The Death Of The Allman Brothers Band

LOOK INTO THE EYES of the citizens of Macon, Georgia, and the creeping fear shines through like a beacon. Eyes widen, then scrunch down to a cold interior stare at any hint of questions about Gregg Allman.

“That shmuck.”

“He was poor. No poorer than most. His brother was a star. His brother died. They love him now and he can’t stand it. You can understand a year of being fucked up over it, but not five years.”

“He ain’t from Macon anymore. He’s got a Hollywood agent, a Hollywood publicist and a Hollywood wife. What do I think of Gregg Allman? Fuck him.”

“Look. Scooter’s out on bail. We’ve got high hopes for the appeal. Leave it be, huh?”

Prior to 1974, Macon was a hip-capitalist Utopia; your fondest acid vision come true. The home of Capricorn Records was a private world where Allman brothers and sisters could be readily identified by a small mushroom tattoo, a world so special that outsiders could only feel the magic; insiders made it. For the kids at Allmans concerts, the band was stone proof you could be a hippy and rock out all night, even though Meredith Hunter bought it at Altamont Speedway. The Brothers were the only kind of rock band who could survive the thin air of the Nixon years. Scraggly, rebellious motherfuckers is what they were, but their magic held for a while, and Macon got lost in the general rush to stomp out Nixonian dissent and long hair, music, freedom, and life.

Inherent in any Utopia, however, is its contradiction. In Macon, the contradictions were already bubbling before the damndest drug trial rock had ever seen caught Gregg Allman’s tit in its wringer. The spillover was Gregg’s testimony against a Brother, his own road man, Scooter Herring, fall guy in this year’s Cops-and-Conspiracies-Comix lead story. It got to be a lead story because of Jimmy Carter, the complication who came to Macon’s rock industry for money to make his Presidential run possible. Maconites strained to cooperate as little as possible with the press. Nobody knew what the hell was going on, but you can bet your last lude something was!

Two years later, the strain shows. “We have to forget a lot of things around here,” one Capricorn employee says flatly when asked to recall the wilder days. They refuse to blame Gregg Allman. Yet they also refuse to find him not guilty. In the years since Duane Allman’s death, 2,000 press interviews were set up for Gregg Allman. He showed up for ten percent of them. “He was either too shy or too fucked up to do the rest,” a Capricorn publicist says. A squint at the squalor of it all. He coulda been a contender. He could have been a star. What the fuck happened?

By the time the town and its Hilton-full of guests settled down for the 1977 Seventh Annual Capricorn Records Barbeque and Summer Games, old pains and festering resentments were right on the surface. The Brotherhood had fallen. The utopia was gone, buried, but not forgotten. To understand why and how, one had to go back to the days before Southern Rock heralded a Southern Renaissance, when R & B music moved the badder white boys of the South, when three blacks from Macon, Little Richard, James Brown, and Otis Redding were pumping out beautiful music and white hands clasped black in tentative friendship.

It begins with Phil Walden, the man who put Macon on the map. At 37, Walden is the dynamic President of Capricorn Records, Southern Rock’s taste-maker, much-publicized financial backer of the campaigns of Jimmy Carter from nearby Plains. Born in 1940 in South Carolina, Walden moved to Macon when he was three, attended high school, and then Mercer College there. He liked “race records” and did things like sneak into segregated, all-black shows. Booking bands for fraternity parties and college mixers led to a management-booking agency. “While my friends were pledging their lives to Jesus Christ,” Walden quipped to People magazine, “I was pledging mine to rock ‘n’ roll.” One of his bands, recording a single for Atlantic Records in the early sixties, included a singer Walden had been after: Otis Redding. Otis had some hit singles. With Walden, now his manager, they formed Redwal Music and the two grew to be close friends. After a two-year Army stint as a first Lieutenant in Germany, Phil returned to Macon in 1965 to join his brother Alan who’d been running the show in his absence. Between then and 1967 Phil managed and booked an incredible stable of talent that included Otis, Sam and Dave, Clarence Carter, Al Green, Johnny Taylor and Percy Sledge. As Walden offered a less crooked management deal than “race” acts were used to, the best flocked to Phil – and Macon. The famed Stax-Volt European Tours were packaged by Walden. In conservative Macon this made him a rebel. Anywhere else in America, he was a class act, and Redding, his star, was America’s top-selling soul singer. Walden speaks of strength growing from tragedy, and his own tragedies began in 1967 when Otis Redding died in an airplane crash.

