When I met Gregg Allman, he seemed like a ghost on guard. It was 1990, in Miami. The Allman Brothers Band had recently reunited for a second time. In the early Seventies, they single-handedly invented Southern rock, but their hallmark was live shows that mixed bedrock aggression and high-flown invention in ways no other group did. Their first breakup, in 1976, had been ugly; a reunion a few years later hadn’t taken. But here they were, nearly a decade later, improbably kicking off a new phase of a career that time and tragedy had not been able to kill off.
That day in Miami, the band was easygoing and talkative when we met at producer Tom Dowd’s studio – but not Gregg. He wasn’t unfriendly; he just seemed dazed, wary. He had rarely been an eager interview subject since the band first became popular in 1971, and the death that same year of his older brother, Duane – one of the most brilliant guitarists in history – had left him stunned and heartsick. For years Gregg narcotized himself, then entered daily into drunken stupors.
None of that seemed to kill his singing or musical spirit. Like Charlie Parker – who at least once had to be held up so he could blow his alto saxophone into studio microphones – Gregg Allman thrived at musical moments that he may not even have remembered clearly later.
Offstage, he could be different. I’d been assured that he wanted to talk, but it didn’t seem that way. The word was that he was now sober, but something still enwrapped him, kept him inside when he was around a stranger. After Miami, I returned to pay Gregg a visit at a fairground blues festival in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was playing a civil-rights benefit. Seated on a bus before his performance, it was still strained work to get him to talk about much of anything. His personal history, he made plain, was off-limits. “The private facts of my life are just as private and painful as anybody’s,” he said in his most revealing moment. “I don’t enjoy going over that stuff all the time.”
Later that afternoon, I watched him play with a basic blues band. As he sang Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “One Way Out,” Gregg came alive. This wasn’t an interview, but nevertheless he was talking about hard truths he’d faced his whole life, since he was a boy. He sang blues not as a vocation but as a heritage that went deep and ancient. But that patrimony also reflected an ongoing personal history that hounded and haunted him. It seemed that every time he sang, Gregg Allman was addressing a specter – perhaps to appease it, or to frighten it as much as it had always frightened him.
After he died at his Savannah, Georgia, home in May, at age 69, I bet there wasn’t a ghost that had the nerve to say “boo” to him – except for one. In the early Seventies, following one of the Allman Brothers Band’s legendary three-hour shows, Gregg watched horror movies with the sound off, keeping an empty chair nearby. He maintained that a spirit sat in that chair. Into the last years of his life, he said he still heard from that ghost every night.
Willis Turner Allman fought in World War II; he’d been among the forces that stormed Normandy during the D-Day invasions. After returning home to Nashville, and to his wife, Geraldine, Willis got a job as a recruitment officer and the couple had two sons. Duane was born November 20th, 1946; Gregory followed on December 8th of the next year. Willis moved the family near Norfolk, Virginia, but he was having trouble adjusting after the war. He’d been in the infantry, firing a howitzer all day long. One day, after Geraldine prepared his favorite dinner for him, he flipped a table over and left. “Now they call it post-traumatic syndrome,” Gregg said. “That was back in the black-and-white days. No color in the world.”
The day after Christmas 1949, Willis drove his new Ford to a tavern with a master-sergeant friend. A stranger at the bar began asking them about Normandy. He bought them beers until late and then asked Willis for a ride home. “They got up the highway,” Gregg wrote in his 2012 autobiography, My Cross to Bear. “When they got to a place where the corn stopped, the dude pulled out an army .45. He told my daddy to stop and get out, so they did.” The man saw Willis’ new car and thought he was looking at someone with money. Willis told the gunman, “Take the car, take everything.” The man replied, “Oh, you know my name. Now I gotta kill ya.” Gregg’s grandmother would tell him it was probably for the better he didn’t grow up with Willis; his mental disturbance wasn’t going to lessen.
Geraldine moved her sons back to Nashville and later enrolled them in military school. They didn’t like it, but showed it in different ways that became emblematic of their temperaments. “If you look at pictures of me and my brother while we were there,” remembered Gregg, “I look sad and depressed while Duane has this look of defiance. That’s how he was – he was probably feeling the same way as me, but that’s just the way he came across. Me, I just hated the whole idea. . . .” He trained his anger on his mother. “Back then I knew – I didn’t think, I knew – deep in my heart that my mother hated me. I just couldn’t figure out why. . . . I cried myself to sleep at night for a week after I first got to that place.” Later, he came to a different understanding: “She was actually sacrificing everything she possibly could – she was working around the clock, getting by just by a hair, so as to not send us to an orphanage, which would have been a living hell.”
