Beat The Devil: The Allman Brothers

There is a land of the living
and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love,
the only survival, the only meaning

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS Band is no stranger to misfortune, but they were never devastated by fate – never taking a full count, always springing back like silly putty. The Allmans have weathered the bad beatings, salving their wounds with a heavy dose of determination and love. Remember how blood Allman brother Duane used to pride himself on the longevity of the band, puffing out his rangy chest, boasting that, “We’re allies working together. There’s a mutual love we share.”

Four years later, Chuck Leavell credits that same formula. Smoothing his grey pinstriped pants he leans forward with conviction, saying. “The reason we stick it out is just this love. A real love and devotion for one another, and the respect we have. That’s what keeps us together. And, damn it feels so good.”

Duane’s death dealt them their first low blow, stunning them with its suddenness, and temporarily crippling them with a smothering sense of inertia. They floundered and struggled to find some direction, since they had lost Duane, their pilot, and had no place to look for their identity except to each other – which they did, huddling together and vowing complete allegience to each other, to insulate themselves from any more hard knocks, and in doing so they became closer, and tighter as a band. The brother and sister concept wasn’t a marketing gimmick but a necessity.

Time and determination was finally erasing the scars some, when the Brothers experienced an eerie rerun of tragedy, almost a year and a block away from Duane’s mishap, where Berry Oakley was fatally injured in a cycle accident. It was like a technicolor movie abruptly shifting to black and white. They were shell-shocked troups just going through the motions of rock and roll musicians, worried that they all carried some invisible death mark and that they were just killing time until time killed them. People were beginning to say things like “the Allman’s music was born of the highway and there was no place else to end it.” Flocking to see the band out of a morbid fascination to witness the next misfortune, people joked among themselves that perhaps the next album ought to be called Two Down or Who’s Next, as they waited for the band to play out the last act in tragedy.

The only cure for the band’s grief was action, so two weeks after Berry’s funeral, they started auditioning bass players, recruiting Lamar Williams. He turned out to be a perfect replacement – a meaty bass player who looks a little like a misplaced Spinner but seemed almost molded for the role as an Allman Brother. After that the keel evened out, and their sound was just as unique as before, with the albums still going gold.

But the shock of his brother’s and Berry’s death staggered Gregg, who by this time had dropped nearly 75 pounds and was drinking enough liquor to embalm a pharoah. Spindizzy from pirouetting with so much pain, he stumbled into the cellophane assurances of serenity that heroin offered. He soothed himself with the temporary comforts of the needle, while weighing whether the game was still worth the price of the candles.

He saw he had to go, in order to stay, and asked for a temporary deep freeze for the Allmans, while he got some solo flights under his belt – and an initial attempt at a rest cure. Gregg wanted to flex his muscles and make an album alone and put together his own road show. Just to see if he could do it. He could, but Gregg Allman could not court and woo a crowd like the ABB could. He was unable to tempt as many takers to listen to his individual efforts, forced to perform in much smaller halls than the Allmans’ had; it seemed to prove one brother does not make the ABB, even if his last name does start with A. The Allman Brothers Band has a simmering chemistry that can’t be duplicated by disposable hired hands. Chuck Leavell simply admits that “Gregg Allman can’t play to 20,000 alone – maybe 5,000 at best – and that makes me feel good; taking it to mean that I – that we – all add something, and are important to the band.”

Dickie Betts followed Gregg’s lead and churned out an above average show. Alone, he also lacked the magnetism to attract the masses. Now, after a year and a half hiatus, the band has reassembled.

The rumors are that it was a reluctant reunion. One source, close to the center ring revealed that “the Allman Brothers Band is a band in name only. They wouldn’t even get together to pose for a picture for the album.” But if the speculation is serious, no one on the outside has noticed yet. Win Lose or Draw shipped gold and the American tour is calculated to net, at best, 18 million dollars. Allman is guarded, his eyes become icy slits when asked about a break up for the Brothers, vehemently insisting that they intend to play just as long as there are people to listen. Keeping the band together has been a personal triumph for him, and he is fast to defend them when someone asks why they were separated for such a long stretch of time. “We weren’t broken up but apart for a year and a half,” he states slowly. “If that gap hadn’t been there the band wouldn’t be together today. I am a firm believer in ‘everything happens for the best.’ I mean when we got together we forgot some of the words, but then I always do. The Allman Brothers Band is as tight as they ever were, and we still have a real enthusiasm for what we’re doing. No bullshit. Bands our size involve so many people you can create your own soap operas, but we avoid that shit. Though it makes it so hard because the outside bullshit does affect the band…”

