Mojo (UK) - - Contents -

Gregg Allman’s pass­ing has prompted a surge of love for his South­ern groovers. Alan Light re­calls their re­gal rise and tor­rid tra­vails.

t was the fi­nal show the allman brothers band would ever play. on oc­to­ber 28, 2014 the group made its last ap­pear­ance at the bea­con the­atre in new york city – the 232nd night of an un­prece­dented an­nual res­i­dency at the venue. they had al­ready played three sets plus an en­core of their sig­na­ture epic, whip­ping post; it was, in fact, now af­ter mid­night, mean­ing tech­ni­cally it was oc­to­ber 29, the 43rd an­niver­sary of the date of found­ing gui­tarist duane allman’s death.

The seven band mem­bers gath­ered for one last bow, and then Gregg Allman stepped for­ward to de­liver per­haps his first ever speech from the stage. “A few years ago,” he said, “just a few years ago, I was called to come and meet th­ese guys in Jack­sonville, Florida. And it was kinda, like, a lit­tle stiff in the room, un­til one of them handed me a lyric sheet and said, ‘Sing.’ This was about 3.30 in the af­ter­noon in Jack­sonville, Florida – March 26, 1969. “Never did we have any idea that it would come to this. We give you a heart­felt thank you, and now we’re gonna end on the first song we ever played.” They re­turned to their in­stru­ments and counted off Trou­ble No More, the Muddy Wa­ters stomp that, when they recorded it about four months af­ter that very first jam ses­sion, closed the first side of their self-ti­tled de­but al­bum. A few blaz­ing min­utes later, the mu­si­cians wan­dered off the stage – with a photo of Duane pro­jected on the screen be­hind them – and The Allman Brothers Band was over.

he path to the allman brothers’ for­ma­tion in 1969 had been com­pli­cated and un­likely, and didn’t get much eas­ier from there. the group’s history will for­ever be brack­eted by two pairs of tragedies; gui­tarist duane allman’s fa­tal 1971 mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent was fol­lowed by bassist berry oak­ley’s crash al­most ex­actly a year later. gregg’s death from liver cancer on may 27 this year was pre­ceded by the sui­cide of drum­mer butch trucks on jan­uary 24. un­til the day he died, gregg was al­ways adamant that the credit for get­ting those four play­ers in a room, along with gui­tarist dickey betts and drum­mer jai jo­hanny ‘jaimoe’ jo­han­son, be­longed to his older brother – that the sound and struc­ture of the allman brothers band was duane’s vi­sion, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity he car­ried was the maintenance of this cre­ation. “i al­ways won­dered if they got me just be­cause they couldn’t find any­body else,” he told me when we were col­lab­o­rat­ing on his 2012 mem­oir my cross to bear. to as­sem­ble the book, ev­ery few weeks i would travel to gregg’s house out­side sa­van­nah, ge­or­gia. he was of­ten wear­ing the pur­ple psy­che­delic booties that his mother, geral­dine, al­ready in her nineties, had knit­ted for him. his beloved “house man­ager”, judy, kept the cof­fee on and metic­u­lously laid out the dozens of pills he took to main­tain his im­mune sys­tem af­ter his 2010 liver trans­plant, which fol­lowed a case of hep­ati­tis c and then liver cancer. his dogs al­ways cheered him up. no mat­ter what he was re­count­ing – his fa­ther’s mur­der when gregg was just two years old, the years of sub­stance abuse, the band­mates he had lost along the way – he would perk up when his two lit­tle pups would skit­ter into the room. and while he ex­pressed re­gret for the pain he had caused oth­ers, for the chaos of his six mar­riages (with the book’s dead­line ap­proach­ing, we re­alised that we hadn’t even men­tioned one of the wives, and he strug­gled to come up with any mem­o­ries of her at all) and the messy re­la­tion­ships with his chil­dren, he never made ex­cuses. Above all else, it was strik­ing how present Duane seemed to be. Gregg would bring him up con­stantly – he had notes from Duane framed on the walls – and im­i­tate the way Duane called his younger sib­ling “Bay-brah”, a con­trac­tion of “baby brother”. Maybe it’s not sur­pris­ing that, 40 years af­ter his death, his brother loomed so large; in a fa­ther­less fam­ily raised by a work­ing mother, Duane was a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence. later, fronting “The Allman Brothers Band” as the only liv­ing Allman brother, Gregg ap­peared to suf­fer some kind of sur­vivor’s guilt, but his brother’s me­mory also seemed to give him a drive and a pur­pose. Make no mis­take, Gregg Allman was proud of his band, and for all of his laid-back persona, he was com­pet­i­tive when it came to mak­ing mu­sic. he un­der­stood the All­mans’ legacy in help­ing to cre­ate both the South­ern rock and the jam-band move­ments, but he also knew that his group could play cir­cles around most ev­ery­one of­ten clas­si­fied as their peers. he bris­tled at any com­par­isons to lynyrd Skynyrd or the Grate­ful Dead – as far as he was con­cerned, the Allman Brothers were in an­other league. “We had the best god­damn band in the land,” he said. “We are some Su­per Bowl moth­er­fuck­ers com­pared to all them other bands.” It was a cir­cuitous route that led them to the level they at­tained. But af­ter as­sem­bling and dis­band­ing nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent groups, squan­der­ing some op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­fus­ing oth­ers, the All­mans cre­ated a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mu­si­cal di­rec­tion. right at the mo­ment when the world truly caught up with their sound, though, the pri­mary ar­chi­tect of that dream was gone.