Duane adapted; Gregg grew introverted. Duane was in some ways like Gregg’s father, giving him direction, sometimes sheltering him, sometimes beating the shit out of him. Eventually, Duane quit school and rode his Harley-Davidson all over Daytona Beach, Florida, where the family had moved in the late Fifties. He was tall and thin, and his good looks and disposition drew girls to him. Gregg developed more slowly that way.
One thing they shared, though, was an attraction to music – particularly the high-lonesome wail of country music, and the haunted passions of the blues. At 13, Gregg worked a paper route and saved money to buy a guitar at the local Sears and Roebuck. Duane was immediately curious. While Gregg was slogging his way through school, Duane started playing his brother’s guitar – and to his surprise and Gregg’s initial annoyance, discovered that he had a gift for the instrument. “Duane passed me up in a flash,” Gregg remembered.
Soon, Duane and Gregg both owned electric guitars, and Duane would hole up with his for days, learning the music of Robert Johnson and jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. This was in the period when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were inspiring thousands of young people to form bands, and the Allmans did just that. On bass, they brought in a black man they’d met in Daytona, Hank Moore, who led his own band. “He sat there,” Gregg wrote, “and took us through ‘Done Somebody Wrong,’ and that changed my whole life. . . . Then my mama came home, and she’d never grabbed me by the ear or pushed me from behind, but this time she did. She said, ‘Come in the kitchen. … I want to know what you’re doing with that nigger in the front room.’ ‘Nigger?’ I asked, confused. ‘Ma, that ain’t no nigger. That’s Hank Moore, [and] so far, he’s taught us all kinds of good music.’ ”
Gregg also wrote, “I don’t know if my mother had a racial thing per se. It was just the way she was brought up. That kind of thing is just passed on and passed on from one generation to the next, and it’s still happening today. I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it at all.” Gregg also had no use for the Vietnam War. One night, he got drunk and shot himself in the foot. He was then exempt from selective service.
The brothers went through a rapid succession of blues-oriented rock bands, including the Allman Joys. Gregg became the band’s singer. He was often critical of his voice, but he developed his own sound: He could sing softly (he admired the music of Jackson Browne); he could be soulful; and he could also harness a commanding howl.
By 1967, the Allman Joys had been overhauled into Hour Glass and had relocated to Los Angeles. Gregg did not want to go, did not want to become a band that made pop moves and compromises in order to establish itself. He almost parted ways with his brother over the matter, but Duane – the band’s unquestioned leader – didn’t take no for an answer. Hour Glass recorded two LPs for Liberty Records. “The music had no life to it,” wrote Gregg. “It was poppy, preprogrammed shit.”
Ultimately, Hour Glass couldn’t match Duane’s ambitions. In 1968, he made clear where he stood: “Liberty Records can kiss my fucking ass. . . . Stick your papers and contracts up your ass, we’re outta here.” But there was a problem. “Liberty,” Gregg remembered, “threatened to freeze us, so that we couldn’t record for any other label for seven years, unless I stayed and recorded with their studio band. So I stayed. I stayed for our band, and they hated me for it – they did. Duane even told me how he felt on the way out, between all the ‘fuck you’s.”
During this time, Duane played at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, as a sideman for Wilson Pickett. He’d go on to play sessions for Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Arthur Conley, Ronnie Hawkins and Boz Scaggs, gaining a reputation as one of the most musically eloquent and soul-sensitive session guitarists around.
Back in California, Gregg was isolated. He had gone through a painful love affair and was making music he had no heart in. “I had been building up nerve to put a pistol to my head,” he would write of that period.
Then he got a call from his brother.
While Gregg was in L.A., Duane was in Jacksonville, Florida, putting a new band together. He and a jazz drummer named Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) began jamming in a room at Fame Studios with a skinny, longhaired bassist named Berry Oakley. They were soon joined by lead guitarist Dickey Betts (who had played with Oakley in a Jacksonville band, the Second Coming), and second drummer Butch Trucks. One day, the five musicians gathered at Trucks’ home in Jacksonville and began playing. It turned into a relentless jam that stretched for four hours and left everybody involved feeling electrified, even thunderstruck. When it was over, Duane stepped to the entrance of the room and spanned his arms across the doorway. “Anybody who isn’t playing in my band is going to have to fight their way out of this room,” he said.
