Gregg Allman alone and very personal
When Gregg Allman graduated from high school in 1965, he told his late brother Duane he’d give him two years playing rock and roll. Then he was going to dental school. “I intended to be a dental surgeon,” he told me in 2011, “because you know, we were young and naïve, whatever.”
By the time they’d hired the drummer Jaimoe a few years later, they were swimming against the tide in the deep south. I asked him which as worse, having long hair or having a black drummer.
“Oh, I think they were about tied. We got the double whammy treatment.”
How much guff did they take?
“Oh, God! Oh! God! A whole bunch, especially in restaurants. Not usually in hotels, but restaurants.”
Gregg assumes a snippy southern white trash drawl: “We can serve y’all, but we ain’t serving the n****r.”
“What n****r? That’s Jamoe!” Gregg laughs at the lunacy. “That ain’t no n****r.”
The Allman Brothers would go on to face struggles the kind of which could fill a season of soap operas starting with the death of Duane in 1971. Not only did they change southern culture, but they brought the Haight Ashbury youth rebellion to Merle Haggard’s “Oakie from Muskogie” world. In 2011, Gregg recorded Low Country Blues, a solo LP produced by T Bone Burnett and released by Rounder Records founded by my college buddy Bill Nowlin. Gregg told Bill Wax of Sirius XM Radio at the time that he felt the Rounder people were hippies and that they were doing things the old-fashioned way. I asked him if he felt that was very comforting.
“Yes, I do.”
“Me, too,” I said. “I love hangin’ with those guys.”
“Well, you are one as far as I would imagine.”
We both laughed. “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone,” I joked. “I’m supposed to be an upstanding old man. I had George Thorogood tell me one time that if he were my age he could get away with all the things he now does, and they wouldn’t be trying to put him away, but I’m gonna be sixty-seven next week. So, I can pretend I’m eccentric.”
Gregg: “And just what does George Thorogood do that they would put him away for,”
Don: “I’m not tellin’. Just like you tell me (off the record) secrets I can’t tell, I got secrets on him.”
Gregg: “Uh-huh. Well, hah, hah. We did a tour with him once.”
Gregg: “Yeah, and the beginning of the tour I guess him and his band had just gone through the cure because before the tour even started on our first stop we got to the hotel. Their road manager came up to our road manager, and he said, ‘Listen, I don’t want any of you guys in your band or crew hangin’ or tryin’ to hang with any of George or his boys, and not that they would do anything or persuade him into doing anything, but you never know.’
Gregg: “So, you know, that’s a friggin’ insult. I mean at this time I’d been on the wagon about eight years.”
Gregg: “Anyway, we called him up at 4:30 in the morning, and he goes, (singing like George Thorogood) ‘I wanna make love to you, baby.’ (Laugh) We sent a bottle of Maker’s Mark to his room every single morning. They never could find out where all that whiskey was coming from. Ha, ha, ha.”
My friend Bill Nowlin took me to see Gregg when he toured on the Low Country Blues album at the Zeiteron Theater in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This is how I reviewed that concert:
How come Keith Richards at 67 looks like Boris Karloff in a grade B horror movie while Gregg Allman, only four years his junior, maintains his patented impish good looks? Both have sworn off drugs for more than a decade, but Gregg’s got Keith beat with six ex-wives, and the loss of his brother Duane just as the Allman Brothers were arcing off the high diving board four decades ago. The Allman Brothers have had more personnel changes than The Dead, and they ripped open Gregg’s rib cage last year, took out the largest organ in his body and stitched in a new liver. To put it bluntly, Gregg in concert looks and acts like a man decades younger than he is.
The sold-out crowd in this New England whaling town responded enthusiastically at this, one of Gregg’s last concerts in a northeast mini-tour performed three days before the release of his T Bone Burnett-produced Low Country Blues LP on Rounder Records.
