IT WAS the final show the Allman Brothers Band would ever play. On October 28, 2014 the group made its last appearance at the Beacon Theatre in New York City — the 232nd night of an unprecedented annual residence at the venue. They had already played three sets plus an encore of their signature epic, ‘Whipping Post’; it was, in fact, now after midnight, meaning technically it was October 29, the 43rd anniversary of the date of founding guitarist Duane Allman’s death.
The seven band members gathered for one last bow, and then Gregg Allman stepped forward to deliver perhaps his first-ever speech from the stage. “A few years ago,” he said, “just a few years ago, I was called to come and meet these guys in Jacksonville, Florida. And it was kinda, like, a little stiff in the room, until one of them handed me a lyric sheet and said, “Sing.” This was about 3:30 in the afternoon in Jacksonville, Florida — March 26, 1969.
“Never did we have any idea that it would come to this. We give you a heartfelt thank you, and now we’re gonna end on the first song we ever played.”
They returned to their instruments and counted off ‘Trouble No More’, the Muddy Waters stomp that, when they recorded it about four months after that very first jam session, closed the first side of their self-titled debut album. A few blazing minutes later, the musicians wandered off the stage — with a photo of Duane projected on the screen behind them — and the Allman Brothers Band was over.
The path that got them to that first performance of ‘Trouble No More’ in 1969 had been complicated and unlikely. It didn’t get any easier from there, either. The specter of death haunted the Allman Brothers, and the group’s history will forever be bracketed by two pairs of tragedies; Duane’s fatal 1971 motorcycle accident was followed by bassist Berry Oakley’s crash almost exactly a year later at almost exactly the same location, and Gregg’s death from liver cancer in May was preceded by the suicide of drummer Butch Trucks, who had been struggling with financial debts, a few months earlier.
Until the day he died, Gregg was always adamant that the credit for getting those four players in a room together, along with guitarist Dickey Betts and drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, belonged entirely to his brother — that the sound and structure of the Allman Brothers Band was Duane’s vision, and that the responsibility he carried was the survival and maintenance of this creation. “I always wondered if they got me just because they couldn’t find anybody else,” he told me when we were collaborating on his 2012 memoir My Cross to Bear.
To assemble the book, every few weeks I would travel to Gregg’s house outside of Savannah, Georgia. We would sit on the couch, and he was often proudly wearing the purple psychedelic booties that his mother, Geraldine, already in her 90s, had knitted for him. His beloved “house manager,” Judy, kept the coffee on and meticulously laid out the dozens of pills he needed to take to keep up his immune system after his 2010 liver transplant, which followed a case of Hepatitis C and then liver cancer.
His dogs always cheered him up. No matter what he was recounting — his father’s murder when Gregg was just two years old, the years of substance abuse, the bandmates he had lost along the way — he would perk up when his two little puffball pups would skitter into the room. And while he expressed regret for the pain he had caused others in his life, for the chaos of his six marriages (with deadline approaching, we realized that we hadn’t even mentioned one of the wives in the book, and he struggled to come up with any memories of her at all) and the messy relationships with his children, he never made excuses.
Above all else, though, it was striking how present Duane seemed to be in Gregg’s mind. He would bring him up constantly — he had notes from Duane framed on the walls of the house, and imitate the way he called his younger sibling “Bay-brah,” a contraction of “baby brother.”
Maybe it’s not surprising that, 40 years after his death, his brother was still so important to Gregg; raised by a single, working mother, his older brother was clearly an especially powerful figure in his youth. And think about what it must feel like to go out, night after night, fronting the “Allman Brothers Band” when you’re the only living Allman Brother. Gregg clearly felt some kind of survivor’s guilt, but Duane’s memory also seemed to give him a drive and a purpose for his musical gift.
Make no mistake, Gregg was proud of his band, and for all of his laid-back persona, he was competitive when it came to making music. He understood the Allmans’ legacy in helping to create both the Southern Rock and the jam-band movements, but he also knew that his group could play circles around most everyone often classified as their peers. He bristled at any comparisons to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Grateful Dead — as far as he was concerned, the Allman Brothers were in another league. “We had the best goddamn band in the land,” he said. “We are some Super Bowl motherfuckers compared to all them other bands.”
It was a circuitous route that led them to the level they attained. But after assembling and disbanding numerous different groups, criss-crossing the country, squandering some opportunities and refusing others, the Allman brothers (with a lower-case “b”) created a revolutionary musical direction. Right at the moment when the world truly caught up with their sound, though, the primary architect of that glorious dream was gone.
