By Ray Chelstowski
For most of us, the Allman Brothers' experience began with their self-titled 1969 debut record. There and then we were introduced to a cosmic, roots-driven sound created by a brotherhood that was cast with some of the most compelling musical figures in modern day rock and roll. Their music would establish a sound that joined jazz, gospel, country, rock and blues in a manner that was explosive both in the studio and live on stage. Night after night it would morph, grow and take on new and different forms. Their music was fresh, flexible and filled with a dynamic that to this day resonates across generations and geographic borders.
What few know is that across a three-year period that preceded their well-known debut, Gregg and Duane Allman fronted two bands, the Allman Joys and Hour Glass. Both bands found their way into the studio and recorded material that resulted in four now rare records. As the band begins to celebrate their 50th anniversary they will release a comprehensive box set composed of 10 vinyl LPs, and five CDs. This will be joined by some rare live material from both the original and most recent band lineups. But their story only has a proper context when weighed against the four studio recordings that precede all of this. In these records, Gregg and Duane embark on a 36-month journey of musical discovery that just may provide perspective on the collective talents they brought to their craft, to the ability they had to pick talent and build bands, and to the commitment they made to design a sound for the ages.
In March, the original Allman Joys album, the two Hour Glass recordings, and a special collection of music called Duane & Gregg will be re-released. The music here moves from pop-driven tracks that were largely supplied by their label to songs that quickly begin to provide glimpses of what would soon become their signature sound. These four early recordings are truly “where it all begins” and for die-hard fans they are a must-have addition that properly rounds out any Allman collection.
Allman Brothers historian John Lynskey and band manager Bert Holman spoke with Goldmine about why these albums are so essential in telling the full story about the band, and how within a very tight window they chart the rapid evolution of one of the most important and enduring musical acts of all time.
GM: This music is so different from what we know as “The Allman Sound.” Why re-release them now?
JOHN LYNSKEY: The past is a prologue to everything. It’s important for people to understand and enjoy how the process began for the Allman Brothers. For me, it’s fascinating to see the trajectory — where a band starts, where their sounds come together, their influences, etc. We are all very familiar with “The Allman Brothers sound.” But what were the elements that had to percolate before they became The Allman Brothers Band? These re-releases give people a clear history of Duane and Gregg, A to Z, beginning to end. We decided that if someone really wants the whole story these four CDs will lead you to The Allman Brothers Band and help you understand how they got there.
BERT HOLMAN: Years ago we were in litigation with Universal over a number of issues; the ultimate one being what we get paid on downloads. We realized that our contract with Universal was so unique that we ended up going after them directly. In the course of this we were able to get a lot of old tapes back and that’s how we were able to expand our archival releases. So now we have a much better relationship with them and that’s when we noticed that Hour Glass had been re-released by EMI but at that point not digitally — the same with the Allman Joys. Let’s see if they will license this to us. So we made a formal request and they agreed to do this with us. We decided to put out all three at once. With this comes this Duane and Gregg record which was initially put out by Henry Stone on Bold Records. This was the demos for (the band) The 31st of February’s second record that was recorded in Florida with Butch Trucks, David Brown and Scott Boyer. They brought in Duane to play guitar and Gregg to sing some songs. They actually began to talk about what was ostensibly bringing the Allman Joys together with The 31st of February as a single band. Gregg presented a couple of songs including “Melissa” and they end up recording demos. Gregg leaves to return to California, partially to fulfill his obligation to Liberty Records, and the tapes languished. When The Allman Brothers hit it big, Henry Stone realized he had these tapes with Gregg Allman on them and decided to put the music out. Phil Walden (former Allmans manager) sues him and in a settlement they got the rights back. In recent years we came across a file with the documentation that made us feel confident to put it all out ourselves. And we felt that putting out all four records at the same time, the “early Allmans,” for lack of a better description, became the nucleus for doing this.
GM: You’ve said that before Gregg passed he had discussed things he wanted re-released. Were these among them?
JL: Everybody is different. A lot of people enjoy hearing the beginning of an idea and how it pollinated. Gregg was a finished product guy. Gregg didn’t like demos. He wanted people to see the finished product not the birthing process. I find that fascinating, Gregg didn’t. So no, Gregg didn’t like any of these albums. He didn’t think the first Hour Glass record was a proper representation of what that band was about at all. The second Hour Glass album is the one he saw some promise in. What they did live and what they were forced to do in the studio were two completely different things.
GM: Given the rarity of these records, how difficult was this project to produce?
BH: When we were trying to put the cover together one of the problems we had early on was that Universal, who acquired the rights to Polygram, who acquired the rights to Capricorn in a bankruptcy, somehow ended up acquiring the Dial catalog. Universal also got the EMI catalog which is how they got the Hourglass and Allman Joys rights. But they don’t have masters and they also don’t have the artwork. So we had to reconstruct this stuff off of old album covers. No one had a totally clean Allman Joys cover but we had covers that were clean in different areas. We had to scan it all in and rebuild them. It’s one of the biggest challenges you run into with archival stuff.