Allman performed five songs from the album of blues standards: Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied;” the traditional “Rolling Stone;” the only original on the LP “Just Another Rider” written with Warren Haynes; Junior Wells’ “Little By Little;” and the particularly haunting Sleepy John Estes standard “Floating Ridge.”
I was expecting to hear the album. The audience was looking for familiar Allman Brothers songs, and what we got was both, but arranged differently than either. Gone was the edgy guitar-driven jamming by guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks in The Brothers. Missing also were the furry funky textures supplied on the new LP by guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, Dr. John on piano, and T Bone Burnett on the console.
In their place were the buttoned down, super tight arrangements of the Gregg Allman Band including both percussion and three vocal performances by Allman’s 40-year friend Floyd Myles, the energized keyboards of Bruce Katz (Gregg even had him play the B3 on “Whipping Post”); the Memphis-styled sax of Jay Collins, Jerry Jemmott’s electric bass and the occasional but tasty harp of Mike Costello.
The relatively young guitarist Scott Sharrard was more about technique than emotion. If the others in the band hadn’t been so outstanding, I would have missed the freewheeling sword play of Haynes and Trucks or the deep funk of Bramhall, but this was not a guitar-driven show. Nor was it dominated by Gregg’s B3 or even his own vocals.
Surprisingly, Allman put the most emotion into Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” in an impromptu performance not on the set list. Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge” brought out new facets with his life weary vocals, but the Allman Brothers songs showcased the band more than Gregg, particularly Katz on “Dreams” which rightfully earned a standing ovation. Perhaps because the blues standards were new to the ears of the crowd, there was not the emotional call and response connection I expected from these songs based on what I’d heard on the LP where producer Burnett captured first and second vocal takes, much to the shock of Allman.
In an interview a week and a half after this concert Allman explained that he likes giving the musicians that play with him enough room to add their flavor to the sound which he graciously did here. He also said he enjoys the differences between this band and The Allman Brothers.
“The band is much different. It’s on a little bit lighter than the Brothers, and it’s just great to have because you have one man making the decisions. You got one guy doin’ the writin’ actually. One guy making most of the decisions because when you get three head chefs in the kitchen, you’ve got problems, especially when two of ’em are drummers (Butch Trucks and Jamoe), especially when two of ’em are auto mechanics. [Laugh].
Don: Are you at all surprised at how this album has gone over?
Gregg: Totally surprised! I mean ’cause it was such a breeze to do it. We just went down there. I at least packed enough clothes for three weeks [It was recorded in eleven days] and at the minimum was gonna be there for three weeks. I figured that, I mean, you cut a record with a new band and that almost stopped the whole damn project right there when they said, ‘You can’t bring your band,’ ’cause I thought that was just two doors down from an insult, you know?
Don: Were any of those songs favorites of yours in particular?
Gregg: Uh, yeah, and one of ’em was my idea to put on there, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and of course [I] and Haynes wrote “Just Another Rider.”
Gregg: Well, and the rest of ’em I got off the modem that T Bone Burnett sent me. Some of ’em were definitely recognizable, like “Little By Little,” of course. Everybody has done that song, and “Blind Man,” of course, everybody from Little Milton, my favorite singer of all time probably. I don’t know, it’s between him and Ray [Charles]. Oh, I guess [Bobby] Bland did it. Anyway, it was a real challenge because there’s no count off to it, so you have to do the whole front end. It’s kind of a cappella. There’s not really a beat to it. Some of ’em’s voices were so different that it threw mine into being different. I mean like “Devil Got My Woman” and “Floating Bridge.” Just, I don’t know, when you start singing it, you’re automatically singin’ it like Sleepy John.
Don: How shocking was that to realize that T Bone Burnett had the tape running when you thought you were doing a practice take on it?
Gregg: Absolutely! We had first taken on “Tears, Tears, Tears,” but another one of B.B. King’s “Please Accept My Love.” That was a first take.
Six and a half years later, Gregg was gone.