don’t like any of that con­trived shit, man,” duane allman once said. “we’re just plain ol’ fuckin’ south­ern cats, man. not ashamed of it or proud of it, nei­ther one. ain’t no su­per­stars here, man.” gregg had picked up a gui­tar first. he spied one on a neigh­bour’s front porch and begged the guy to show him how to play. af­ter he learned a few chords, he set out to get an in­stru­ment of his own, tak­ing on a paper route to earn the money for a gui­tar at a sears store; he tri­umphantly marched in with the 21 dol­lars in­di­cated on the price tag, only to have to re­turn home and get an­other 95 cents from his mother for the tax he hadn’t taken into ac­count. duane was more in­ter­ested in mo­tor­cy­cles then, but he started bor­row­ing gregg’s gui­tar and prac­tis­ing, and when he quit school, he stayed home play­ing all day. by the time they started the es­corts, duane was play­ing lead and gregg be­came lead singer. they per­formed con­stantly around day­tona beach, florida – “the so­cial scene in day­tona beach was sim­ple,” duane once said, “the white cats surf and the blacks play mu­sic.” their set con­sisted of r&b cov­ers, bea­tles songs, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’ (“which we butchered,” said gregg), and wild thing, which “got us real close to get­ting fired sev­eral times.”

By 1965, other band mem­bers had come and gone, but the group – re­named The Allman Joys – was the hottest thing in town. They es­tab­lished a work ethic that would hold for years: “We would re­hearse ev­ery day in the club,” said Gregg, “go have lunch, re­hearse some more, go home and take a shower, then go to the gig. Some­times we would re­hearse af­ter we got home from the gig, too, just get out the acoustics and play.” They took to the road, pulling a trailer of gear in a beige Chevy sta­tion wagon (in­clud­ing a Vox or­gan that Gregg had now added to the mix) and play­ing five sets a night, six nights a week. They were start­ing to get some no­tice from more es­tab­lished fig­ures, in­clud­ing John D. Lou­d­er­milk in Nashville (who had writ­ten such hits as Ebony Eyes for The Everly Brothers) and Bill McEuen, man­ager of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who gave the All­mans the cash to go to Los Angeles. Now re­named Hour Glass, the band was soon open­ing for The Doors and Buf­falo Spring­field, and signed to Lib­erty Records. But the record­ing of their self-ti­tled 1967 de­but was a huge dis­ap­point­ment, as they were given ma­te­rial much pop­pier than their sound on stage. “We hated the whole process,” said Gregg, “be­cause ever y time we tried to loosen it up a lit­tle bit, they would stiffen it right back up… the mu­sic had no life to it.” A break­through came when Duane was con­fined at home af­ter a horse­back rid­ing ac­ci­dent. He holed up with a Taj Ma­hal al­bum and taught him­self to play slide gui­tar, us­ing a Co­ri­cidin cold medicine bot­tle as his slide. They cut a sec­ond Hour Glass al­bum, Power Of Love, which they liked a lit­tle bet­ter, but the world still didn’t no­tice. A tour took them back to the East Coast, and when they got to Mus­cle Shoals, Alabama they recorded some songs (in­clud­ing a med­ley of B.B. King hits) they were ac­tu­ally ex­cited about, but Lib­erty had no in­ter­est in re­leas­ing. “I think that’s when we knew the whole LA scene had gone sour on us,” Gregg once said. “Duane got fed up and when my brother got fed up, he got fed up. ‘Fuck this,’ he kept yelling. ‘Fuck this whole thing. Fuck wear­ing th­ese weird clothes. Fuck play­ing this god­damn In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida shit. Fuck it all!’”

