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Allman Brothers Band: A Great Southern Revival

The group talks about its new lineup and lease on life

Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Allman Brothers

Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman from the Allman Brothers in New York City on April 19th, 1979.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Countless circuses have spent their winters in Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and plenty of tourists, too. Tourist season is just about over by the end of March; the highways are clogged with mobile homes and campers. But out on the edge of town, in an industrial park that, from the road, looks as if it’s shut down for the night, rehearsals are just beginning for the spring and summer tour by the newly reconstituted Allman Brothers Band.

“This is the real Florida,” says Steve Massarsky, the band’s new, New York-based manager, as we pull into the industrial park at nightfall. “It’s as Southern as Georgia or Alabama. Dickey Betts comes from here, you know. He was already living in Sarasota, and so were Danny and Rook [guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies, who were picked out of Betts’ band, Great Southern, to join the new Allman Brothers lineup]. We decided it would be easier to bring the three other musicians here than to take the whole band someplace else.”

The clump of warehouses is almost surrounded by an orange grove, and as we get out of the car, the smell — close to honeysuckle but with a tinge of tartness — is overpowering. “Pretty soon they’ll be able to walk out here when they’re taking a break and pick ’em off the trees,” says Massarsky, a young lawyer who took over Betts’ management in 1976, a year after he passed his bar exam and around the time the Allman Brothers Band officially broke up in a welter of recriminations and bad blood. The sound of a relaxed blues jam drifts out of one of the warehouses, contributing to the easy feeling that seems to hang over the whole enterprise.

A year ago, putting the band back together didn’t look easy, or even possible. “There is no way we can work with Gregg Allman again, ever,” Dickey Betts had said in 1976 after Gregg testified against his former personal road manager, Scooter Herring, in his widely publicized drug trial. That sounded pretty final. But a reunion was effected, and an album called Enlightened Rogues was recorded. Since the release of that LP in early March, it looks like reclaiming their position in the upper echelons of American rock is going to be as easy for the Allman Brothers Band as picking oranges off those trees. In just two weeks the album has gone platinum, jumping into the Top 15 on the trade magazine charts and still bulleting rapidly upward. And in New York, two concerts were announced on one radio station, WNEW-FM, just once, on a Saturday morning, and they sold out within an hour and a half.

Inside one of the warehouses, a road crew that includes Twiggs Lyndon and the Red Dog, two original crew members who were pictured on the back of the band’s seminal At Fillmore East album, is busy setting up microphones, testing channels on an impressive, state-of-the-art mixing console that will travel with the group, and discussing details with the musicians, who have let their blues jam wind down. Dickey Betts, whose band, Great Southern, fared better commercially than any other post-Allmans project but never really broke out of the club and small-theater circuit, is in a corner running over an intricate climb-up pattern with fellow guitarist Dan Toler. Those climb-ups, voiced in bright, ringing harmony, were the trademark of the original Allman Brothers Band. When founder Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident in October 1971, the two-guitar lineup was abandoned, and a keyboard soloist, Chuck Leavell, was brought in to replace him. Now, after two years of intensive work in Great Southern, Betts and Toler have the two-guitar sound down cold.

David Goldflies, known as Rook because at 22 he is the rookie of the bunch, is pumping at his bass, trying to fit into the syncopated patterns being played by Jaimoe on one of the two drum sets. Jaimoe’s backgound is in soul music — he was road drummer for Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Percy Sledge before joining the original Allman Brothers Band — and jazz, and he learned a great deal from the rhythmically sophisticated R&B musicians of New Orleans, men like drummer Charles “Honeyboy” Otis and pianist Professor Longhair. The band’s other drummer, Butch Trucks, is busy adjusting his timpani. He was attracted to a musical career by Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts on television and has played in the Jacksonville Symphony. The Allman Brothers’ two-guitar sound has received more publicity than the two-drummers setup, but the interaction between Trucks and Jaimoe is equally distinctive. After a while Butch stops tinkering with his timpani and gets back behind his traps, and it becomes evident that the magic is still there. The two drummers set up a busy, bristling whirlpool of accents and cross-rhythms, and not once do they get in each other’s way.

The only musician missing is Gregg Allman. “Didn’t you hear about his accident?” asks a roadie. Accident? After his widely publicized cure for heroin addiction, a drinking-related disorderly conduct arrest as recently as last October and a round with Alcoholics Anonymous, Gregg is the one member of the reconstituted band whom the skeptics are going to be watching closely. He is the group’s powerful, growling vocalist, his keyboard sound contributes to the music’s unique character, and after all, he is the only member named Allman. Without him, one might argue, the new Allman Brothers Band is really Great Southern with different drummers.

