GREGG ALLMAN picked up an old Gibson acoustic guitar and allowed his nimble fingers to slide over the six new strings. He tuned it and cursed and tuned it again. It was a 1920 model that had once belonged to his brother.
Soon he picked notes as crisp and clear as the Georgia countryside surrounding his small estate.
He played ‘Come And Go Blues’ from his solo album, Laid Back, and told me it had been rejected by the Allman Brothers’ Band. Then he tuned a little more and his picking became familiar again. He played and sang Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ perfectly.
“That McCartney…shee-it!” was all he said.
He swopped guitars, choosing a 1942 blond Martin. More tuning and into the chords for ‘Long Black Veil’, the Band’s tear-jerking song about the innocent guy who gets hung for a killing.
Silence hung in the Allman living room like tragedy and success.
A brief pause, another tuning adjustment and Gregg did a solo rendering of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, the song the Brothers sang at Duane Allman’s funeral two years ago.
It was like sharing a moment of reflection, a very private moment I had no right to.
I wondered what exactly he was thinking, but I never really found out, even after speaking with him for over an hour. I don’t think anyone in the world knows what’s going on inside Gregg Allman’s head. He gives out his music and keeps the rest to himself.”
He stopped and broke the atmosphere with a warm smile and a flick of the super-long blonde hair which habitually got in the way of his fingers on the fretboard.
A bunch of musicians were expected soon. I stood up and finished the glass of Dom Perignon champagne which Gregg had earlier described to me as “a little white wine from Fraynse.”
Then he was standing at the doorway of his luxury bungalow, one arm around his wife and the other waving goodbye.
“Mind y’all come back now,” he said in the way that Southerners always do.
THE first time I saw Gregg Allman was on stage at the Los Angeles Forum last September. The Brothers were playing an Indian benefit concert and their set lasted almost four hours.
It was an incredible performance, the sort of show that has been turning American fans wild with delight for two years now.
The star of the show was that impeccable Southern gentleman Mr Richard Betts. His flowing guitar lines, his licks and his leadership, were the highlights of the evening and his new hit songs like ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Jessica’ sent the crowd into delirium.
The Allman Brothers today are THE American Band, no matter what Grand Funk may claim to be; as different from the English superstars as anything can be.
No American band will ever sound like Zeppelin or the Who; no English band will ever sound like the Allmans.
That night at the Forum they played until 2 a.m. and could happily have carried on all night; they have been known to do it. Gregg was hardly seen, though.
He doesn’t believe in pushing forward, preferring to hide behind a Hammond than stand in the spotlight beside Betts. Despite his prowess as a guitar player, he did only a few numbers, with a white Stratocaster.
He was, after all, the last musician to join the original Allman Brothers Band way back in 1969.
Gregg, like the rest of the group lives in Macon (pronounced May-kin) Georgia, which is also the base of Capricorn Records.
It’s a sleepy Southern town, population 120,000, with a lot of churches, three rock clubs and a white population who have still to reach complete integration with the blacks.
It’s Dixie country, supposedly the land of cotton which inspired Stephen Foster to compose that music of the American heritage.
It’s been the home of the Allman Brothers for the past five years. When they first moved here they all lived in the same small house, and today they’re local heroes.
Phil Walden, the group’s manager, who also runs Capricorn Records and has a rock and roll track record stretching back to the early sixties, owns one of the rock clubs, a liquor store, the local travel agency, parking lots, the Capricorn Studio and sundry other properties. In Macon, a friend of Mr Walden is made very welcome.
Capricorn is a tightly knit family, drawn closer by the success and tragedy that has followed the Allmans all their lives.
The stuff story books are made of. The Allmans father was shot by a hitch-hiker before his two sons were old enough to know him; how any rock band could carry on – and become even more successful – after two key members died, seems beyond the realms of credibility.
Imagine the Beatles without George and Paul, the Stones without Mick and Keith or the Who without Pete and John.
The story is almost folklore by now. The band had finally managed to catch some success when the first tragedy struck.
On October 29, 1971, Duane the leader and star guitar player was killed when his motorcycle collided with a bus in Macon.
They went back to work almost immediately, reaching higher goals to rub out the memory.