Duane soon told the others, “We’ve got to get my brother here, out of that bad situation. He’s a great singer and songwriter, and he’s the guy who can finish this thing.” He called Gregg and urged him to come to Jacksonville. Gregg doubted he could get along well enough with his brother to make it work, but he also couldn’t wait to get out of L.A. He left, telling Liberty to sue if it wanted to.
When he arrived in Florida, Gregg headed to Trucks’ house to join the musicians who had coalesced around his brother. “When you walk into a room and everybody knows everybody else except you, it’s tough,” Gregg remembered, “especially when you’re as shy as I am. It was real tense in that room.” Gregg told his brother he wasn’t sure he could cut it. Duane called him a punk and told him to start singing.
Duane’s daughter Galadrielle picked up the story in Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman, her account of the band’s early years: “There was no way out, so Gregg sang. He poured his anger and stress into the song, and it fueled him. He dug into the deepest, most guttural and bluesy side of his voice and unleashed everything he had. . . . Duane was so thrilled when he was done; he grabbed Gregg’s face in both hands and kissed him on the lips.” What Gregg brought to that moment would amount to one of the band’s signature attractions: a powerfully erotic, poignant and authoritative blues voice. No matter all the troubles and doubts – and the terrible choices he made – in the years ahead, that authenticity never fled Gregg Allman. In fact, the bad times only deepened it.
Not long after, the musicians voted in a blind poll for a group name, and it was near unanimous: the Allman Brothers Band. (“I’m lucky my name is Allman,” Gregg would say.) The bandmates told Gregg to get busy right away on new material; they had been playing blues songs, stretching them out, but they wanted work of their own that extended on that background and what they were now creating. Gregg immediately wrote “Black Hearted Woman” and “Whipping Post.” The latter song alone was enough to establish the band’s identity for eternity. Though the title might evoke the South’s legacy of slavery, it was instead one man’s account of sorrow over a woman who has betrayed him. But it was the band’s instrumental partnership, rather than Gregg’s lyrics, that steered the song’s course. It sounded like a titanic ghost memory, rattling through dark history.
Soon, Phil Walden, who had become Duane’s manager and would sign the Allman Brothers to his label, Capricorn Records, moved the group to Macon, Georgia. Then they hit the road.
In short order, the Allman Brothers Band became perhaps the best concert band in rock & roll. In contrast, though, to the Grateful Dead or Miles Davis, the Allmans built tremendously sophisticated melodic formations that never lost sight of momentum or palpable eroticism. The band was attuned to the emotional meanings of blues and the stylistic patterns of rock & roll; at the same time, the Allmans loved jazz and had spent many hours marveling at the way visionaries like Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker had taken the same primitive blues impulses that had thrilled and terrified Robert Johnson and turned them into an elaborate art form capable of intricate, spontaneous inventions.
In part to sustain their energy during the incessant tours, the Allmans used an increasingly wide range of drugs. Eventually, the substance abuse would worsen, and no one in the band indulged more – or for longer – than Gregg. But at first, the drugs were softer, even useful – primarily marijuana, amphetamines and psilocybin. “There’s no question,” wrote Gregg, “that taking psilocybin helped create so many spontaneous pieces of music.”
In March 1971, they recorded two of their three performances at the Fillmore East in New York, for a two-record set that would be widely regarded as the greatest live album ever. In concert, the Allmans earned every inch of their adulation. Night after night, Duane would stand centerstage, and, bouncing lightly on his heels, he would begin constructing meditative, rhapsodic solos that ended up going places that rock had never gone before. He thought in perfectly formed complete lines, with all the grace and dynamics of a carefully considered composition. He was perhaps the most melodically expressive instrumentalist rock would ever witness.
At Fillmore East put the Allman Brothers Band on a very big map, and it did so right away. It began to climb the charts within days of its July 1971 release. “We are on a mission,” said Duane, “and it’s time for this thing to happen.” In June, the band had started working on a double album – Eat a Peach – that would combine more of the Allmans’ live power with their growing songwriting ability (in addition to Gregg, Duane, Betts and Oakley were all composing) and virtuosic prowess in the studio. They were starting to make a bit of money. They invested some of it into a sort of dream farm home in Macon – they called it “the Big House” – but they also spent a lot on drugs.
