During the last few months of his life, Gregg Allman would often talk with his manager, Michael Lehman, about his legacy. “If you can imagine, Gregg thought, ‘Will people forget me?’” Lehman says. “He never saw himself as a ‘rock star.’ I said, ‘People will never forget you and your voice and what you meant to so many people.’ It was a heartbreaking question to hear from him, but I always reassured him that I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
The first step in shoring up Allman’s legacy, two years after his death of complications from liver cancer, is a deluxe, expanded edition of Laid Back, the solo record he released in 1973. Awash in choirs, strings, and horns, its moody songs touching on gospel and folk, Laid Back was released mere months after the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters, which introduced the band to a massive new audience by way of its Top 40 hit “Ramblin’ Man.”
But starting with a ghostly remake of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider,” Laid Back unequivocally made the case that Allman had an entirely different musical vision of his own. Lehman says he and Allman would often talk about the album, which Allman called his favorite solo record. “It was a time in his life with a lot of tragedy, but there were a lot of good things going on,” Lehman says. “We always had warm and meaningful conversations about that record. He loved the record and the portrait on the cover and all the artwork inside.” Lehman says Allman loved Laid Back so much that, later, he was approached to purchase the original painting on the cover—but couldn’t afford it.
Expanded to two discs, Laid Back, due August 30th, includes the original album, alternate mixes, and a series of chronologically arranged demos that trace the making of the album. “The chronology told such an interesting story about an artist in distress who is looking for ways to cope,” says Bill Levenson, the Grammy-winning producer who oversaw the project, along with Lehman and associate producer and Allmans historian John Lynskey. “You can see it going through stages.”
The distress, of course, started with Allman’s brother Duane, who was killed in a motorcycle accident seven months before Gregg cut the earliest demos heard on the new edition. (By the time the full album sessions began, in January 1973, Allmans bassist Berry Oakley had eerily followed in Duane’s footsteps, dying in a cycle wreck of his own.) Those preliminary demos, including rough takes of “Queen of Hearts” and “All My Friends,” hint at the singer-songwriter patch of land that the album would eventually inhabit. “A lot of those songs weren’t suitable for the Allmans, or at least the brothers felt that way,” says Chuck Leavell, who joined the Allmans as pianist during this time and also played on Laid Back. “They were mellower, most of ’em. If I had to boil it down to one word, I would say ‘melodic.’ This was a more melodic record.”
Leavell especially remembers a telling moment when Allman sat down with an acoustic guitar and played a lick he wanted to use in the revamped rendition of “Midnight Rider.” “His original idea was to have a darker song,” says Leavell. “I wouldn’t call the Brothers’ version happy, but it was uptempo. It’s like the guy who was running away was happy doing that. But in the Laid Back version, he was hiding out and struggling not to be caught. Gregg had that guitar figure and it set the mood for the rest of us.”
The deluxe Laid Back then moves on to include further demos Allman cut before the official sessions — mostly voice-and-guitar versions of the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and “Shadow Dream Song,” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone (Catfish Blues).” Some of those tracks would be recut with the separate, non-Allmans lineup he assembled for the Laid Back sessions, which included keyboardist Paul Hornsby (who played piano on Don McLean’s “American Pie”), R&B saxman David “Fathead” Newman, and Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton of the Southern folk-rock band Cowboy. The deluxe edition ends with a live version of “Melissa,” from the Capitol Theater in New Jersey during Allman’s subsequent solo tour; to bring the collection full circle to its inspiration, Allman dedicates the song to Duane.
Lehman says the fleshed-out Laid Back will be the first of what may be an annual vault release of Allman’s work. (Luckily for Levenson and Lynskey, the master tapes, owned by Universal, were not stored in the West Coast facility where many masters were ruined in a recent fire. Like most of the material originally released on Capricorn Records, then home to the Allmans, the Laid Back masters were locked up in an East Coast facility.) Although Lehman says few original unheard studio recordings have been found in the vaults, plenty of release-worthy live tapes remain, including recordings of his five-night stand at New York’s City Winery in 2015. A comprehensive box set of Allman’s entire career, similar to one recently done on Duane, is also in the planning stages. As far as the long-out-of-print album with Cher, Allman and Woman: Two the Hard Way, Lehman laughs: “It’s all open for discussion.”
Leavell, currently back on the road with the Rolling Stones, feels he knows why Allman loved Laid Back to the end. “It was a new lease on life for him, literally,” Leavell says. “He was in a depression, as you can imagine, and this whole opportunity helped him heal. It made him realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got talent and a voice and good songs, and I want to make this last.’ If he hadn’t had that project, who knows? He might have gone the same way as Duane or Berry.”