Gregg Allman & Dickey Betts: 'Nothing Matters But the Fever' - Rolling Stone
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Gregg Allman & Dickey Betts: ‘Nothing Matters But the Fever’

A tale of two very different solo tours by the faces of the Allman Brothers Band

Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Allman Brothers

Gregg Allman (left) and Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers perform live in Holland in 1975.

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

Recollected in sober tranquility, that one week with Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts, the week before Thanksgiving, had all the qualities of a spontaneous drunk; which is to say it started out belligerently, limped its way into some soggy profundities and ended up mired in a sentimentality as thick and impenetrable as one of those tule fogs that cause multiple crackups on major highways.

It, took, in fact, two weeks to discover the full reason for the initial bad feelings. Gregg Allman was in Los Angeles on the first leg of his second solo tour. After his performance on November 7th, there was a party in his honor at a full windowed, ferny bar on Wilshire Boulevard. There was enough free liquor to attract the usual crowd of publicists and writers, enough novelty in the situation to pull a few heavies from the industry.

Allman is a draw at these affairs precisely because nobody knows much of what to make of him. For years he was simply Duane Allman’s younger brother. Duane had the vision and Duane had a temper which made him easy enough to identify. Gregg played keyboard and guitar, but never with the blinding talent of his brother.

When Duane died in a tragic motorcycle accident in the fall of 1971, there was a lot of speculation in and out of the industry. Without Duane, it was said, the Allman Brothers Band would fold. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true. The band survived the loss of Duane, then of bassist Berry Oakley, always carrying through, always stronger, always tighter. The new albums continued to go gold.

When Gregg released his 1973 solo album, Laid Back, and launched an equally successful solo tour in early 1974, a lot of people again talked about the end of the Allman Brothers Band. But only months later, in the summer of 1974, the band had the most successful tour in its history, playing only to outdoor stadiums and coliseums.

In the early winter of 1974, Richard Betts had his own solo album, Highway Call, and both he and Allman were playing solo tours. No one was in a position to dispute the draw of the Allman Brothers Band. That was proved. The rumors now centered on some irremediable split between Allman and Betts which would eventually decimate the band.

The Allman band — its bitter history —seems to inspire in some a terrific urge to see the last act played out in tragedy. The urge focuses in on Gregg, and it doesn’t help that he has developed some of his late brother’s temper. At least two writers who have interviewed him say that he is often arrogant, that he is surly and reckless.  

And with this kind of talk floating around the bar on Wilshire, Gregg Allman arrived at 1 a.m., about an hour late. From inside one could see the black limo, then Gregg, tall, thin, specter-like, gliding up to the door. There he spoke for a few minutes with a scruffy-looking street type. Suddenly he was angry. You could see it through the glass: the clenched fist, the contorted face.

You couldn’t hear the words, of course, but that entrance managed to confirm a number of suspicions. What the insiders didn’t know, and what it took two weeks to find out, was what had been said at the door.

First of all, Gregg Allman didn’t know that the party was for him. Someone had simply told him that there were some people he should talk to at this place. As he approached the door, a drunken man had asked him if he could go in with him.

“I don’t know,” Gregg said. “Maybe it’s some special thing and I wouldn’t be able to get you in anyway.”

“Hey,” the man said, “you can get me in. Just tell them I’m your brother Duane, rose up from the dead.”

Gregg froze. The fellow thought he had hit the right note: real knee-slapping humor. “Rose square up from the dead,” he giggled.

Which is when Gregg told him: “Motherfucker, don’t let me see your face in there or you’re a dead man.”

When Allman stepped inside the bar he found a table, surrounded himself with friends and had a few quick, stiff drinks. About half an hour later, I had a conversation with him that fell only a few yards short of a brawl.

We were introduced and Allman noted that I was the third person to talk to him from the same magazine in three years. One story he had liked. The other he despised. “What do you want to write about us?”

I said that I particularly didn’t want to write about Duane, but that there might be something to be said about Southern musicians.

Allman bridled. “I don’t like labels,” he said. “Why don’t you just write about music? That’s what we’re about.”