One night, angry that Duane used up all of his cocaine, Gregg visited his brother’s home in Macon and found him passed out on the bed. Gregg grabbed Duane’s vial, snorted half of it, then headed back to his own place. As soon as he was there, the phone rang. “You little cocksucker,” said Duane, “did you come over here and steal some of my blow?”
In My Cross to Bear, Gregg wrote, “The last thing I ever said to my brother was a fucking lie, man. ‘No, I did not,’ I told him. ‘Okay, man, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you up, accusing you of some shit like that. I sure do love ya . . .’ and he hung up. That was the last time I ever spoke to my brother.” The conversation stayed with him, haunted him.
“I have thought of that lie every day of my life,” he wrote, “and I just keep recrucifying myself for it. I know that’s not what he would want – well, not for long, anyway. I know he lied to me about the blow in the first place, but the thing is, I never got the chance to tell him the truth.”
On October 29th, 1971, in the waning light of a Georgia afternoon, Duane swerved his bike to avoid a truck that had turned in front of him. The cycle skidded, pinning Allman underneath it and dragging him 50 feet. Duane’s girlfriend and Oakley’s sister had been following in a car, and stayed with Duane until an ambulance arrived. At the hospital, a surgeon told the others, “We brought him back up for just a minute or two, but he’s gone.”
Something more than Duane died that day. There was more to the band’s quest than a yearning for music that took painful feelings and turned them into a joyful release. The brothers – Gregg and Duane – had formed the band as an extension of family ideals of love and anger, loyalty and rivalry, that they had given one another in their lives together. The sources of that dream ran especially deep. After all, their real-life family had been tumultuously shattered, and forming a band was a way of creating a fraternity they had never really known.
Another form of that dream, though, stayed alive: The Allman Brothers Band itself was now a true family, and they weren’t yet ready to let that go. “When Duane passed away,” Gregg remembered in 2009, “we all got together and said, ‘What do we do now?’ I said, ‘We either play, or we go crazy. Those are our choices.’ So, we played. God, did we play. We were on the road for 306 days in 1970, and we stepped that up after my brother died.”
The band finished Eat a Peach. Released in February 1972, it was a critical and commercial success (it peaked at Number Four on Billboard’s charts). In October that year, they began work on another album – Brothers and Sisters – but the Allman Brothers’ success wasn’t bringing them peace. Bassist Oakley had been perpetually grief-stricken over Duane’s death. Then, in November 1972, Oakley was riding his motorcycle through Macon when he lost control and slammed into a city bus. Within hours, he died of a brain hemorrhage. The band kept on, though Gregg said, “It was so hard to get into anything after that second loss. I even caught myself thinking that it’s narrowing down, that maybe I’m next.”
To most, it seemed that Betts – who wrote the band’s biggest hit, the country-music-derived “Ramblin’ Man” – now assumed the mantle of leadership. “There was no power struggle or anything like that,” Allman said. “He stood up, whereas I sat down. It’s hard to be a frontman when you’re sitting behind a 460-pound organ. Up until then, we’d never really had a frontman; Dickey took it upon himself to create that role.” It was a bitter pill for Gregg to swallow, and it would cause problems for years to come.
In the early Seventies, there was one low after one high after another. It was with 1973’s Brothers and Sisters that the Allman Brothers pioneered what became known as Southern rock: music that was aggressive yet could swing gracefully, played by musicians who were proud of their region and its musical legacies. The Allmans’ outlook and music were emblematic of the American South’s ongoing struggle for redefinition, and for its mounting desire to move away from its violently earned image as a culture of fierce racism and intolerance.
Then, almost simultaneously, the Allmans achieved an unlikely accomplishment, and suffered their greatest ruin. In 1974, Gregg came to know Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. “He was our friend,” Allman said in 2009. “I certainly never believed he was going to make it to the White House. A Southern president? You must be kidding.” Carter’s campaign was nearly broke. The Allman Brothers (with help from Phil Walden and Capricorn Records artists) held benefits for the governor’s campaign, raising more than $800,000. Without the donations, Carter probably wouldn’t have weathered the costly primary season. After Carter was in the White House, said Allman, “I shared the first meal he served there – back in the section where the family lives – sitting right next to him.”
