When the Allman Brothers Band began a three-day run at the Fillmore East on March 11, 1971, they’d already decided to record the shows for release as a live album. Their two studio albums, The Allman Brothers Band (1969) and Idlewild South (1970), had been well received by critics, but sales had been sluggish. The Allmans were best in concert, and steady touring had helped create some interest in the second LP while building the band’s following. In 1970 alone the ABB played 300 shows, developing a reputation as a fierce live act. Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmores East (in Manhattan) and West (in San Francisco), became a fan in December 1969, when the Allmans opened for Blood, Sweat & Tears at Fillmore East, and he booked them into both halls many times over the next 18 months. The Allmans played the Fillmores 11 times in 1970, and by the time they appeared at Fillmore East in March 1971 they had two years of rigorous touring under their belts.
Although the average age of the band members was only 25, all were already seasoned players. Guitarist Dickie Betts and bassist Berry Oakley had been in the Second Coming, a band based in Jacksonville, Florida, where Betts had gained extensive experience with other groups. Drummer Jai Johnny Johanson, aka Jaimoe, had played with R&B singers, including Otis Redding, and drummer Butch Trucks had been a member of The 31st of February, a Jacksonville band that had backed Duane and Gregg Allman on a demo recording in 1968.
Duane and Gregg had already circled around the big time a couple of times. They’d led a quartet, the Escorts, who later became the Allman Joys and moved to Nashville, the brothers’ birthplace. Songwriter J.D. Loudermilk helped a little by producing their version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” which sold well locally. They ended up in Los Angeles, and under the name Hourglass recorded two albums for Liberty Records. But the record executives chose material for them and discouraged them from playing live, and the brothers soon became frustrated.
Duane left L.A. and ended up playing sessions at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he appeared on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, and others. He was also jamming with musicians in Jacksonville, trying to put a band together. When he finally had something, he called Gregg back from California. The band lived together and practiced constantly, grabbing opportunities to play gigs, usually unpaid, and in May 1969 they moved to Macon, Georgia, where their manager, Phil Walden, was developing Capricorn Records.
The Allman Brothers Band recorded their first album in New York in August 1969, with Adrian Barber producing. The album has a slight “heavy rock” feel, perhaps an attempt to grab the record-buying public that had given hits to Cream and Led Zeppelin. Both of those acts were signed to labels associated with Atlantic Records, which distributed Capricorn. But The Allman Brothers Band has aged well -- and two of the ABB’s best tunes, “Dreams” and “Whipping Post,” first appeared there.
Tom Dowd, a longtime producer and recording engineer at Atlantic who’d worked with Ray Charles, among many others, produced the next album, Idlewild South, and was able to harness the ABB’s distinctive mix of blues, jazz, and country. The album has a lighter touch than its predecessor, but still captures the group’s instrumental prowess and energy. Betts’s instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” showed off their chops, and other songs, including Betts’s “Revival,” and Gregg’s “Midnight Rider” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” revealed potent songwriting skills.
But it was onstage that the Allmans came alive, and they thought a live album would give them the hit they wanted. “We realized that we got a better sound live and that we were a live band,” Gregg told Alan Paul in Paul’s One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band, an oral history of the group. “We were not intentionally trying to buck the system, but keeping each song down to 3:14 just didn’t work for us.” Duane had a lot riding on the third album. In summer 1970 he’d recorded Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with Eric Clapton as Derek & the Dominos, and Clapton had offered him a permanent spot in that group. Duane elected to remain with his own band.
On March 11, 1971, the first of the Allmans’ three-night run, Tom Dowd had returned to New York from Africa, where he’d recorded the sound for the soul-music documentary Soul to Soul. He phoned Jerry Wexler, one of the partners in Atlantic Records, who’d bought Duane Allman’s contract from Fame Studios and put him to work as an Atlantic session player. Wexler told Dowd to get to the Fillmore to monitor the recording of the Allmans’ shows.
A few songs into the first set, three horn players joined the band onstage. When the set ended, Dowd met Duane offstage and told him to lose the horns. Saxophonist Rudolph “Juici” Carter appeared with them for the March 12 shows, but isn’t on the final version of the LP, which Dowd assembled from the four shows of March 12 and 13.
The original two-LP release, At Fillmore East, clocks in at 78:51 and opens with three blues tracks that comprise side 1 of that set. The band announces itself with Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” played by a strong, firm rhythm section and Duane’s astonishing slide guitar. He’d been inspired to learn slide after hearing the version of the song on Taj Mahal’s eponymous debut album of 1968, which featured guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. “[O]n slide, [Duane] got the touch,” Wexler told Tony Glover for the liner notes to Duane Allman’s An Anthology, posthumously released. “A lot of slide players sound sour -- to get clear intonation with the right overtones -- that’s the mark of genius.”
