The Allman Brothers Band didn’t care about a picture. It was the early spring of 1971 in Macon, the cozy little town in central Georgia that they had recently adopted as their hometown because that was where their new Southern label, Capricorn, lived. The sextet – two guitars, two drummers, bass, organ – had only been a band for two years. They had spent most of that time on tour, playing 300 shows in 1970 and barely surviving on an unstable diet of booze and pipe, heroin and pot.
But after a series of mid-Atlantic shows in April, they had only been home for three days before another sprint through the even deeper South, including Alabama and Mississippi. There were children, wives and girlfriends to visit, a rare respite for a band that had suddenly exploded in popularity. And then there was this stupid photo. Three weeks earlier, they had played three (and recorded two) nights of marathon gigs at Manhattan’s Fillmore East, intending to compile the performances into an album that would finally bottle the ecstasy and improvisation of their blues-rock. electrified. The photos they had taken in New York were a failure, so Jim Marshall – already a top music photographer, having photographed Cash at Folsom and Coltrane and Miles resting – followed them home to Macon.
They should have been flattered to welcome this icon to their sleepy town. But they were tired, and much like the Grateful Dead, their pals and rivals across the country as the top live band in the land, they never cared much about promotion, anyway. Moreover, Marshall was bossy. “A real son of a bitch,” drummer Butch Trucks recalled decades later, “who was lucky he didn’t get his ass kicked.” They frowned for the first shots of Marshall, a group of thugs with matching mushroom tattoos, flexing their southern roughness for the camera.
Just then, Duane Allman – the band’s founder, fixer, kingpin and unparalleled guitar dynamo – spotted his local cocaine connection and sprinted down the aisle. He returned to his seat, clutching an 8-ball in his hand and flashing a Cheshire smile. The rest of the group screamed, so Marshall took his picture and got his album cover, everyone burst into laughter. He captured the band in their most natural setting: reveling in the joy and possibility of the present, exactly the way they sound on what is arguably rock music’s quintessential live album, At Fillmore East.
The Allman Brothers never intended to make their first inhabit album, in itself; they simply wanted to make their third album overall and they recognized that they were better on stage than in a controlled studio environment. Their 1969 self-titled debut album, recorded five months after their first show, felt chastened, its narrow production and relatively short songs quickly pulling the reins on a spirited young racehorse. Their second album, South Idlewild, worked to present a softer and more commercially viable side. Sure, it sounded good, but it also sounded dated on arrival, a folk-rock daydream of a band that was best when wide awake, very high and very loud. “We’re kind of frustrated doing the records,” Duane admitted in the early ’70s, noting that the stage was where they found their “natural fire.”