Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman, the remaining half of the Allman brothers, passed away suddenly last week at the age of 69.
In reality, he had been dodging the Grim Reeper for the best part of 10 years, since discovering that he was suffering from liver failure due partly to Hepatitis C. His prodigious prior alcohol ingestion probably had a lot to do with the liver issue also. After a liver transplant and a difficult recovery, Allman had been touring intermittently, in between further bouts of ill-health.
Many people with drug and alcholol abuse problems are essentially self-medicating to address deep trauma. In Gregg Allman’s case, the trauma dated back to 1971 and 1972.
By the Fall of 1971, the Allman Brothers, the band that Gregg and his elder brother Duane had formed in Jacksonville FL in 1969, had matured into one of the great live musical acts. The band, built around the twin guitar playing of Duane and Dickey Betts, with Gregg providing Hammond organ and gritty vocals, with two touch drummers in Butch Trucks and Jai Johnny Johansen, and with Berry Oakley maturing into one of the great bass players, had toured non-stop for over 2 years, sometimes playing 2 sets a night, and had gradually morphed into an ensemble that was beginning to blur the boundaries between blues, rock and jazz.
The band’s first two studio LPs, “Allman Brothers Band” and “Idlewild South”, contained interesting original compositions that bore only a passing relationship to the blues. Tunes like “Dreams” and “Midnight Rider” impressed fellow musicians, but it soon became clear that the Allman Brothers were a far better live band than a studio band. In the studio, they often sounded stilted and tentative. Live, they soon became a pin-sharp band, capable of playing almost anything and interpreting other people’s tunes in a way that made it sound like only they could have written and arranged them.
Although the band’s initial repertoire was rooted in the blues, the cliched 12-bar blues form soon became a minority part of the band’s book of tunes. In addition to their own tunes, based on other musical forms, or modified blues forms, they also had a book of interpretations of old blues-based tunes, again with modifications to the musical forms.
By the time that Tom Dowd captured the band live at the Fillmore East in early 1971, to create one of the great live rock albums, the band was beginning to move into a zone that made them almost unclassifiable. A tune like “Hot ‘Lanta”, finished literally days before the Fillmore dates, illustrates the direction shift. Based on the blues form, the tune cycles through the theme, solos from the guitarists and the drummers, to a very slow melancholic hanging ending quite unlike any blues band’s standard cliche-ridden ending.
Film and audio records of the Fillmore dates and other concerts from the same time show clearly that although Gregg Allman, by virtue of being the band’s singer, looked and sounded like the frontman, this was Duane’s band. Duane directed the band on-stage, and it is his voice making most of the between-song announcements. Duane was constantly moving forward, in his own playing and with the band’s book of tunes.
And then, everything collapsed. On 29th October 1971, Duane Allman was fatally injured in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia. Just over one year later, Berry Oakley would die in remarkably similar circumstances, also as the result of a motorcycle accident.
Suddenly, the Allman Brothers, who were well-positioned to make a major musical impact, were leaderless. Gregg and Dickey Betts became the leaders of the band after Duane’s death, and replaced Duane Allman’s fiery guitar with the jazz-tinged piano of Chuck Leavell. With Betts now a major compositional force, and taking over a lot of the lead vocals, the band rapidly morphed away from jazz-influenced blues and towards country-rock, becoming the de facto leaders of the whole “Southern Rock” movement of the early to mid 1970s. For several years, the band enjoyed massive success with hits like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica”.
Then, slowly, the band fell apart, and it became clear after the fact that Gregg Allman, like many musicians, had been captured by drink and drugs, from which he had difficulty escaping. He testified against a band roadie to avoid jail time for hard drug possession, which effectively broke up the band in 1975.
After that, Allman embarked on a long period of intemittent activity, blighted by substance abuse. There was a short-lived marriage to Cher, which produced an odd LP “Allman and Woman”, a failed attempt at sounding like Ashford and Simpson. There were Allman band tours, and reformations of the Allman Brothers. The band toured in several incarnations for many years, without or without Dickey Betts.
Listening to a tune like “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” 45 years after it was recorded, one is struck by the acuity of the composition and the sheer tightness and pin-sharp playing of the original band, and it is impossible to wonder how great the Allman Brothers could have been as a band without the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Sadly, Gregg Allman probably spent a lot of the rest of his life wondering the same thing, and this may be why he died suddenly a week ago, after a difficult life.


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