Duane’s slide-guitar lines are clear, melodic, complex, and deeply felt, but “Statesboro Blues” is also notable for Gregg’s formidable blues singing. His Hammond organ helps set the tone of the song, but his natural feel for blues phrasing and the unforced emotion of his singing make it funky. The band continues with Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong,” with another strong vocal from Gregg and powerful slide playing from Duane.
A version of T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” closes side 1 and shows how versatile and sophisticated the Allmans were in their approach to the blues. The chord progressions follow Walker’s original, and the arrangement also borrows some of its flavor from Bobby Bland’s recording of the song, but it’s enriched by Oakley’s rich bass line, and fluid rhythms from Trucks and Jaimoe. The guitar solos pay tribute to Walker but expand on his legacy, avoiding clichés. Duane and Betts play melody-driven features that carry forward the blues tradition.
Side 2 continues the blues theme with Willie Cobbs’s “You Don’t Love Me,” one of two cuts that each take up an entire LP side of the original album. The band plays the song faster than Cobbs’s original, Trucks and Jaimoe propelling it with solid swing. Duane, Gregg, Betts, and guest blues harpist Thom Doucette take fiery solos, with Oakley’s bass laying down a firm, melodically compelling foundation.
About seven minutes in, the music comes to a stop and Duane plays without accompaniment, beginning with blues lines based on the song’s head and developing them into a climax of soaring, sustained notes. Betts jumps in with a soulful riff that Trucks and Jaimoe immediately lock in to, the music intensifying as Betts’s ideas develop and expand. Betts begins to close his statement, lowering the volume, and Oakley chimes in. Betts plays a chord that brings the rest of the band back, and Duane begins his solo, the band chugging behind him, then plays a riff that Betts answers with a harmony line. That section of the jam moves into a brief solo statement from Duane before the closing section.
Side 3 comprises two Betts instrumentals, “Hot ’Lanta” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” each of which displays a unique trait of the Allman Brothers Band: Duane and Betts playing the melody in complex harmony lines. This performance of “Elizabeth Reed” supports the ABB’s conviction that a live album would present them at their best. Nearly twice the length of the studio version on Idlewild South, it’s more rhythmically fluid, and the playing is more confident. Betts’s volume swells at the beginning create a violin-like effect that leads into a statement of the theme by him and Duane. Oakley’s bass lines are inventive and melodic, Gregg’s Hammond provides color, and the drummers keep things firmly grounded and rhythmically elastic. The band solos are inventive and dynamic, based on the ideas stated in the opening. The band shifts rhythm and volume, going quieter during Gregg’s solo, then rising in volume when Duane takes his lead. Throughout this track, Betts and Duane vary aggressive, expansive lines with quieter passages that build tension and release, and the band follows them everywhere, receding as they lower their attack, then rising with them when they increase in volume and strength.
Side 4 of the original second LP is devoted to an epic, 23-minute version of “Whipping Post.” Again, the arrangement is more layered and more lean than the studio version, with solos that never meander despite their length, and a deep blues vocal from Gregg Allman. The levels of inspiration and inventiveness the ABB maintains throughout this long performance is staggering -- the solos have an intricacy and versatility that show a wide variety of influences, from urban blues to the modal jazz of Miles Davis -- which Duane, especially, often said had been an inspiration to the group. As each takes the lead, Duane and Betts expand on the original chord progression.
After Gregg sings the second verse, Duane takes the first solo, followed by Betts. The band drops in volume and tempo about halfway through, and Betts begins to play a melody he would later use as the basis for “Les Brers in A Minor,” which appeared on their next album, Eat a Peach (1972). The rest of the band moves into place behind him, Duane playing a series of rich chords, Oakley answering Betts with a countermelody, the drummers weaving a flowing rhythm, the chords from Gregg’s Leslie speaker swirling around them. The tempo and feel change again, to a somber section in which Betts’s guitar cries out in pain -- and then again, subtly and unexpectedly, back to the beginning, Duane and Betts playing harmony lines and trading riffs.
The final section of “Whipping Post” returns to the funereal pace, Trucks playing timpani rolls to create a dramatic undercurrent as Jaimoe plays rolls on snare, accented with cymbal strokes. These help Duane’s solos bring the song to a powerful close as Gregg sings, “Oh, sometimes, I feel like I’m dying.” The improvisations on this lengthy workout grow naturally out of the chord progressions and melodic themes of “Whipping Post,” but also at times express the feelings contained in the lyrics. On the original album, the song ends, and as the applause grows and the track fades out, the band plays the opening notes of “Mountain Jam,” a 33-minute improvisation on the melody of Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain” that would not be released until the following year, on Eat a Peach.
