The accent comes up out of Nashville, by way of Georgia, makes a dash across the States and ends up vaguely California. He sounds a bit like Kris Kristofferson; looks uncannily like his late brother, Duane. The hotel television is on; the sound is off. It is late, and the black and white movie – something surely about horror and death at this small hour – glows up on Gregg Allman's tired face like a moonscape in Macon's Rose Hill Cemetery.
Rose Hill is where the band – the Allman Brothers Band – went in the lean scuffling days, back when they all lived in a two-room, $50-a-month apartment. Sometimes they'd eat psilocybin for inspiration. Sometimes a lonely, bluesy wail would rise out of that old graveyard: a song like Dicky Betts' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." It was a grassy, quiet place to be alone together and to talk about music, and love, and finite thoughts. In later years, Duane Allman would be buried there and the band would play a deeply felt set at the funeral in his memory. Bassist Berry Oakley, too, would die, ominously almost a year to the day after Duane. Eerily, the circumstances of the accident would – even the place where it happened – recapitulate the tragedy of Duane Allman. And Berry Oakley would be buried at Rose Hill.
Gregg Allman stares moodily at the silent television. The writer is asking him about the band's latest successes: about the rave reviews of their two-week long West Coast tour, about the new album, Brothers And Sisters, topping the charts. All six of their albums have now made over a million dollars; most have sold over a million units. In the past six months the Brothers have grossed between $50,000 and $100,000 on an average night. They headlined before 600,000 at Watkins Glen, and though an agreement with the promoter prevents an official statement on the Allmans' gross, a spokesman for Capricorn Records, the Brothers' company, states flatly that it was "astronomical." They have played to sell-out crowds in America's largest arenas and stadiums.
But Gregg Allman's mind, this quiet night after a tour de force marathon set at San Francisco's Winterland, is back in Macon, at Rose Hill. "The real question," he says, "is not why we're so popular. I try not to think about that too much. The question is what made the Allman Brothers keep on going. I've had guys come up to me and say, 'Man, it just doesn't seem like losing those two fine cats affected you people at all.'
"Why? Because I still have my wits about me? Because I can still play? Well that's the key right there. We'd all have turned into fucking vegetables if we hadn't been able to get out there and play. That's when the success was, Jack. Success was being able to keep your brain inside your head."
Duane and Gregory Allman were born in 1946 and 1947 in Nashville, Tennessee, just as the city was experiencing its first studio-building boom. In 1949, the boys' father, an Army first lieutenant, returned home from the Korean War for the holidays. The day after Christmas, he picked up a hitch-hiker . . . who murdered him.
"You've got to consider why anybody wants to become a musician anyway," Gregg says. "I played for peace of mind."
The boys' mother, Geraldine "Mama" Allman, went to school and became a CPA. "Somebody suggested that she put us in an orphanage. She politely told them to fuck off and we went to Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. I couldn't get it on in school worth a shit."
In 1958, the family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. In the summer of 1960, 13-year-old Gregg took a summer job as a paperboy. "Worked all summer and cleared 21 bucks. It was getting toward the end of summer, the mornings were getting colder and I was in Sears and Roebuck to get some gloves with the money when I strolled by the guitar department and fell in love with those beauties. Found one that was $21.95 and the bastard behind the counter wouldn't let me have it. I came back the next day, got it, and proceeded to wear that son of a bitch out. I wouldn't eat or sleep or drink or anything. Just play that damn guitar."
The same summer, Duane Allman bought his first motorcycle, a small Harley. Gregg remembers the bike with a bittersweet smile and a small shake of the head. "Duane was sure a bastard when he was a kid," Gregg says with real admiration. "He quit school, I don't know how many times. Got thrown out a few times too. But he had that motorcycle and drove it until it finally just fell apart. When it did, he quit school. While I was gone, he'd grab my axe and start picking. Pretty soon we had fights over the damn thing, so when it came around to our birthdays – mine was in December and his was in November – we both got one. I got mine a little earlier than my birthday, actually. Matter of fact, I put hands on my first electric guitar November 10th, 1960, at three o'clock that Saturday afternoon. Duane's guitar got into the picture shortly after that."
Gregg gave the Sears guitar to a family friend and it is probably still somewhere in Daytona Beach the way Gregg last saw it; painted flat black with gold strings on it and containing two potted plants.
The Allmans took their electric guitars to led Connors, "a really intense cat who knew how to teach. He's probably still down there. He didn't teach any of that bullshit minute waltz business. I said, 'Man, I want to learn some goddamn Chuck Berry music!" . . . and he taught me."
While Gregg muttered and cursed his way through Sea Breeze Senior High School, "Duane stayed at home in the woodshed and got very good. Very fast. The local R&B station was always on and he had some old Kenny Burrell, Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry albums that he'd listen to over and over again to get the structure down. Duane Allman was the best guitar player. I ever heard who didn't read a note."
After a year of practice, Duane and Gregg were playing with local bands like the Shufflers, the Escorts, the Y-Teens. "The social scene in Daytona Beach was simple," Duane Allman once said, "the white cats surf and the blacks play music." The Allmans, of course, played music, and in 1963, in the era of civil rights marches and murders, Gregg and Duane joined a mixed band, the House Rockers.
"That's when the trouble started in the family." Gregg recalls. "Going to play with them niggers again? We had to turn my mother on to the blacks. Took awhile, but now she's totally liberated."
Duane never quite finished high school, but Gregg graduated in 1965. "That summer we went on the road as the Allman Joys. We had our own sound system, amps and a fucking station wagon. Big time. Our first gig was in Mobile, at a place called the Stork Club. Boy, it was a nasty fucking place. I was homesick and the band had broken up about 14 times before we got there."
Significantly, the internal bickering and the homesickness faded away as soon as the band began playing live club dates. It is as if the band draws its strength and determination from being "the hottest band around." They not only stayed on the road, they worked seven nights a week, six sets a night. Joe Tex's manager caught the Allman Joys at one of the Southern teen clubs and they eventually recorded two albums' worth of material for his label, Dial Records. One single was released, a "terrible psychedelic" version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" which went mercifully unnoticed. After listening to the other tracks, Killen advised the band to "go look for a day job."
While a year of constant playing and touring strengthened Gregg and Duane's determination and musicianship, it devastated drummer Manard Portwood, who was eventually fired. The bass, Bob Keller, was in and out of the band, trying to straighten up troubles with his wife. One of the two percussionists in the present Allman Brothers Band, Butch Trucks, played the same club circuit with his band the Bitter End and sometimes sat in with the Allman Joys.
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