“I DON’T LIKE any of that contrived shit, man,” Duane Allman once said. “We’re just plain ol’ fuckin’ Southern cats, man. Not ashamed of it or proud of it, neither one. Ain’t no superstars here, man.”
Gregg was the one who picked up a guitar first. He spied one on a neighbor’s front porch and begged the guy to show him how to play. After he learned a few chords, he set out to get an instrument of his own, taking on a paper route to earn the money for a guitar he spotted at a Sears department store; he triumphantly marched in with the 21 dollars indicated on the price tag, only to have to return home and get another 95 cents from his mother for the tax he hadn’t taken into account.
Duane was more interested in motorcycles at the time, but he started borrowing Gregg’s guitar and practicing, and when he quit school, he stayed home playing all day long and quickly surpassed his brother’s skills. By the time they started their first real band, the Escorts, Duane was playing lead and Gregg had been moved into the lead singer slot.
They performed constantly in and around Daytona Beach, Florida — “The social scene in Daytona Beach was simple,” Duane once said, “the white cats surf and the blacks play music.” Their set consisted of R&B covers, Beatles songs, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ (“which we butchered,” said Gregg), and ‘Wild Thing’, which “got us real close to getting fired several times.”
BY 1965, OTHER band members had come and gone, but the group — renamed the Allman Joys — was the hottest thing in town. They established a work ethic that would hold for years; “We would rehearse every day in the club,” said Gregg, “go have lunch, rehearse some more, go home and take a shower, then go to the gig. Sometimes we would rehearse after we got home from the gig, too, just get out the acoustics and play.” They took to the road, pulling a trailer of gear in a beige Chevy station wagon (including a Vox organ that Gregg had now added to the mix) and playing five sets a night, six nights a week.
They were starting to get some notice and encouragement from more established figures, including John D. Loudermilk in Nashville (who had written such hits as ‘Ebony Eyes’ for the Everly Brothers and ‘Tobacco Road’ for the Nashville Teens) and Bill McEuen, manager of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who gave the Allmans the cash to go to Los Angeles. Now renamed the Hour Glass, the band was soon opening for acts like the Doors and Buffalo Springfield, and signed to Liberty Records.
But the recording of their self-titled debut in 1967 was a huge disappointment, as they were given material much poppier than their sound on stage. “We hated the whole process,” said Gregg, “because every time we tried to loosen it up a little bit, they would stiffen it right back up…the music had no life to it.”
One breakthrough in LA came after Duane was laid up at home with an injury from a horseback riding accident. He holed up with a Taj Mahal album and taught himself to play slide guitar, using a Coricidin cold medicine bottle as his slide. They cut a second Hour Glass album, Power of Love, which they liked a little better, but the world still didn’t notice. A tour took them back to the East Coast, and when they got to Muscle Shoals, Alabama they recorded some songs (including a medley of B.B. King hits) they were actually excited about, but Liberty had no interest in releasing.
“I think that’s when we knew the whole L.A. scene had gone sour on us,” Gregg once said. “Duane got fed up and when my brother got fed up, he got fed up. ‘Fuck this’ he kept yelling. ‘Fuck this whole thing. Fuck wearing these weird clothes. Fuck playing this goddamn ‘In a Gadda-da-Vida’ shit. Fuck it all!'”
Duane went back to Florida, while Gregg stayed in LA and tried to fulfill the Hour Glass’s contract with Liberty. Eventually, Duane drifted back to Muscle Shoals, where he began to play on sessions at Rick Hall’s legendary Fame studio. He was booked for a Wilson Pickett album, and suggested that Pickett record the Beatles’ current hit ‘Hey Jude’ (when the notoriously difficult singer resisted the idea, Duane said, “What’s wrong? You don’t got the balls to sing it?”). Their fiery call-and-response on the recording would chart a new path for Duane’s future.
“Most people have to work their way in,” said Fame guitarist Jimmy Johnson. “When Duane did that date with Pickett, he was in…the players that had been playing lead, we just didn’t use them anymore.”
When Atlantic Records chairman Jerry Wexler heard Pickett’s ‘Hey Jude’, he immediately bought Duane’s contract from Rick Hall and put him in the studio with Atlantic stars including Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Percy Sledge, and many more. “He was a kick-ass good ol’ boy with a beautiful personality and great feel on his ax,” Wexler wrote in his memoir, The Rhythm and the Blues. “He played no-bullshit blues, and he phrased like the authentic black guitarists, weaving melodic segments like elaborate tapestries.”