I tried to say something about how it’s important to know where the music comes from, and how I remember using the word “bullshit.”

Allman swiveled around in his seat. “I don’t have to talk to you,” he growled, and issued an insulting demand to talk to someone more important. “Don’t come around telling me I talk bullshit,” he said.

“Someone ought to tell you.”

“I don’t talk bullshit.”

And so on in this ridiculous vein for several more exchanges until we decided that it wasn’t working and that it might be best to try some other time.

* * *

Twelve days later, Gregg was to fly to Atlanta to catch Richard Betts’ show. There was friendship as well as professional curiosity involved. But Gregg chipped a tooth, had to have some emergency dental work done and missed his flight. It was probably just as well. Betts was not happy with the show.

To begin with, there was backstage chaos at the Fox Theater. Dozens of people from the Allmans’ Macon-based label, Capricorn Records, were up to see the show. An overly zealous security guard, mistaking one of the wives for a groupie, shoved her up against a wall. There was a brief scuffle. Betts was off in a corner, meanwhile, telling a reporter that he never realized that it was so difficult to put a band together and then get it cooking. It sounded like he wasn’t ready for his friends to hear him. Worse, there wasn’t a lot of time for Betts to whip the band into the kind of shape he wanted. In a little less than three weeks, the Betts tour would hit San Francisco, where Richard planned to record a live album.

The fiddler with the Betts tour, Vassar Clements, talked with three or four people about his violin. “They tell me it’s 400-years-old,” he said. “I got it from Roy Acuff. See this writing here. It looks like Latin but they had it at the Smithsonian and they decided it’s the combination of about three languages. They think it might have been a Gypsy fiddle.

“You know, Dickey was joking about it the other night, asking me if he could see it and all. I just gave it to him, and it was funny how it made him nervous. See, he thought that I thought that he was drinking. So he’d call my room every hour and ask if I wanted it back yet. He must have stayed up all night trying to figure it out, because he managed to figure out the scales. He has trouble bowing, but I bet he learns real quick. See, his daddy and my daddy were both fiddlers and that’s why I think we’re a lot alike.”

After a set by Elvin Bishop, another Capricorn act, Vassar left to take the stage with the Poindexters, a bluegrass band and longtime friends of Richard from his hometown of Sarasota, Florida. The audience seemed puzzled — “Where’s Dickey, isn’t he on now?” — but eventually settled back into the Poindexters’ comfortable set. Betts took the stage toward the end of the sixth song — a move that minimized his applause and maximized that of the Poindexters.

He played acoustic guitar and sang his way through a few traditional bluegrass numbers, then worked his way up through Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams. After a short intermission, Betts came back for a totally electric set. (There are 16 musicians in the tour.) Something was wrong. You heard it especially in the familiar Allman Brothers songs like “Jessica.” Richard was playing the same soaring runs and rolls but the band wasn’t hooking in behind him. Once or twice he appeared frustrated and angry. After the show, the backstage mood was dour. And that mood, no doubt, contributed to the argument that I had with Phil Walden, the young president of Capricorn Records.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Walden has lived in Macon since he was three-years-old. He graduated from Macon’s Mercer University with a degree in economics in 1962, planned briefly on law school, but decided to manage a young, little-known singer instead: Otis Redding.

Walden went on to manage other acts — Sam and Dave, Joe Tex and Percy Sledge among them — and developed a reputation for protecting and seeing after his artists. In the early Sixties, there were a number of people in the industry who saw musicians as little more than one-disc moneymakers. There are stories about hotshot managers who would sign a man for one year, give him the keys to a Cadillac, then pull out of the arrangement a year later, leaving the artist with 24 months left to pay on the car that was supposed to have been his signing bonus. Walden, on the other hand, always advised and helped his artists to make safe and substantial investments.

In the early days of 1969, Walden heard about, then signed a contract with a Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio musician named Duane Allman, who had done some stunning work behind Wilson Pickett. Duane put together what was to become the Allman Brothers Band. On March 23rd, 1969, Duane phoned Gregg in Los Angeles. No more Allman Joys, no more Hour Glass, no more failed bands, Duane told him. “Man, this is it.”

