Gregg Allman (1947 - 2017)
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
Gregg Allman, the singer-songwriter and musician who was a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, died Saturday, May 27, 2017. He had recently been in poor health. He was 69.
Known for his distinctively bluesy voice, Allman led the band alongside his brother, Duane Allman, in its early days. When Duane died tragically at 24, Gregg carried on, incorporating his brother’s legacy into the band’s sound as they soared to new heights of popularity. In later years, Allman pursued a solo career, one that dovetailed with continued reunions and reformations of the Allman Brothers Band.
As one of the primary songwriters for the Allman Brothers Band, Allman was responsible for enduring classics that include “Melissa,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Whipping Post.” His compositions helped shape the direction of Southern rock, a subgenre that burgeoned as the brothers got their start. Influenced by the blues musicians he revered — Muddy Waters, B.B. King — Allman wove classic blues sounds in with his rock 'n' roll jams, taking the music in unexpected directions with unusual chord progressions. When he put it together with the contributions of the rest of the band, the result was a series of albums considered some of the best of the era.
In the first half of the 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band was on top of the world, releasing massively popular albums and playing to fan-packed arenas and stadiums. But it took years of struggle before they got there — and there would be years of struggle after their peak, as well.
Born Dec. 8, 1947, in Nashville, Tennessee, Allman was playing guitar by the time he was in his early teens, working as a paperboy to save up enough money to buy his first guitar. As he learned, brother Duane discovered his own interest in the instrument, and the brothers wrestled for possession of Gregg’s guitar as Duane’s skills advanced quickly.
Even as they fought over the guitar, they also worked together, joining local bands and honing their skills as they performed with others. The first group they started together was the Misfits, followed by the Shufflers. Things began to get serious when they founded the Escorts, playing gigs around town and settling into the roles they would inhabit as their fame grew: Originally taking lead vocals, Duane urged his brother to step into that role while he handled guitar duties on the selection of cover songs they played. Gregg was still in high school, but the Escorts became a serious band, performing and practicing as much as possible.
From the Escorts grew the Allman Joys, and after Gregg’s high school graduation, the brothers were able to take their act on the road. By 1965, they were touring around the region and making recordings, and Allman developed a taste for songwriting, composing on the Hammond organ that he would become well-known for playing.
Crucial to their musical careers, the brothers understood, was staying as far away from the Vietnam War as they could get. As young adults fresh out of high school at a time when the U.S. was increasing its military presence in Vietnam, they would have been prime draft material. Duane had an automatic deferment because he was the family’s oldest son and their father had died when they were very young. But Gregg would likely be drafted.
Duane had a simple plan for Gregg to opt out of Vietnam: He should shoot himself in the foot. Gregg wasn’t as sure that the scheme was simple, but he eventually went with it. He studied the anatomy of the foot, choosing a spot between two bones that wouldn’t damage him too badly. Then he drew a target and shot. He was successful — he never went to Vietnam. Instead, he was able to continue practicing and touring with his brother.
As the Allman Joys gained a following around the Southeast, the brothers saw that they had a real shot to make it, and a brief relocation to California ensued. They signed with Liberty Records and recorded a pair of albums as Hour Glass, a move that would soon prove to be disastrous. The brothers hated the music they recorded for Liberty and chafed under the label’s constraints, and soon they cut and ran, leaving behind a debt to Liberty that Gregg Allman settled by agreeing to record a solo album for them.
Back in the Southeast, the brothers joined up with a new band, the 31st of February, alongside future Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. “Melissa” was written in those days, though it wouldn’t become famous until years later. Written in 1967 and first recorded with the 31st of February in 1968, it was the song Duane considered his favorite of Gregg’s compositions, and Gregg called it “the first one, the first song I ever wrote and kept” in an interview with American Songwriter. Allman sold the rights to “Melissa” not long after it was first recorded, as his difficulty with Liberty Records had left him in debt, and the rights money helped him travel home from California. But “Melissa” would come back, both as a memorial tribute to Duane and as one of the brothers’ future band’s best-known songs.
In 1969, the band evolved again, becoming the Allman Brothers Band, which would survive for more than four decades, off and on, in various incarnations. But their struggle for recognition wasn’t quite over yet. Their first two albums didn’t make much of a dent, despite including songs that would become great classics, such as Allman’s compositions “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider.” However, the band knew that they were having great success with live audiences — it just wasn’t translating well to the studio.
They sought to capture the excitement of their live shows with their third album, 1971’s “At Fillmore East,” recorded at the New York City venue of that name. The double album comprised just seven songs — among them, Allman’s composition “Whipping Post” — and the extended jams they laid down on vinyl at that show helped bring the Allman Brothers Band concert experience to the record-buying public. The strategy proved successful: The album climbed the charts and went gold within a few months.
“At Fillmore East” not only grabbed the public’s ears in the moment; it has displayed remarkable staying power and remains one of the most popular and best-reviewed live albums in rock history. Thirty years after its release, Rolling Stone called “At Fillmore East” “the finest live rock performance ever committed to vinyl,” while the BBC concluded that, “There are many great live double albums … but the Allmans did it best.”
The band had found the key to making it big, and their star was on the rise, but tragedy struck just as the album was achieving gold status: Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident. Gregg played “Melissa” at his funeral, remembering the exalted status the song had as his big brother’s favorite. And then the band was left wondering what to do next. Duane had been the band’s “father,” they all agreed, and could they continue without him?