But the Allmans’ glory wore off before Carter was even inaugurated. A number of matters ran head on, and they all had to do with Gregg. In January 1975, he met Cher at the Troubadour in L.A. “She smelled like I would imagine a mermaid would smell,” he would recall. Their first date was a disaster; Gregg passed out in the bathroom, high on heroin. Cher gave him a second chance, and they eventually found a groove. “Pulling words out of Gregg Allman is like … forget it,” she told Playboy. “Things started to mellow when he found out that I was a person – that a chick was not just a dummy. For him up till then, they’d had only two uses: make the bed and make it in the bed.”
“I was married and divorced three times by age thirty,” Allman would write, “and looking back, I think I was trying to find a friend, even if I had to marry one. . . . The thing is, I really love women. I always have. I think there’s nothing more beautiful than the naked female human body. Nothing else compares to that, and that’s the way it should be. The guys from the band back then would all say that I was such a pussy hound, and such a cocksman. My nickname was ‘Coyotus Maximus.’ ”
Cher hinted that Gregg should marry her. “There was one problem,” said Allman. “She didn’t realize that I was a hop-head. So I woke up one morning and told her, ‘Look, I’ve got to tell you something. I’m addicted to narcotics.’ ‘Well, how do you fix that?’ she asked. I didn’t have much of a response beyond ‘Well …’ ‘I know what we’ll do,’ she said. ‘We’ll go back to L.A., and I’ll get my doctor friend to write you a big prescription for Quaaludes, and you can just sleep through it. When you wake up, it will all be over.’ I tried it – what the hell – but of course it didn’t work. Still, Cher was actually quite elated that I told her the truth about my addiction.”
The two married on June 30th, 1975, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but Gregg’s drug use deepened. By 1976, as Rolling Stone later reported, “Allman was waking up with a morning snort of cocaine, some of it pure pharmaceutical cocaine obtained by his sidekick and valet, Scooter Herring.” That was the point when everything caught up with Allman and the band. In early 1976, a federal narcotics force began investigating drug activities in Macon. In a short time, Gregg found himself threatened with a grand-jury indictment unless he testified against his personal road manager, Herring, who had been charged with dealing drugs. Allman complied, and Herring was sentenced to 75 years in prison (later reduced to 30 months); plus, there were fears that further indictments might be leveled against other figures in the Capricorn and Allmans organizations.
His bandmates were furious: Herring had saved Allman from a drug overdose on at least one occasion, and now Herring had been betrayed. For Allman, it wasn’t so simple. “Not one of the men in the band was at that trial,” he said. “They weren’t there to see the pressure. They weren’t there to see the [lawyer] holding my manuscript right in my nose just daring me, just fucking daring me, to swerve off of it just enough to get me on a perjury charge.”
In August 1976, the Allman Brothers Band officially broke up. Betts made an announcement in Rolling Stone. “In that issue,” remembered Allman years later, “there was a picture of Betts and a quote from him saying, ‘I’ll never play onstage with Gregg Allman again.’ No problem, brother! I just wish we had held him to that.” Still, it hurt: “The feelings, the closeness, the brotherhood that we’d once shared – man, all those things were fucking gone.”
Allman moved to Los Angeles, but his superstar marriage did not last long. “We had our good times, we had our bad times,” he said. “We were just different in a whole bunch of ways. . . . I was really glad that she never asked me what I thought of her singing, because I’m sorry, but she’s not a very good -singer.” Even so, the couple released Two the Hard Way in 1977, credited to Allman and Woman. It was the biggest blemish of his recording career and did nothing to help his fast-fading credibility with any audience. “That record sucked,” he wrote. “It bit the dirt, and it didn’t sell worth a shit.” Allman and Cher undertook a tour of Europe in November 1977. Fans of both the pop singer (dressed in formal wear) and the Allman Brothers Band (in jeans and shirts) turned out, but so many fights between the contingents broke out that Cher tearfully demanded an end to the tour. Not long after, Allman passed out at an awards banquet, face down in a plate of spaghetti. That was it for Cher.