Then, a year and two weeks after Duane’s accident, bass player Berry Oakley was killed in similar circumstances. The accident occurred within a stone’s throw of the spot where Duane was hit.
It was a crushing, almost ironic blow but they carried on regardless and have now attained the prinnacle of rock success. Today the Allman Brothers Band are the biggest, most successful rock band in the USA.
But the riches and fame seem an embarrassment to Gregg Allman. He feels guilty that his bank account enables him to purchase Roll-Royce cars on a whim and seems perplexed that three years ago, when he worked twice as hard, he earned but a fraction of what he earns today.
GREGG’S HOUSE, where he has now lived for six months, lies in an exclusive estate about 15 minutes drive from the centre of Macon.
It is the only house on his street, lying at the bottom of a slight incline completely surrounded by tall trees. Parked outside was a white Lincoln Continental.
The doorbell didn’t work and it took a few minutes of knocking before Jan Allman answered the door. She led us into a room to the right with a bar in one corner and a grand piano in another.
Gregg was playing some rock/blues on the piano and singing, accompanied by a bass player who turned out to be his brother-in-law and had worked on the Laid Back sessions.
For ten minutes Gregg did not acknowledge our arrival, continuing to pound out the piano riff and make sure the bassist had his part right.
Actually the music had been clearly audible as I walked up the path to the front door; I learned that music almost always can be heard around this particular household.
When he came over to greet me, it turned out he had forgotten I was coming. He took me through into another room, only partially lit, which served as the living room and housed hi-fi equipment, albums and several basket chairs.
He produced his “little white wine, from Fraynse,” poured a couple of paper cups full and explained in no uncertain terms that I was lucky to be there, that he rarely gave interviews, and did not particularly like being interviewed at that particular moment, anyway.
He grimaced when I produced a Sony tape player and spent 15 minutes telling me about how American rock papers had printed a great deal of things recently that he did not enjoy reading one little bit.
Once bitten, twice shy. Then he remembered I was from London and thawed somewhat, becoming almost humble.
A telephone repair man came to fix the ‘phones, so I tried for a second time to get Gregg in one place for a chat. This time I was slightly more successful, though there were many times during the ensuing hour when his mannerisms indicated he was talking with a great deal of reluctance, his Southern drawl was difficult to understand, and his mind wandering to topics foreign to me.
He also explained that he hadn’t been to bed for the past 48 hours, but that was nothing unusual.
I opened on the cancellation of the British tour. I told him British fans were disappointed, even seething about the decision to cancel.
“We’re seething here in Georgia, too,” he replied quickly.
“This is the fifth time we’ve been about to go over there and the fifth time it’s been cancelled. Sometimes it was cancelled because of a death in the family, sometimes other reasons.
“One time we were gonna go and an intense American tour came up. In England we might have been lucky to get a gig, but I really want to go.
“We ain’t ever been out of America. Went to Jamaica once,” he grinned.
I moved on to his Laid Back album and his reasons for making a record outside the close confines of the Allman Brothers Band.
“Now wait a minute,” he jumps in sharp again. “I’ve been three years making that album, so there was no idea of mine to break away from the Brothers.
“The Brothers had hardly started when I started on that album, and I cut it and mastered it three times before I released it.
“I worked with a band called Cowboy on the album, and a guy called Paul Hornsby who was in Hour-Glass. I skipped around a lot and used some very good bass players. It took so long because I was working my ass off with the Brothers Band. The only reason I got heavily into it at the end was because I wanted it out before last Christmas. It was really just a side-line thing.
“It would be ready to go and I’d decide to put another vocal track on until I finally gave it up and said ‘put it out.’
“When it came out there were only two things that I’d like to have changed. It turned out I really liked the album in the end.”
IN FEBRUARY AND March Gregg is undertaking a “solo” tour, using session musicians and an orchestra without the regular members of the Allman Brothers.
Although this move could be re-construed as a sign of a split, he firmly emphasises this is not so. It’s the first time he’s done such a thing, and he admits he’s scared stiff at the prospect.
“There’s 46 instruments on the album and there’ll be 30 pieces behind me on the tour. The first show is in New York and we’re trying to get everybody from the album there, the chick singers and even down to the six black dudes from here, The Georgia All-Stars. They’re dynamite.”
