I can’t profess that I knew Gregg Allman on a deeply personal level. Although my book Midnight Riders (Little, Brown & Company, 1995) was the first full-scale biography of the Allman Brothers Band, I didn’t know Gregg the way I know some of the other members of the band. I interviewed him a few times, spent some time hanging out with him, but he was always shy and reserved. Gregg seemed much more comfortable standing in the shadows than he ever did under the glare of the spotlight, especially one held by a journalist.
But like many other people, I did know Gregg on a deeply personal level through his music and felt a profound sense of loss when news broke Saturday afternoon that he had died at the age of 69 from liver cancer. It seemed way too soon. In many ways, Gregg Allman was like Keith Richards — he had cheated death so many times that he was one of those people you half expected to always be here.
Allman was one of the greatest of the blues singers, and if his voice always carried with it a sense of anguish and torment, he came by it honestly.
He was also an often remarkable songwriter with such classic songs as “Midnight Rider,” “Dreams,” “Whipping Post” and “Win, Lose or Draw.” Allman both fronted the Allman Brothers Band as their vocalist, and forged his own solo career that included a legendary 1973 album, Laid Back, and a Grammy-nominated bestseller, Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett in 2011.
Allman’s final performance was in Atlanta at his “Laid Back Festival” at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood on October 29, ironically the 45th anniversary of the death of his big brother, Duane Allman. Gregg Allman’s final press interview was with ArtsATL’s Brenda Stepp a week before that show.
Gregory Lenoir Allman was born in 1947 in Nashville, one year after his older brother, Duane. Their father, Willis, an Army recruiter at the time, was senselessly murdered on the day after Christmas in 1949 by a World War II veteran with PTSD.
Duane and Gregg grew up in Daytona Beach. Both became infatuated with blues and R&B music as kids, and played in local bands. They came of age during the height of the Vietnam War, and Duane convinced his younger brother to shoot himself in the foot in order to evade the draft. Duane even drew a target on Gregg’s shoe and held a “foot shootin’ party.” A witness recalled that Gregg called for an ambulance before he shot himself. The ruse worked.
The brothers went on to be the namesakes of one of the most influential rock bands in history, the Allman Brothers Band. Gregg was the last to join the Allman Brothers; he was living in Los Angeles when Duane began to put the group together in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1969. Duane kept telling the other band members that Gregg was the only person who could sing with that band. “My brother is the blues-singingest white boy in world,” Duane told them. “If there’s another, I ain’t heard him.”
For Gregg, living in Los Angeles was one of his lowest periods, and he was blown away when he arrived in Jacksonville and heard the musicians his brother had assembled for his new band. “It was like getting born again, brother,” he told me.
Beyond the interplay of the band’s twin guitar sound, Gregg Allman’s world-weary voice and Hammond B-3 organ was the glue that bound the band’s sound. He was 21 years old at the time, but he sang like a 60-year-old Black man who had seen and experienced and survived the worst of life’s troubles.
The band moved to Macon later that year to be with its manager, Phil Walden, who had guided the career of soul music legend Otis Redding before Redding died in a plane crash in 1967. The presence of a long-haired hippie band in the small conservative city was jarring. “Those people thought we were from another planet,” Gregg told me. “It was a real culture shock.”
Over the next two years, the Allman Brothers Band were road warriors, touring the country at first in a Winnebago camper and gaining a foothold at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and then the Fillmore East in New York City. Their music was a blend of rock, blues, country and jazz that relied heavily on improvisation, and the band was at its best on the concert stage. It was the live album they recorded at the Fillmore East in 1971, a double-album set that has often been called the greatest live album in rock history, that launched them toward stardom.
As Walden once told me, the album captured the magic that seemed to come alive whenever they performed together. “The Allman Brothers Band live dates were great, greater and greatest,” Walden said. “They were always very, very good. Some nights they were absolutely unbelievable.”
