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Review: 'One Way Out' a rocking biography of Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band — from left, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Jaimoe, Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks — quickly rose to fame.
The Allman Brothers Band — from left, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Jaimoe, Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks — quickly rose to fame.
Published May 15, 2014

Alan Paul deserves accolades for reuniting myriad present and former Allman Brothers Band members and confederates, if only in print, for One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. His collective approach to storytelling is right out of iconic band leader Duane Allman's philosophy: Let everyone's voice be heard.

The band has deep Florida connections. Duane and his younger brother, Gregg, were raised in Daytona Beach, and from their early teens they played youth centers and clubs along the I-4 corridor. Duane formed the Allman Brothers Band in Jacksonville in 1969, when the brothers were 22 and 21. The band's heavily blues-influenced rock, unusual configuration (two lead guitarists, two drummers) and epic live shows made them one of the legendary acts of the 1970s.

Lead guitarist Duane's early friendship with African-American drummer Jai Johanny Johanson, known as "Jaimoe," became a parable on racial tolerance in the Deep South. When fellow founding member Butch Trucks met Jaimoe in Jacksonville in 1969, he admitted never having been in such close company with a black man. "It changed me profoundly," Trucks said. The two drummers continue side by side in their fifth decade as bandmates.

Trucks' description of his visceral reaction to the band's first jam session in Jacksonville is an emotional high point in One Way Out. According to Trucks, that historic session happened at the Gray House in the city's Riverside district.

Early on, music promoter Bill Graham gave the band an enormous vote of confidence, having them close the 1971 final show at his landmark New York City concert venue, the Fillmore East. Another landmark moment came when Duane traveled to Miami to be part of Eric Clapton's historic Layla sessions; the reader can feel the creative, stoned-out electricity between guitar gods.

On Oct. 29, 1971, just as the Allman Brothers Band's live album documenting their transcendent Fillmore performance of classics like In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and Whippin' Post started to catch fire, Duane laid down his motorcycle to avoid hitting a semitrailer truck on a hill in Macon, Ga. At just 24, he died of massive head and internal injuries.

One Way Out makes it clear the band never got over that loss. Duane Allman cast a long shadow as guardian angel to the band he created, one that proved impossible for anyone else to live up to.

The book paints a welcome three-dimensional picture of bassist Berry Oakley and his importance as Duane's lieutenant and the band's compassionate big brother. Shattered after the loss of Duane, he died in a motorcycle accident in Macon a year later.

Dickey Betts, the band's other lead guitarist and the most intriguing person in One Way Out, stepped into the creative breach and led the band to an even higher level of success. His autocratic, bullying ways, in contrast to Duane's confident approach, belied the warmly countrified groove of Betts' standards, including Ramblin' Man, the band's biggest hit.

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As Gregg Allman withdrew into drugs, rock stardom and starlet chasing, One Way Out portrays Betts as simmering with resentment that his name was relegated to the shadows. He raged against being marginalized, but wasn't above doing just that to Auburndale guitarist Les Dudek, whom he failed to credit for helping him write another fan favorite, Jessica.

One Way Out helps Allman Brothers fans understand why when Betts, the overamplified lead guitarist they could not live without, devolved into an erratic and violent alcoholic, the band decided they could no longer live with him.

Warren Haynes gets his due as the cohesive guitar virtuoso, singer and band leader whose level head kept the train on track for many years. The band's introduction to Trucks' then 10-year-old nephew, guitar prodigy Derek Trucks, brings another humorous high point in One Way Out. When Derek got old enough to join the band, his fearless improvisations led Gregg to suspect he was Duane reincarnate. With Derek's help, in 2009 Clapton accepted the band's invitation to join them on stage for the first time at the Beacon Theatre in New York, a milestone of the band's 40th anniversary celebration.

This biography comes at a major crossroads for the Allman Brothers Band. After years of propping up the institution, guitarists Haynes and Trucks have announced they will leave at the end of 2014 to focus on their own careers. Citing unfounded concern that they do not want to risk being considered a nostalgia act, the Allman Brothers Band announced they will no longer tour after Trucks and Haynes depart.

Gregg Allman is clean and sober, thankful for the 2010 liver transplant that saved his life. Like a weathered bull gator growling into the microphone, he has a voice as distinctive as any musician alive. Fans who grew up with the Allman Brothers Band find the thought of them not being at the Wanee Festival in Live Oak, not having another Beacon Theater residency, a difficult cross to bear.

Perhaps One Way Out can serve as the beginning of a dialogue to heal the old wounds between the band and their great songwriter Betts. There's nothing fans would like more. Do they have enough left in the tank to celebrate 50 years in 2019?

As Jaimoe notes in his thoughtful afterword to One Way Out, "We've persevered."

Emmy award-winning journalist Bob Kealing is at work on his fourth nonfiction book, tracking young Elvis Presley in Florida, 1955-61. He reviewed Randy Poe's Duane Allman biography "Skydog" for the Times in 2007.


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