While Walden put together Capricorn, an Atlantic custom label, the Brothers lived in a small house in Macon, working up more and more original material. Folks used to stop their cars in the middle of College Street in those days, just to gawk at the longhairs sitting on the porch with their guitars.

Things are different today. The Allmans sometimes play benefits for local charities. More important, the band owns more than 400 acres of nearby land; Phil Walden owns land, a travel agency and a liquor store; and together Walden and the Brothers own a shopping center and an apartment complex. Today it is not unusual to see a Babbitty-looking burgher buy a round of drinks for a table of Capricorn longhairs in a Macon restaurant. Capricorn Records is one of the top five moneymaking industries in a town of about 125,000. This makes Phil Walden, at 34, a man of no little power in Macon.

Most of the musicians who work with Walden have nothing but respect for him; most of the writers who have interviewed him have found him friendly, informative and cooperative. I managed to talk to him at the worst possible time on a bad night. He and Betts had disappeared into a dressing room after the Atlanta concert. There they decided to replace the bass player and add an extra drummer. There wasn’t much time left until Betts would be recording the live album and tension was high.

Walden agreed to an interview after his conference with Dickey. He started off by talking about some things he didn’t want to see: an article that concentrated on Duane or one that indicated that the Allman band would break up. “I’m so sick and tired of that, everybody saying how they’re breaking up. How many times do you have to say something isn’t true?” The other thing that Walden resented was a True Confessions approach, “dirt about a guy’s wife, that kind of thing.”

Walden had a beer cup about half-filled with Scotch and he took a good swig. “What I want from you,” he said, “is the slant you’re going to take.” I said I didn’t have a slant and Walden said I must have a slant, I said I didn’t and so on until I mentioned something about working an angle around Southern musicians.

“American music,” he said, “has always been Southern music …”

“Sure, but popular music is another thing. We’ve had big-selling English groups and psychedelic cycles and now …”

“From New Orleans at the turn of the century,” Walden said, “through Bessie Smith …” He sighed theatrically, disgusted that anyone had to be told these things. “It’s a stupid slant.”

“All right. It’s stupid. Where do we go from there?”

“Tell me what your slant is, because if you don’t I’ll see to it that you get no cooperation whatsoever. From anyone.” It went on. About 15 minutes of unpleasantness. Toward the end, Walden began to relax a bit. “I don’t care what you write,” he said, “I just think these guys deserve a little bit of respect.” Richard Betts wandered back into the room. “Richard,” Walden called, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Ahh,” Betts said, “the man from True Confessions.”

What happened next gets a bit foggy because there was a quantity of strong drink involved and because it lasted until dawn. Most of the Macon people, myself included, stopped off at Richard’s, a cavernous Atlanta roadhouse where Grinderswitch, yet another Capricorn act, was playing. Betts was supposed to jam, but about 3 a.m., it became evident that he wasn’t going to make it. “I’m drinking too much,” he said, “and I don’t like to play like this.” Later he said he was drinking because he was disappointed with his show that night.

I remember sitting with Walden for a friendly conversation though the subject escapes me. Betts invited me to Macon the next day. We told each other a couple of bad jokes and I left Richard’s convinced that the two of us were a couple of immensely clever fellows.

Back at the motel, with thousands of ugly black little birds screeching around in the trees, I fell asleep imagining that there was some profound lesson to be learned from the evening. Something about alcohol. I awoke several hours later to another profound lesson, one that required aspirin and plenty of orange juice.

* * *

It is a good guess that Richard Betts had some problems of his own that morning. He slept fitfully on the tour bus for the hour and a half it took us to get to Macon, then slept for another few hours before finally working up a rehearsal at midnight. He played through most of the electric set with the new bass and drums before taking a break about 2:30 a.m.

“What I’m trying to do with the show,” Betts said, “is to put together a concept. I wanted to show an evolution of the music. We start with bluegrass, which is the music that came over to America from Europe. I’d like to start right off with the bluegrass but it’s not working that way. I think you have to come out first and establish that you have an electric band and that you’re going to play. Then you can go back and do something acoustic and the audience will accept it.

