On the afternoon of May 27th, Gregg Allman – the founding singer-organist of the Allman Brothers Band – died of complications from liver cancer at his home in Savannah, Georgia. He was 69. That night, at the Summer Camp festival in Chillicothe, Illinois, singer-guitarist Warren Haynes – who spent 25 years at Gregg’s side in the Allman Brothers – paid homage with his own band Gov’t Mule, opening their set with “Travelin’ Tune,” a new song about the riches and perils of life on the road and “the fallen ones that didn’t make it through.” Gov’t Mule also fired up two Allmans classics – “Dreams” and “Whipping Post,” both from the latter’s self-titled 1969 debut album – with help from members of jam bands moe. and Umphrey’s McGee.
“It was tough,” Haynes admits the next day. “I vacillated back and forth, from trying to let the music be a healing property to thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing up here?'” The healing won out. “We were at this festival with moe. and Umphrey’s McGee, and I invited some of each to join me on those tunes. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do.”
Haynes and I had just spoken two weeks earlier, in his dressing room trailer at Central Park Summerstage, for a forthcoming Rolling Stone story about Gov’t Mule and their new album, Revolution Come . . . Revolution Go, out on June 9th. In this unexpected and emotional conversation, only 24 hours after Allman’s death, Haynes reminisced frankly and fondly about the singer and the weight of struggle that characterized Gregg’s life in the Allman Brothers Band: the loss of his older brother Duane, the group’s founding guitarist and leader, in 1971; the death of bassist Berry Oakley a year later; the ensuing turbulence – breakups, reunions, personnel changes, Gregg’s escalating health problems – that turned into renaissance, especially on the road, starting in the Nineties and peaking in the final lineup with Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitars.
With Allman’s death last week and the tragic suicide last January of drummer Butch Trucks, there are now only two surviving members of the original Allman Brothers Band: drummer Jaimoe and guitarist Dickey Betts (who was let go in 2000). “It’s a tough one,” Haynes says of losing Gregg. But the guitarist also sees the circle the Allmans set in motion still rolling on, unbroken. “There are a lot of young people now discovering that music,” he points out. “And it will have a similar impact to the one it had on me.”
When did you last see or speak to Gregg?
Derek and I went to see him two days before the Wanee Festival [in late April in Live Oak, Florida]. It was very bittersweet. He was hanging in there. But you knew that he’s dodged so many bullets in his life. He could have held on for a long time, or he could have gone pretty quickly – as we saw.
“He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable, from the very beginning. That was his nature.”
How often, during your time in the Allman Brothers, did he talk about Duane? Was it something that came up naturally, or was it always there for him – a presence – that he didn’t need to speak about?
He liked to tell stories – mostly funny stories. There were always little anecdotes popping up here and there, a lot of which involved Duane. And he had a great, long-term memory – an attention to detail. It would always shock me how he and Jaimoe both specifically remembered little details of the stories through the years. Even if some of them got repainted here and there, they were pretty accurate.
What was your first Allman Brothers Band experience – as a listener and player?
My oldest brother got a copy of the first record [1969’s The Allman Brothers Band] shorty after it came out. I still remember the impact that music had on me. This was something different, something immediate that was demanding our attention. We eventually figured out that this was an integrated band coming out of the deep South at a very sensitive time.
And I remember Gregg’s voice, being captivated by it. I was nine years old. I had not picked up a guitar yet. But I was already listening to soul music and singing. I was just focusing on his voice. It was captivating.
What struck me, as I was listening back to the records, was Gregg’s skills as an interpretive singer, like his version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” on the 1973 solo album Laid Back. Then I heard a version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” that you sang with the Allmans in 2003. When it came to new songs in the Allmans sets – covers or originals – how did you and Gregg decide who would sing what?
Usually whoever sang the song had the idea. In the case of “Into the Mystic,” that was [legendary promoter] Bill Graham’s favorite song. When Bill died [in 1991], they played it at the memorial. I remember turning to Dickey Betts and saying, “We should cover that.” It took years for that to come to fruition.
With Gregg, if he had the idea to interpret someone else’s song, it was going to be a really heavy statement. He wasn’t much for covering a song for the sake of it. He had to feel confident that he was connected to it. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Darling” [the B-side of Wolf’s 1960 single “Spoonful”] – he really wanted to do that.
And I saw a few Allmans shows where Gregg sang Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.”
That was a cool connection. Duane, Berry, Butch and Jaimoe all played on the Johnny Jenkins record [1970’s Ton-Ton Macoute!] that featured “Gilded Splinters.” The hardcore fans liked the esoteric stuff, and it was cool for us to dabble in it.
How much was Gregg the leader of the Allman Brothers Band? And how much did he exercise the power of his connection to his brother?
He was always reluctant to be a leader. I think he was very comfortable with Duane having that role from the very beginning. To whatever extent he grew into leadership through the years, it was a struggle for him. He always liked to see things just happen – on their own organically. When it was his song and he was singing it, he would be much more meticulous about how the arrangement would go than if it was an instrumental or if I was singing.
Had you met him before you joined the Allman Brothers?
I met him in 1981 and saw him a few times between 1981 and 1989, when I joined. His last solo record, before the Allman Brothers reunited, was Just Before the Bullets Fly. I co-wrote the title track [“Before the Bullets Fly”].
