Keeper of the brotherhood’s flame still burns bright
By Lisa Love
Gregg Allman has been portrayed various ways in the press over the years, his actions and motivations interpreted freely by many a music journalist and more than a few tabloid hacks (which is what a relationship with Cher will do to a guy, whether you’re a bagel boy or a rock star). But as a girl who grew up loving rock ’n’ roll in the south and who spent the last ten years in Macon, watching thousands of Allman Brothers pilgrims come through town every year—well, I’m just naturally a little curious about the enigmatic personality behind “Whipping Post,” “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider.”
So on a picture-perfect night in Chicago, an hour after I land in the city, I find myself eating buffalo chicken salad and watching Brett Favre play his third preseason game with the Minnesota Vikings against the Houston Texans—with Gregg Allman.
No TVs sailing out the window, no scantily clad women, no illicit substances. Nope. Just some much fumbled-about eyeglasses (his for reading the menu, mine for seeing across the room), a pitcher of sweet tea and, well, there was that potato gratin.
Gregg Allman is a Southern gentleman, a charmer who listens intently, speaks quietly and frequently looks you in the eye, blank-faced, while he drops a seriously wicked pun on you, a skill no doubt honed in the confines of tour busses filled with musicians for over 40 years. At 61, he’s as handsome as he was in the black-and-white picture ripped from a magazine and pinned on my wall 20 years ago. While the purple velvet jacket’s gone, he’s still amazingly fit and trim, which he attributes to yoga and Pilates, and his blond hair is striking. Though a serious bout with hepatitis kept him sidelined some in 2008, Gregg seems the picture of health.
Some say nostalgia is deadly, but Gregg politely indulges my incessant questions about his past. And after a couple hours of alternately poignant, candid and funny conversation, I walk away with my own interpretation. A look at Gregg Allman’s 40-year history with the Allman Brothers is really a look at 38 without his brother Duane. He’s had it all—success, excess, money, beautiful women, everything most men dream about. But I’m pretty sure he’d give it all back for just one more day with Duane. Until that time comes and the circle be unbroken, he keeps on making the music he loves and each time the mighty Allman Brothers Band hits that proverbial note, Duane is, indeed, with him.
Forty years ago, you and your band were sleeping on mattresses in a two-room apartment on College Street in Macon—did you ever imagine it would last, much less last this long?
I doubted it, probably more than anybody. But at the same time, I’ll have to tell you that when we put out two records, I thought it was just miraculous … and even that I had come up with what I did … I was just real happy. I’d been out there in Los Angeles, first time I’d ever been 3,000 miles from my brother, who had always been … kind of like a father figure to me.
It’s not only an anniversary and mile-marker for the Allman Brothers Band, but we just passed the anniversary of Woodstock—more significant rock and roll history.
Yeah, ’69 was a good year. We didn’t get together until a little shy of mid-’69, we got together on March 26. And we couldn’t get on Woodstock; we tried real, real hard. It just wasn’t in the cards; we weren’t that well known. But every time we’d go play on a Saturday night somewhere, then Sunday, we’d look for a park someplace and play for free. [See sidebar, p. 59] We did that in Philadelphia, in Detroit, we did it in Cincinnati, we did it in New Orleans and good God, we did it in Atlanta. We did it every place we could possibly do it.
Those days must have been magical.
It was a very magical time even though we had not made any real headway yet. It didn’t begin happening for us but for a very short matter of months before my brother passed away. Then, it just all of a sudden started raining gigs, raining money, raining all kinds of magazine covers, people calling us on the phone—and we were still grieving. It was such a blow to everybody, especially when the second one happened, because it was right after that, it just started really, really going … and it was a very, very bittersweet time then for a long time. It was devastating. Still not a day goes by that I don’t think about my brother.
But you survived and have kept this machine going for so long. Do you ever wish you could just go back, maybe playing clubs with a hungry band?
Ahhhh. Well, having your—effect—is part of it, you know. And that’s what seems to pull it out of you. And the older you get, the more of that pull you need [laughs]. But you do, you really do need it, because you’ve done it so many times that you’ve gotta get up for it—in the mood. I usually listen on my iPod to the boxed set of Muddy Waters, and the boxed set of Howling Wolf, I’ve got a bunch of Bobby Bland and Ray Charles, and I just put it on when I start getting ready every night.
But those are the same artists you listened to as kid.
Yeah, I’ve been listening to this music since I was about 14.
I guess it really doesn’t get any better than Muddy Waters or Ray Charles.
Boy, it doesn’t. But you know, it gets mighty tantalizing, I mean … I think Sting is an absolute genius … he’s got to be related to George Martin or something. His record, Ten Summoner’s Tales, what a great record, and he cut it in his dining room … you gotta be pretty savvy to pull that off. But, you know the thing that people can’t do today? They can’t make the mistakes that they did back then naturally. Like they’d start out on the one chord, and half the band will go to four, and the other half will stay on the one, and as a matter of fact, that to me, is Jimmy Reed’s whole sound. It’s kind of pulling, you know, but it still rhymes … I mean, mathematically, the notes together are still on the same scale … there’s no pink ones, you know [laughs].
You were so young to be singing like an old black guy. Did you ever sing in church?
Hell no. I sang because I was a guitar player! I sang ‘cause I wanted to stay in the band!
Do you write a lot of music these days?
I do, but I don’t finish them for some reason. I start out gung-ho on one, you know, and then I start out on another one.
Are you happy in your life?
I’ve been getting there.
That’s the problem! Happy people write the crappiest songs!
[Laughs] Well, that’s not quite true because when I got from L.A. to Jacksonville to join the Brothers, I wrote the songs for that first record, probably within a week, because I was so happy. I belonged to something. Out there I was just on my own.
The Big House opens as a museum in Macon in December. Was that a special place for the band?
It was. It was a very happy place. A very, very happy place. I would come and visit … but after [Berry] Oakley passed away, we kind of drifted away from there. … It was hard. It really was because the place—still, when I go in it, the first thing I’m bathed with is memories of Oakley.
You left Macon in the early ’70s and after being gone for quite some time, you moved back to Georgia a few years ago.
I sure did. I visit Macon from time to time, but I really love Savannah.
Are you in Georgia to stay?
I certainly am. I hope to draw my last breath here.