“The concept is that you do songs like ‘Joe Clark’ … things that go back to the 1800s. Then we do a Jimmie Rodgers tune which is set in the Thirties and then a couple of Hank Williams numbers, which are up into the Fifties. Then we ease into the electric set. We do some of the tunes that I wrote for the Allman Brothers and some from Highway Call. So the show is about evolution.

“I don’t know anything about your technical music. I can’t read music but the concept I’m working with is only a small part of my personal influences. I’m influenced by Django Reïnhardt, Stéphane Grappelly, Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, B.B. King and then, by bluegrass. But when I was 16, bluegrass wasn’t cool. We was rock ‘n’ rollers then: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis.

“I grew up in South Florida and my family was pretty poor. We weren’t your upper-class whites by any means. Our main thing we’d have to entertain us: All my uncles would come over and we’d sit around the living room on a weekend night and we’d play. That was a big event for me, getting to play. We never did have any percussion. I had a ukulele when I was about seven. Then I started playing around with the mandolin and the banjo. My daddy’s main instrument was the fiddle.

“What? Well, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s why I am so fascinated with Vassar’s fiddle. Mostly, though, I think it’s Vassar. Him and I are doing something we’ve never talked about. I’m 31 and Vassar, he’s in his 40s, a stone country player. Me being younger is probably why I got into electric country rock or whatever you call it. But Vassar never stopped — he hasn’t kept himself in the old school. And I’m not a country picker at all. So me and Vassar are two different kinds of player but we’re the same kind of person. What’s happening is when he and I get together there’s … there’s a kind of marriage between those two things. When we start exchanging riffs back and forth, we really … we get to talking to one another … and it just feels so goddamn good.”

Betts talked for a while about how tired he was of people “playing up the whole soap-opera thing” about the Allman Brothers Band. He denied that there were any plans to break up the Allman Brothers — “I just don’t think that’ll happen” — and said that the major difference between himself and Gregg was that his taste ran to country while Allman prefers “Bessie Smith and Bobby Blue Bland and Ray Charles: big band blues singers.”

Betts asked if I had seen Gregg’s show. I had, twice in San Francisco. The first night he had drawn a three-quarter house at Winterland while bucking eight other big name acts — including George Harrison — that were playing that night. It was much the same show as his first solo tour except that there were no strings this time and Gregg wasn’t wearing the flashy vanilla suit. The show opened with Cowboy, a Capricorn act featuring Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton in an electric country-rock bluesy set. Gregg followed with an 11-piece band — including Cowboy and Brothers Lamar Williams, Chuck Leavell and Jai Johanny Johanson — and three female singers. He did most of the tunes from Laid Back and a few solo songs like the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with guitar or piano.

The second night’s Allman show in San Francisco drew an overflow crowd and it was better by a quantum leap than the night before. Allman’s drawling, whiskey-flavored voice had never sounded better or more confident. There were some minor changes from the night before: The singers were placed more toward the center of the stage, the songs were in a slightly different order and Gregg sang an extra solo or two. And there was real joy evident onstage: The musicians were smiling and nodding at one another, enjoying their music even more than the audience.

Betts seemed genuinely pleased that I had liked Gregg’s show. We talked about the differences between the Betts tour and the Allman tour; about how Richard’s show was an idea in and of itself — the musicians just stand on the stage and play. Gregg is more the showman, playing to the audience reaction, picking things to do that would be likely to work with each new crowd. Betts thrives on the same crowd reaction but his concept is the important thing.

* * *

Alex Hodges, head of the Paragon booking agency, presented a persuasive economic reason for the separate Betts/Allman winter tours. The Allman Brothers Band, Hodges said, can fill most of the major outdoor ballparks in the summer. In the winter, these facilities aren’t available. A winter Brothers tour would play to smaller crowds and kill some of the demand for the big summer tour. The separate tours play to smaller crowds, so it is feasible to book the smaller halls. Additionally, the winter tours are good promotion for the solo albums and they give both men the opportunity to work on their own material and break out of the structure of the Allman band which otherwise might become restrictive.