uane re­turned to florida, while gregg stayed in la and tried to ful­fil hour glass’s con­tract with lib­erty. even­tu­ally, duane drifted back to mus­cle shoals, where he be­gan to play on ses­sions at rick hall’s fame stu­dio. he was booked for a wil­son pick­ett al­bum, and sug­gested that pick­ett record the bea­tles’ cur­rent hit hey jude (when the no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult singer re­sisted the idea, duane said, “what’s wrong? you don’t got the balls to sing it?”). their fiery call-and-re­sponse on the record­ing would chart a new path for duane’s fu­ture. “most peo­ple have to work their way in,” said fame gui­tarist jimmy john­son. “when duane did that date with Pick­ett, he was in… the play­ers that had been play­ing lead, we just didn’t use them any more.” When At­lantic Records chair­man Jerry Wexler heard Pick­ett’s Hey Jude, he im­me­di­ately bought Duane’s con­tract from Rick Hall and put him in the stu­dio with At­lantic stars in­clud­ing Aretha Franklin, King Cur­tis, Percy Sledge, and many more. “He was a kick­ass good ol’ boy with a beau­ti­ful per­son­al­ity and great feel on his axe,” Wexler wrote in his mem­oir, Rhythm And The Blues. “He played no-bull­shit blues, and he phrased like the au­then­tic black gui­tarists, weav­ing melodic seg­ments like elab­o­rate ta­pes­tries.” Phil Walden, who had been otis Red­ding’s man­ager, be­gan manag­ing Duane, and first en­vi­sioned build­ing a Cream-style power trio around the gui­tarist. Walden dis­patched for­mer Red­ding drum­mer Jaimoe to Mus­cle Shoals, where they joined up with bassist Berry oak­ley, whom Allman knew from the Florida cir­cuit. But the Chicago-born oak­ley was still play­ing in a band called The Sec­ond Com­ing, with a hot­shot gui­tarist named Dickey Betts, and none of the three was a strong enough singer to carry a trio. Even­tu­ally, Duane moved back to Jack­sonville, bring­ing Jo­han­son with him. (“Peo­ple ask me things like, ‘Was I in the orig­i­nal band?’” Jaimoe once said. “Shit, I was with the band when it wasn’t no band.”) They moved in with an­other drum­mer, Butch Trucks, who was play­ing in a more folk rock­o­ri­ented out­fit called The 31st of Fe­bru­ary. Duane sat in with Betts and oak­ley’s band, and things started to gel. “It came on kind of grad­u­ally,” said Betts, “but there was a cer­tain point where ev­ery­body knew it was gonna be real in­ter­est­ing, and it was gonna be real dif­fer­ent…He and I started to jump into some ar­eas that we hadn’t quite seen be­fore.” Duane gath­ered all of th­ese play­ers – Jaimoe, Trucks, oak­ley and Betts, plus Sec­ond Com­ing key­board player Reese Wy­nans – at his house. “We set up the equip­ment and whipped into a lit­tle jam, and it lasted two and a half hours,” he said. “When we fi­nally quit, no­body said a word, man. Ev­ery­body was speech­less. No­body’d ever done any­thing like that be­fore… Right then, I knew. I said, Man, here it is – here it is!” But he also knew there was one el­e­ment miss­ing. So he called his brother in Los Angeles.

got th­ese two drum­mers…’ “that was how duane started his call,” said gregg, “and i’m think­ing, two drum­mers? sounds like a train wreck.” but duane made his pitch, and gregg – ea­ger to es­cape the on­go­ing frus­tra­tions of la – sprinted back to florida. he got back in time for that fate­ful ver­sion of trou­ble no more in march 1969 – “one of the finer days of my life,” he called it. he played the oth­ers his orig­i­nal songs dreams and not my cross to bear, and they were off and run­ning, with gregg des­ig­nated as not only the lead singer and or­gan player, but the main song­writer. (reese wy­nans, mean­while, would later be­come part of ste­vie ray vaughan’s dou­ble trou­ble.)

