Pi­o­neer­ing fig­ure in South­ern rock is dead at 69

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY HAR­RI­SON SMITH har­ri­son.smith@wash­post.com

When Gregg All­man be­gan singing at South­ern bars and clubs in the mid-1960s with his gui­tarist brother Duane, his un­trained voice was “like a cross be­tween Hank Wil­liams with the croup and James Brown with no lips,” he later quipped.

His vo­cals bore a rough-edged rasp that Mr. All­man grad­u­ally re­fined into one of the most dis­tinc­tive sounds in Amer­i­can mu­sic: a blend of Ten­nessee twang, tra­di­tional soul and gospel, and a hard-won sense of the blues.

Mr. All­man, 69, who died May 27 at his home in Sa­van­nah, Ga., was for decades the front­man of the All­man Brothers Band, a pi­o­neer­ing but con­flict-rid­den blues-rock col­lec­tive that mod­eled its gui­tar runs on the melodies of Brahms and per­formed in­stru­men­tal jams in­spired by the im­pro­vi­sa­tional jazz greats Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

His fam­ily an­nounced the death on Mr. All­man’s of­fi­cial web­site but did not pro­vide other de­tails. Mr. All­man had a liver trans­plant in 2010 and had strug­gled with an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat, among other health prob­lems in re­cent years. He re­cently be­gan can­cel­ing con­certs.

Mr. All­man released a half-dozen al­bums as a solo artist but was best known for his work with the All­man Brothers Band, which Duane All­man formed in 1969. The el­der All­man, a preter­nat­u­rally gifted slide gui­tarist, en­vi­sioned a lineup of two drum­mers and two gui­tarists, an­chored by two All­mans — an out­fit ca­pa­ble of dou­bling the mu­si­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and raw sonic power of a more tra­di­tional rock group.

The band fea­tured gui­tarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oak­ley, rock drum­mer Butch Trucks and his jazz-fo­cused coun­ter­part, Jai Jo­hanny “Jaimoe” Jo­han­son. Mr. All­man shared singing du­ties with Betts, played the elec­tric or­gan and wrote some of the band’s most en­dur­ing songs, in­clud­ing tracks about a road that “goes on for­ever” (“Mid­night Rider”) and “bear­ing sor­row, havin’ fun” (“Melissa”).

His nim­ble work on the Ham­mond B3 or­gan helped the All­man Brothers be­come a na­tional phe­nom­e­non in the early 1970s, when their im­prov-heavy con­certs packed sta­di­ums and of­ten lasted more than three hours.

Be­fore per­for­mances at the Fill­more East, a fre­quent stomp­ing ground for the band in Man­hat­tan’s East Vil­lage, club owner Bill Gra­ham was known to tell au­di­ences that he was lock­ing the au­di­to­rium doors — and that any­one who needed to leave dur­ing the night should do so be­fore the rock­ing com­menced.

When it did, the mu­sic was of­ten rev­e­la­tory, be­tray­ing the brothers’ wide-rang­ing mu­si­cal roots. Born in Nashville, they grew up hear­ing coun­try mu­sic on week­end trips to the Grand Ole Opry, and later fell in love with the soul of Ray Charles and the blues of Lit­tle Mil­ton when their mother moved the fam­ily to Day­tona Beach, Fla.

Their eclec­tic tastes re­sulted in a new sound, now la­beled South­ern rock, that crossed gen­res and, in some cases, racial di­vides. Blues was seen as strictly African Amer­i­can mu­sic; coun­try, and to some ex­tent rock-and-roll, were taken to be ex­clu­sively white. The brothers drew from both worlds and turned up the amps.

Early records fea­tured blues stan­dards along­side orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions by Mr. All­man, and in 1971, the group broke through crit­i­cally and com­mer­cially with “At Fill­more East.” Con­sid­ered one of the great­est live al­bums in rock his­tory for its high-octane im­pro­vi­sa­tions, the record fea­tured ex­tended ver­sions of songs such as “Whip­ping Post,” stretch­ing the num­ber well past its five-minute stu­dio ver­sion into a 23-minute epic.

Within six months of the record’s release, Duane All­man was dead at 24, killed in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent near a Tu­dor man­sion that served as the band’s home in Ma­con, Ga.

Mr. All­man was dev­as­tated. His brother had been his mu­si­cal lodestar as well as his part­ner in drug-fu­eled mis­chief: As teenagers, the gui­tarist had hopped up his brother Gregg on al­co­hol and speed for a “foot-shoot­ing party,” re­sult­ing in a well-tar­geted gun­shot wound that kept him out of mil­i­tary ser­vice in Viet­nam.

By his ac­count, Mr. All­man sank deeper into al­co­hol and drug abuse fol­low­ing the death of his brother, mov­ing from the psy­che­delic mush­rooms that the band had used as a song­writ­ing aid to ever-in­creas­ing quan­ti­ties of co­caine and heroin.

The band per­formed more than 300 shows a year on the strength of its first top-10 record, “Eat a Peach” (1972), criss­cross­ing the coun­try on a pri­vate Boe­ing 720 known as the Star­ship. When they first climbed aboard, Mr. All­man re­called in his mem­oir, “My Cross to Bear” (2014), they found the words “Wel­come All­man Bros” writ­ten in co­caine on the bar.

The be­whiskered Mr. All­man also de­vel­oped a nick­name, Coy­otus Max­imus, that re­flected his seem­ingly in­sa­tiable ap­petite for what he later de­scribed as “foxy ladies . . . oo­dles of them.”

When the band’s bassist, Oak­ley, died one year af­ter Duane All­man and in nearly iden­ti­cal cir­cum­stances, the band re­grouped once again. Their al­bum “Brothers and Sis­ters” (1973) sold sev­eral mil­lion copies and fea­tured the band’s best-known song, “Ram­blin’ Man,” writ­ten and sung by Betts.

The gui­tarist pushed the band in a more con­ven­tion­ally coun­try di­rec­tion, and Mr. All­man re­sponded the same year with “Laid Back,” his solo de­but and most crit­i­cally ac­claimed record. The al­bum marked a re­turn to the down­tempo soul ar­range­ments that Mr. All­man had grown up striv­ing to im­i­tate.

It also marked a slow-build­ing sep­a­ra­tion be­tween Mr. All­man and the group that car­ried his name, which even­tu­ally broke up and re-formed — twice — over cre­ative dis­putes and, at least in part, an­i­mos­ity to­ward Mr. All­man.

Band mem­bers ac­cused him of lead­ing too glam­orous a life­style. He mar­ried the pop singer Cher in 1975, moved with her to Bev­erly Hills, and col­lab­o­rated with her on a dis­as­trously re­ceived pop record un­der the billing All­man and Woman be­fore di­vorc­ing. Band­mates also charged that Mr. All­man looked out for him­self be­fore the group. When Mr. All­man agreed to tes­tify against his road man­ager in ex­change for im­mu­nity in a 1976 drug case, they for­swore any fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Yet Mr. All­man proved per­sis­tent in smooth­ing things over. He stopped do­ing drugs (at least for a time), re­turned to Ma­con and re­united with Betts, Trucks and Jaimoe to release “En­light­ened Rogues” (1979), with the ad­di­tions of Dan Toler on gui­tar and David Gold­flies on bass. The record took its name from a term Duane All­man once used to de­scribe the band’s orig­i­nal mem­bers.

Mr. All­man won special praise for his vo­cal work on the al­bum, which Rolling Stone writer Robert Palmer de­scribed as the finest of his ca­reer — “growl­ing, ur­gent, full of fire.” Ex­pe­ri­ence had made him a bet­ter singer, Mr. All­man told the mag­a­zine.

“Plus,” Mr. All­man added, “get­ting away from the, ahhh, de­pres­sants — that also helps greatly.”

Gre­gory LeNoir All­man was born in Nashville on Dec. 8, 1947. His fa­ther was fa­tally shot by a hitch­hiker when Gregg was 2. His mother later sup­ported the fam­ily by do­ing ac­count­ing work.

At 13, Gregg bought a gui­tar from Sears and taught him­self to play while lis­ten­ing to a jazz-and-blues sta­tion. His brother Duane proved more adept at the in­stru­ment. “He passed me up in­side of two weeks,” Mr. All­man told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 1989 — and Gregg be­gan fo­cus­ing on the key­board.

The duo formed a blues-rock group called the All­man Joys and made an un­suc­cess­ful record­ing de­but (as the Hour Glass) be­fore form­ing the group that be­came the All­man Brothers Band.

The band was in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and con­tin­ued play­ing for nearly a decade more, with sev­eral lineup changes in the wake of Betts’s exit from the band in 2000. In Mr. All­man’s mem­oir, co-writ­ten with Alan Light, he said that he was drunk at the Hall of Fame cer­e­mony and cited the in­duc­tion as the turn­ing point at which he quit drink­ing af­ter 14 pre­vi­ous trips to re­hab.

He had six mar­riages and five chil­dren: Michael All­man, a South­ern rock singer, from a re­la­tion­ship with Mary Lynn Sut­ton; Devon All­man, leader of the blues­rock band Honeytribe, from a mar­riage to Shelley Kay Jefts; Eli­jah Blue All­man, a singer and gui­tarist for the heavy-metal band Deadsy, from his mar­riage to Cher; Delilah Is­land All­man, from a mar­riage to Julie Bin­das; and Layla Brook­lyn All­man, who fronts the rock band Pic­ture Me Bro­ken, from a re­la­tion­ship with Shelby Black­burn.

A com­plete list of sur­vivors was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Although Mr. All­man rarely strayed far from the stage, he said there were times when he felt like quit­ting.

“You’ve got to con­sider why any­body wants to be­come a mu­si­cian any­way,” Mr. All­man told Rolling Stone in 1973, fol­low­ing his brother’s death. “I played for peace of mind.”

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IM­AGES

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: An un­dated photo of Gregg All­man, front­man of the All­man Brothers Band, a six-man blues-rock out­fit from Jack­sonville, Fla. ABOVE: All­man, left, sits with Cher in this un­dated photo. All­man and singer-ac­tress Cher were mar­ried from 1975 to 1979, and they have a son, Eli­jah Blue All­man.

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