What were your initial impressions of him – and how did they change after you joined the band?
Even though we knew each other a bit prior to my joining, I was very intimidated because I’d been a big fan since 1969. Of course, he was immediately disarming. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable, from the very beginning.
I think that was his nature. He was like that the first time I met him, in 1981. I was 21 years old. He paid me a lot of compliments and was very encouraging. Sometimes, when you’re meeting your heroes, it can go either way. But that was a nice introduction to what would eventually be our relationship.
How did Gregg deal with the constant changes in the Allman Brothers lineup – just the guitarists coming and going during your tenure, until it settled down to you and Derek?
Gregg never liked confrontation. He never liked unnecessary drama. If things could figure themselves out, he preferred that. But the Allman Brothers had been through so many changes prior to when I joined that it was, in his mind, just a reality [Laughs]. He was really close with [bassist] Allen Woody, and I know it bothered Gregg when Woody and I left in 1997 [to focus on Gov’t Mule – Haynes rejoined in 2000]. He understood where we were coming from. But he and Woody were hanging buddies. And of course, it hit him really hard when Woody died [in 2000].
“He was always a trooper when it came to the health situations. he couldn’t deal with being off the road.”
Gregg’s health became a complicating factor of Allman Brothers life. How did his mounting problems – the bout with hepatitis C in 2007; the liver transplant in 2010; the later lung surgery and rehab for addiction to medication – affect your touring and plans for the future?
He was always a trooper when it came to the health situations he was confronting. There were several times early on – and many times later on – when a lot of us felt like he should spend more time off the road. But he couldn’t deal with being off the road. He loved being on stage and that connection [to the audience], even though there were times when you could tell it was harder for him.
Just physically getting through a show?
Yeah. Then he would get home and start thinking, “I wanna be back onstage.”
When you and I spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked you about the breakup of the Allmans, and you mentioned that some members were for the end and some were reluctant. Which side did Gregg fall on?
He was into the concept right from the beginning. We had a lot of meetings about it. I remember at the end of the first meeting, everybody was pretty much on the same page. It was down the road, as the cut-off point was growing near, when people started to get cold feet. But I think Gregg was really enjoying doing [his side project] Gregg Allman and Friends, in some ways more so than the Allman Brothers. He was getting motivated to do some songs differently; to tackle some stuff from his back catalog that he hadn’t done much in years. I was excited to see where that was all going to go. But then as his health weighed on him more, he started reverting back more and more to the comfort zone.
You and Gregg co-wrote the one original song, “Just Another Rider,” on his last solo album, 2011’s Low Country Blues. It was a sequel of sorts to his classic “Midnight Rider.” It also suggested that he hadn’t lost the urge to write, even if he wasn’t doing it as often as he had as a younger man.
There was another song that we wrote that wasn’t quite finished, that we were toying with recording for that album. Gregg, ever since I knew him, was never in a hurry to finish a song. He was one of those people who would let it sit. And when the time’s right, it will happen.
That was something I was pleasantly surprised with when we first started writing together. Because I was the opposite: “Hey, we’re in the moment, let’s get this done.” But a lot of times with him, it would reach a place, and he’d go, “Let’s come back to that later, and it’ll solve itself.” There were a lot of songs we wrote together where the song was almost finished but not quite, and he would come up with one small thing that made it so much better.
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A number of songs you co-wrote with him for the Allmans, like “High Cost of Low Living” and “Rockin’ Horse” on 2003’s Hittin’ the Note, stayed in the live sets.
“Desdemona” [also on that album] is one of those I’m most proud of, that we wrote together. He actually wrote a lot more of the music than people would expect. They would expect that my role was the music, and his role was the lyrics. And that was not always the case.
One of the most remarkable things about the Allman Brothers’ final concert – on October 28th, 2014 at the Beacon Theater in New York – was Gregg’s short but heartfelt speech before the final encore, “Trouble No More.” He spoke about the first time he sang that song, at his first rehearsal with the band in March 1969. Gregg rarely spoke onstage, but his spiritual and emotional life in the Allmans – the music, the ideals, the memory of his brother – came through so clearly in that moment.
I remember that night very well. We were all hoping that he would open up and say a little bit. He never was comfortable talking onstage. That night, all of us felt there was something special going on. We had not always been in agreement as a band – how we were going to move forward – but everybody was adamant about going out with a bang. When it got brought up at rehearsal, that we should do three sets, nobody balked. Nobody said, “That’s too much.”
Gregg sang his ass off that night. He was having fun. He was inside the music for the entire, long show. It was important for him that the entire band, starting with him, be fully represented and hitting on all cylinders. We all felt that. And that speech – it was all him.
Even with everything Gregg left behind as a singer and songwriter, in the records and shows, is there something people still don’t know about him – that is vital to understanding and appreciating his life and legacy?
He was a shy, kind soul. He hated the thought of anybody being hurt. And he had an uncannily deep connection with losing people at such an early age that manifested itself in the way he sang and the way he chose his words in the songs he wrote. He lived a lot of life when he was still a young man – most of that before I ever met him.
But he was just a unique, natural talent. When he opened his mouth and started singing, especially his own songs, there was this honesty that made a connection with people that was undeniable.