The answer was a resounding yes: They could and should keep playing music. It was what Duane loved and what they all loved, too. So they regrouped and continued recording “Eat a Peach,” which they had already begun with Duane’s involvement. Its title was taken from one of Duane’s quips, and it featured his favorite of Gregg’s compositions — the rights to which their manager had repurchased. Allman later wrote in his autobiography about how necessary “Eat a Peach” was for each band member: “The music brought life back to us all, and it was simultaneously realized by every one of us. We found strength, vitality, newness, reason, and belonging as we worked on finishing ‘Eat a Peach.’”
As the Allman Brothers Band toured in support of “Eat a Peach,” tragedy found the band yet again. Almost exactly a year to the day after Duane’s motorcycle accident, bassist Berry Oakley died in the same way. The band was devastated, and Allman was haunted by the horror of the two similar deaths. "It was so hard to get into anything after that second loss," he told Rolling Stone in a 1973 interview. "I even caught myself thinking that it's narrowing down, that maybe I'm next."
Yet the band persevered after Oakley’s death, too, releasing their most successful album, “Brothers and Sisters,” in 1973. It featured two of Allman’s compositions — “Wasted Words” and “Come and Go Blues” — but the majority of the songs, including breakout hit “Ramblin’ Man,” were written by guitarist Dickey Betts. That was a source of some conflict, particularly after Allman tried to present his song “Queen of Hearts” to his bandmates and they treated it dismissively.
That conflict, in part, led to Allman recording his solo album “Laid Back” that same year. He brought “Queen of Hearts” to that album, as well as “Midnight Rider” and other songs he’d written, but he also covered the music of other writers: Jackson Brown’s “These Days,” the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The mood of the album was different from the solid rock 'n' roll he played with the band, hitting a moodier note and adding rich instrumentation. The solo album was a success, well-reviewed and yielding hit singles.
Allman didn’t envision his solo departure as an end to the Allman Brothers Band, or to his involvement with the group. Even when Betts recorded his own solo album in 1974, the intention was for all to regroup as the Allman Brothers Band. And they did, releasing 1975’s “Win, Lose or Draw,” which included the Allman-penned title track as well as his “Nevertheless.” But the album was a bust, with weak reviews and not much commercial performance, either.
To blame, it seemed, was an ever-increasing tension among the bandmates, as well as lifestyles of excess that were legendary. Allman was frank in his autobiography, “My Cross To Bear,” about the mountains of cocaine and other drugs that went with the band wherever they traveled. He got clean in later years, but in the mid-1970s, he was anything but. The drug-fueled lifestyle was a nail in the coffin of an already crumbling band, and it was truly driven in when Allman testified against the band’s roadie, Scooter Herring, on drug charges. A gulf was opened between the bandmates, and the Allman Brothers Band broke up.
The years that came in the wake of the Allman Brothers Band were, in many ways, difficult ones for Allman. His addictions dogged him, to both drugs and alcohol. A whirlwind romance with the pop star Cher — who was herself on the rebound from her marriage to Sonny Bono — resulted in a tumultuous marriage, one that helped fuel the last days of the Allman Brothers Band. Allman moved to Los Angeles to be with his new wife, where they broke up and got back together multiple times, in the meantime recording an album together, the critically and commercially panned “Two the Hard Way.” They called it quits soon after.
The Allman Brothers Band would re-form with a varying cast of characters over the years, first in 1978 and again in 1989 for a reasonably successful run of 25 years, off and on. But the music Allman was known best for in later years was not as much the band’s as it was his solo work, particularly the surprise 1987 hit “I’m No Angel.” Recorded with his Gregg Allman Band, the song, though not written by Allman but by Phil Palmer and Tony Cotton, was seen as a semiautobiographical recount of his years of wild living. It rocked, too, and 1980s audiences loved it, sending it to No. 1 on the Album Rock chart.
Though he had found new musical success in 1987, Allman’s life was still in turmoil, with addiction fueling it. It wouldn’t be until 1996 that he would make a final, successful attempt at cleaning up. The catalyst was an occasion that should have been a happy one for Allman and his Allman Brothers Band cohorts: the band’s 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet as Allman told it in a later interview with Garden and Gun, he was so drunk for the ceremony that presenter Willie Nelson had to help him onstage, asking, “Damn, Gregory, you all right?” “I wasn’t all right; those were the bad-boy days,” he told the magazine. “And I don’t miss them one bit.”
Allman got straight, though, and he continued playing, often with the Allman Brothers Band as well as with his own Gregg Allman Band. The latter-day music of the Allman Brothers Band was well-received, finding new harmony after a series of midcareer album releases bombed. The tension wasn’t gone for good, and it led to a permanent break between Allman and longtime member Betts, who was asked to leave the band in 2000. But the music was good, and the band reached a new generation of fans as they toured throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
A 2007 diagnosis of hepatitis C — most likely due to a dirty tattoo needle, Allman believed — presented a major health setback as he underwent a liver transplant and a hard struggle back to health afterward. More health problems came up in the next decade, among them atrial fibrillation, which led Allman to pursue an even healthier lifestyle. Yet in 2017, he canceled a number of tour dates as his health continued to decline.
In 2012, the Allman Brothers Band was honored with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. The band had also received two competitive Grammys and a handful of nominations, though none of them came while the band was in its first incarnation — the earliest was in 1980 when the band was nominated for their instrumental “Pegasus.” Allman received solo Grammy nominations as well, and he was honored further in 2014 when he received the Living Legend Award from Classic Rock magazine.
Allman was married seven times and divorced six. He is survived by his wife, Shannon, as well as his five children, Michael Sean, Devon, Elijah Blue, Delilah Island, and Layla Brooklyn.
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