Eric Clapton vividly recalls when he first heard the guitar solo that he still considers his favorite.
It was 1969 and he was driving with his car radio on when a mid-tempo soul tune began playing. He recognized the tune immediately—“Hey Jude,” a recent hit for his friends the Beatles, though this wasn’t their version. It was a new cover of it by singer Wilson Pickett, who Clapton knew was recording for Atlantic, the label that released his own records in the United States.
When the song was finished, Clapton got back on the road.
“I drove home and called Atlantic Records immediately,” he says. “I had to know who was playing that guitar.”
The guitarist who so impressed Clapton was a young hotshot session player who at the time was unknown outside of the southern rock, blues and soul scene. In the next two years, however, he would become famous not only with his own group but also with Clapton himself in Derek and the Dominos for their classic album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, released November 9, 1970.
“And they said, ‘It’s a guy called Skydog Allman—Duane Allman,’ ” Clapton recalls. “I just filed it away.
“To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It’s the best.”
How Allman came to play on Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude” is a story in itself.
About a year before forming the Allman Brothers Band with his brother, Gregg, the 22-year-old guitarist had been hired by producer Rick Hall as a session musician at the now-legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As Allman biographer Randy Poe writes in his book Skydog: The Duane Allman Story, Allman was present one day in November 1968 when Pickett showed up to record.
“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”?’
The song, the first single on the Beatles’ Apple label, had been released that August and was climbing the charts.
“I said, ‘That’s the most preposterous thing I ever heard,’ ” Hall recalls. “It’s insanity. We’re gonna cover the Beatles? That’s crazy! 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.’ ”
The Beatles’ original was more than seven minutes long, thanks to its lengthy outro, over which the group sang a chorus of “na na na na-na-na-na.” For the Pickett version, everyone agreed to shorten the outro to bring the song in at a radio-friendly four minutes.
“From the moment Duane plays the first lick 10 seconds into the coda,” Poe writes, “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 FAME 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.
In the video below, Clapton shares his recollection of hearing Duane Allman, which is followed by Pickett’s version in full.