“Lots of creative people live that ‘life for the moment’ type of thing,” he told Robert Hilburn of The L.A. Times. “Otis liked cars that went fast. Duane (Allman) liked motorcycles that went fast. They just tried to get every bit of life there is every day. They took more chances.” Duane Allman was Walden’s next gamble, and he turned out to be the best bet Phil ever made. The sounds Duane could make with a guitar made him a sure thing to Walden. He told the 22-year-old session player to go home to Florida and form a band. Allman got some good musicians together, adding his shy, insecure younger brother Gregg as the voice and moved the Allman Brothers Band to a dilapidated Macon frame house, where Walden had thoughtfully provided bare mattresses.

The Allman Brothers went from shit to sunshine after the release of their Live At The Fillmore East album; in their wake came a new definition of southern music and a surge of bands playing R & B-based rock and roll. Southern white boys boogied, fresh and exciting.

Six months after the concert that became their live album came tragedy number two: Duane Allman swerved his motorcycle to avoid a truck on a rainy night in Macon, crashed and died. Crushed by the loss, the band vowed to go on. They put Duane in Rose Hill Cemetery and amazed skeptics by holding on to the magic. Duane was never replaced. Chuck Leavell, a 21-year-old keyboard player from Alabama was added. The music grew.

I’m in a bare room in Capricorn Studios. Chuck Leavell, taking a recording break, sits at a baby grand and plays a piano solo he’s just recorded. Leavell is more than just a rock musician. A sensitive and shy artist, he was thrown into the whirlwind of rock stardom early – perhaps too early.

While the Allmans were gearing up in Macon, Chuck was doing ‘basic gigging’ across Alabama. He dropped out of high school, joined Alex Taylor’s band, and went with them to backing Dr. John, The Night Tripper. Walden managed Dr. John, and Chuck slowly drifted into the Macon scene through Paul Hornsby, who’d played in Hourglass, an early band with Duane and Gregg. Chuck played on what began as a Gregg solo album and ended up as Brothers and Sisters, an Allman Brothers release.

“I played two gigs with the band before Berry Oakley died about three and a half weeks later,” Chuck said. “One was in Ann Arbor and the other was the first In Concert show at Hofstra University. It was a real good time for the band. They established their status as non-quitters. Another cat in the band relieved a little of that pressure they were under. I have to say Berry at the time was going through some trouble … drugs and alcohol. I think it led to his accident (in another motorcycle crash, just a few blocks from where Duane died). Even to him (Berry) it was a fresh time.” Leavell stares straight at me. “He was about to come out of it, man, or at least he was about to make an attempt, I feel. We had to pick up the pieces pretty quickly. The Brothers added Lamar Williams on bass, finished the LP and moved on.”

“Was the strain showing on Gregg then?” I ask. Chuck squirms a little in his seat. “I think I was a little naive back then. Man, you got to understand that was a big jump for me. I was 18 or 19 at the time.” “Things were going on in front of you,” I remind him, “and you didn’t know?” “They were. They were. I could have foreseen some unfortunate occurrences or at least the progression of attitudes of different people towards what was going on. But it wasn’t until the Gregg Allman Solo Tour that I started realizing. was on an upswing. I was hot, baby. Six months after I joined the Brothers I got married. It was a great time for me. Love, man. We were doing big dates for that era. The summer after that we were outdoors at Watkins Glen.

“We were staying twenty miles away in Elmira. We woke up and heard horns and commotion and looked out the windows. Hippies! Everywhere! The Band played first, then The Dead. By the end of the day there were 60,000 huddled together, having fun. We played, and I had butterflies worse than I ever had ’em for the first two songs. Afterwards we all jammed. Everybody. It was a climactic thing.”