The solo tour has been rushed ahead slightly because of the cancellation of the European tour, but even then the Brothers apparently had decided to take a rest from each other until May, a period away from each other which Greg considers to be too long and which has aroused further speculation about their future.
“It wasn’t my vote,” said Gregg emphatically. “I’ll say that because I think the band needs that. I’m itching to play now and taking that long a break could be risky for the band. I’ll say no more.”
The conversation was steered quickly back to the solo tour and Gregg revealed that he would be playing acoustic guitar instead of keyboards.
The only other time he ever did that was after a show at the Academy of Music in New York. A friend bet him £1,000 that he wouldn’t go back on alone at the end of the set and play by himself.
“I forgot about the bet during the set and when it was over the roadies, started setting up mike stands around a stool for me. I remembered soon enough.
“I wanna tell ya,” he looked me in the eye. “I got the same response, as the Brothers. I couldn’t believe it. I never collected the £1,000 and I haven’t done that since.
“There was one time at the Mercer Arts centre in New York when Jackson Browne wanted me to go up and pick with him and when I got there he split and left me up there alone.
“I decided to play ‘Melissa’ and you know what, I forgot the chords. My mother was in the audience, and when I got to the bridge I stopped.
“I started again and stopped and started again and worked it out and got away with it. Phew.”
Next I asked whether Gregg looked on himself as a keyboard player or guitarist.
“Neither,” he replied. “I look on myself as a rehearser. I rehearse piano and guitar.”
He seemed disinclined to enlarge on that. I asked whether the band always played such long sets as the one I’d seen in Los Angeles.
“That started with Duane,” he replied, bringing his brother into the conversation for the first time.
“Duane would stay up six days at a time. It was nothing for him. He was an amazing cat. He had the strongest hands, like vices.
“He bit his finger nails all the way down to the bone. He would not wash his hands all day before a show in case the water made his fingers soft.
“Duane started it?” I repeated.
“Duane started everything man,” said Gregg. He grinned, looked at my tape recorder and said no more.
So I remarked that there was a similarity between the Brothers and the Grateful Dead in some respects, and he replied there was but there was never any intention of copying them. He loved the Dead, and respected Garcia a lot.
“We always have an interval during the sets now,” said Gregg, starting on another tack.
“We do that mostly for the drummers. Jamoe has got a bad back and he plays all the time and it’s a strain for him on stage.
“He’s ridiculous man, he never ever stops playing anywhere. On the bus, in a bar, everywhere he goes he keeps tapping away. Now he wears a brace around his back.
“He’s the most different, strange and lovable boy I’ve ever met in my life, and I’ve met a lot of people.
“So we take a break for a smoke and a drink. Usually we put the mellower stuff in the first half of the show and start kicking later on. It’s the best way.”
I mentioned that Gregg tucked himself away from view.
“I’ve always been a pacifist,” he said. “I sing a lot of songs. It’s a good job I do. Y’know I never played a Hammond before I got into this band. When I got the damn thing I didn’t know what the hell to do with it.
“I looked at the pedals and got hip to taking them off…and I still don’t know what to do with them.
“Remember I was the last in this band. Duane called me and said he was putting a band together and going into the studio.
“I was on a strange, starving trip out in LA at the time, and I told him I needed some time to get to play the organ. He said you don’t have to play an organ, just look great, and that’s what it was. And I had to sing.
“I remember seeing Traffic in Jacksonville once and saw Steve Winwood. That cat is incredible, man. He can do everything. He wrote ‘Gimme Some Lovin” when he was fifteen-years-old.
“Wow. I love that cat next to Ray Charles. You know, my brother always had a very high regard for Cat Stevens. There’s three people who have never made a song I didn’t like – Traffic, Cat Stevens and Van Morrison.
“I wish to hell I could work with Winwood but I’ve never met the cat.”
I asked whether Gregg could offer his own explanation for the band’s current immense popularity. He didn’t seem to be able to.
“It could be that Betts has finally started writing. Had that song ‘Ramblin’ Man’ for ages and he comes up to me and plays it for me and says he’s thinking of doing a country album and sticking it on that.
