A question often asked by music fans is when and where did a genre begin, and who was the one to start it. Some origins are easy to point out; for example, a particular band or artist kicked the whole movement off. Others are up for debate. One genre could have multiple originator cited. The Southern Rock genre is a prime example of this debate. Fans list multiple originators of the genre. This article will offer another theory to Southern Rock’s starting point. But first, let’s look at the genre’s history.
In the 1970s, a new brand of rock music originated from the Southern United States called Southern Rock. The music was a combination of blues based riffs with a boogie beat. The lyrics ranged from declaring fierce regional pride to celebrating good times at the juke joint.
Another trademark of the genre were loud and aggressive guitars. On any given Southern Rock song, a fiery, fast paced guitar solo would be rip through the speaker.
Lastly, Southern Rock was characterized by impassioned vocal performances. Almost every Southern Rock band had a vocalist who could belt out the lyrics in impressive fashion. Gregg Allman and Ronnie Van Zant are two names that come to mind.
Southern rock’s aggressive, unpretentious style helped revitalize American rock during a time of stagnation. The group to first popularize Southern Rock was the Allman Brothers Band. Their twin guitar leads and double-drummer rhythm section was immortalized on the live album At Fillmore East. In the Allman’s wake sprang countless southern bands: Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and The Marshall Tucker band to name a few.
Blues and rock and roll were common foundations for Southern Rock, but bands also drew inspiration from different genres. The Allman Brothers fused blues rock with jazz and country. The Marshall Tucker Band followed swing country traditions. Wet Willie took to soul music. And Lynyrd Skynyrd followed the path of bands like the Rolling Stones by making pure, direct rock n’ roll.
By the early 1980s, the genre declined. The Allman Brothers Band and Lynryd Skynyrd had disbanded, both having their fair share of tragedies. Capricorn Records, the main Southern Rock label, went bankrupt. Leading acts like 38 Special developed a mainstream sound. MTV and the popular genres of the time pushed Southern Rock into secondary or regional venues. Now Southern Rock bands were mainly popular in the Southern states.
Southern Rock’s origin is hotly debated. Did the Allman Brothers created it when they released their 1969 debut album? Did Lynyrd Skynyrd kick it of with Sweet Home Alabama? However, if there is one moment in history where Southern Rock started, it would be in 1968 in a studio in Alabama.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for the United States. The Vietnam War was at its height, and was becoming more controversial with the American public. Thousands gathered on college campuses, national parks, or monument sights to protest the war. At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, protesters and police violently clashed. The violence was broadcasted into millions of homes across America. The generation gap between kids and parents grew even wider.
1968 was also the year of assassinations. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. The assassination shook the nation. The news sparked riots in more than 100 cities across the U.S., including looting and burning. MLK’s assassination brought racial tensions to a head. The gap between white and black Americans seemed to grow ever wider. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy (brother of John F. Kennedy) was shot and killed by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan. The assassination was devastating blow for progress. A Presidential candidate in the upcoming elections, Kennedy pledged to champion civil rights and social justice issues. Kennedy’s murder seemed to push the march for social and civil equality even further back.
Out of all this darkness and turmoil, its hard to believe that a white southern guitarist and a black R&B singer could meet and work together. But that’s just what happened.
Pickett and Allman
Wilson Pickett was a soul singer who achieved fame and fortune during the 1960s. His voice was characterized by an explosive, gospel like shout that infused his songs with soul and conviction. Pickett’s hits included In The Midnight Hour, Mustang Sally, and Land of 1000 Dances. By 1968, he was one of the top stars on the R&B scene. In the 1970s, Pickett continued to record hits. But by 1974, his career faltered as he dealt with substance abuse issues.
Despite these personal troubles, Pickett was repeatedly honoured for his musical contributions. He continued to record music and perform live.
In 2006, he died of a heart attack at the age of 65. He will forever be remembered as one of the greatest soul singers in history.
Duane Allman was a guitarist from Florida who dreamed of forming a unique rock band. Allman and his brother Gregg played in several Florida based bands with little success. Duane would later go on to form the Allman Brothers band, with Gregg as lead vocalist. The band would achieve stardom with At Fillmore East. However, success was short lived. Duane died in motorcycle accident in 1971. In their grief, The Allman Brothers Band made the difficult decision to soldier on.
To this day, Duane Allman’s legacy is remembered and celebrated. He is one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
The Recording Session
Sessions for Hey Jude were held at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. At the time, racism was rampant in the Southern United States. In states like Alabama, Jim Crow laws were still in place. Many institutions still segregated blacks and whites.