Mike Hyland, head of publicity at Capricorn, said that besides the Betts live album, he expects a new Allman Brothers album sometime this spring. “They’re scheduled to start in January but by the time everyone gets off the tour, I think they’ll want some rest. Dickey and Gregg and Chuck all have some tunes worked up. I suspect they’ll start recording in February.” There will be another Allman Brothers Band tour in the summer of 1975 and perhaps a live album.

* * *

The next day I flew from Macon to Atlanta, Atlanta to St. Louis, St. Louis to Omaha. There was heavy air traffic over Atlanta and planes were delayed for hours. I arrived in Omaha well after Allman’s concert and just about the time the tour was pulling out in its private four-engine plane for Minneapolis. I spent the night in Omaha battling with a powerful case of road fever, that disease common to touring musicians which causes them to get drunk and kick in the color TV.

There was a flight the next day which got me to Minneapolis in time for the second half of Gregg’s concert. The spark that had been there in San Francisco seemed to be missing, though Allman sounded particularly good, alone with the piano, on an encore of “Oncoming Traffic.”

Later I ran into Allman at the hotel bar. We talked for a while, both overly polite and stilted. About closing time we agreed to give the interview another try.

I slept for an hour or two — a short jet-lagged coma — then woke up about 4:30 that morning, ravenously hungry. In the hotel lobby, I caught a glimpse of Gregg Allman and about four others waiting for an elevator. They all had boxes of pizza.

So he had been up until five at the very least. Which may explain why he looked dragged out and hung-over when I ran into him in the elevator about one the next afternoon. An earnest young man with shoulder-length hair joined us on the fifth floor, going down. He pointed at Gregg; just stood there silently with his finger out, then blurted, “You’re him, aren’t you? You gotta be him. Hey, remember me?”

Allman forced a smile and shook his head no. “You don’t remember me? You gotta remember me. I’m the guy who cut his finger trying to get onstage at your concert last year.” The fellow held his index finger in front of Allman’s face. “C’mon man,” he whined, “I still have the scar. I’m your biggest fan. You gotta remember me.”

The elevator opened onto the lobby. “Look,” Allman said, “I can’t hardly remember yesterday. How do you expect me to remember your fucking finger last year?” Exit Allman while the man’s face registered changes: fading eager smile, stunned disbelief, anger, hatred.

Which is exactly the kind of thing which gives rise to the notion that Allman is surly and arrogant. To me he looked like a man who had awakened to a mild hangover and who was in no mood to start his day with a strange finger in the face.

Tour director Scooter Herring found a seat for me on the Allman plane to Detroit that afternoon. We bounced through snow flurries and squalls while Allman lay back in his seat, sleeping like a dead man. There was talk among the other musicians and this combined with information from the Betts tour and from Macon enabled one to form an impression about a few things that were never stated.

Just as Phil Walden had said, there was no deep-seated animosity between Allman and Betts. It was obvious each was concerned about the other’s tour: They wanted to know who was pulling the biggest crowds (Allman was winning that one, hands down), what kind of new material the other was doing and how the other guy sounded. In Macon, Betts had gone out of his way to compliment Gregg; and Gregg had returned the favor in Minneapolis.

But there was some talk of minor conflict in the band, a conflict that had less to do with personalities than musical direction. Brothers Chuck Leavell, Lamar Williams and Jai Johanny Johanson have been playing around Macon as a jazz combo called We Three. Jaimoe was drumming with Duane before he ever put the Allmans together. Leavell joined the band in the fall of 1972. His keyboard work gave Betts more room for his solos as well as another lead instrument to riff off of. Leavell, it is said, is a major influence on the band’s growth, on the broadening of its tastes. Williams, who played around with a number of soul groups, joined the Brothers on bass after Berry Oakley died in that second Macon motorcycle accident.

At Capricorn there is some talk that We Three may record a jazz-flavored album and perhaps tour. All pretty much within the familiar structure of things. But the story goes — and here one protects his sources, since talk of disagreements in the band is likely cause for castration at Capricorn — that it is Betts and Leavell who sometimes don’t see eye to eye. One evening, for instance, the Brothers were working on some new material. At one point, Leavell threw out some ideas. Perhaps it was a new, more complicated bridge: something that tasted more of 32-bar than 12-bar structure.