But as the band gathered to record the follow-up album in October of 1971, which would be called Eat A Peach, tragedy struck: the death of Duane Allman, who is now ranked with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as one of rock’s greatest guitarists. “It was rough, real rough,” Gregg told me. “You never know how much you lean on someone until they die. And I was pissed. I was pissed at him for dying, at me for leaning. I was afraid. Man, I was every emotion you could be. But you immediately muster up all the strength that you can possibly have in your being. It’s a real test.”
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
In the coming years, the Allman Brothers Band would become the most popular American rock band in the world. In 1973, the band headlined a show at the Watkins Glen raceway in upstate New York that drew more than 500,000 people. That same year, the band had its first hit single: “Ramblin’ Man.”
But Duane Allman’s death, followed in 1972 by the death of bassist Berry Oakley in another motorcycle accident, left the Allman Brothers with a leadership void. And stardom was not kind to any of them. Allman sank into severe alcoholism and heroin addiction, and most of the other band members were not far behind him in their own excesses.
In 1976, Allman was forced to testify against the band’s former road manager, Scooter Herring, who was on trial in federal court for supplying Allman with drugs, including pharmaceutical cocaine stolen from a Macon drug store. The others in the band turned on Allman, and the Allman Brothers Band broke up.
By then, Allman was married to Cher, who was the biggest television star in America, and their marriage became fodder for the National Enquirer and the other supermarket tabloids. Allman became better known as the drugged-up rock star husband of Cher than for his groundbreaking music with the Allman Brothers. He was not only lampooned by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he was made fun of by Garry Trudeau in his Doonesbury comic strip.
By the end of the ’70s, Allman’s talent and virtuosity as a singer and songwriter seemed a faint and bittersweet memory.
THE LOST DECADE
I met Allman in 1983 when I was a reporter at the Macon Telegraph and profiled him for an upcoming show he had in Macon with his new solo band. Like most Southern kids of a certain age, I’d grown up on the music of the Allman Brothers Band. After the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, the Allman Brothers’ stunning sound and sense of family unity (plus, it was a rock band that had one, then two, members of color) gave Southerners like me a reason to be proud of my heritage.
But at that moment in time, Allman was reduced to playing a nightclub in Athens. Talking to him backstage before the show, his voice was so soft that I had to strain to hear him. He was charming and pleasant. He told the story of how he’d written the lyrics of “Whipping Post” on a girlfriend’s ironing board cover; she had a sleeping child he didn’t want to wake, so he couldn’t turn on a light to find a pen and paper. Instead, he lit matches to provide light so he could write out the lyrics on the ironing board before he forgot the song. He laughed at that point. “And I caught hell for it the next day, too,” he said.
He also talked optimistically about a new solo album. “We’re already in the studio,” he said. “Around the first of spring we’ll start the album in earnest.”
But there would be no album for another four years. The ’80s were a fallow period for Allman. Not only was his music considered passé in an era of synthesizers and disco and processed sound, no record label wanted to deal with his history of substance abuse. Allman made repeated trips to rehab to battle his addictions, but his addictions always seemed to win.
He had the most perfect definition of addiction I’ve ever heard. “It was like a cat in my body,” he told writer Russell Shaw. “His air is used up, and his claws are out. And he’s running around inside trying to get out. Then, bam, the old spike (of heroin) goes in and you can almost see the cat go to sleep at the bottom of your foot. But you know he’ll wake up and try to get out again.”
In 1984, I wrote a five-part series for the Telegraph to mark the band’s 15th anniversary. All four surviving original members were accessible and even eager to reminisce, except Allman. It took weeks to get approval from his management for an interview, and in retrospect, it seems obvious they were trying to protect him as he went through another bout of addiction. First, a photographer and I drove to Daytona Beach, where Allman was supposed to meet us. Once we arrived, we learned that he was instead on the other side of the state in Sarasota and that I could talk to him the following night at a studio where he was recording demos for his next album.
That turned into a last-minute interview at the home of one of his band members before he left for some more shows. Allman showed up 45 minutes late, then got up and left after 20 minutes to go visit “for a few minutes” with a friend who had just arrived outside. This came after coded conversations with a band member that seemed to contain obvious allusions to cocaine. After an hour of waiting for him to return, the photographer and I packed up and left.