The sound they cre­ated was mag­i­cal. The sex­tet had the high­fly­ing tech­nique and sen­si­tiv­ity of a jazz group, rooted in mus­cu­lar rock’n’roll power – the dou­ble-drum­mer “train wreck” al­lowed for an in­no­va­tive rhyth­mic flu­id­ity and flex­i­bil­ity – fronted by a gen­uine blues singer, ty­ing up all the el­e­ments with un­de­ni­able soul. In ad­di­tion, Jaimoe’s pres­ence made them an in­te­grated band, a strong state­ment in the Amer­i­can South of the 1960s. Gregg’s sug­ges­tion for a band name was Beelze­bub, but the oth­ers voted that the ag­gre­gate would be known as The Allman Brothers Band. They moved to Ma­con, Ge­or­gia to be closer to man­ager Walden, who was also es­tab­lish­ing his Capricorn Records im­print through At­lantic. Play­ing free con­certs in Ma­con Cen­tral City Park ev­ery week­end and cram­ming into ‘The Big House’, a sprawl­ing mock­Tu­dor ed­i­fice on Vineville Av­enue rented by Berry Oak­ley’s wife Linda (to­day it’s The Allman Brothers Band Mu­seum), their sound and reper­toire were ex­plod­ing. Just a few months later, in Au­gust, they went to New York to record the first Allman Brothers Band al­bum at At­lantic Stu­dios. Given only two weeks in an un­fa­mil­iar and in­tim­i­dat­ing set­ting, they had a tough time. “I felt that we had been rushed through an artis­tic piece that was only about half­way done,” said Gregg. Though the al­bum in­cluded such clas­sics as Dreams and Whip­ping Post, it barely grazed the charts, de­spite the group’s tire­less tour­ing to pro­mote it.

The band had rented a cheap cabin on a lake out­side of Ma­con as a re­hearsal/party head­quar­ters; they jok­ingly com­pared the heavy traf­fic in and out to New York’s Idlewild Air­port. The nick­name stuck as the ti­tle of the sec­ond Allman Brothers al­bum, 1970’s Idlewild South. With the group play­ing over 300 live dates that year, record­ing was ac­com­plished on the fly – in Ma­con, Mi­ami and New York, work­ing around Duane’s his­toric ses­sions with Eric Clap­ton’s Derek & The Domi­nos for the Layla And Other As­sorted Love Songs al­bum. (Clap­ton asked Duane to join the group per­ma­nently, but his al­le­giance to the Allman Brothers was too strong.) Though the ma­te­rial was solid – in­clud­ing Mid­night Rider and two sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions from Betts, Re­vival and In Me­mory Of Elizabeth Reed – the al­bum sold only marginally bet­ter than its pre­de­ces­sor. The All­mans were strug­gling to cap­ture the in­ten­sity of their mon­u­men­tal live shows in the stu­dio, so the an­swer seemed ob­vi­ous: the next al­bum would be recorded live, in the friendly set­ting of New York’s Fill­more East, where a seem­ingly un­likely ur­ban crowd had taken to the band. “The stage is re­ally our nat­u­ral el­e­ment,” said Duane be­fore the March 1971 record­ings. “We kind of get frus­trated do­ing the records, so con­se­quently our next al­bum will be for the most part a live record­ing to get some of that nat­u­ral fire on it.” Recorded over two nights, and blast­ing out of the gate with an in­cen­di­ary ver­sion of Blind Wil­lie McTell’s States­boro Blues, At Fill­more East is a reg­u­lar top-fiver among the great­est live al­bums of all time, and a de­fin­i­tive show­case for the All­mans’ in­ter­play and im­pro­vi­sa­tion. No track comes in at un­der four min­utes, and You Don’t Love Me and Whip­ping Post each fill a com­plete side, but the en­ergy and ideas never wane. And, against all con­ven­tional record com­pany wis­dom (Wexler wanted it cut down to a sin­gle disc), the

live al­bum is what fi­nally con­nected the band to record buy­ers; At Fill­more East peaked at Num­ber 13 on the US charts and was cer­ti­fied gold in Oc­to­ber 1971. But just days af­ter the al­bum was recog­nised for that sales land­mark, Duane Allman was back in Ma­con, rid­ing his mo­tor­cy­cle. A truck car­ry­ing a lum­ber crane stopped sud­denly at an in­ter­sec­tion, forc­ing him to swerve sharply. He struck ei­ther the truck or the crane and was thrown from the mo­tor­cy­cle, which bounced into the air, landed on top of him, and skid­ded an­other 90 feet with him pinned un­der­neath. He was alive when he was brought to a hos­pi­tal, but died sev­eral hours later from mas­sive in­ter­nal in­juries. “The night be­fore he got killed,” Allman Brothers roadie Joseph ‘Red Dog’ Camp­bell told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe, “Duane and I were talk­ing. We had just got­ten into Ma­con a cou­ple of days be­fore. ‘We’ve got it made now,’ he said. ‘We’re on our way. Ain’t gonna be no more beans for break­fast.’” “My brother never got to live to see the big money start rolling in,” said Gregg. “What we had been try­ing to do all those years fi­nally hap­pened, and he was gone.”