Phil Walden, who had been Otis Redding’s manager, began managing Duane, and first envisioned building a Cream-style power trio around the guitarist. Walden dispatched former Redding drummer Jaimoe to Muscle Shoals, where they joined up with bassist Berry Oakley, who Allman knew from the Florida circuit. But the Chicago-born Oakley was still playing in a band called the Second Coming, with a hotshot guitarist named Dickey Betts, and none of the three was a strong enough singer to carry a trio.
Eventually, Duane moved back to Jacksonville, bringing Johanson with him. (“People ask me things like, ‘Was I in the original band?’, ” Jaimoe once said. “Shit, I was with the band when it wasn’t no band.”) They moved in with another drummer, Butch Trucks, who was playing in a more folk-rock-oriented band called the 31st of February.
Duane sat in with Betts and Oakley’s band, and things started to gel. “It came on kind of gradually,” said Betts, “but there was a certain point where everybody knew it was gonna be real interesting, and it was gonna be real different…he and I started to jump into some areas that we hadn’t quite seen before.”
Duane gathered all of these players — Jaimoe, Trucks, Oakley, and Betts, plus Second Coming keyboard player Reese Wynans — at his house. “We set up the equipment and whipped into a little jam, and it lasted two and a half hours,” he said. “When we finally quit, nobody said a word, man. Everybody was speechless. Nobody’d ever done anything like that before…Right then, I knew. I said, ‘Man, here it is — here it is!’ “
But he also knew there was one element missing. So he called his brother in Los Angeles.
“I GOT THESE two drummers…”
“That was how Duane started his call,” said Gregg, “and I’m thinking, ‘Two drummers? Sounds like a train wreck.’ “
But Duane made his pitch, and Gregg — eager to escape the ongoing frustrations of LA — sprinted back to Florida. He got back in time for that fateful version of ‘Trouble No More’ in March 1969 — “one of the finer days of my life,” he called it. He played the others his original songs ‘Dreams’ and ‘Not My Cross to Bear’, and they were off and running, with Gregg designated as not only the lead singer and organ player, but the main songwriter. (Reese Wynans, meanwhile, would later become part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble.)
The sound they created was magical. The sextet had the high-flying technique and sensitivity of a jazz group, rooted in muscular rock & roll power — the double-drummer “train wreck” allowed for an innovative rhythmic fluidity and flexibility — fronted by a genuine blues singer, tying up all the elements with undeniable soul. In addition, Jaimoe’s presence made them an integrated band, a strong statement in the American South of the 1960s. Gregg’s suggestion for a band name was Beelzebub, but the others voted that the aggregate would be known as the Allman Brothers Band.
They moved to Macon, Georgia to be closer to manager Walden, who was also establishing his Capricorn Records imprint through Atlantic. Playing free concerts in the Macon park every weekend and soon all moving under the same roof at the fabled ‘Big House’ (which operates as an Allmans museum today), their sound and repertoire were exploding. Just a few months later, in August, they went to New York to record the first Allman Brothers Band album at Atlantic Studios.
Given just two weeks in an unfamiliar and intimidating setting, they had a tough time. “I felt that we had been rushed through an artistic piece that was only about halfway done,” said Gregg. Though the album included such classics as ‘Dreams’ and ‘Whipping Post’, it barely grazed the charts, despite the group’s tireless touring to promote it.
The band had rented a cheap cabin on a lake outside of Macon, as a rehearsal/party headquarters; they jokingly compared the heavy traffic in and out to New York’s Idlewild Airport. The nickname stuck as the title of the second Allman Brothers album, 1970’s Idlewild South.
With the group playing over 300 live dates that year, the recordings were done a bit on the fly — in Macon, Miami, and New York, working around Duane’s historic sessions with Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos for the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album. (Clapton asked Duane to join the group permanently, but his allegiance to the Allman Brothers was too strong.) Though the material was solid — including ‘Midnight Rider’ and two significant contributions from Betts, ‘Revival’ and ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ — the album sold only marginally better than its predecessor.
The Allmans were struggling to capture the intensity of their monumental live shows in the studio (and battling increasingly serious drug use), so the answer seemed obvious: the next album would be recorded live, in the friendly setting of New York’s Fillmore East, where a seemingly-unlikely urban crowd had taken to the band. “The stage is really our natural element,” said Duane before the March 1971 recordings. “We kind of get frustrated doing the records, so consequently our next album will be for the most part a live recording to get some of that natural fire on it.”