From that moment on The Allman Brothers Band grew, hitting their peak in 1974. “We had some good gigs, man. Good gigs. I reckon somewhere after that, when Gregg came out with his solo album…”

Chuck seems uneasy and lets that sentence drift. “We took a year off starting in 1974. Finally all the success wore down on some of the guys. It was mainly (guitarist) Dickie Betts. We had a meeting and he said ‘I just got to have some time off, to get to myself, go to the woods and just forget about it for awhile.’ Everybody said okay.” The band split, figuring the break would last several months. Dickie was working on a solo album. Gregg toured with Cowboy, and released a live album. They just forgot about the Allman Brothers for a while. After a year they felt they had to make a record.

But in the meantime, the press had speculated on a breakup and were feeding on any rumors they could find, especially of Gregg’s erratic behavior. One interviewer arrived at Allman’s hotel room to find Gregg semi-conscious. Allegedly roused with help from the writer’s vial of cocaine, Allman gave an interview in a slurred drawl. The writer, a national magazine editor, claimed to have a tape punctuated by Allman’s loud snorts. He entertained colleagues with the story for several days afterwards. The climax came when the writer supposedly got a call from Macon “to thank me and tell me the coke would be replaced.”

“We were up for it in a way,” Leavell continued, “It was just time to make a record, but a lot of it was like pulling teeth. I was as bad or worse than any of them. Dickie was having a little trouble. My old lady was pregnant. Gregg and Cher were going through their trip; he was off to L.A. every week. Jaimoe was having trouble with his back. It started dragging out and dragging out. It took six months to do the record. When you overdo something it shows – and it showed on the record Win, Lose or Draw. It wasn’t as powerful as some of the other records we made. We said okay, let’s get out and play some gigs after the ordeal.”

At the end of that summer, 1975, several of the Brothers attended a housewarming party at this writer’s apartment, at the invitation of Jon Podell, head of a New York talent agency. First Gregg arrived with Jon’s wife Monica and Geraldo Rivera (with whom Gregg was taping a Good Night America segment that week). They stayed ten minutes. Gregg carefully refused certain substances offered him, and allegedly told one of my guests who inquired about Cher, “Shit, she’s just a groupie. But I married her, so I must be a bigger groupie.” Then he left, moments after a call came announcing the imminent arrival of a limousine full of Brothers. When they arrived, I was immediately asked if Gregg was still there. I told them no. They stayed for hours. “You had some weird people at your house that night,” Chuck laughed. Though rumors of Gregg’s flirtation with heroin were rampant, he impressed me as painfully shy but, at least at that time, definitely not drugged.

In August 1975 the band opened Louisiana’s 90,000-seat Superdome. In Macon, Phil Walden had gained some local acceptance, thanks to his unceasing civic campaign to help the community, whether it wanted help or not. A burgeoning friendship with then Governor Jimmy Carter had Walden handing out Carter buttons before many people outside Georgia had heard of the grinning candidate. The image was a peculiar one. By 1975, Walden was at the top of the hottest nearly-independent label in America. His stable had grown into a multi-million dollar empire with holdings in everything from Macon real-estate to modern art. The Allmans were a corporation, a tight ship, unsinkable despite the profligate spending of some of their members. One of their crew, Twiggs Lydon, told journalist Jim Pettigrew Jr., “When I was young my whole family lived in the same house, and we ate at the same table. We’re older now, and some of us have homes of our own. We’re spread out a little more, but no one can accuse my family of being broken up.” His Allman metaphor was soon to be tested. Gregg had strayed from the roost in every way he could. Whatever good will Duane had created, Gregg destroyed. As he bounced in and out of the tabloids, in and out of private clinics, the odds of The Allman Brothers Band ever playing together again grew slimmer. In Fall, 1975, they went out on tour. Only rarely were they “together”.