ow does that feel­ing ever leave you? “i don’t know what get­ting over it means, re­ally,” said gregg. “i don’t stand around cr ying any more, but i think about him ev­ery day of my life.” at duane’s funeral, gregg took the rest of the band aside, telling them, “if we don’t keep play­ing, like my brother would’ve wanted us to, we’re all gonna be­come dope deal­ers and just fall by the way­side.” the group hung in, and were re­warded. at fill­more east went back up the charts, and its 1972 fol­low-up eat a peach, com­bin­ing more of the fill­more record­ings with such ex­tra­or­di­nary stu­dio tracks as melissa, blue sky and ain’t wastin’ time no more, shot to num­ber 4 and served as a eu­logy for the gui­tarist. it was as if their tri­umphs and catas­tro­phes were um­bil­i­cally linked. dev­as­tated by duane’s pass­ing, berry oak­ley had un­der­taken to “get high, be high, and stay high”. the rest of the group were not far be­hind, but the bassist de­vel­oped a kind of death wish. af­ter trou­bling his band­mates with his in­creas­ing reck­less­ness, he was killed in a bike smash three blocks from the spot of duane’s. oak­ley, duane – and now gregg – oc­cupy ad­ja­cent plots in rose hill ceme­tery, ma­con. recorded ei­ther side of oak­ley’s death and re­leased in au­gust 1973, brothers and sis­ters topped the bill­board al­bum chart, mak­ing su­per­stars of a band who were now bank­ing $100,000 a show and hir­ing out led zep­pelin’s boe­ing 720b jet (‘the star­ship’), but found them­selves in­creas­ingly alien­ated from one an­other. betts – the star of brothers and sis­ters, for which he wrote the hit ram­blin’ man – took on more of a lead­er­ship role, butting heads with allman, who main­tained an of­fand-on solo ca­reer and joined the tabloid cir­cus with his short­lived 1975 mar­riage to cher. sub­stances, how­ever, were a more con­stant part­ner (allman claimed his first date with cher ended with him shoot­ing heroin and pass­ing out) and it was gregg’s tes­ti­mony against tour man­ager scooter her­ring – charged with deal­ing co­caine in 1976 – which many ob­serve spelt the end of the all­mans’ fra­ter­nal bond. yet the band it­self didn’t die. 1978-82 and 1986 saw re­vivals, and from 1989 reg­u­lar tours have turned the name into an in­sti­tu­tion – allman, trucks, betts and jaimoe (mostly) con­stants, with trans­fu­sions of new blood, most cru­cially gui­tarist war­ren haynes. yet in 2000 there was a re­minder of group’s ca­pac­ity for drama when betts was fired, allman’s al­le­ga­tions of un­pro­fes­sional con­duct con­tested fu­ri­ously by the gui­tarist. through the group’s more re­cent tra­vails, duane was rarely far from gregg’s thoughts, maybe even more so as his health is­sues be­came more se­ri­ous. our first ses­sion for gregg’s book was set for some­time in the spring of 2011, less than a year af­ter his liver trans­plant. and then, be­fore we met up, he suf­fered an­other med­i­cal emer­gency – this time go­ing Code Blue in the hos­pi­tal af­ter blood had seeped into his lungs. We first sat down to­gether in north­ern florida, where Gregg had gone to rest and re­cover. He needed a walker to move around, and he looked old and very frag­ile. As soon as I turned the recorder on, he told me about a vi­sion he had while he was un­con­scious in the emer­gency room, a dream in which he came to a bridge and some­one with long hair – Duane, he as­sumed – stood on the other side, but he de­cided that it wasn’t time to go across. It was eerie, and ended up be­ing the pro­logue to My Cross To Bear. Gregg had a hard time slow­ing down. At his house, when we would fin­ish up a day’s in­ter­view ses­sion, he would take me out to his garage and show off his mo­tor­cy­cles, dream­ing of be­ing able to get back in the sad­dle and open them up on the high­way. But as I drove away from the house, I would see him and Judy in my rearview mir­ror, climb­ing onto bi­cy­cles for a care­ful lap around the block, help­ing him build back his strength. Ma­te­rial for a book gets stitched to­gether out of or­der some­times, so I don’t know ex­actly when Gregg said the words that come near the end of My Cross To Bear. But I re­mem­ber him say­ing them with crys­tal clar­ity. “When it’s all said and done,” he told me, “I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, say­ing, ‘Nice work, lit­tle brother – you did all right.’”

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