Recorded over two nights, and blasting out of the gate with an incendiary version of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Statesboro Blues’, At Fillmore East is one of the handful of greatest live albums of all time, and a definitive showcase for the Allmans’ interplay and improvisation. No track comes in under four minutes, and both ‘You Don’t Love Me’ and ‘Whipping Post’ clock in around twenty minutes, each filling a complete side of an LP, but the energy and ideas never wane. And, against all conventional record company wisdom (Wexler wanted it cut down to a single disc), the live album is what finally connected the band to record buyers; At Fillmore East peaked at Number Thirteen on the charts and was certified gold in October of 1971.
But just days after the album was recognized for that sales landmark, Duane Allman was back in Macon, riding his motorcycle. A truck carrying a lumber crane stopped suddenly at an intersection, forcing him to swerve sharply. He struck either the truck or the crane and was thrown from the motorcycle, which bounced into the air, landed on top of him, and skidded another 90 feet with him pinned underneath. He was alive when he was brought to a hospital, but died several hours later from massive internal injuries.
“The night before he got killed,” Allman Brothers roadie Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe, “Duane and I were talking. We had just gotten into Macon a couple of days before. ‘We’ve got it made now’, he said. ‘We’re on our way. Ain’t gonna be no more beans for breakfast.’ “
“My brother never got to live to see the big money start rolling in,” said Gregg. “What we had been trying to do all those years finally happened, and he was gone.”
HOW DOES that feeling ever leave you? “I don’t know what getting over it means, really,” said Gregg. “I don’t stand around crying anymore, but I think about him every day of my life.”
At Duane’s funeral, Gregg took the rest of the band aside, telling them “If we don’t keep playing, like my brother would’ve wanted us to, we’re all gonna become dope dealers and just fall by wayside.” Indeed, following Duane’s death, the Allman Brothers Band only got bigger. The Fillmore album went back up the charts, and the 1972 double album follow-up Eat a Peach, combining more of the Fillmore recordings with such extraordinary studio tracks as ‘Melissa’, ‘Blue Sky’, and ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’, shot to Number Four and served as a eulogy for the guitarist.
Dickey Betts took on more of a leadership role in the band — leading to tensions with Gregg that festered for decades, culminated in Betts’ firing in 2000 — and wrote 1973’s ‘Ramblin’ Man’, the group’s biggest hit single, for the Brothers and Sisters album. But before that record was completed, tragedy struck again when Oakley, who had been devastated by Duane’s death, was killed in an accident three blocks from the spot of the guitarist’s crash.
The band became stadium-filling superstars, with all of the excess that implies; they suffered through drug and alcohol addictions; survived the deaths of even more band members; broke up and reunited. Gregg pursued an off-and-on solo career (such remarkable albums as Laid Back and The Gregg Allman Tour will hopefully be revisited following his passing) and was a tabloid sensation when he married Cher in 1975, though that unlikely union became another casualty of his substance abuse. Eventually, the Allman Brothers grew into an institution, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who were venerated for their pioneering approach but also beloved for the adventurous spirit they brought to the stage every night.
Yet Duane was never far from Gregg’s thoughts, maybe even more so later in his life, as his health issues became more serious. Our first session for the book was set for sometime in the spring of 2011, less than a year after Gregg’s liver transplant. And then, before we met up, he suffered another medical emergency — this time going Code Blue in the hospital after blood had seeped into his lungs.
We first sat down together in northern Florida, where Gregg had gone to rest and recover. He needed a walker to move around, and he looked old and very fragile. As soon as I turned the recorder on, he told me about a vision he had while he was unconscious in the emergency room, a dream in which he came to a bridge and someone with long hair — Duane, he assumed — stood on the other side, but he decided that it wasn’t time to go across. It was eerie, and ended up being the prologue to My Cross to Bear.
Gregg had a hard time slowing down. At his house, when we would finish up a day’s interview session, he would take me out to his garage and show off his motorcycles, dreaming of being able to get back in the saddle and open them up on the highway. But as I drove away from the house, I would see him and Judy in my rear-view mirror, climbing onto bicycles for a careful lap around the block, helping him build back his strength.
Material for a book gets stitched together out of order sometimes, so I don’t know exactly when Gregg said the words that come near the end of My Cross to Bear. But I sure do remember him saying them. “When it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, ‘Nice work, little brother — you did all right.'”
© Alan Light, MOJO, September 2017