A reporter with a big TV camera and a bigger mouth demands to know where the band is going and whether Cher has gotten in the way. “Got my itinerary?” Gregg flippantly responds, ignoring the second reference. Quick on the uptake, Chuck tries to cover the awkwardness of the situation, by piping in with his sentiments on the Allmans’ extended summer vacation. “Dickie Betts said something to me one night, declaring ‘I feel like I’m getting up there pretending to be the best. We’re getting up there pretending to be the Allman Brothers Band.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Man, you’re right. We’re imitating ourselves.’ So we thought, either it’s we never see each other again, or take some time off. We made the right decision to take some time off.” Chuck looked pleased that he had helped Gregg dodge the reporter. But he was not to be thwarted, turning to the rest of the guys, and asking “Do you guys see as much of Gregg, now, since he got his new old lady?” Gregg answered for them, heatedly informing him that: “Hey, I don’t wanna talk about that shit, and I did not like the crack.” Intimidated, the prying reporter exited.

Later, Chuck confides to me that nothing has changed since Cher. “Let me put that straight for all time. Gregg and Cher are just like me and my wife, man. Gregg’s in love, and Cher is in love. It’s just like Dick and Liz and John and Yoko. They’ve got a lot of publicity. Let me put something straight about the music, as far as that goes, it’s just like he’s a different man since he fell in love – it could have been with anyone – it affects his music. Now as far as how it’s affected our popularity or her popularity is a different thing. I think it’s been good, it’s broadened both spectrums. Its fortunate for Gregg and Cher that things got worked out – if they hadn’t had the divorce thing happening there wouldn’t be near as much publicity happening. That don’t hurt any of us, man. We were concerned. We love Gregg. When he was going through that, we were concerned about him.”

In an unguarded moment, loosened by a stiff scotch and coke, Gregg genially passes a silver framed photograph to me which he is keeping on top of the television. As I reach for it he watches me with a mixture of expectancy and pride. “Hey, this is Chastity” I say, somewhat surprised. He nods, his face glowing from the drink and the affection he has for Chastity and her mother. He relaxes and stretches out his long legs, his street stance softened by an almost boyish gleam when he talks about his sultry wife, in such phosphorescent phrases. “You know the first time I saw her was over ten years ago at the Whiskey in LA,” he reminisces. Earlier this month, he had told People Magazine about that first night at the club where he and Duane were playing in the house band, when he saw her in slinky Sixties regalia, and he turned to his brother saying “Isn’t that the most beautiful woman you ever saw?” Duane answered, saying “Man, I hope someday you have what it takes to deserve a woman like that.” Gregg never forgot that night, Cher was his dream date, burning holes into his brain for nearly a decade.

“I bought all Cher’s records. She was my idol,” he confessed. “Of course she doesn’t believe me, but she’s flattered anyway,” he adds impishly giving a sweeping shrug of his buttery blonde hair. “I used to have this vision of her. I’d see her in her backyard in Hollywood, laying in a wooden hammock, nude, next to this clear swimming pool, and the weird thing is, that happened exactly as I had imagined it,” he reverently tells me. “I love Cher more than any woman I have ever known,” he says so earnestly it hurts. “My first wife loved my wallet, not me. She was slitting her wrists while I was packing my bags, but she got over it. She got $62,000 from me. My second wife would sell her mother up the street for a snort of coke, but there was a time I loved her immeasurably, but it’s nothing compared to how much I love Cher.”

Two marriages down, and then Gregg’s third looked about as durable as jello – Cher filing for a divorce only nine days after the wedding. The grounds: irreconcilable differences, translated into “It’s either get off dope or get out the door.” Gregg chose the first route, opting for a clean bill of health to be with his Cher. “When I get off the road I’m so straight. It’s only water and food,” he says, absently fondling a near empty glass before downing it. “Oh, well you know how it is on the road, everything is different,” he says a little sheepishly as he pours another from the Chivas Regal bottle. “If it feels good, go ahead and do it. This is the only time that you’re gonna remember it.”

Although he is still sought after by girls with loud voices and see-through blouses, who always seem to paper the dressing room walls with their over-bright smiles and eager eyes, he doesn’t succumb. He slips away from the gig, in search of a telephone, rather than one of the local ladies in waiting. “You know I don’t take my clothes off for everyone,” Gregg reveals. “And something else – I’ve never had clap.” A remarkable accomplishment, considering that groupies carry it like a banner, and this smooth talking southern gent had a reputation for being no stranger to the spoils of rock and roll. “Well…not really. I was never with just anyone. I’m choosy. I was a virgin until I was 20. I haven’t been unfaithful with a woman since I got married, and I’m getting tired of my hand, but I won’t let anything come between me and Cher,” he says fervently. “I’ve never been this happy in my life. She even cooks for me. I’m well fed when I’m home. When I started this tour I weighed 170 pounds. You know, my first wife cooked me 2 meals, my second wife, maybe 10, and you know Cher cooks for me all the time. She’s great on Mexican food.”

