Greg Allman: My Cross to Bear

Posted In: Culture, Biography,   From Issue 753   By: Robert 'Bo' White

16th August, 2012     0

Greg Allman is a tried and true southern-bred hell-raising redneck hippie who scaled the heights of stardom only to fall precipitously from his ill-fitting pedestal. Allman is a throwback to the old rhythm and blues masters he emulated, from Patti Labelle and Jackie Wilson to Otis Redding as well as blues legend Muddy Waters. Allman wasn't built for superstardom. He often seemed more at home doing the Chitlin' Circuit or letting others lead.
Initially his brother Duane was the leader of the groundbreaking Allman Brothers Band and he wore the mantle without vanity or threat. He lead by example - and his instincts were always on the mark. After Duane's death in 1972, Greg became the de-facto front man. It was an uneasy truce as the surviving Allman Brothers agreed to soldier on without naming the next leader. Greg's incredibly soulful voice and down home compositions seemed to position him for a leadership role in the Allman Brothers; yet time and again Greg deferred to others - either management types such as Phil Walden from Capricorn Records or musical partner Dickey Betts. Despite considerable obstacles such as death, drug use, alcoholism, and infighting, even though the Allman Brothers disbanded (twice), their legacy continued. The brotherhood that was forged at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon Georgia in 1969 continues to this day, 43 years later.
September 2011 Greg Allman was code blue, bleeding inside, drowning in his own blood. He went to sleep and he dreamed an incredible dream. He heard beautiful music as he stood near a bridge. It was twilight and someone was on the other side of the bridge. He wasn't motioning, he was just looking at Greg. The message was clear: don't come across the bridge. All Greg could see was a silhouette; it appeared to be his brother Duane. He was telling Greg not to cross the bridge. It wasn't his time yet.
Prologue; January 1995. The Allman Brothers are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Allman writes, “It should have been the greatest week of my life but instead I hit an all-time low.” Allman admits that he was drunk during the entire Hall Of Fame week. He decided to enter a treatment center when the week concluded. On the way to the facility Allman loaded up with bottles of vodka, Valium, and bottles from the mini-bar in his hotel room. He entered rehab stoned out his gourd.
Allman owns up to his lifetime addictions to almost any substance that could get him high - heroin, barbiturates, sedative/hypnotics, psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and peyote and perhaps the worst addiction of all - alcoholism. It was the bottle that rendered him almost recognizable on Lettermen during the weeklong Rock & Roll Hall of Fame celebration.
So strap-in and get ready for one helluva ride. The story of Gregg Allman
Allman's father Willie Turner Allman was murdered in 1949 when Greg was only two years old. His mother never remarried. Despite this early primal loss, Greg was scaffolded by a loving no nonsense mother and an extended family of grandparents, and uncles. Life in Nashville was fine but mother moved the family to Daytona Beach in 1959. Worth noting is the role of his maternal grandfather. Alf was a bit of a lout - a drunk, a saloon rat.  Grandma divorced him and whenever she heard his name she would mutter shi…never quite completing the word by adding the letter 't'.
His grandfather made whiskey his life, even sold it to the state police. He was a man of homespun wisdom. One time he took Greg aside and said, “there's two things that get you in trouble and one of 'ems your mouth.” Another time Alf let another one fly, “let me tell you about love. If I squeeze tighter and tighter on this ball, it might pop out of my hand. But if I keep a nice, easy grip, it'll stay with me forever.” Greg was 5 years old.
The early part of the story is fascinating when Greg and older brother (by one year) Duane begin their career in music. They met Hank Moore, a cat with the hottest band in town. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were his backup singers! The young Allman upstarts pooled their money and Moore came over to their house to teach them some “good music”. Moore told them of the importance of the bottom end, as nobody wanted to play bass guitar in the Allman's garage band. He took the young band through “Done Somebody Wrong.” It was life a life-altering epiphany. Greg could now see the structure of music. He got the baptism.
Allman's first successful band was the Allman Joys. They were gaining ground despite the dismal recordings they were forced to make. They hadn't found their sound yet. It was 1966 and they were only a few years from mega-stardom. But for now the country was embroiled in the Vietnam debacle and young men across the country were being drafted by the military. When Greg was called up, he decided to have a “foot-shooting party.” All of his friends were there. Everyone was drinking and Greg was ready to do it …except they didn't have a gun… oops. They headed over to the other side of town, bought a Saturday Night Special and Greg completed the dirty deed. He was deferred.
