(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)


(Photo courtesy

Yes, Berry Oakley lived in a nice part of town, on lnneville Avenue in the Ingleside section of Macon, Georgia, lived in a house with his wife Linda and their 4-year-old daughter, Brittany---not bad for a 24-year-old kid who once had been an altar boy in Chicago and had dreamed of becoming a priest.

Berry had left Chicago when he was 15, left to play guitar with The Romans, Tommy Roa’s backup band. Oh, it must have been great to be 15 and on your own, earning money as your reward for all those long hours of painful solitude you spent learning how to play your axe. What else did you ever hope to achieve with your hard-earned talent?  For Berry it was an adventure, like hopping a freight to a nowhere that turned out to be a somewhere. The somewhere ended up down South. After playing with The Romans for about a year, the South is where he hopped off the freight. He was living in Jacksonville, Florida when Duane Allman found him.

In Jacksonville, Berry was playing with local bands. To Berry, Duane was a big star, already a legendary session man in Muscle Shoals.  Berry was impressed that Duane even wanted to know him. They began jamming together.  They jammed a lot.  Duane even started living at Berry’s house in between sessions. Then, when Jerry Wexler and Rick Hall told Duane to make his own album, Duane picked Berry to play bass. They liked the way they got into each other’s heads. They played together, they boozed together, they got stoned together and they rode together.  They were both motorcycle nuts.

Duane was into motorcycles before he got into music. You must have heard the story. Motorcycles were Duane’s first love. He was 14 on the Christmas he got his first bike. That was the Christmas his kid brother Gregg got his first guitar. Gregg was a year younger than Duane and it wasn’t until Duane totaled his bike that Duane traded in the junked parts for his own guitar. Duane was such a

Duane didn't like
his own singing, so he never released his album

natural on the guitar that Gregg didn’t want to compete, so he decided to switch to the keyboard. Yeah, Duane was a bitch of a guitar player. He became famous playing the slide guitar. 

That’s why Jerry Wexler and Rick Hall got after him to record his own album. Duane recorded the album, but he never released it. He didn't like his singing on it. Not until later, after he met Phil Walden and signed with Phil’s Capricorn Records, did Duane really get his band together.

That occurred back in Jacksonville. It was in one of the local parks that Duane and Berry started jamming with Dickie Betts and Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson. By that time Gregg was trying to make a name for himself on the West Coast, but Duane called him back to the South to sing the vocals and play organ.

And that was the start of the Allman Brothers Band. They called it the Allman Brothers Band. But not because Duane and Gregg were brothers. Everybody in the band all considered themselves brothers.

They moved to Macon because that's where Phil Walden and his Capricorn Studios were.  Not that they were in Macon that often. The Allman Brothers were a touring band, playing up and down the country, from the North to the South and from the East Coast to the West Coast.  They played Southern Baptist blues/rock and they played it with the divine fever.  They were a boogying band.  They played with a throb and a pulse and a beat that lifted you up and up and got you higher and higher.

To their devoted fans, they were the long-haired band of the South the way the Grateful Dead were the long-haired band of San Francisco. They were the kind of band that liked to play free gigs in the park.  Like the Dead, they liked to play all the time. And they did play all the time.

When they weren’t on the road you could always find Duane and Berry hanging out in downtown Macon at Grant’s Lounge or at the Ad Lib Club, jamming with the groups that came through. You could find them either there or on their bikes. The whole band was a bunch of motorcycle nuts. They’d pack their bikes in their equipment trucks and ride them during layovers while they were on the road. Motorcycles and music.  That was the Allman Brothers.

Duane was killed October 29, 1971 at Hillerest and Bartlett Avenues in Macon.  It was just about nightfall and he was on his Harley-Davidson.  He swerved to avoid a truck making a turn in front of him and his bike hit the curb. It flew up into the air and came down on top of him. He was taken to the Medical Center of Middle Georgia in an ambulance and died on the operating table three hours later. He was 24.

He never lived to see the Gold Record the band got for its Live At the Fillmore East album.  That night, Berry Oakley ran his Datsun 24OZ sports car into a tree.  He came out of it with only a few scratches.

The Allman Brothers Band continued without Duane.  They couldn't find anybody to replace him with the same kind of deep feeling he had for his music.  They kept touring and they kept getting bigger. Another album, Eat A Peach, went Gold.  But back in Macon, you could still find Berry in between gigs hanging out at Grant’s or the Ad Lib, jamming with groups like Wet Willie. Either that or riding his motorcycle.

They say the Allman Brothers had bad Karma. What's the use of getting on stage if you can't spit in the face of the Devil? On one Thursday, one of the group's roadies was hit from behind while stopped for a light on his bike.  The same day, another roadie broke a collarbone. And also on that day, still another roadie’s horse was shot by a hunter.

They say that Berry nearly ODed that week but that didn’t matter.  At about 2 in the afternoon on the following Saturday, a year and 13 days after Duane was killed, Berry was riding down Napier Avenue on his motorcycle when he hit a Macon city bus headed west. He got up with a bloody nose and a cracked crash helmet.  It was three blocks away from the scene of Duane’s fatal accident. Berry refused medical treatment, got back on his motorcycle and rode home. An hour later, some friends brought him into the Medical Center of Middle Georgia.  He had suffered brain injuries.  An hour later he was dead.

He had spit in the face of the Devil and the Devil had spit back. Yes, the Allman Brothers had bad Karma  ##




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