“We were trying so hard to get into it, at least I was,” Chuck says, again staring steadily at me. “That’s when me, Jaimoe and Lamar started strengthening our bond, because we wanted to play. Butch Trucks was in there with us, but he didn’t go to the soundchecks with us like Lamar and Jaimoe and I did. Everybody else showed up at the gig. It was a bumpy tour for that reason. That affected everybody. Finally it got to be too much, man.

“We had planned another album and started rehearsing for it. Gregg came to one meeting and then left town. He never came to any of the rehearsals. At that meeting we’d forged bonds to go ahead, but we were negotiating with the record company too, and Dickie was bound and determined to make some changes in the deal. A lot of it was his paranoia, but he was right. As successful as the band was, it should have had a better record deal. We rehearsed for two weeks. Then we got bogged down in record deals. About that time the Scooter Herring thing happened.” The Allman’s road manager was arrested, charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and jailed early in 1976. “I want people to understand the band didn’t break up because of that situation. The band broke up because it was time to break up. It was past time, really. He got out of jail. Then they came and got him again; went through the trial and was found guilty. At that time we saw very little of Gregg. Way before Scooter was arrested there was an investigation. Gregg was the only one called to testify. Everybody else was on standby.”

That seemed to bother Chuck. “It was a one-sided thing. They talked to Gregg. Well, of course, that was the involvement with him and Joe Fuchs and Scooter. Gregg was still going through this thing with Cher and had only come to town for that one meeting. We were confused, frustrated, mixed emotions, especially for Jai, Lamar and myself. We had a meeting one day to finalize some business with The Brothers and the only cats who showed up was us three. We smiled and said ‘Let’s go play’.” Sea Level, Chuck’s new band, was born. Chuck is glad to change the subject. Through the brief conversation about Scooter, he has twisted in his seat, stared at the ground and the wall. He’s gone from a very calm tone of voice to one filled with tension and pain. His ambivalence towards Gregg is astounding. I personally don’t believe what he says about the breakup.

The next day, the day before the picnic, I check out Macon, a beautiful town, dotted with statues of Confederate soldiers, antebellum mansions and dogwood trees. I’m hit on by a transplanted New Yorker: “You got any coke? There’s no coke in Macon. Hasn’t been any coke in Macon in a year. I ain’t had a toot in a year. Not one toot in a year. There hasn’t been any toot in Macon in year.” I think he protests too much and share a joint of $14-an-ounce Macon pot with him.

I stop into Capricorn Records. A secretary there asks me if I’d like coffee. I say yes, white and sweet, please. “Just like yo’ women?” she inquires. I hear a tape of Gregg and Cher singing together live in Japan. “You never lied to me,” Cher croons, “Do what you have to do.” Later, Capricorn VP Mike Hyland, drives me past the spot where Little Richard washed dishes in the Greyhound Terminal and the Douglas Theatre where Otis sang and made himself a name.

Walden, Hyland says, first heard Carter speak of the presidency in 1973. “I’m gonna run for President,” Jimmy told Phil.

“You what?” Walden was shocked.

“You heard me,” Carter said, “and I’m gonna win.” There the seeds were sown for the Capricorn scandal of 1976, a scandal that wouldn’t have happened if Phil Walden had declined to play politics or Gregg Allman stayed free of white powders. By 1975, Phil was deeply involved in Carter’s campaign. Laws stated that no individual could contribute more than $1,000 to Carter, but Walden was in a position to generate far larger revenues by arranging for his entertainers to play fundraising concerts. The Allman Brothers and The Marshall Tucker Band kept Carter’s candidacy alive and raised nearly half a million dollars, which was then matched by federal funds under the same election laws. “There is no question that the Allmans’ benefit concert for me in Providence kept us in that race and others,” Carter says.

Carter’s opponents found the connection too good to let lie. Hyland told me of a neo-Nazi magazine in Washington D.C. which ran a story connecting Carter, Capricorn and Coca-Cola of Atlanta in a vast plot to distribute cocaine across America. A federal grand jury in Georgia began looking into drugs. The federal government in 1975 was headed by then President Ford, Jimmy Carter’s opponent. When Gregg Allman was called before the grand jury to testify, the shadow of scandal fell on the Democrat’s path. Carter’s opponents hoped they’d found a weak link in Jimmy’s chain.