Allman had recorded his first solo album, Laid Back, in 1973. It was moody, much different than the music he made with the Allmans, a midnight-blue soul masterpiece that ran deep. 1977’s Playin’ Up a Storm was just as good – like a Bobby “Blue” Bland album. But, as it turned out, there remained a bond between Allman and his former bandmates that couldn’t be shaken – another hellhound that wouldn’t let go. In 1978, the Allman Brothers Band regrouped, with a slightly revamped lineup. They made one successful record, Enlightened Rogues, but there were further bad ends to come: In 1979, Twiggs Lyndon – who was the Allmans’ first road manager and favorite roadie; who had once stabbed to death a club manager because he tried to cheat the band; who had gone to a mental hospital and undergone tremendous remorse – was skydiving over a New York town named Duanesburg when his rip cord malfunctioned. In 1983, Lamar Williams, who had replaced Oakley, died of cancer, not long after the Allmans disbanded for a second time.
Nobody would have blamed the Allman Brothers if they had left it there. But many patterns would repeat for the band – especially for Allman – including raging fights, failed love and drug addiction. Allman, in fact, was in awful shape for many of those years, in an unceasingly tortured place. “I was just too drunk most of the time to care one way or the other,” he said. By the early Eighties, he was drinking at least a fifth of vodka every day.
In 1986, Allman made a new album for Epic, I’m No Angel. The title song was a hit. Plus, classic rock was now a successful radio format. Epic wondered if either Allman or Betts would consider making a new “Southern rock” album together. Allman’s drug and alcohol problems still raged, and he still had misgivings about Betts, but the two talked and agreed: If Epic wanted a Southern-rock band, how would the label like to have the Southern-rock group, the Allman Brothers Band? Before entering a studio, the Allmans toured. They wanted to see how Gregg would handle the road; they also wanted to see if they could still play like the Allman Brothers. Allman, Betts, Trucks and Johanson brought in three new members, who gave them fresh impetus: guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody and keyboardist Johnny Neel.
In the next few years, they made two of the best albums of their career, Seven Turns (1990) and Shades of Two Worlds (1991). More important, they were reborn as a live band. In 1989, they played a multi-night showcase at New York’s Beacon Theatre; after that, they played near-annual spring residencies at the venue. Some of the live recordings from those stays, and from other occasions, caught the intellectual and spiritual passions of a band that seemed in perpetual renewal to an ever-eager audience.
That’s the miracle part. Offstage, things were darker than ever. Allman finally came face to face with his self-inflicted horror on what should have been one of the best nights of his career. The Allman Brothers Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1995. “I arrived in New York on a Sunday,” he recalled, “got drunk, and stayed drunk for five days, including the induction ceremony itself.” The evening of the 12th he appeared at the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom with other band members. “In the acceptance speech, I intended to say a bunch of things about my mother, and about [Fillmore manager] Bill Graham. But I just said, ‘This is for my brother – my mentor,’ and then I split. Afterwards I looked at that footage, and I never took another drink. And I never will.”
That was perhaps a wishful exaggeration, but he was nevertheless determined to change. He hired in-home nurses who worked in 12-hour shifts to help him finally kick booze. In his book, Allman asked, “Did I get any positive anything out of all that? And you’ve got to admit to yourself, no, I didn’t. You can see what happened and that by the grace of God, you finally quit before it killed you.”
Allman’s time in the lower depths was over; he had stumbled into redemption, of a sort. “[In the late Nineties],” he wrote, “I started wearing a cross, because I finally got some sort of spirituality. Until that point I’d always felt alone, and while sometimes I still get that way because I have a real phobia about being alone, at least now I can do something about it. … Now, if I’m having a problem, or a friend of mine is having a problem, or something is keeping me from sleeping, I’ll just lay there and not really pray so much as just meditate. I get real still and talk to the Man.”
In 2000, the Allman Brothers Band almost fell into another bitter disunion. Over the years, a word often used among the members to describe Betts’ leadership of the band was “bullying.” Said former band manager Danny Goldberg, in One Way Out, “Dickey was the strongest willed, very forceful. . . . He felt that he had written a lot of music and been integral to the band but because his name was not Allman, he would never have the clout, and that bothered him.” Over the decades, the relationship between Betts and Allman would be the dynamic that drove the band’s history, long after Duane was gone. Like the dark secret at the heart of a blues tale, the bond would become more like hatred than kinship.
“Getting clean,” Allman would write, “was like having my windshield washed, and it felt like me, Jaimoe, and Butchie were all too caught up with Dickey’s bullshit. In the spring of 2000, we did an eight-show run that ended in Atlanta on May 7th; during this stretch, Dickey was drinking a ton of beer, and God only knows what else he was doing. He was in rare form, blowing song after song, and the worse he got, the louder he played. … Butch and I talked the next day, and I told him, ‘Man, I cannot take, and will not take, any more of this shit from Dickey. I’m better than this, and I cannot live another day with that son of a bitch trying to lord his bullshit all over us. Fuck this. I’m really pissed at myself for not quitting five years ago.”