“Hell, that song cooked. Anything cooks if you get the right people.
“Also, the kind of organisation we have had together is such that if anybody has an idea we all listen to it and that’s good.
“You know, I have tapes here in the house of songs that Duane made and they’ve never been recorded or performed on stage ever. And some of those are so good.”
Again he stopped, seemingly unwilling to talk further on this subject, so I asked whether the band saw a great deal of each other off-stage and whether the stories about them frequently turning up at local clubs for a blow together were true.
“I can go for two months without seeing Richard Betts or Butch Trucks, but I see a lot of Chuck Leavell and the other two,” he said candidly, almost ignoring the real question.
So I asked whether the band was closer when they were struggling than they were today.
“It had nothing to do with struggling,” said Gregg.
“It had to do with working our asses off for so long together. It was the programmed sets that we didn’t enjoy.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing every concert we’ve ever done unless it was out in the rain and we might have got electrocuted. In 1970 we worked 256 dates and neither one of us made 1600 dollars.
“I remember we did three nights at Ungano’s in New York with an English band called Fat Mattress, and one of them came up and wanted to jam with us, and Duane looked at this cat and told him to get the hell out of it.
“But I don’t wanna say much about other bands. Everybody’s got their own little scene man.
“Alice is a nice guy but I’d walk out of one of his shows. Iggy’s a fine cat but on stage he’s another person. Everybody’s to their own hit though.”
SO I ASKED who Gregg woud choose to go and watch. His answer surprised me.
“The Moody Blues,” he said without any hesitation whatsoever. “They blew my head off the last time they played in Chicago. It was the first stereo show I’d seen and the cat that played that Mellotron knocked me out.
“Taj Mahal is another. We had to follow that cat one night and there were heel marks all over the stage.
“There was Howard Johnson once and man, he came up with a rusty old dobro and blew us off that stage before we knew it. Little Richard too, he blew us off stage.”
But Gregg listed Chuck Berry as his first major influence.
“I was 12 years old and the first guitar I ever got was in 1960. Duane got one a little later. It was in Florida, where the white cats surfed and the black cats made music.
“Y’know, I was going to be a dentist, fixing teeth?” He opened his mouth wide and pointed to a back tooth and grinned.
The success had changed the band? “Not a damn bit,” he said suddenly.
“Off the set, maybe, but on the set we’re the same as we’ve always been. I’ve never thought about the bread. In fact, I feel a little guilty about the bread at times.”
It was at Watkins Glen earlier this year that the Allmans – and the Grateful Dead – attracted an audience of 600,000, the largest gathering of rock fans ever.
“I was kinda sick with the heat that day,” said Gregg.
“And I was petrified, ‘cos we had to go in a helicopter and I’d rather travel by camel than a helicopter. The high point of that scene was The Band. They got the right name: THE Band, ‘cos that’s what they are.”
I wondered whether Gregg enjoyed being on the road.
“My last few tours have been pretty eventful. It’s very strange going back on the road after being at home for a while. The throat needs some action so I’ll maybe sit here and bellow for a while before setting out.
“Alternatively, I’ll stay up whole days before the first gig which means I’m going on stage not having slept for 48 hours. I work best when I’m totally beat.”
I mentioned Eric Clapton, and Gregg recalled the session’s when Duane played on the Layla album.
“I wish he’d come over here and play with me. Gawd, I’d love to play with that cat. If you come across him tell him that. He’s been a recluse too long, and if the boogie is in the boy it’s got to come out.”
And Hendrix? “Now there was one of a kind. I think everybody in the world should have been into Hendrix. There never has been and never will be one like him. That first album…wow, nobody’s ever cut an album like that.”
The Brothers have just been awarded various Playboy awards, including a posthumous one for Duane as the musician of the year. They’re also the top vocal group, an award which Gregg shrugs off easily.
“Listen, I can’t get any of those asses to sing. Print that. It could be a great vocal band. They all sing but they don’t want to. Duane could sing good, too.
“I have some tapes of him you wouldn’t believe. I’ve written songs for the band with vocals that have been turned down.
“Listen,” said Gregg. “Turn that recorder off and I’ll play you something….”
© Chris Charlesworth, Melody Maker, 26 January 1974