THE FOUR SURVIVING members of the original Allman Brothers Band – Gregg Allman, Dickie Betts, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson – have reformed for an album and a tour.
The group, the originators of the Southern boogie school of rock, split, seemingly irrevocably, in 1976 after Gregg had squealed on road manager Scooter Herring in a drugs trial that had the unfortunate man jailed for 75 years. Then, Dickie Betts told Rolling Stone: “There is no way we can work with Gregg again, ever.”
Things have changed with the release of Herring by a judge who has declared a “mis-trial”, and, though there may be a new trial next year, it’s thought doubtful that he’ll face jail again. Gregg, meanwhile, has been through a highly publicised failed marriage with the singer Cher, spent two periods at a drug rehabilitation centre, and been forgiven by other band members; according to Betts, “Gregg has suffered enough”.
Rumours of an Allman reunion have been rife for some weeks in Southern rock circles, and three weeks ago Gregg, Butch and Jaimoe joined Betts and his Great Southern band onstage in New York’s Central Park for a four-number jam at the end of a concert.
The reunion album and tour rumours were confirmed when “The Allman Brothers and their friends” played a surprise set at the conclusion of the 7th Annual Capricorn Barbecue and Summer Games before 500 invited guests at the private Lakeside Park estate in Macon of Capricorn boss Phil Walden.
Looking happy and healthy, everyone still living who’d played with the original band, plus members of Dickie Betts’ and Butch Trucks’ own bands, performed a 90 minute set of the Allmans’ best known material.
The Allman Brothers were a top American rock band in the early Seventies. They were responsible for the success of the Capricorn record label and were a major influence on many other Southern rock outfits like Lynyrd Skynyrd. The brothers Allman – Gregg on vocals and organ, and Duane on guitar – began their musical career in Florida as the Allman Joys, went to the West Coast as studio band Hourglass, and then returned to the Southeast as part of a band with drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson.
Duane built a reputation as one of the world’s finest guitarists while doing session work at Rick Hall’s Muscle Shoals studio and was preparing for a solo album when a jam session with friends, including bassist Berry Oakley and guitarist Dickie Betts, led to the formation of the Allman Brothers Band.
They achieved widespread popular and critical acclaim for their live album, At Fillmore East, then were struck by tragedy when Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon. The group vowed to stay together but didn’t replace Duane “because he is irreplaceable”.
Berry Oakley and Dickie Betts developed the sort of rapport between bass and guitar that had distinguished the interplay between Duane and Dickie, then tragedy struck again when Oakley died after a motor cycle crash just a few blocks from the place where Duane had been killed.
Pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams joined the band and, despite the loss of its two most important members, the band went on to achieve their biggest hit with the Brothers And Sisters album. By 1973 they, were the biggest home-grown band in the USA.
But as they became increasingly popular, they also performed less well, and, after Brothers And Sisters, Gregg’s drink and drug problems were having a draining effect on the band’s music and their touring and playing became increasingly sporadic. Band members diversified into their own groups, Butch with Trucks, Betts with Great Southern, and Leavell, Jaimoe and Lamar with Sea Level.
Jaimoe subsequently left for a local Macon band called Razzy Bailey, Gregg formed his own band then worked for a time with his wife Cher. In the last few months there have been unfounded rumours that he was working with the survivors of Lynyrd Skynyrd when he’s in fact been working with a blues band out of Washington called the Nighthawks.
He played a number of dates with them in small clubs, and at one point seemed likely to record with them. However, the Allman reunion plans have meant work with the Nighthawks has had to be shelved.
Capricorn’s Barbecue and Summer Games are an annual shindig for record business people and celebrities who spend an afternoon listening to Capricorn acts, while amusing themselves with pinball machines, volleyball, swimming and water ski-ing and consuming vast quantities of free booze and “red hot” chicken.
The 1978 barbecue was, by all accounts, a somewhat low-key affair compared to previous years when guests have numbered as many as 3000 and included such luminaries as President Jimmy Carter and Andy Warhol.
Most notable guests this year included Jan Berry wearing a “Deadman’s Curve – On Location” tee shirt and participant in the year’s other most unlikely reunion gig: Jan and Dean touring with the Beach Boys later this month. Nashville star Ronee Blakley and comedian Martin Mull were also there.
The advertised musical acts failed to elicit more than a minimum response from the partying guests Opening was Texan Delbert McClinton, the best white r&b singer in the world, whose set would have been better appreciated at night in a honky tonk rather than in a sundrenched lakeside park with a crowd, more concerned with consuming as much free food and booze as possible.
He was followed by Stillwater, an undistinguished Southern boogie band, and Butch Trucks’ new Trucks band which, like the Allmans, boast two drummers.
As the afternoon progressed, the feeling grew that something historic was going to happen, and at 7.35pm it did. Phil Walden strolled on stage and in a tone of voice more suited to announcing that someone’s car was blocking an entrance said, “the Allman Brothers and their friends”.
The guests became suddenly alert, stopped playing games and eating and drinking, and moved as one towards the stage as Gregg, Dickie and Butch, plus members of Great Southern and Trucks, took to the stage.
As the set progressed there were substitutions. Betts and Trucks stayed on stage throughout, while Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams played for only two numbers. Strangely, though all six former members played on stage, there were never more than five of them on stage at once.
They opened unsteadily with ‘One Way Out’ but improved with ‘Southbound’, and by the Betts instrumental, ‘Jessica’, were sounding really good. “You’ll have to forgive us,” said Gregg, “we haven’t rehearsed.” It seemed remarkable that they had just picked up where they left off in 1976, but afterwards everyone insisted that there had been no rehearsal.
The set was good, but not great, and suffered because the band were separated from the crowd by being 20 feet up in the air on a high stage and because Capricorn hadn’t taken the precaution of providing lighting – the last anti-climactic 30 minutes had the band playing in darkness.
Allman’s vocals were strong, Trucks’ drumming was as powerful as ever, and Betts’ guitar work was particularly impressive.
Gregg, looking fit and healthy after his recent deep sea diving holiday, explained after the set that he has written five or six new songs and was keen to get into the studio as soon as possible. He thought “all the band” would be involved in the recording from mid-October.
The comments of Chuck Leavell, recently in London with his own band, suggest this may not be the case. “We talked about cutting the album in January or so, when we got together last month, and that was fine with me, but there is now some talk about going into the studio in October and Sea Level’s new album will be coming out and we may tour then.
“My priorities lie with Sea Level. We’ve just added Joe English (former Wings drummer) to the band and that gives us a new situation to explore. I’m happy with the band and don’t want to mess it up.”
Four days after the barbecue I met up with drummer Butch Trucks and he told me that a meeting of band members had decided that the record would feature the original band members plus a bass player and guitarist “Dangerous Dan” Toler from Great Southern. Lamar Williams and Chuck Leavell would not be on the record or the tour.
“The original members of the band are keen to get going as soon as possible with the record and Chuck will be involved with his own group. We’re hoping to get Tom Dowd to produce. He worked on some of the early albums and he’s the best producer in the world as far as I’m concerned.”
Butch and Dickie intend to keep their own bands going and have no idea what will happen to the Allmans as a working group after the tour. “A British tour would be nice but isn’t in the plans at present,” said Butch.
The set at the Barbecue had been intended as no more than a warm-up jam and audition for bass player and guitarist, but the excitement of the performance and the enthusiasm of the original band members suggests there is still great music to come from the Allman Brothers Band.
© Richard Wootton, Melody Maker, 9 September 1978