News of Gregg Allman’s death from complications of liver cancer spurred an outpouring of grief and reflection across the music world. But few outside Allman’s family have been more impacted than Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson, former drummer and co-founder of Allman Brothers Band who has always been the group’s spiritual center. The musician has lost two 45-year bandmates in four months following the January suicide of drummer Butch Trucks, and is now one of just two surviving original members (Guitarist Dickey Betts has been estranged from the band since 2000, but will attend Allman’s funeral Saturday in Macon, Georgia).
A Mississippi native who toured with Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and other R&B acts before the Allman Brothers Band’s formation, Jaimoe teamed with Trucks to form an unparalleled drumming duo that drove the band’s music. Rolling Stone spoke to him about the band’s formation, Allman’s legacy as a singer and songwriter and what he’ll miss most about his friend.
Gregory was the last member to join the Allman Brothers band but there never was any question that he would do so. I was the first person Duane [Allman] signed on and he told me from the very start: “There’s only one person who can sing in the band I’m putting together and that’s my baby brother.”
Duane was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama working on sessions with cats like Wilson Pickett when Phil Walden, who had been Otis Redding’s manager, signed him to a deal. My friend Jackie Avery, a great songwriter, said, “Jai, I’m telling you, I ain’t never heard anyone play like this cat before.” So he drove to Muscle Shoals with a tape of songs he had written, hoping Duane might pick one or two up for his new band. I had played on the demo. Duane listened to the whole thing and Jackie said his only question was, “Who’s the drummer?”
Jackie said I should go meet and play with this guy; that he was really good and had serious backing. My friend Charles “Honeyboy” Otis had told me, “If you want to make some money, go play with those white boys.” And truthfully that’s what I was thinking of when I went to Muscle Shoals, because I had been playing on the rhythm and blues circuit and they did business “old school.” In other words, we weren’t paid jack shit but we did get our band uniforms and transportation [paid for].
“When the six of us got together, we became what we were looking for.”
I was going to New York City to pursue my dream of being a jazz drummer because I figured if I was going to starve to death, it might as well be doing something I love. But as soon as I met Duane and played with him, that all went away. It became about the music; only the music. It was the greatest music I ever played and I knew this was it. I wasn’t going anywhere without him. Two days after meeting Duane, all of my dreams came true. We didn’t have a nickel but we were all just as happy as could be, doing exactly what we wanted to do.
We went to Jacksonville and lots of people started jamming with us as Duane put together everyone he wanted for the band: Dickey Betts on guitar, Berry Oakley on bass and another drummer, Butch Trucks. We drove to Jacksonville and he knocked on Butch’s door and said, “This is Butch, my old drummer. Meet Jaimoe, my new drummer.” And then he drove away and left me there! We didn’t know what to say to each other, so Butch and I set up our drums and just started playing. We never talked about working out parts. From that moment on, we just played and it just worked. He set me up beautifully. Everything I’ve ever played that someone said was great was because Butch set me up.
So we had everyone there but Gregg and some people have said over the years that Duane was trying to do something different. Maybe they were fighting, but it’s not true. He told me that Gregg put a spell on women and all this stuff but there was never a doubt that he would be the singer. He was just waiting until he had all the other pieces in place before he called Gregory, who was in Los Angeles.
Reese Wynans [who went on to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan] had been playing keyboards. But Gregory finally arrived, on March 26th, 1969, and my first impression was that he looked like a television star. He was so handsome. He looked like a star actor or athlete; he was kind of a big guy – a hell of a lot bigger than Duane – who weighed 80 pounds soaking wet. But when he started singing and I heard how good he was, I wasn’t surprised. Not at all.
Duane had hipped me to what a great singer his baby brother was. It’s all he talked about, and Duane had a very specific vision in mind for the band. Everyone else he got was great and even greater together, so I figured Gregory would be the same. And he was. When the six of us got together, we became what we were looking for and who we were looking for and it was clear as a bell. It was just a great bunch of guys playing and it was just so natural. We never talked about what we were doing or told each other what to do. Everyone just played.
At that time, I really thought that there were only a few special gifted white people that could play music and I was soon to discover the reason for a lot of that was simply the fact that they were so busy imitating that they never walked out of it and into themselves. It was sitting there waiting and Gregg and Duane did that right away. Hell, the first song he sang was Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” and he sounded great but he sounded like himself. He had that right from the first day I met him. He had been working it out for years already, even though he was just maybe 21.
“He was at the very top of whatever what was going on with singers.”
I played with Otis Redding and Percy Sledge and saw Ray Charles and B.B. King and every other great and I’ll tell you this: there’s not anybody I ever heard who sang with more truth and passion than Gregory. He was at the very top of whatever what was going on with singers. And that shit about him being “one of the great white blues singer” is straight bullshit. He’s a great blues singer. A great singer, period – and those lyrics he would write were incredible. The amazing thing about Gregory Allman is the fact that his music and influences were based on rhythm and blues but his songwriting was so influenced by people like [Bob] Dylan and Jackson Browne and other people who wrote poems. Combining those two things is what made him so unique.
He came in with “My Cross to Bear” and “Whipping Post” and “Dreams” and all these great, great songs. My wife was just asking me: how does someone so young write songs so mature? I don’t know, but he did and what he influenced us to do behind was him was very unique. We were all very influenced by each other. You had no choice but to be very good at what you were doing because it was reflections of what you were hearing and everyone around us was so good! His voice and his lyrics were like two more instruments, which had a huge impact on what we played.
And Gregory was a hell of a keyboard player, too, and his great singing overshadowed his organ playing. Less is more is supposed to be a big thing now; well, he was doing it big a long time ago. What’s interesting is he could play a solo that was just eight bars, but was perfect. With what he played, he didn’t need to play no more. He could play exactly what needed to be played.
Gregg went through some hard times and had some rough periods, but he was always in the music and giving it his all. He had the Allman Brothers and he had his solo band, and he really liked the way that focused on the songs and on accompanying his singing. In 1974, he took out a band with a damn orchestra that was incredible; one of the most underrated bands ever. And I think in the last few years, after the Allman Brothers Band finished, he started getting his band right where he wanted it. My band [Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band] played quite a few shows with him over the past few years and I loved listening to him in his own group, with more focus on his singing and playing.
I will really miss playing with Gregg and hearing Gregg’s music, and I must say, those words, man. The words were as much a part of his life as the voice and they came from his life. Where else could they come from? We’re all reflections of the lives we lead. For years, I didn’t pay that much attention to his lyrics and then they hit me! So powerful. But I’ll miss the person more than anything. Yes, I’ll miss the person the most. I’ll miss Gregory very much.
As told to Alan Paul
Gregg Allman, Southern rock pioneer, fused country blues with San Francisco-style improvisation, creating a template for countless jam bands to come. Watch here.