“Goddamn it, Chuck,” Betts is supposed to have yelled, “I’m just a country boy and I ain’t gonna play any of these fucking space chords.” A minor disagreement, to be sure. The story goes on to suggest that it is Gregg who ends up the arbiter, who says, “Chuck, maybe that isn’t just right,” or “Dickey, let’s just give it a try.”

The Allman plane touched down in Detroit at 6 p.m. Gregg dragged through the airport, wordless and grouchy. He looked considerably better. There was no show that night and the two of us managed three or four drinks in the hotel bar before he met some friends from Detroit who invited us out to their house for more drinks and talk about a nebulous television venture.

There were more drinks all around, then the party moved out into the garage to admire a big touring cycle, a BSA I think it was. Gregg mentioned his own bikes, then laid his hand on the glossy black gas tank. For one terrible instant, I think most of us felt that he meant to take her out then and there, in his suit, through the snow storm, over the icy suburban streets at two in the morning. “I’m not finished working on it,” someone said. “It won’t be ready until spring.”

Later, after more drinks, Allman took out his guitar and sang a few songs. He sang for perhaps a half-hour, choosing mostly blues or songs about loneliness and death. One seldom gets to hear Allman’s voice so clearly, so unencumbered. Like the best of the blues, it stung and hurt badly enough to make one feel really good.

It was 3 a.m. when we got back to the hotel, but he said he wouldn’t mind talking a little more. So we sat in a plate-glass suite on the 27th floor of the hotel, Allman found a full bottle of Chivas Regal and we talked.

It was then that Gregg told the story of his encounter in front of the bar in Los Angeles. “Man,” he said, “I liked to punch that dude right … out. Kicked his ass dead.”

Gregg said that he had some songs ready for the new Allman Brothers album and that he was anxious to get to work on them. But the album and the Brothers weren’t the only things on his mind. He had a head full of half-formed projects. Like most musicians, he wasn’t satisfied with rock on television; he thought he could do better given a special and creative control. He wanted to build a new musical instrument: It would have a keyboard but instead of hammers and strings, the keys would activate tiny continuous tape loops. Each loop would be a single note — say a guitar note — and if you had 88 keys, you could play 88 notes. There might be whole banks of loops, some with fiddle notes, some with horn notes.

He was thinking about films, too, again given some degree of creative control. A scriptwriter that he had met in England had encouraged him to draw up a plot outline. “I was thinking about all the times I’ve been dosed, trying to work something up on that. I’ve been dosed five times. Once was at New Year’s Eve at the Winterland and I caught a good one. I remember Bill Graham came in wearing an Old Man Time costume and I thought, ‘That’s it, he’s finally gone around the bend.’

“The last time I got a whole gram of pure cannabis, you know that stuff you put a little on the end of a match stick and you’re gone for three hours? Lamar got a gram and a half. We think it was this cat who was after Lamar’s gig. If we hadn’t gotten him to a doctor, shit, I don’t know, Lamar could have died. I sure thought I was dying. We were about to do this show in Georgia and I was stringing my guitar. An hour and a half later, I was still on my third string. Only reason I went on the stage: I figured if I was going to die, I wanted to do it on my axe.”

We poured some more of the Scotch and I mentioned that I had been thinking about how Dickey’s runs seemed to show a lot of fiddle influence. Allman couldn’t see it and I picked up a stray guitar and tried to show him a fiddle-type run. I continued to bang away at the thing for a full 10 seconds before I realized the guitar was tuned to an open G.

Allman had the good grace not to leap to his feet screaming and toss me out of the room. “You know,” he said, “I could show you some basic things that would just take the top of your head off. It would take about a week or so and you’d have it … what I call the Fever. After that, nothing matters. Eating doesn’t matter, sleeping doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but the Fever.”

