Asked to name his favorite guitar solo, Eric Clapton describes first hearing it on his car radio, saying he pulled over to the side of the road to listen.
“I drove home and called Atlantic Records immediately,” Clapton said. “I had to know who was playing that guitar.”
Who was it? Here's the story...
About a year before forming The Allman Brothers Band, 22-year-old Duane Allman had been hired by producer Rick Hall as a session musician at the now-legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and he was there when Wilson Pickett showed up unexpectedly in November 1968.
As Allman biographer Randy Poe writes in his book Skydog: The Duane Allman Story...
“Pickett came into the studio,” says Rick Hall, “and I said, ‘We don’t have anything to cut.’ We didn’t have a song. So Duane said, ‘Why don’t we cut “Hey Jude”?’ I said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I ever heard. It’s insanity. We’re gonna cover the Beatles? That’s crazy!’ And Pickett said, ‘No, we’re not gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Their single is gonna be number one. I mean, this is the biggest group in the world!’ And Duane said, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it — because it will be number one and the Beatles are so big. The fact that we would cut the song with a black artist will get so much attention, it’ll be an automatic smash.’ That made all the sense in the world to me. So I said, ‘Well, okay. Let’s do it.'"
They agreed to shorten the song from the Beatles' original seven minutes to a more radio-friendly four minutes.
“From the moment Duane plays the first lick ten seconds into the coda,” writes Poe, “until the song fades out over a minute later, it is entirely his show. The background vocalists are singing those familiar ‘na-na-na-na’s’ — but it’s all for naught. Rick Hall has pushed them so far down in the mix, they are merely ambiance. Absolutely nothing matters but Duane’s guitar.”
When it was over, Hall knew he had a hit, and immediately called Atlantic Records producer and executive Jerry Wexler, who'd sent Pickett to Muscle Shoals in the first place.
Poe writes:"Hall cranked up the volume, held the receiver near the speakers, and played the recording all the way through. The guitar player, naturally, blew Jerry Wexler away. 'Who is he?' Wexler asked. Hall told Wexler that Pickett called him Sky Man. He said that Sky Man was a hippie from Jacksonville, Florida, who had talked Pickett into cutting the tune.
Wexler persisted. “Who the hell is he?”
“Name’s Duane Allman,” Rick replied.
Now, have a listen to Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman's version of "Hey Jude"