“Yeah,” the roadie continues, “he was drivin’ along up in Davtona Beach, where he lives, and he and this little old lady ran into each other. It was all over the TV news and in the papers yesterday. The poor guy just can’t seem to stay out of the headlines.” Poor guy, indeed. Ever since he married superstar Cher, Gregg’s every move has been subject to the prying eyes of the National Enquirer and other sensation-oriented media, and the couple’s separation — divorce proceedings are under way — hasn’t helped. Gregg is saddled with a notoriety he really doesn’t want, and he has gone to considerable extremes, such as living for the past several months without a telephone, to try to live it down. Now, at the very beginning of an intensive two-and-a-half-week rehearsal schedule, trouble has struck again.

After only a little playing, Dickey Betts leaves the rehearsal with a purposeful look on his face. This reporter isn’t supposed to be in on what follows, but according to a reliable source, what happens is this: Dickey gets in touch with Gregg, who says he’s still a little shook up from his accident but is leaving for Sarasota tonight. Dickey tells him to sit tight, hires a small plane and flies to Daytona Beach to pick him up. They return at seven in the morning.

At three that afternoon, it’s still dark inside Gregg’s temporary headquarters, an apartment in a condominium complex just outside Sarasota on the Gulf. His friend Jim Essery, a harmonica player he met in a pizza parlor and who plays on four of Enlightened Rogues‘ eight cuts, is watching an Orson Welles melodrama on television. “Gregg’s just getting up,” he says. “I thing he’s feeling a little stiff from the wreck.” After a commercial and a psychotic episode from Welles, Gregg appears in the doorway to his bedroom, wincing and walking gingerly. But he looks good — cheeks full of color, slimmed down from his bloated post-cure phase while retaining a suggestion of a beer belly. Mostly, he looks clear. “I think,” he says, “I might’ve cracked a rib.”

The headlines must be getting really tiresome. “Awww, man,” he says, settling on the couch and opening a Coke, “lemme tell you, if it had happened to anybody else. … The next day, man, the part about them finally agreeing on the peace treaty was under my picture in the Daytona Beach paper. At least I was insured to the max. It’s my 22nd car and the first accident I’ve ever had.”

Talk turns to the new album and especially to Gregg’s singing, which to these ears sounds like the best he’s ever recorded — growling, urgent, full of fire and noticeably lacking the straining that occasionally was evident on earlier records. “Yeah,” he says, “seems like I’m finally getting all the notes right. I used to sing sharp quite a bit, which is actually worse than singing flat. Plus, getting away from the, ahhh, depressants — that also helps greatly. But this album came off better than any we’ve ever done before. I think we really did it like a bunch of pros, man. We took six weeks and rehearsed it at the warehouse, took a little bit of time off, then went in there and slam-bang got it done. We knew what we were doing, plus we were working with Tommy Dowd [producer of several of the earlier, classic Allmans albums], who’s the best in my book. I enjoyed cutting this album more than any one I ever cut. Except,” he chuckles, “At Fillmore East.”

Any discussion of the Allman Brothers Band eventually turns to At Fillmore East. In retrospect, the two albums that preceded it can be seen as laying the groundwork, and the one that followed it, Eat a Peach, which was almost three-fourths Fillmore material, as a continuation. It was during the studio recording for Eat a Peach that Duane was killed, and the band’s music was never the same. Adding Chuck Leavell on keyboards — Gregg’s idea, since it allowed him to concentrate more on his singing — meant a jazzier direction. Then, a year and 13 days after Duane’s death, bassist Berry Oakley was killed in an accident disquietingly similar to Duane’s. He was replaced by Lamar Williams, a friend of Jaimoe’s, and it was with this lineup that the band actually enjoyed the pinnacle of its commercial success. During the summer of 1973 the Allmans headlined at the mammoth Watkins Glen Festival, with the Band and the Grateful Dead as supporting acts. The audience numbered over 600,000 people. In August Brothers and Sisters was released; it spawned a hit single, Betts’ countryish “Ramblin’ Man,” and included the instrumental “Jessica.” But there would be only one more studio album, the aptly titled Win, Lose or Draw, released in September 1975. By the following summer, the band’s breakup was official.

It’s easy enough to attribute the Allmans’ demise to dope, drinking and related occupational hazards. Almost everyone involved admits they had serious problems of one kind or another toward the end. But there were musical reasons, too, and these probably would have been enough to scuttle the band.

In the beginning, the Allman Brothers Band made a name for itself playing tough, deep-South blues, a direction that came largely from Duane’s and Gregg’s formative influences. “We were born in Nashville,” Gregg explains, “and lived there till I was 12-years-old, but I didn’t start playing music till we moved to Daytona Beach. I guess that was 1959. I started on guitar in the summer of 1960 — I’ve been playing it 19 years now and I still write mostly, or at least half and half, on the guitar — and Duane picked it up by the fall. I taught him the basics, and he really took a yen to it, quit school … that’s all he ever did, he didn’t sleep, didn’t drink, he’d just … many nights I’d wake up and there he’d be, just pickin’ away.