By then, Allman was ready to assert himself. He sent Betts a fax, notifying him that the band was laying him off for the summer tour. The separation was eventually arbitrated, and it became permanent. The guitarist never played with the Allman Brothers Band again, though Betts and Allman would make peace with each other before the singer’s death.
The band continued, with Trucks’ nephew, Derek, on guitar. In October 2014, they played their final shows at the Beacon. In the years after Betts, they made their last studio album – 2003’s Hittin’ the Note, their most forceful work since At Fillmore East in 1971 – and ended in top form. The band had final tragedy in store, though, when Butch Trucks committed suicide early in 2017. “I’ve lost another brother, and it hurts beyond words,” Allman said in a statement.
Allman, for his part, was thankful he had sobered up in time to enjoy the music – that he “had woken up before all the innings of the game were over,” he said. In 2011, he released Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett. It’s a modern-day blues album like no other. In Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” Allman sings like the ghost of the original singer, with a brooding storm swelling up behind to act out his vengeance, to cover for his fear.
Despite his sobriety, despite the dignified end of his band, Allman still had reason for dread. In 1999, before the end of the Allman Brothers Band, he learned that he had hepatitis C, which he believed he got from a dirty tattoo needle. Soon, he needed – and received – a liver transplant.
As he was healing, he began planning the album he would make with Burnett. Low Country Blues debuted at Number Five – “the highest I’d ever been on the charts and the highest debut ever for a blues record, except for one by Eric Clapton, which is pretty good company,” Allman wrote. It also received a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album of 2011. Allman decided it was time to grow closer to his children. He had five, each with a different mother, and he married seven times. “Every woman I’ve ever had a relationship with has loved me for who they thought I was,” he wrote in 2012. “Maybe they were in love with whatever was onstage, but when the lights are out and the sound goes off, you’re left with this dude, and that’s me. Obviously, that’s the person they didn’t get to know. . . .” That same year, though, he announced his engagement to the woman who would become his seventh wife and remain by his side to the end: Shannon Williams, 40 years his junior. “This time,” he said, “I am really in love.”
His physical problems, however, didn’t go away. The doctors cut him open several times – once through his back to remove surgical debris. He also was hospitalized due to atrial fibrillation. Allman seemed to know an end was coming. He had always been mindful of mortality. He even visited the dead when he was younger. He’d talked about nights in the 1960s, before anybody really knew who the Allman Brothers were, when he and some band members gathered in the Rose Hill Cemetery, not far from where they lived in Macon. Southern graveyards at night could feel like a blues invocation, a place where you sought a strong and scary spirit to protect you or scare others, as you tried to make it through a mean world. Of course, like anything summoned in such places, that specter could also turn on you, follow you around without you knowing it, until you start to look at the trail of bad luck and troubles behind you as it catches up and paves the distance into your future. Certainly something stayed close to Allman’s troubled soul his whole life. Maybe something ancient and maleficent from a long-ago moonless night. “It’s probably because I beat myself to death with those fucking drugs,” he wrote in 2012.
Allman still wanted to make music, and he recently finished a new album, Southern Blood. He recorded some of it at Muscle Shoals, where his brother had played on legendary sessions. “I would say he knew for the last six months that he was getting toward the end of his life,” Gregg’s manager said, “and he became resolved and peaceful.”
Gregg Allman died on May 27th, of complications from
liver cancer. He’d gone through all the years of hell – much of it his own
making – and found himself in a hard-earned place. “I sit here in my house
in Savannah, look out over the water at the oaks, and know that I have a reason
to live,” he wrote during the last years of his life. “After all I’ve
been through, I can’t help but feel I’ve been redeemed, over and over.
Sometimes I scratch my head about why, but the only answer I can come up with
is that maybe I deserved it because I’ve brought a lot of happiness to people’s
hearts. I get letters by the week from people thanking me for my music, and you
can almost see the tears on the paper. Not that this justifies anything I’ve
done, or says that it’s okay I got fucked up because I made a lot of people
happy – no way. One right doesn’t snuff out a wrong. All I’m saying is that
maybe God just needed me down here to make some folks happy. Maybe it’s that