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Gregg Allman's angelic road

Learning about Gregg Allman's death was an unwelcome shared experience. Now it's time to share pathways to the music that built his legacy.

By Ray Chelstowski

 Gregg Allman. Photo by Rick Diamond/GABB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions.

Gregg Allman. Photo by Rick Diamond/GABB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions.

I was at Limerock Raceway in Lakeville, Connecticut yesterday when word broke of Gregg Allman’s passing. It was through a text from my friend Kevin that I found out about Gregg, and then like that all around us on the field a chain reaction occurred. We quickly then discovered that others at the race were learning the same unfortunate news in real time. Unlike the thrills that occurred on the track that day, learning about Gregg Allman's death was an unwelcome shared experience that I guess we will all have forever. On the ride home my son and I dropped the hammer down on the back roads and played the Allman’s live Beacon record the entire way back.

When I got home I had received a bunch of texts on the news, none brought me back more than the one from my high school buddy Dan. We don’t see or speak with each other often anymore. Me on the east coast, him in Seattle, both with kids and careers. When we do connect it’s always a walk down memory lane. This time it brought me back to 1987. That summer we ran together through a whole host of shenanigans that included girls and music. A lot of nights ended with the drive back being soundtracked by Gregg Allman’s It’s Not My Cross To Bear. That summer he had released the album I’m No Angel and the title track quickly soared to a top spot on the Billboard charts. Nothing else on the record made any noise. But his remake of the Allman Brother’s Band classic It’s Not My Cross was the track that really grabbed our attention. Slow, firm, and steady the song showcased the guitar work of the late Dan Toler and the mountain lion growls and roars of Gregg’s incomparable voice. Together they attack the listener with some of the fieriest and most emotional blues you’ll ever hear. As I thought about Gregg yesterday on northwestern Connecticut roads this album quickly became a metaphor of his career for me.

On Angel there are hits and misses. Collaborations with movie stars like Don Johnson. And a recording session at the infamous Criteria Studios in Miami where the Brothers preferred to lay down tracks. Gregg would be the first to say that he wasn’t perfect, and the interview he did on Piers Morgan upon release of his autobiography a few years back is a testament to just that. But his career outside of the substance abuse was a tale with movie making twists and turns. There’s he and brother Duane’s evolution from LA psychedelic band The Allman Joys to the Fillmore East outfit that became legend. There’s the unforgettable tragedy that fell upon key band members and the solo fits and flameouts. There’s the celebrity marriage and collaboration to Cher that was so awkward that they both almost decided to end the whole thing after just nine days. Then there’s the rebound and the return to greatness that included month-long residencies at New York City’s Beacon Theater. That rebound began with this Angel album, and like many of us it was what got me back into the Allman’s music, a cannon that had long gone quiet.

First consider the title track, an all-out southern rock hit. Allman checks the box that proves that he still has it in him to grab our attention. Then there’s the collaboration with Don Johnson that shows his vulnerability and lifelong commitment to putting friends first over what’s most commercially sound. There’s an exploration of so many different styles that you almost wonder whether Allman was intentionally sprinkling the field to see what might best tickle interest. And then of course there’s the brilliant revisit to one of his bands most memorable B-sides.

To put it together, Gregg surrounded himself with a Sarasota based outfit led by Dan Toler who had played guitar with Dickey Betts in Great Southern. With them he presented an authenticity that made even some of the cheesier songs seem credible. The end result was a bona fide success and a title song that even his ex-wife Cher would later cover.

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What followed is an even more focused record in Just Before The Bullets fly. But it was Angel that set the table and charted the course back. There’s no irony to be lost in the title song. When he sings “I may steal your diamonds, but I’ll bring you back some gold” it’s an honest admission of both his strengths and his weaknesses. He wasn’t ever perfect and he always knew that. ‘Maybe in the end that was at the center of his appeal.

This year we seem to just keep losing rock greats. 69, 70….that seems to be the strike point age wise for this generation. News of this kind just stinks. In cases like this it strikes a bit deeper.