Encouraged by the mood, I venture a little further, aware that I’m on thin ice, but curious about this union of two pop potentates. “What did you think of Cher’s Playboy interview?” I prodded.

“It was shit! I hated it! All that bull shit about me sucking her fingers…” he snorts with high disdain.

“Well did. You…I mean suck her fingers?”
“Yeah. Needless to say the interview was done three days after Cher filed for the divorce,” he growls disagreeably. “Everybody wants to read that I kicked Sonny’s ass or I beat up Cher. Juicy stuff like ‘Gregg Allman Shoots Up In The Bathroom.’ Can you see it, me on the cover with a needle jammed in my arm? The People cover was bad enough. ‘She Keeps Him Off Heroin.’ Great, now the FBI are hot after me, thanks to that cover.” Gregg has become a central player in a multi-killowatt glitzy soap opera, acted out in the public arena because of his recent marriage to Cher…and not because of an eleven year hand-over-hand ascent to the top of the rock pile. Recently he has been added to the 39th addition of Who’s Who, and is relentlessly pursued by top paparrazi, Ron Galella.

Gregg is both haughty and humble, while there is a “just folks” air about him, you’re aware of being in the presence of a master showman. Nevertheless, Allman makes an effort to show how unassuming he is. “Sure I have 31 pairs of boots,” he says with a shrug of studied casualness. “But I’ll show you how spoiled I really am,” he says while zipping down his patch leather boots to show me a mismatched pair of ratty knee socks. One red, one yellow and brown.

He swears he never takes the fame and fortune seriously, realizing the impermanance of the position. “We’re not at the top. You’re never at the top. There will never be another Hendrix, or another Beatles. The Rolling Stones are the biggest band in the world. If I had a 50 pound hat, I’d tip it to them for staying on top and keeping it together so long.”

What about the money, honey? “I don’t feel rich. I always was and always have been a poor man. Nobody ever gave me anything. I’ve worked for it all. I could live without money. One good thing about it was that I was able to buy my mom a house in Macon. You know it’s a good feeling when you can do something like that.”

According to Allman, he never set a course for superstardom, explaining that he had always been infatuated with teeth. “Like as in molars?” I ask. “Yeah. Before I got into rock and roll I was going to be a dentist. I even went to school some for it.” He sticks a finger in his mouth and shows me his fillings. “I drilled these myself!” he announces. Not quite willing to, uh, swallow the story, I gently remind him that last year he had said that he wanted to be a writer when he grew up. “I did want to a writer. I started two novels but never finished them. I just couldn’t do it. You see, I need more immediate gratification.” Gregg might not have grown up to be the next Faulkner, but he does possess a peculiar gift for composing. “When I write songs, I first start thinking in B, and then out of nowhere something comes over me like a flash of lightning. It starts at my knees then moves up to my midriff, finally exploding in my brain. Then everything takes on an orange glow. Next, I get one line and then everything falls into place really fast. It only took me 45 minutes to write ‘Midnight Rider’, and an hour and a half to finish ‘Melissa’.”

In spite of the past pockmarked by bad luck, Gregg had an inkling that things were bound to get better. Gregg is after all a seventh son by default (That is if you count back a generation of Allmans. His father’s mother bore two sons, in addition to miscarrying twice – sons both times. Gregg’s own mother also had a miscarriage, losing a son, plus birthing both Duane and Gregg. See?), and, according to the superstition, blessed by second sight and guaranteed good fortune. Looking back, Gregg admits that he did have some premonition of what was to be. “Between the time I was 8 and 11, I had the exact dream at least 10 times. I would be sitting behind a huge block of wood which I could barely see over the top of. As I think back it was like an upright piano more than anything else. The block separated me from an enormous crowd of people who all looked real strange at the time. They scared me because they were all watching everything I did. Back then, I could never figure out what the dream meant, so I never told anybody about it. And then about a year ago it hit me and I realized that it had been a premonition of what I’m doing today. The block of wood was my organ, and all the people looked so weird because they were out of the times. They looked like people do today, and that was 1957!”

It took 12 years for the dream to ripen: in 1969 when Duane telephoned Gregg asking him to down his guitars, and start plunking on an organ, so he could play in Duane’s new band, the Allman Brothers – a name that Gregg has always despised. “I’d rather be known as ABB because people always call us the Allman Brothers, and we’re not. We’re the Allman Brothers Band,” he says defiantly. “I’ve always hated the name. Dickie named us. I wanted to call the band the Beezlebub Brothers. You know, after the devil’s right hand man.”

© Jaan UhelszkiCreem, December 1975

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