By Mike Greenblatt
Gregory Lenoir Allman is a man of few words.
Maybe he’s been saving those carefully-chosen words for his autobiography. Perhaps he’s simply content to let music do a lot of his communicating. Either way, when Gregg Allman talks, you best hush up and listen.
In our short conversation, he comes off as a true Southern gentleman, a survivor content in the knowledge he did everything he could to further his art and make the best damn rock ’n’ roll he could. His solo effort, “Low Country Blues,” was one of the best blues albums of 2011. Plus, he’s still rockin’ stages today with The Allman Brothers Band like a 21-year-old — about the same age he was when the band got its start.
Back in 1969, when older brother Duane Allman was working as a studio musician and putting The Allman Brothers Band together in Muscle Shoals, Ala., Gregg was attempting a solo career in Los Angeles. One phone call from Duane was all it took for Gregg to sign on for The Allman Brothers Band, joining his brother and Dickey Betts on guitars, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimo” Johanson on drums, and Berry Oakley on bass.
“I’ll tell you, man, things were so crazy,” is all Gregg has to say about the era.
Flexing their collective muscle on the self-titled 1969 debut and the 1970 “Idlewild South” followup, the members of The Allman Brothers Band finally broke big with a live album, “At Fillmore East,” in 1971.
When the group entered Miami’s Criteria Studios with producer Tom Dowd for 1972’s “Eat A Peach,” expectations ran high. They had finished one session when Duane was killed in a motorcycle crash. Shocked and staggered, the band stumbled back into the studio — and created a masterpiece.
“Because it was a double album, when my brother passed away, we still had two more sides to do. Oh, man, that was such a bomb that dropped on us. Ain’t nobody was ever expecting anything like that to happen.”
Gregg is speaking so softly, I can hardly hear him. His voice is like a little dot in the center of the telephone, and he sounds tired. Can’t blame him. The man’s been through Hepatitis C, drug addiction and a liver transplant. He still tours and records and has packed more living in his six-plus decades than 10 ordinary men. He’s obviously reticent to bring up past pains, yet he goes on.
“I told him and told him to be careful on that motorcycle. He had two speeds, man: 95 and parked. I don’t know why he wanted to go so fast all the time. I mean, hell, at one time, we all had bikes. We’d go ridin’ together, man, and he’d be a mile and a half in front of us, y’know? We’d get back to the house and I’d go, ‘Nice ride, bro. Hope you had fun. Where the hell did you go?’”
Duane Allman was just 24 when he died.
Gregg credits producer Dowd for successfully catching the magic of a live band into the studio, summing it up in one sentence: “He had that thing, that certain something.”
For years, since Dowd’s death in 2002 at age 77, Gregg steadfastly refused to step inside a recording studio until enticed by T-Bone Burnett in 2011 for “Low Country Blues” (2003’s “Hittin’ The Note,” though not produced by Dowd, was recorded in 2001.)
Whatever magic Dowd wove over The Allman Brothers Band in their studio efforts, credit is also due to Gregg for the timeless music he wrote for “Eat A Peach” — “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” “Melissa,” “Stand Back” (with Berry Oakley) and “Little Martha.” Forty years on, the songs sound as fresh and vital as they did back in the day.
Gregg readily admits he has no answers for how and why these songs have become classics. He certainly didn’t envision that happening.
“I had no idea those songs would last so long. You never know what’s going to happen to tunes after you write ’em,” he said.
Just look at Gregg’s song, “Melissa.” To this day, the songwriting credit says “Gregg Allman/Steve Alaimo.”
“He let me borrow $250 to feed the band, but I had to give him a credit on that song,” Gregg explains patiently. “It was part of the deal. He didn’t write that damn song with me, and he knows it. At one point, when it came time to pay him back, I offered him $10,000, and he wouldn’t take it. I can’t stand that Alaimo. He’s such a pig. I regret ever doing that, but we were hungry, man! I think I got most of the money back, but I just can’t seem to get his name off of there. It’s been on there for so long, y’know?”
While Gregg has written his fair share of hits, he has no illusions of who he is as a musician.
“I’m not one of those kind you usually find in Nashville,” he continues, “who comes up on you and whispers, ‘Hey man, you want to hear seven great songs?’”
This makes him laugh, a good, solid, deep-belly laugh.
“And you just know these characters are only trying to sell you something,” he says.
But not everything on “Eat A Peach” was brand new. In the same way that, a generation before, Elvis Presley took two songs from 1946 — Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” — and made them into early rock ’n’ roll classics, The Allman Brothers Band took a 1960 Elmore James blues (“One Way Out”) and a 1955 Muddy Waters blues (“Trouble No More”) and transformed them into two of the most seminal Southern rock songs in history. The band took a 1967 Donovan folk-rock song, “There Is A Mountain,” and stretched it out like Silly Putty into the epic “Mountain Jam.”
“Hey, it was back in the hippie days. You must realize we were all hippies. And kinda like jazz people do, we found the hook of that song and built a whole jazz tune around it,” Gregg says.
Whereas drummer Butch Trucks says that the band knew what it was doing was revolutionary, Gregg says no.
“I know I had no idea. I don’t think any of us did,” he says.
Gregg once threw me out of his dressing room at The Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J., for asking him about Cher. Ask him the reason behind the rift that resulted in Dickey Betts leaving The Allman Brothers Band, and some of that old fire returns.
“Oh man, you don’t want to go there,” he warns.
As far as today’s thriving jam-band scene — a scene that owes more to The Allman Brothers Band than any other — and the festivals that host tens of thousands of wannabe hippies, Gregg is critical.
“These so-called jam bands today, they’re not lettin’ it ooze out. They’re all tryin’ to force it. It don’t work like that. With us, it was a very natural thing. When you have spontaneity, it’ll go wherever you want it to go.”
All Gregg has to say about the contention made by Butch Trucks that Dickey Betts had to be forced to sing his own song, “Blue Sky,” on the album because he was so intimated by being in a band with a singer like Gregg, is “Well, that’s quite the compliment, isn’t it? I’m singin’ it now.”