The band’s instincts about a live album pushing them over the top turned out to be correct. On October 25, 1971, four months after its release, At Fillmore East was certified gold. Four days later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia, three weeks before his 25th birthday. The band forged ahead and recorded several tracks with Betts on lead guitar, and released Eat a Peach in February 1972. The two-LP set included one disc’s worth of live material from the March ’71 Fillmore East dates -- “Mountain Jam” -- and two more cuts recorded live at Fillmore East later that year. Also included were studio tracks: the last they’d recorded with Duane in the studio before his death, and the last Berry Oakley played with them. He’d died on November 11, 1972, a year and 12 days after Duane’s death, in another motorcycle accident in Macon, also at the age of 24.
Tragedy and inner dispute seemed to follow the band. They released Brothers and Sisters in 1973, with Lamar Williams on bass, and two years later, Win, Lose or Draw. They broke up in 1976 after the live album Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas, but returned three years later with Enlightened Rogues, followed by Reach for the Sky (1980) and Brothers of the Road (1981), two recordings best forgotten. They broke up again, this time for seven years, then reunited in 1989 for a 20th-anniversary performance. They went on to record a number of solid albums for Epic Records, including three more live sets.
The last two Allman Brothers Band recordings, Hittin’ the Note (2003) and One Way Out: Live at the Beacon Theatre (2004), feature Derek Trucks, Butch’s nephew, in place of Dickie Betts. Warren Haynes was the other guitarist, as he’d been since 1990. The ABB toured regularly, drawing good crowds and good notices, until 2014. In January 2017, Butch Trucks died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and in May 2017 Gregg died of complications from liver cancer. Five years earlier, the closing words of his memoir (written with Alan Light), My Cross to Bear, reflected his ambivalence about the cost of fame: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t trade it for nobody’s, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it.”
For me, the best version of At Fillmore East remains the pink-label Capricorn Records release I bought at the Plaza Shopping Center in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, in 1971. It captures the ambiance of the Fillmore East so well that I can almost see Joe’s Lights being projected behind the band. I feel the heat and, between songs, hear the slight electronic buzz of the tube amps onstage, and every instrument rings clear and true. Most important, Berry Oakley’s bass gets its full measure. His rhythmic grace and melodic inventiveness -- vital components of the overall sound and impact of the music -- come through forcefully. No digital version I’ve heard really captures it.
Tom Dowd did some new edits and supervised the mixing of the two-disc The Fillmore Concerts, which Polydor released in 1993 as part of its Chronicles series. He used some moments from other shows from those nights, and while they proved how good the band was over the length of the Fillmore shows, fans missed the original takes. A Deluxe Edition from 2003 restored them. Like The Fillmore Concerts, the two-disc Deluxe Edition included live tracks from the Fillmore shows that had earlier appeared on Eat a Peach, the four-disc Allmans anthology Dreams, and the two Duane Allman anthologies. Neither of the later CD sets captures the excitement and atmosphere of the Fillmore East in the way the LP does, nor does Oakley’s bass have the prominence it deserves.
The six-disc 1971 Fillmore East Recordings comes as close as any digital version I’ve heard to returning Berry Oakley’s bass to its full impact and giving me the feeling that I’m sitting in the audience at these important shows. It also reinforces Betts’s assertion in One Way Out: “Everything you hear is how we played it.” All the shows from March 1971 were the work of a band at its peak; disc 6, a June 1971 performance at the Fillmore East, shows the band maintaining its high standard.
Over the years, I’ve thought about the album I’d take with me if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island. Sometimes I’ve thought it might be the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, or Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, but I’ve since realized that no album means more to me than the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East. As good as the additional songs are on the expanded versions of the album, the original 78 minutes are peerless. Over the last 48 years I’ve probably played it more than any other record, and I still hear things I didn’t quite catch before.
While writing this piece, I played the album and heard moments in which Oakley’s bass reinforced and directed a line Duane or Betts was playing. In “You Don’t Love Me,” I was surprised that I hadn’t really noticed before how Butch Trucks’s locking in on hi-hat behind a Betts solo gives that solo greater purpose, pushing it forward as Jaimoe comes in to give it even more force with his snare-drum rolls. Throughout the album, I hear how hundreds of nights of playing together led to six musicians thinking together and responding to each other so intuitively that every moment flows as if planned -- even as other live ABB recordings from that era show that while each song’s rough outline remained the same from night to night, the long improvisational sections were left to the moment.
The Allman Brothers Band had a long and venerable career, but its most transcendent moments were those few years when it contained Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. We’re lucky to be able to hear so much music from those years. When the Fillmore East closed, on June 27, 1971, Bill Graham, who owned the hall and booked its acts, chose the ABB for its final show. He closed his introduction with these words, which you can hear on disc 6 of 1971 Fillmore East Recordings: “I’ve never heard the kind of music that this group plays -- the finest contemporary music. We’re going to round it off with the best of them all: the Allman Brothers Band.”
. . . Joseph Taylor