Conservative traditions were firmly entrenched in the south. Long hair and shaggy beards were an unwelcome sight. These conditions were difficult for Pickett and Allman. The black singer and the hippy guitarist would not be a welcome site for the townsfolk of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Stopping for a break, the crew decided to go out to lunch. Pickett and Allman relized the unwelcome reception that awaited them. So, they stayed behind. The two messed around with some songs. Rumours has it that Duane talked Wilson into recovering Hey Jude, at the time a massive hit for the Beatles. Eventually, Duane persuaded a hesitant Pickett to record the song. Once the producer, engineer, and other musicians returned, work began on the cover.
Pickett’s version of Hey Jude begins with a mellow, funk laden groove. This funky rhythm is thanks to the stellar Fame musicians, also known as the Muscle Shoals Swampers. Over this solid foundation, Pickett gives an impersonate, soulful performance. Allman sprinkles guitar fills throughout. Horns provide a sonic compliment. The mellow feeling of the song turns more intense as the track nears the finish line.
Even without the conclusion, Wilson Pickett’s rendition of Hey Jude should go down as one of the greatest soul songs and Beatles’ covers of all time. However, the song’s ending pushes it to the stratosphere.
Pickett’s soulful scream kicks off the song’s coda (concluding section). The intensity of the song immediately picks up. Pickett continues his emotional singing, and Allman assists him with a blistering, soul drenched guitar solo. He is able to match the emotion of Pickett’s scream. When you first listen to the solo, it almost takes your breath away.
According to Pickett, himself and Allman ended up toe-to-toe during the recording. “He stood right in front of me, as though he was playing every note I was singing.” Pickett said. “And he was watching me as I sang, and as I screamed, hew was screaming with his guitar”.
The coda holds in intensity, as Pickett, Allman and the other musicians give it their all. The song slowly fades out as the musicians continue to wail away.
The Beginnings of Southern Rock
Muscle Shoals Swamper Jimmy Johnson has gone on to claim that Pickett’s Hey Jude was the birth of Southern Rock. While this may seem like an outrageous claim, he’s not far off from the truth.
At first, it seems like the song is in no way related to Southern Rock. However if you listen closely, you’ll notice the song includes some characteristics of the genre.
Southern Rock trademarks
Pickett’s Hey Jude meshes several musical genres together. At various points, rock, soul, blues, and country elements can be heard. Allman’s guitar fills contain elements of blues and country, which at the time was unusual for a soul record. Even Duane’s solo was a new thing for a soul record. Up until that point, no one had put a rock guitar solo on a soul record. As mentioned earlier, Southern rock bands fused soul, country, blues, or jazz together with rock and roll. Allman and Pickett were the first to do this, setting the template for the future bands to follow.
Allman’s solo sounds similar to a Southern Rock guitar solo. A typical Southern Rock solo is played hard and fast. Additionally, the solo could sound mean, cocky, or uplifting all at the same time. Other solos could be melodic or slow and brooding. In conclusion, Southern Rock guitar solos are filled with emotion, whatever emotion that might be. Allman’s solo is filled with fast runs. His tone is passionate, creating a warm, happy feeling. In two years time, hundreds of solos would sound like his.
Wilson Pickett’s vocals contain elements of the Southern Rock style. His voice sounds like Gregg Allman’s: gruff but full of soul. One can only wonder if Gregg was influenced by Pickett when developing his singing. Whatever the may case might be, Pickett’s singing is a precursor to several Southern Rock singers.
Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude cover was a hit, climbing to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition, the song climbed to #13 on the R&B Singles chart. Allman landed a contract with Atlantic Records as result of his fretwork. He worked as a session musician for Atlantic, playing guitar for artists like Aretha Franklin.
After Allman finished his session work, he headed down to Jacksonville, Florida. There, he began jamming with guitarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oakley, and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (aka Jaimoe).Butch Trucks (drums) and Gregg Allman (keyboards and vocals) completed the lineup. And so the Allman Brothers Band was born. The group released their debut in 1969, often considered the first Southern Rock record.
The song’s solo caught the ear of English guitar legend Eric Clapton. After Clapton heard Allman’s solo he “had to know who that was” immediately. Clapton went as far as to seek out the song’s engineer to find out who the guitar player was. When Clapton was in Miami to record the classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, he recruited Allman to play on the album after he attended an Allman Brothers concert. Allman would play on all but three of that album’s songs. The collaboration would culminate with the guitar work on Layla.
Wilson Pickett’s rendition of Hey Jude is a classic song that still holds up today. The song is funky, rocking, and soulful; it is a perfect reimagining of the Beatles’ classic. The song is further heightened by Duane Allman’s incredible solo. His guitar solo on the songs’ conclusion is one of the best of all time. It has drawn praise from the likes of Eric Clapton.
There is more to the song’s legacy though. Pickett’s Hey Jude may have spawned a whole new musical genre. With their blending of rock, blues, soul, and country, Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman helped create the Southern Rock genre.
You can listen to the song here: