MAKE NO MISTAKE. While only two of the six original members of the Allman Brothers Band were actual biological siblings, the fraternal ties of Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson, went deep. Real deep.
Through their music, their joys, their tragedies, and enough infighting, drugs, boozing, breakups and reunions, and creative differences to do in most lesser bands, the Allmans have somehow kept going. Incredibly, for a group that lost its admitted leader and soul – Duane – in a motorcycle accident three albums into their career and then Oakley, almost a year later in nearly the same spot and also on a bike.
Paul is a music journalist and long-time friend of the band, and conducted more than 60 interviews with current and former bandmembers, musical friends, roadies, ex-wives and girlfriends, promoters and other writers. He had the Allmans’ authorization, but lets everyone get his or her say (and sometimes contradict each other) in this oral history.
And while they are revered today as one of classic rock’s greatest bands and forefathers of the jam-band genre, it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t until their third record, 1971’s epochal double LP Live at Fillmore East, that the band found any sort of popular success.
Their extensive use of blues and jazz mixed in with rock wasn’t the Grateful Dead and it wasn’t Lynyrd Skynyrd, but their improvisation and willingness to spread out the music as the muse led them attracted plenty of new fans.
One Way Out, of course, covers the group’s ’60s/’70s prime, the tragedies and the headline-grabbing events. For example, there was the roadie who murdered a promoter over a $500 fee, and Gregg’s testifying against another one in a drug trial that almost split the band for good. Fortunately, his marriage to Cher receives little play.
On a side note, when I interviewed Allman years ago, manager Bert Holman warned me that any questions about Cher would result in Gregg hanging up the phone immediately. I assured him that, if I could ask Gregg Allman 100 questions, not one would be about Cher…
But it’s the later, less-documented years that really get some much-needed light here. This includes the yin-and-yang relationship between Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts – the guitarist who took over the leadership role after Duane’s death, but whose own issues with booze, anger and songwriting credits often made things tense.
The pair also danced a toxic tango, as through the years one would be fine and other damaged by substances, only to switch places. Betts’ 2000 separation, then permanent divorce from the group is covered by all sides – even if they still can’t agree whether he was fired or quit, and how much his personal behavior contributed to the band’s decision.
Unfortunately, readers don’t get much of Betts’ side, as he demurs going into too much detail or “taking bad” about his fellow Brothers, saying it’s water under the bridge. However, his continued resentment leaps plainly off the page.
Also of interest is the band’s story since then, where guitarists Derek Trucks (Butch’s nephew) and Warren Haynes (who joined, then quit, then rejoined) infused a much-needed spark into the unit. Gregg Allman’s on-and-off-again sobriety and near-fatal battle with hepatitis C are also detailed.
The book ends on an interesting if wholly coincidental note. Derek Trucks offers this quote: “I don’t know if the Allman Brothers Band could withstand any more major personnel changes,” he offers, while noting that the group has not been active much recently. “If it’s going to remain legit, it has to be this lineup.”
Since the book has gone to press, both Trucks and Haynes announced that they would be leaving the group permanently at the end of the year to focus on their own efforts. Trucks leading the Tedeschi Trucks Band with his wife, singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, and Haynes with Gov’t. Mule and his own solo career.
Whether this spells the actual end of the road for the group, a chance for Betts to step back in, or the installation of two new axe-slingers – either well-known or fresh – will be interesting to watch.
The Allman Brothers Band has been the subject of a previous biography, Scott Freeman’s quality 1995 effort Midnight Riders. And Gregg Allman recently published his own memoir, My Cross to Bear, currently being made into a film. But Paul’s book presents the most complete and detailed telling of the band’s still-unfolding saga to date. Elizabeth Reed, Melissa and Jessica would also probably agree.
© Bob Ruggiero, Houston Press, 18 March 2014