The Allman Brothers Band, along with Lynyrd Skynyrd, have defined Southern rock and roots music for decades. Both have many vocal advocates — and critics, as well. I myself love both bands for what they represent and for their different musical legacies.
The two bands are total opposites. Skynyrd’s music has always been more heavy and ponderous. If the band were an animal, it would be a bull elephant. The Allmans’ music has always been jazz and blues-based and is more feline and sinuous. Like a graceful leopard.
The sagas of both groups have been epochal, with equal amounts of triumphs and tragedies marking their careers and lives.
The Allman Brothers band is all about the two brothers, Duane and Gregg. They were born in Nashville, and their father was early on killed by a robber. He had been drinking with the guy, who asked him for a ride. Then he shot him. The two Allman brothers were sent at a young age by their mother to the hellhole military academy Castle Heights, outside Nashville in Lebanon, Tenn.
If you want to know what Gregg Allman’s life has been like, let me just open his autobiography to a random page and read you an excerpt:
She [Cher] was hot to trot, man, and we made some serious love. In many of her interviews, she said that I was the best — the best — in the bedroom. I always thought that was nice, because I’m certainly not the most endowed guy there is. But as the old saying goes, ‘It’s not what you got, it’s how you use it.’ So I thank her for that.
To say that Allman has had a remarkable life and a fascinating career is a genuine understatement. And he’s still stalking the stage and remains relatively healthy, despite what he and numerous drug dealers and many women have done to his body over the years.
I missed his autobiography My Cross to Bear, when it came out recently and finally caught up with it over the last few days. Don’t you miss it if you want read the account of one of the most interesting musicians and singers of recent years.
Gregg has not spoken to guitarist Dickey Betts ever since the day that Gregg and the other Allman band members — tired of Betts’ alcohol use and subsequent substandard playing onstage — told him he could no longer be in the band if he didn’t clean up and get his act together. Betts sued, claiming that he was “fired by fax.”
Gregg has never had much use for any record industry executives, starting with Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden. Allman claims Walden, as the Allmans’ manager and label head, stole uncounted amounts of money from the band. Among the few music industry people he has trusted are the manager-impresario Bill Graham and the producer Tom Dowd.
One of Gregg’s six wives — he won’t say which one — had him locked up in a loony bin. She lured him out into a limousine to go shopping. Instead, once in the limo, Allman was injected with a strong sedative. And woke up locked up in the crazy bin. Almost unbelievably, he got out on a pass by telling the doctors he needed to play a Martin Mull recording session. Then he made his escape
One of the many interesting tidbits that Allman drops here and there is the tale of how Duane Allman discovered slide guitar. He and Gregg had been quarreling over horse-riding techniques, of all things. Duane was down with a cold, so Gregg decided to give him a present in the way of apology and as a birthday greeting. He dropped off a bottle of Coricidin cold medicine and Taj Mahal’s first album at Duane’s house. Gregg returned later that day to find Duane playing fluid slide guitar. Duane had been mesmerized by Jesse Ed Davis’ slide guitar playing on the Taj Mahal album. He figured it out and emptied out the glass Coricidin bottle, washed the paper label off and slipped the glass bottle onto his left ring finger. Bingo!
Thus began Duane Allman’s illustrious career as slide guitar player.
Another juicy tidbit: Gregg thinks the absolute worst rock band of all time was Noel Redding’s Fat Mattress. I agree. I sat through them as an agonizing opening act for several groups I really wanted to see. Noel Redding, for all those who don’t know him, had been Jimi Hendrix’s bass player. If you don’t know who Jimi Hendrix was, then I feel sorry for you.
And yet one more bit: Gregg lowers the hammer on the Grateful Dead: “no groove at all.” Duane Allman was more blunt: “This is s**t.”
From childhood, Duane and Gregg practiced and practiced and practiced. And then practiced some more. The practice paid off, as did their work ethic. The Allmans played more than 300 shows a year on their way up. Gregg describes how difficult it was for him to learn songwriting. But he persevered, producing such compositions as “Melissa,” “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider” and the Martin Luther King tribute, “God Rest His Soul.”
Songwriting is something Gregg takes very seriously. He writes, “I don’t think you can put a time limit on songwriting, but a lot of people do that. They start it, they got a verse, and they want to finish it that night. I let it ooze out, man. It’s like some people squeeze too hard on the toothpaste tube. If I squeeze too hard on a song, it will sound contrived.”
After his liver transplant resulting from a life of excesses, Gregg began slowing down. He weaned himself off drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Now 64, clean and at peace with his life and the world, Allman lives in Georgia and still plays for the public, but on a much slower tour pace. With My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman has written a ripping-good yarn.
Chet Flippo is Editorial Director of CMT and CMT.com and the author of the NASHVILLE SKYLINE column above, which first appeared on CMT.com.