“We listened to Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, B.B. King. I guess Little Milton was about my favorite.” For white boys growing up in Daytona Beach in the early Sixties, those records weren’t easily acquired. “We went, let’s just say, across the tracks. Our mother called it somethin’ else. We had to eeeease over there and for about 97 cents you could buy these old albums. I’ve still got a few of ’em. Some of ’em you’d buy and they’d be white, they’d been played so much.”

That music was the basis of the early Allmans sound, but from its beginning in 1969, the group also enjoyed stretching out. Duane, who’d been discovered by Phil Walden playing guitar on soul sessions in Muscle Shoals, had been scouring the Midwest and South with Jaimoe, looking for a band. In Jacksonville, they ran across Butch Trucks (who’d worked briefly with both Allman brothers in a band called the 31st of February), Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley and jammed for around three hours. It must have been some jam. “We were all in this room afterward,” Butch recalls, “and Duane got in the doorway and said, ‘Anybody in this room that’s not gonna play in my band, you’re gonna have to fight your way out.’ And that was it. It was like being born again at a revival meeting; we got saved that day.”

Duane and Dickey Betts were both capable of sustaining long, inventive guitar solos in those days, and on a good night they would soar for hours. There was certainly some jazz influence in the music. Duane enjoyed listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane records from their melodic modal period of the early and middle Sixties, and Dickey Betts’ wife, Paulette, remembers that on their first date, he took her to hear Charles Mingus. But the jazz content in their work can be overemphasized. “Duane liked a lot of things,” says Gregg, “even Django Reinhardt, which is a little far out for me. I like jazz, but I like something like Herbie Hancock. I’ve got to hear that groove.”

According to Dickey, the melodious, singing lyricism in his own guitar work comes from a different and unexpected source. “I listened to Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and all those people,” he notes, “but I think what you’re talking about, the lyricism … I like Brahms. You know the things he wrote for violin? The violin can really float a melody, and I try to do that with the guitar. Believe it or not, Brahms even does a lot of the climb-ups, like in ‘Blind Love’ on the new album, where the two guitars have the melody and it climbs right up — it’s almost a signature of the Allman Brothers Band. … Well, Brahms does that same thing in a lot of his pieces, in a more sophisticated way, of course.”

With its deep blues roots and its ability to sustain extended improvisations, the early Allman Brothers Band was unique. Once Duane was gone and Chuck Leavell was in the group, two distinct directions became evident. Leavell, who’d been with Dr. John, possessed a prodigious keyboard technique and wanted to play in a more overtly jazzlike manner. Dickey had always been closer to country music than most of the other players in the band — today he talks excitedly about musicians like Willie Nelson and J.J. Cale, and he recently did some recording with another favorite, Billy Joe Shaver — and wanted to go in a more countrified direction.

“Instead of just getting together and playing the music, we started to try to compromise with each other verbally,” Butch Trucks says of the period preceding the band’s breakup. “Dickey said, ‘No, I don’t want to play all that jazz’; Chuck said, ‘Hey, we’re not sophisticated enough.’ And as soon as that started happening, we started getting conscious of the direction. We started trying to channel it in a certain way and we lost it. After Win, Lose or Draw we were workin’ on another album that nobody’s ever heard, and it’s a good thing nobody heard it. Enlightened Rogues we made like the earlier ones; whatever tune came up, whatever direction it went in, that’s the way it went. That’s what we’ll always do. I think if we ever stop doin’ that, we ought to quit.”

Verbal compromise may not have a place in the Allmans’ music, but reuniting the band involved a lot of compromise and a lot of talk. “I had never given up hope,” says Phil Walden, who used to manage Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and other soul artists, and whose Capricorn label was built largely on the strength of the Allman Brothers’ success. “Then about a year and three months ago, Gregg came to see me and spoke very earnestly about the possibility of the band coming together. We flew down to Miami to see Dickey, who was recording with Great Southern, and had a meeting, and a lot of positive things came out of that. But Dickey was committed to finishing his solo album and touring to support it, so that set us back. But we continued to talk. Then about four or five months after that I called a meeting at Lakeside [a park outside Macon].”

Betts had warmed to the reunion idea sometime between the initial meeting in Miami and the get-together at Lakeside, and his enthusiasm had a lot to do with the others’ decisions. “The first time Phil called me,” says Butch Trucks, “I said no, no way. I had my own band [a jazz-rock group called Trucks] and was studying at Florida State, and I just wasn’t interested. Then one day I was playing in Tampa with my band and I ran into Dickey. We sat up all night and talked and he played some new tunes for me, including ‘Crazy Love’ [the first single from Enlightened Rogues], and I started getting excited. I saw how together Dickey was, I’d finally got over a bad drinking problem I had, and he said Gregg seemed to be in excellent shape. So we started talking seriously about putting it back together at that point.”

