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Duane Allman at FAME Studios: A J.D. Wyker Cat Tale

by John D. Wyker

(First appeared in GRITZ Print Issue 7, Summer 2004)

This is another Cat Tale about Duane Allman that took place back in the late 1960's at Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Rick Hall was famous for intimidating  musicians that were playin' on his sessions. There are many stories about how Rick would book musicians  "3 or 4 deep" for some of his sessions - 3 drummers, 3 bass players, etc. If the first picker did not come up with a great part in a certain amount of time, Rick would throw him off the session right there on the spot and call in the next person to see what they could come up with. Meanwhile, the cats on the bench would sit out in the lobby and play cards waiting on their chance to shine. I'd say Rick had kind of a Bear Bryant type of attitude.

This was back in the early days of over dubbing or multi-tracking  and sometimes  quite a bit of work and set up time was involved in getting the tape and the machines set up to over dub a lead guitar part. They would get the main basic track recorded on tape and then the next day come back in and overdub Duane's lead guitar part.

I remember one time that ol’ Duane turned the tables on Rick. I think it was on a Wilson Pickett session when Duane was asked to come in to record his guitar part. I drove him into town that day from the cabin on Wilson Lake where he was stayin'. Duane did not own a car,in fact I never ever saw Duane drive a car.

 If I remember correctly, I think Jimmy Johnson was running the board. Jimmy already had everything set up and ready to record when Duane and I got there. The track sounded great and all of the levels were set.

After Duane made sure his guitar was in tune, had the settings on his amp just like he wanted it and his headphone level was satisfactory, he asked for a short break before actually recording his part. Duane and I disappeared to one of our many secret places out behind FAME and he began to "get his head right" (that's all I can say about that...but y'all know what I mean.) After all Duane had a motto that he lived by, "Whatever it takes to hit the note !"

Anyway when he was finally ready, Duane strolled back into the studio with that sure footed cocky attitude that he was so famous for, shook back his long flamin' reddish hair, slipped his headphones on, picked up his magic guitar, slung the wide leather strap across his shoulder, closed his eyes and nodded to the engineer in the control room that he was ready. A voice came from the playback speakers, "Okay, we are rolling." The red recording light flickered to life indicating the seriousness of the moment.

The track came on strong. It was a funky hot piece of music although I'm not sure exactly which title it was. As the track began to play it was cookin' so much that the studio walls seemed to be breathing in and out of time with the pounding rhythm of this masterful Muscle Shoals track.

Duane still had his eyes closed but his feet and body were moving in perfect time with the music he was hearin' in his headphones. He was in total concentration -almost like a Buddhist monk meditating on this pulsating moment that he was now living and recording in. As the place in the song that required his talent for lead guitar approached, the tension began to grow. After all, this moment was what this day was all about - those few magic minutes of recorded sound on magnetic tape where Duane Allman knew that he could forever become immortal, and unforgettable, simply by playing his heart out on this guitar ride.

When the moment came to play, Duane's eyes were still tightly closed but his face looked totally released as if he knew exactly what his fingers would do to steal the spotlight. He began to play, or should I say burn, with an intensity that bordered on recklessness. It was like watchin' someone attempt a high dive that they had never done before. A quadruple triple back flip with two and half turns of sideways twist before the diver finally and cleanly entered the water with his toes perfectly pointed towards the sky. The kind of action that everyone holds their breath for, and silently prays words of thanks to be allowed to witness this kind of unique and rare perfection.

Duane was totally playin' his ass off and it was obvious, not only to me but by the look on Duane's face, he too was surprising himself with the extension of his own guitar genius. I call it playin' over your head - when someone really does not have a cut and dried plan for what there are goin' to play. That would be too dull for someone like Duane. Too boring and predictable. Duane was goin' for the kind of solo that would surprise all of his listeners. The kind of thang that when you listen back to it you ask yourself, "How the hell did I do that?" You know that you may only be able to do it once but as long as you get it on tape it will live forever. That's one of the beauties of recorded sound and what makes some people legends.

That's not the end of the story nor the end of that solo that Duane was smokin' his way through at FAME Studio that day. Everything was goin' totally fantastic when he blew a line and everything just stopped. The tape came to a halt and Duane was not only mad at himself but you could also see the hurt and disappointment in his face. He stripped the guitar strap off of his back, yanked his cord out of the amp, slammed his guitar down and said, "Okay, that’s it! I'll come back and try it again tomorrow. I  ain’t feelin’ it anymore!" And then he strolled out of the studio as everyone looked on in amazement.

I had never seen anyone do anything like that in my life and I thought it was pretty cool.

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