Photo credit: alchetron.com
As young man born in Nashville but growing up in Daytona Beach together with his brother Duane, as legend went, both were all-A students who also played football. Bright futures ahead of them, right? Maybe they’d go on to be doctors or lawyers, or—if they were very lucky—they’d grow up to be world-class musicians, beloved across five decades.
Music historians know all the details about Gregg’s and Duane’s life growing up, they know every song on every album and the inspiration behind so many of the songs. Many will undoubtedly be impacted by Gregg’s death as they fervently search for words to say what he and his music meant in their worlds. They are the experts, most qualified to speak to Gregg’s career and work. On the audience side of the music, however, southern rock is surely as popular as it remains today, in large measure on the shoulders of their earliest work. Any music lover who grew up in the 60s and 70s surely has at least three (or more) Allman Brothers’ albums in their collections.
It’s too simplistic to say that, in his lifetime, Duane was a first-call studio guitarist and touring great before a motorcycle accident would take his life. Gregg, the one left behind, grew to became a standout singer, organist, guitarist, and songwriter of rock classics. Neither of the brothers would choose a smooth path to fame.
Early successes in minor bands taught them the joys and benefits of touring (groupies, drugs, and unparalleled excess). A CNN report today quoted Gregg as saying, “My generation were heavy drug users,” Gregg Allman told the Daily Telegraph in 2011. “We didn’t know no different, we didn’t know no other way.” In an early interview, Gregg's plan, having lost his father at age 2, he and Duane were raised by their mother Geraldine ("Mama A"), was to graduate high school, play in bands for a few years to get it out of his system, and probably go to medical school to become a doctor. If he'd have put his mind to it, he could have been a great doctor.
The Allmans started their careers the exact same way as anyone else—playing in high school bands, and all the early versions of what would ultimately become The Allman Brothers Band. With each different band experience, they’d pick up musicians who’d ultimately join them for the rest of their music lives, three of whom were Butch Trucks, Dickey Betts, and Berry Oakley. Sadly, Oakley didn’t much outlive Duane, which takes us back to the life and living of The Allman Brothers Band.
Their 1969 self-titled debut album didn’t take the country by storm but it did increase their touring stock in the south. On “The Allman Brothers Album,” two of the best-known songs were “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Whipping Post” and was classified as Blues and Southern rock.
“Idlewild South” (1970) contained three of my favorites of theirs: instrumentals “Revival,” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Midnight Rider.”
Gregg wrote the song with help on lyrics from roadie Robert Kim Payne. Gregg’s voice didn’t help put “Midnight Rider” over the top anywhere for years, but others had greater success with the song and it was covered or recorded by everyone from Joe Cocker to Michael McDonald to Hank Williams, Jr. to Alison Krauss. Today it’s known as “The Allman Brothers Band’s most covered song.”
Historians recall that between 1971-1972, the “Eat a Peach” time frame, Duane, Berry Oakley and roadies Robert Payne and Red Dog Campbell entered rehab simultaneously for heroin addictions. And then on October 29, 1971, Duane died in Macon, Georgia in a motorcycle accident. Bandmate Oakley would die a year later, November 11, 1972, in a motorcycle accident, “three blocks from where Duane had his fatal accident.” The band members are “buried directly beside each other at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia.”
Their 1971 live album, “At Fillmore East,” featured “Statesboro Blues,” “Hot ‘Lanta” and “Stormy Monday” and the album would ultimately be inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 1999. Two primary musical forces wouldn’t live to enjoy a career or the fame that would follow them the next four decades.
Skipping ahead to 1974, the music of the Allman Brothers flourished on the strength of the writing and playing of guitarist Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman. Betts often is identified as the glue that kept Gregg, and the band, moving forward after sustaining two losses.
In an entirely strange tangent straight out of Hollywood, newly named Billboard icon, Cher, divorced Sonny Bono and began dating Gregg. Meantime, Cher’s personal assistant and lifetime best friend, Paulette Eghiazarian began dating Dickey Betts. The story in a May 1977 People Magazine issue provides interesting backstory, if not the trials and tribulations of the Cher-Gregg-Paulette-Dickey tandem. Lots of screaming, yelling, men behaving badly, and southern rock going on.
If memory serves, at the time Cher became mesmerized by the intelligence and strong silent type that Gregg presented, I used to wonder what in the world she saw in Gregg. He mumbled, he shuffled, and he only seemed to show signs of life when on stage. Otherwise he was brooding. Guess she set her criteria as being “as far away from Sonny as you could get.” Mission accomplished.
Cher used to tell the story on numerous talk shows that on their first date, Gregg came over and thought he was “in for the evening” and proceeded to remove his cowboy boots to become more comfortable. Cher being Cher, never at the loss for words, she proceeded to cuss Gregg out, insisted he put his boots on and get out of her house. He did.
Ultimately, he proceeded to “court her” properly, to Cher’s satisfaction, if not amusement. Cher married “Southern gentleman” Gregg about three weeks after her divorce from was finalized and Paulette married Dickey. Betts’ compositions did carry the band forward, particularly on the strength of “Southbound,” “Ramblin’ Man” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” essentially the core of the 1976 “Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas” album.
Cher and Gregg photo from Pinterest; Dickey and Paulette photo from JVB Photography, Pinterest
Both strong women were credited for bringing the southern wild men out of a self-destructive path and into some kind of calm, for however long it lasted. Before they broke up for the final time, Cher gave birth to a child with Gregg, Elijah Blue, who began touring with Gregg almost as soon as he was old enough to do so. Elijah is one of Gregg’s five children he leaves behind.
Elijah Allman image from Heavy.
Son Devon Allman founded the band Honeytribe; he’s co-leader of the Royal Southern Brotherhood band as well as a solo artist.
Robert Randolph and Devon Allman; Photo Credit: Getty Images
Daughters Delilah Island Kurtom and Layla Brooklyn Allman survive him, as does eldest son, Michael Sean Allman, who is virtually his image remade.
Of his five children, “four are professional musicians (Delilah is not).” Gregg was also survived by his wife, Shannon.
All the love, the romances, the marriages, and the throes of “normal daily life” weren’t sufficient to keep Gregg away from the music business or the temptations of the weariness that comes from perpetual road tours.
Gregg Allmann Photo credit: Getty image
Ultimately, drug abuse and attempts at rehab put his body through a lot of torture, but the music kept him going. Although Gregg’s appearance at the end of his life showed a shell of the once robust man who loved making music, the point was you just couldn’t keep him off the road; he attributed the band’s success to the faithfulness of the fans.
In all, The Allman Brothers band featured 19 members; they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995; “Rolling Stone ranked them 52nd on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004,” and they received seven gold and four platinum albums out of their 18 releases—live and studio recordings. The band made household names of Jaimoe Johanson, Butch Trucks (later Derek Trucks), Chuck Leavell, in addition to Duane, Gregg, and Dickey and others who true fans can name without thinking. The number of living legends we’ve lost, as those of us who “grew up together” with the household names of rock and blues know well, has just increased by one today.
The song for the final ride home tonight, if I get to pick just one, is from 1973: “Will the Circle be Unbroken”
and the matching version from 2014, as Gregg was surrounded by a “few friends.”
Rest in peace, at last, Gregg, and thanks for all your music.
Photo from Allman Brothers Twitter page