The Fever came to Gregg Allman in the late summer of 1960 when, at the age of 13, he bought his first guitar with paper-route money. Before that he had lifted weights, played end on the school football team and was near the top of his class two years running at Castle Heights Military School in Lebanon, Tennessee. After the guitar he quit weights, quit football and barely managed to graduate from Sea Breeze High School in Daytona, Florida. “I had this teacher — either she wanted something from me or she hated my guts — who wanted me to go another year. I think she was a latent quad-sexual: men, women, animals and machines. Luckily, I had another teacher who got me through. I still don’t know why. I hardly ever went to his class since I was usually practicing or gigging somewhere.”

Duane and Gregg were playing for local groups with names like the Shufflers or the Escorts, but when Gregg graduated, they hit the road as the Allman Joys. Duane never sang much, the bassist sang all right, but the drummer loved to sing. “And he,” said Allman, “had a voice like a strangled parrot.” Gregg was drafted for the vocals.

“I still have some tapes of the first time I sang onstage at some club in Daytona. It is just purely awful noise. I sound like a cross between Hank Williams with the croup and James Brown with no lips. That’s what my mother says I sound like: James Brown with no lips.” It takes some thinking about but one can almost hear it in his mind’s ear: Allman’s reedy voice, deep and vaguely black, the slow drawl slurring words and phrases one into the other.

“I used to hang around the little black churches,” Allman said. “Still do. I just stand outside and listen to the singing. I’ve never gone inside, though. I always think that if I do, that’ll ruin it.

“Yeah, sure there’s something country in my voice. I mean I just have to open up my mouth. You know those little crawly things that get in your picnic? In Tennessee, they are called ‘ain’ts.’ That’s how I grew up talking: ‘I got ain’ts in my paints.’ Besides which, when we lived in Tennessee, my grandmother drug us off to that damn Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night.”

By 1967, the Allman Joys had melted. Gregg and Duane went to Los Angeles and signed with Liberty Records as the Hour Glass, where they were asked to make records with no control of the product and where they were expected to play clubs in the San Fernando Valley dressed as “Beatles.” Duane left for Muscle Shoals, leaving Gregg to make what he could of the Liberty deal. It was during this time that Gregg wrote a letter to a friend in which he said he was building up nerve to put a gun to his head.

But Duane had signed with Walden, had assembled the original Brothers and phoned Gregg. “He told me that they had this other lead guitar named Betts and that I wouldn’t play any lead. He wanted me to play organ. I knew what that meant: I’d be doing a lot of singing and a lot of writing and it sounded fine to me.”

Which is how Gregg Allman, who first thought of himself as a lead guitar — even while he was playing chords behind Duane in the Allman Joys — came to be a singer and a songwriter. In the last two years, he has massed those talents for the solo album and his two solo tours. He is singing now more than ever. In the Brothers tour, Dickey and Chuck sing and there are long instrumental breaks. On his solo efforts, Gregg sings for almost an hour and a half. He likes being alone on the stage — “Sometimes I’ll get carried away and do five or six tunes” — but “I get scared, just me up there by my damn self.”

It was getting to be a little after five in the morning and the wind rattled at the windows of the suite. Gregg poured himself another drink, his last. He had a show that night at eight and you don’t tour for nine years without learning a thing or two. He lit one of his dollar-a-pack Sherman cigarettes, sipped at the Chivas Regal, then picked up the guitar and sang “Little Red Rooster” like a tired old bluesman far down on his luck.

I have since seen a review of Allman’s recently released double album, The Gregg Allman Tour. It said that his voice had “gotten worse” and complained of almost incomprehensible phrasing. A point might be made that the strings on that album are basically incompatible with the emotional message conveyed by Gregg’s singing; that the lush arrangements sometimes get in his way.

But … gotten worse? It seems to me that just the opposite is true, that his singing has finally matured and become unique: his alone. He has managed to control the reedy depths of his tones, and though the slurring drawl is more pronounced, it has, of itself, emotional overtones.

The Detroit dawn was cold, gray and sunless. Gregg sang for hours, mostly ballads and laments. He was coming down off all the drinks, exhausted, perhaps sentimental and waiting for sleep. He sang until 10 that morning. No one was surly nor arrogant nor particularly drunk anymore. In that cold gray light, it was just the two of us, dealing with music, feeling good, feeling bad.

In This Article: Coverwall, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman


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