The following year, Allman performed again in Macon, and after I wrote a negative review of the concert, he called and asked me to meet him at his motel. We spent the afternoon in the motel bar, where he consumed screwdriver after screwdriver and wound up offering me a job going on the road with him doing his PR.
In 1987, Allman began to regain his footing with a hit single: “I’m No Angel.” Two years later, in conjunction with the release of the Dreams box set to commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary, the Allman Brothers Band reunited for a tour. That tour led to a new studio album and then to a rebirth of vitality.
Allman went in and out of periods of sobriety. He often checked into hotels under the alias of “Will Power.” By the time the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Allman had hit a new bottom. He arrived at the ceremony so drunk, he was almost incoherent as he read his acceptance speech. “It should have been the greatest week of my life, but instead I hit an all-time low,” he later wrote in his bestselling autobiography, Not My Cross To Bear. He went back to rehab and cleaned up again, and this time it seemed to stick.
Not long after that, Allman’s health became a concern. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1999, and after a successful treatment, it flared up again in 2009. That same year, three malignant tumors were discovered within his liver. He underwent a liver transplant on June 23, 2010. “The scariest part was the three tumors,” Allman told me in 2011, in a strong and sober voice. “I saw my funeral flash before my eyes. It was not my time, and thank God. . . . This is an absolute second chance.”
He learned not long afterward that his liver cancer had returned. Allman kept the news private because he wanted to continue to play music until he no longer could.
In 2014, the Allman Brothers Band played a series of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City to celebrate the band’s 45th anniversary. They also announced it was to be the band’s final performances.
After that, Allman concentrated on his solo career, recording a well-received live album at the Grand Opera House in Macon. He also went to the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — where Duane Allman once worked as a session guitarist — to record a new album that will be released posthumously later this year.
Last year, Allman began to have serious enough health issues to cause him to cancel a series of concerts. He came back to perform at the Laid Back Festival in Atlanta, but he was obviously struggling during that show, and his fingers trembled as he played “Midnight Rider” on the acoustic guitar. After performing the Allman Brothers Band standard “One Way Out” with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons sitting in on guitar, Allman walked off the concert stage for the final time.
A short time later, it was announced that all of his 2017 concert dates were canceled. “I would say he knew for the last six months that he was getting toward the end of his life, and he became resolved and peaceful,” Michael Lehman, Allman’s manager, told Variety.
For almost 15 years, Allman was more infamous for his addictions and his marriage to Cher than he was famous for his blazing talent. But beneath all the addictions, Allman never lost his burning drive to play music. In the final 25 years of his life he reclaimed his musical legacy, and then he took it to an even more meaningful level. Allman not only became deeply respected again, he became deeply revered.
Gregg Allman will be remembered as the quintessential voice behind Southern rock (a term he hated, by the way; he once scolded me that all rock music is Southern because of its roots in blues and gospel and country), and the greatest blues singer of his generation. You could easily call him the greatest “white” blues singer ever, but Allman would have challenged that description. He didn’t like to see music broken into racial terms.
He seemed to transform in his later years as the influence of addiction waned, and he seemed to have found a sense of peace in his sobriety. But his truest and most reliable place of refuge was always his music. I’ll never forget a moment in the little Telstar Studio in Sarasota in 1984 as I watched him do a recording session. During a break, Allman slipped out of the control room and sat down behind a grand piano in the darkened studio and began to play a gorgeous and mournful melody. When a photographer walked inside and began to shoot photos, Allman suddenly stopped, as though he was self-conscious and caught in a moment too real and too private to share. When asked later, he said he’d been playing Beethoven.
“Playing music is my whole life,” Allman told me the next afternoon. “I mean, it’s my peace of mind. It’s like the fuse in my whole life. It’s probably the best escape for really having the blues that there is. Almost any given night, you can just get up and pour it out. It’s the best medicine anybody’s ever made.”