Had they? What went on in Macon during the days when Gregg was about to appear before the Grand Jury? Was Carter ever involved personally? Did Scooter Herring (today out of jail and managing Sea Level, a Capricorn band) know ahead of time he was being thrown to the wolves? Did Allman squeal to isolate Carter from the incident?

After all, had Allman stuck to a hippy code of silence he would probably have gone to jail. But he didn’t go to jail. Scooter did.

Suddenly, right before the time of Herring’s trial, word came from Macon that Capricorn’s act was being cleaned up. Paranoia had come to Macon. Employees and executives of the record company were given marching orders, with Walden setting an example at the top. If Phil could get good, so could the rest of Capricorn’s staff. Macon was suddenly a good place to leave. Music biz types in New York to whom the name Joe Fuchs (a Macon pharmacist jailed in the same “conspiracy” as Scooter) was familiar, became abruptly careful about what was discussed on their telephones. By summer, the breakup of The Allman Brothers Band was established fact.

According to the talk in Macon, Gregg had only confirmed the testimony of six others. Maybe he saved Jimmy Carter’s ass, too. So what?. Anybody says otherwise is a paranoid fuck. And there’s no toot in Macon. Hasn’t been for over a year.

Early in 1976, Phil Walden and several Capricorn executives attended a concert by Georgia’s lunatic Darryl Rhodes and The MaHa Vishnu Orchestra, who do a regular take-off on The Allman’s anthem, ‘Whipping Post’. Rhodes knew Walden was there and according to a journalist present “went out of his way to be obnoxious.”

Voice-overs, purporting to be Duane Allman, counseled Rhodes who was imitating Gregg onstage: Gregg, “it’s OK. Do the drugs.”

Then came the supposed voice of Cher Bono: “Don’t do it. You can be a star without drugs.”

Rhodes ran across the stage, a ladle full of white powder below his nose, toward a cardboard standup of Cher. “I didn’t do it, Scooter,” he cried as he dry-humped the photo. Behind him, a savage parody of ‘Whipping Post’ was playing.

The 1977 Capricorn Barbeque went off smooth as silk. Though rain spoiled the set by Black Oak, most people smiled all day, especially Phil Walden who was entertaining thousands of friends, among them a group of Europeans about to aid Phil in making Capricorn a wholly independent company. Tanned and fit, Walden could sit there ticking off the tributes and successes. He wouldn’t have wanted to hear the words of one of his guests who, along with hundreds of thousands of others, came to Southern manhood to the rhythms of The Allman Brothers Band.

“What went on in this town stinks,” he said, pounding his chair overlooking Walden’s private lake. “If it can happen to someone as kind as Gregg Allman, it can happen to anyone, and that’s scary. It’s a goddamn tragedy. As far as I’m concerned, there’s precious little to celebrate in Macon today.”

Even less to celebrate in Gregg Allman’s home – wherever he’s making it these days. The one person who purportedly kept Gregg together through most of his drug and alcohol shit, has split. Cher has had not only a breast and face lift, she’s done thorough housecleaning elsewhere – and Gregg doesn’t fit in anymore.

And Gregg, in response to the interviewer’s question of why the on-again off-again conditions of their marriage, said, “Drugs and alcohol really messed up our marriage. Now that those problems have been taken care of, it’s a whole new ballgame….I’d be dead now, if it wasn’t for Cher. That’s almost definite.”

Asked about whether or not he has considered getting the band back together, Gregg replied, “From time to time. But for now, there are other fish to fry.”

Gregg and Cher never made it to January. The Allman Brothers Band is still dead; the booze and the drugs are still purportedly done and over with – and yet, the shit still hasn’t hit the fan. Wonder what kind of fish they’re frying in Macon, Georgia?

© Michael GrossSwank, 1977

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