Originally, the idea was to reassemble the band that had broken up in 1976 — Gregg, Dickey, Butch, Jaimoe, Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams. But Leavell and Williams were committed to their progressive band, Sea Level, and viewed the idea with considerable suspicion. “At Lakeside,” says Leavell, “we played a little bit to see what kind of music we could get, but it was real strange. I played with Jaimoe a little by myself and then he had to split to go to this gig, and Gregg and Dickey and Butch and me got up and played. And it just felt like it always did sort of toward the end. I didn’t really feel anything inspirational. Then after we played, we sat back down and started to talk again. Dickey was saying, ‘Hey, look, I would really like to get this thing together. I would give up my next solo album and divert my solo career for a while.’ And Gregg said, ‘I’m willing to do whatever it takes.’ Butch was the same way. And Lamar and I were just looking at each other like, well, that’s great that they have this spirit going, but we can’t do that. We told them we were in the middle of finishing an album and we could get back together at X point in time. Then after we left the meeting, obviously they just decided to go with somebody else.”

So it was Jaimoe, Butch and Gregg who showed up as unannounced guests at a concert by Betts’ Great Southern in New York’s Central Park last July. There was another Allman Brothers jam in Macon, at the annual Capricorn summer picnic in August, and though Leavell and Williams participated, they were less than enthusiastic. The final decision was made that night to round out the band with Great Southern’s Toler and Goldflies, who’d also taken part in the evening’s jam. It seems to have been the best decision for all concerned. Leavell, who has helped push Sea Level in a jazz-rock direction, would not have been happy with the basically conservative style of the reconstituted Allmans. His reaction to Enlightened Rogues is, “It sounds good, but it sounds real familiar. I was kind of hoping they’d go a little bit further out and experiment with a little more contemporary things. I thought originally that people would get turned off by that same old thing, but, well, hell, man, that’s what they liked about it.”

According to Jaimoe, who was an original member of Sea Level but quit some time before the Allmans’ reunion, “Chuck was trying to be the number-one keyboard player, getting into the individual instead of the entire unit. I learned from the road thing, the rhythm & blues thing, that making the music sound good was more important than my personal gains, and through that I learned a lot.” There is, it seems, a unity of spirit and style in the new band that probably wouldn’t be there if Leavell and Williams were involved.

One result of that unity is an album that does sound remarkably like the old Allman Brothers Band, and in fact this is the main criticism that has been leveled at the band. “People are always gonna have those opinions,” Gregg bristles. “I don’t care what you put out, somebody’s gonna have something bad to say about it. Those people ought to come see it live.” Asked it he thinks the group is finally back on track after his brother’s death and the changes in direction, he nods. “It took a lot of time for us to get some fire back into it, man. Now we’ve got new blood in the band, which helps greatly. I mean Danny and David, they’re real assets; I don’t think we could have made a better choice.”

“It’s just been smooth as silk,” beams Dickey Betts. “Everybody’s matured so much, and everybody’s real inspired and fresh-minded about the thing.” Betts seems to be in the strongest position if there is any jockeying for power within the group. The band’s manager is his manager, two of the musicians came to the group through Great Southern and look to him for guidance, and he either wrote or cowrote six of the eight songs on the new album (Gregg says he is writing more than his one contribution would indicate but has publishing problems). Dickey still has a viable, ongoing solo career and will probably do an album and a tour a year with both the Allman Brothers and Great Southern. But his enthusiasm for the project seems entirely genuine — his taking off for Daytona Beach in the middle of the night to get Gregg was a gratuitous act of friendship he didn’t want anyone to know about — and if a lot seems to have gone his way, one suspects it’s because he is in fact the band’s principal pillar of strength.

Ultimately, the group’s excitement about the album and tour is something that can’t be faked. Even Jaimoe, who admits he agreed to the reunion initially because he needed money to continue his music studies, says, “I was sick of playin’ loud music, and man, I still don’t like to play loud music. But I sure like playing with these guys.” Butch Trucks says, “I came here a little leery. When the thing broke up we were cooked, just burned out. But the first time I heard the new album I went apeshit. It’s got that energy in it, that feeling and intensity we have to have. And we’re just getting warmed up.”

The band’s new contract with Capricorn gives the company the rights to future albums, if there are any, but puts absolutely no pressure on the group to record. Everyone involved, however, says there will be another album, and probably soon. “When we decided we had enough material for the album,” says producer Tom Dowd, “Butch and Dickey were walking around saying, ‘Damn, we got three more songs worked out we haven’t even played,’ and Gregg said, ‘You haven’t heard the other two I wrote.’ So there was this spirit among them. The next album is half planned already. We’re in love all over again.” 

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