you want to hear rock and roll music, you shouldn’t be too concerned about what we’re wearing.’”
According to Walden, the Allman Brothers Band’s self-titled first album sold only about 33,000 copies, with its follow-up doing moderately better. Still, the band’s relentless tour schedule, which often included free shows, earned them a devoted following. Within a year the Allman Brothers became one of rock’s most exciting live acts. Tangible proof of their on-stage power came in 1971, when they released their live double album tour-de-force, At Fillmore East. Culled from four spectacular shows at the famous New York City venue, the set forged a template for what southern rock would be, going forward.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the extent of that album’s success,” Walden said, “but we were counting heavily on it. We had been through numerous negotiations with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic to let us do a double album of all those long cuts. Wexler wanted us to edit the release down to a single album. He said we couldn’t afford to put out a double album by a band that was still developing.”
Ultimately, Walden convinced Wexler that a double-album set was justified. But then he hit the Atlantic executive with another seemingly harebrained scheme: he wanted the set to carry a retail price equal to that of a single album. Walden got his way on that score, as well. “In a subtle way, we were trying to suggest that the Allman Brothers Band was the people’s band,” he explains. “We wanted the album to carry a price tag everyone could afford.”
In the end, At Fillmore East not only connected with “the people,” it also spawned a host of similarly sprawling two-disc sets – Humble Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore being one obvious example. More importantly, the set sparked a “southern rock” movement of epic proportions. In short order, the Capricorn roster grew to include such renowned artists as the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and Elvin Bishop. Rival labels got on-board as well, rushing to sign acts that exemplified the new “southern” sound. Such powerhouse bands as ZZ Top, the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd rose to prominence during this era.
In a 2009 interview with Gibson.com, Gregg Allman reflected on that fledgling period for both the Allman Brothers and their southern rock peers. “It wasn't a question of one band being better than another,” he said, “although one band might be liked more than another. Lynyrd Skynyrd had more hits than the rest of us. I don't know. There wasn’t that much camaraderie, because we were always on the road. We hardly saw each other, except maybe at parties or in those rare instances where we played gigs together. They were all a good bunch of people.”
For Walden, a non-musician who nonetheless ended up becoming a primary architect of southern rock, it could all be traced to At Fillmore East. “I think [At Fillmore East] remains one of the finest live albums ever made, in its conception and its execution,” he said. “It’s one of the foundations not just of southern rock, but of modern music.”