The only other notable band in Daytona was the Nightcrawlers. There was some fierce competition between the two bands. For a brief moment the Nightcrawlers ascended to the top of the heap on the strength of their big national hit The Little Black Egg, a bubblegum masterpiece. The Allman Joys were finding their voice, playing old ethnic songs and the blues. One of the songs, Trouble No More would eventually be recorded by the Allman Brothers band. The influences were coalescing. It was at this time that Greg wrote the rough outline for one of his most cherished songs, Melissa. It was during this formative period when Greg met John Loudermilk who wrote Tobacco Road, Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye and hundreds of other songs. Loudermilk taught Greg the process of songwriting. Greg talks about writing love songs that are more nuanced and poetic. He cites an article he read about Lauren Bacall and what it was like for her when Humphrey Bogart died and she said, “Well, one day I noticed I didn't go up the stairs so fast.” It was vague, poetic - perfect.
The story picks up speed when Greg gifts Duane with the first Taj Mahal album with Jesse Ed Davis playing slide guitar.  Duane was hooked and became proficient almost immediately.  In March of 1969, Greg was in Los Angeles fulfilling contractual obligations (from the Hour Glass sessions) to Liberty Records. Duane called from Jacksonville instructing Greg to return to Florida. Now it gets hot. Duane handpicked each of the members and he had a complete vision of their roles within the band - two drummers, two guitarists. It was an unusual formation envisioned by this 23-year-old musical genius. At the time nobody realized just how gifted he was - a modern day Tchaikovsky.
The classic lineup of the Allman Brothers is now in place, Greg is writing the first album and the band chips in to purchase him a brand spanking new 1969 B3 Hammond organ.  It cost $1,883 and another $1,295 for the 122RV Leslie.  According the Greg, the Hammond helped him finish Black Hearted Woman and Every Hungry Woman, Mountain Jam, Hoochie Coochie Man and others.  There is an unwritten law amongst musicians, “Don't ride my Harley, don't mess with my wife, and no, you can't play with my Hammond.” Greg reveals that he learned to play a Vox organ from a laminated plastic card that read A, B, C, D, E, F, G and major, minor, augmented, third, ninth, fifth and there was a little picture in each block with red dot showing where your fingers go.
Naming the band was a big sticking point. Beelzebub (Greg's idea) and something from Lord of the Rings was offered up, but the four other musicians Dick Betts, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Berry Oakley had another idea. It was unanimous - The Allman Brothers.
Phil Walden was an experienced music broker that had been around the block more than a few times. He knew how to make a buck for his clients as well as for himself.  He managed both Percy Sledge and Otis Redding and they did quite well. The Allman Brothers were sitting ducks. He wooed them and won their trust. Right away he took 100% of the publishing - to cover expenses. Greg signed away his lucrative publishing rights to get his foot in the door. He didn't like it but capitulated at the advice of his brother. The first album was released at the end of 1969 and reached #188 in the charts - an inauspicious debut to be sure. But the band soldiered on and gained momentum from their incredible performance at the Fillmore East in December that year. From that point on Bill Graham became a champion of the band and allowed them to play original compositions not just the Top 40 hits that most club owners required. In this context Greg learned to relax in the beauty of Idlewild South, a cabin in the woods (that also became the title of their second album) and create Midnight Rider, his own personal masterpiece.
Chapter Nine. Duane Allman died on October 29th, 1971. He was only 24 years old. By all accounts Berry Oakley had a total collapse following Duane's death. Greg said, “Berry Oakley's life ended when my brother's life did. He died about year after Duane on November 11th, 1972. It is said that Oakley crashed his bike straight head first into a bus, on purpose. He was drunk when it happened but he would not get into the ambulance. Instead he went back to the Big House, the communal house of the Allman Brothers Band and later died of a brain hemorrhage.
Allman talks frankly of his problems with women. He was married six times and has fathered six children, one with each of his wives. Cher was the most famous spouse and they stuck it out for three years. He credits his last wife, Stacey Fountain, for saving his life by helping him gain long lasting sobriety and helping him through his battle with Hepatitis C.
Allman recalls the several reunion tours, all of which were successful and all of which failed to keep the Allman Brothers from imploding. Alcohol and drugs were always at the bottom of the misdeeds of the band members. This is what led to Dick Betts to leave the Allman Brothers acrimoniously and permanently.
Allman describes a successful solo career based on his great catalog of music especially the terrific I'm No Angel - a great song and the title of his solid gold LP. In 2006, Allman's health deteriorated and Dr. Ira Jacobson, a hematologist determined that a spot on his liver was cancerous. In 2010, Allman underwent a successful transplant. A few months after the transplant, an LP Allman had been recording was finally released under the title Low Country and it ended up at No. 5 on the charts with a bullet. And to top it off the Grammy organization gave the Allman Brothers a Lifetime Achievement Award.
To this day Allman continues to record and perform solo shows a well as performances with the Allman Brothers. It is his destiny.


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