In the final year of his life, Gregg Allman did what he loved most
IN THE FINAL YEAR OF HIS LIFE, THE SOUTHERN ROCK LEGEND DID WHAT HE LOVED MOST: HE PLAYED
IN 2012, Gregg Allman learned that he had a recurrence of liver cancer. The news was bleak: The disease was terminal. He was told he had 12 to 18 months to live. Allman’s best friend of nearly 50 years, Chank Middleton, was puzzled by Allman’s reaction. “Gregg didn’t complain,” he says. “He didn’t worry. If they had told me that, I would’ve gone into straight shock.”
Instead, Allman, who founded the Allman Brothers Band in 1969 with his brother, Duane, rededicated himself to what he loved most. “Music was his life,” says Middleton. “It never was about the money. It was always about the music.” That’s why, when faced with the option of radiation treatment, Allman said no. It might have affected his vocal cords, and there didn’t seem much point in extending his life if he couldn’t sing.
Allman, who died on May 27, outlived that initial prognosis by five years, enough time to make a final album. Southern Blood, released September 8, is spirited, often moving and rooted in the Southern rock—a fusion of rock, blues, jazz and country—that he and Duane helped pioneer, a sound immortalized on their albums Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters. The
new album was recorded at FAME Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a place that reminded Allman of his older brother. In the late ’60s, Duane was the primary session guitarist there, recording with, among others, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Wilson Pickett. (Duane taught “Hey Jude” to Pickett, and they recorded it together in 1968.)
Southern Blood is all covers, except for one original song by Allman, with Don Was, of Was (Not Was) fame, serving as producer. The sessions, which lasted just a little more than a week, were a joyful affair, says Middleton, who was constantly by Allman’s side. The two became close friends in 1969, the year the Allman Brothers Band formed. By that time, they had settled in Macon, Georgia, to be closer to Capricorn Records, and Middleton was working at a barbershop next door to the studo. Recalling the brothers, he says with his deep Georgian drawl, “When they go into the studio, they were dogs, all them tails would be waggin’.” Middleton would go on to become, according to a 2013 profile, an Allman “muse, crisis responder, aide-de-camp, valet, wingman and confidante.”
Was learned of Allman’s health problems while participating in a 2014 tribute concert in the rocker’s honor. After overhearing a conversation that wasn’t intended for him, “I got a sense of how serious his illness was,” he says. “When we started the record, I was aware that he probably wouldn’t be around to do these kinds of [promotional] interviews.”
Was recalls the recording process. “It’s weird, man. There was a lot of duality to it. Clearly, we were doing something important that had overtones of gravitas—and a kind of somber [mood]. Even if he’d lived another 20 years, he was very focused on getting that sound, and the group of songs that we’d settled on was making the statement that he wanted to make as a farewell. But at the same time,” Was adds, “we had a great time making the record. He was very upbeat.”
Among the highlights are a gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone” and a cathartic “My Only True Friend,” an ode to life on the road, co-written by Allman and guitarist Scott Sharrard. “You and I both know this river will surely flow to an end/keep me in your heart and keep your soul on the mend,” Allman sings, a line that recalls Warren Zevon’s wrenching farewell ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Then, as the acoustic chords rise, he sings, “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone.”
The song reminds Middleton of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” which was also released posthumously. “It’s like Gregg saw something we didn’t see at that point,” says Middleton, his voice heavy with emotion. He remembers hearing it in the studio and being unimpressed. “That song didn’t register until he had passed.”
The album’s final track, a vulnerable rendition of “Song for Adam” by Jackson Browne, made the deepest impact on Was. Browne, who duets with Allman on the recording, wrote the song in memory of a friend who had died. But Allman sang it with his brother, Duane, in mind.
Browne and Gregg were quasi-roommates in the late ’60s, crashing on the floor of the same house in Los Angeles. “Song for Adam” appeared on Browne’s 1971 debut album, released a few months after Duane’s fatal motorcycle crash, when he was just 25. “Gregg always loved that song,” Was says. “Once Duane passed away, I think it really reminded him of his brother. He’d always wanted to record it.” During the Southern Blood sessions, Allman had a hard time singing it through. “When we got to the third verse, it seemed like he stopped singing in the middle of the song. You can hear it on the record. Gregg got choked up. It was pretty heavy.”
That silence remains on the album: Allman’s voice grows hoarse and abruptly trails off. The producer figured he would eventually sing those two missing lines. “But that time never came,” Was says. “His health deteriorated shortly after that. Gregg stopped singing in the middle of the song literally and figuratively. We just left those two lines open.”
It was the last song recorded. Allman’s illness soon progressed, and he never visited the studio again. Country singer and songwriter Buddy Miller, a friend of Allman’s, was eventually recruited to do the harmony overdubs that Allman had intended to sing.
“All the way up to the very end of his life, Gregg was not afraid of death,” Middleton says. “He sat up on the sofa every day. He never was bedridden. He never complained. He never did seek any sympathy from nobody.”
Speaking about the record, Allman told Was, “You know what to do. You got it. I trust you to finish this thing.” He was pleased with the final mixes he heard, some of them on May 26, the night before he died. “Me, him and [his wife], we sat up until 3:30, 4 in the morning listening to some cuts,” says Middleton. “We listened to ‘Song for Adam’ about three times. He was so proud of it.” Allman was 69 when he died; he’d outlived his friend Butch Trucks, the original drummer for The Allman Brothers, by four months.
Middleton misses his friend, and he misses the music. “To me, losing Gregg is one thing. Losing his music is twice the hit.”
MIDNIGHT RIDERS: Allman with producer Don Was, left, and with his old friend Jackson Browne, below, recording “Song for Adam.”