GM: It’s been said that Gregg wasn’t happy when the Allman Joys’ compilation came out in 1973.
JL: He wasn’t and I think that started his attitude about these kinds of things. Those were demos, they were works in progress, and they were 18-year old kids trying to find their sound, and he saw that as a money grab and an effort to capitalize on the fact that his brother was gone and that angered him. So I understand where Gregg was coming from. But as a historian and a musical aficionado it’s fascinating to consider how they could sound like this and get to that in only a couple of years. It’s hard to fathom their rapid ascent from doing songs where they sound like The Association or Strawberry Alarm Clock to becoming the greatest blues rock band of all time. Listening to these albums allows you to see how fast that happened.
GM: How did the Allmans end up at Liberty Records, a label then known for Bobby Vee and the Chipmunks?
JL: You could never dream of a more talented live blues rock band ending up on the wrong label than this. Hour Glass was bold, dynamic, groundbreaking and then they get stuck on a Bobby Vee label! It was a business deal. Gregg never wanted to go to L.A. He didn’t want to sign with Liberty but in this one particular instance, Duane’s instincts weren’t as sharp as they usually were. So they get signed to a contract and with the first album as Duane put it, “They were trying to squeeze water from a rock.” Back then artists had limited, if any, choice on tracks and the producer in this case (Dallas Smith) said you’re going to do this because this is what Liberty does and what they want. You have to wonder what Liberty heard in the Hour Glass performance that would make them want to sign them in the first place! It was like an arranged marriage that was doomed from the start. Dallas Smith was a great producer for bubblegum pop, not for Hour Glass.
BH: They were all so desperate to do something, living in a hotel room together just trying to make enough money to pay the rent. Having a record deal made them real. The problem was that once you make the record deal you start to sell your soul. You know: “We need to have you guys wear different clothes” and “We're going to bring in an outside producer” and “We have these other songs,” etc. By the second record I think that Duane tried to suggest to the label that “We tried it your way now try it ours.” Even then, the second Hour Glass record isn’t what they envisioned. But it’s moving in that direction and you can hear it on certain songs.
GM: The Allman Joys and Hour Glass seemed to be bands built around Gregg and his voice. Did it bother Duane to take a step back?
JL: Liberty wanted Gregg Allman, they didn’t want Hour Glass. Hour Glass came along with Gregg Allman and his voice was clearly the instrument they wanted. You’ve got one of the greatest guitarists of all time and with the exception of 15 seconds here and there you don’t even know that Duane Allman plays on the first album. It is about Gregg’s voice augmented with horns. Imagine their frustration. They go out and play the Whisky and The Troubadour and they’re on stage with Buffalo Springfield and jamming with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. They are known as “musicians’ musicians” throughout the L.A. area and yet their own record label is trying to make them a pop band.
BH: Just as George Harrison’s guitar talent was sometimes buried by The Beatles, Duane’s is buried here. “Heartbeat” (off of Hour Glass) is the only song on that album where all of a sudden he gets a real legit break and runs with it. What I like best about this album is that there are little nuances throughout like those on “Nothing But Tears” and on the Jackson Browne song “Cast Off All My Fears.” But it’s always just little glimpses. They give it, then they quickly take it away. Curtis Mayfield wrote a song on here called “I’ve Been Trying” and it’s got Gregg and Duane trading verses vocally which is nice but it’s just not what they were about. It’s supposed to be Gregg singing and Duane wrapping a guitar solo around it.
GM: The song “Out of the Night “reminds me of the Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday.” A lot of these songs were written by big names and were well-produced. Were they properly promoted?
JL: Here’s the problem with promoting these records. When Hour Glass would go out and do live sets they performed blues rock songs. So that’s what they play but this is what they recorded. That’s not going to translate well to their live set. With limited promotion from the record label and the group not even playing what they recorded, it was going nowhere. That leads you back to the conclusion that they should have just pursued Gregg as a solo artist. That’s ironically what happened after the second Hour Glass record. Gregg stayed in California and that’s what Liberty wanted all along. But by then it was too little too late.
BH: At the end of the day, it’s a record deal. I worked with bands in '74-75 who would do anything to get a record deal. A band I worked for did a record for Clive Davis and at the end of that day he tried a half a dozen times to make the song a hit. It never got there. But that’s where Clive is at. He has songs he really believes in. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. One of the songs that we recorded was “Trying to Get the Feeling” which became a huge hit for Barry Manilow. We were not the right band for that song. Barry did a great job on that song and deserved the hit. I think that’s what you are seeing here. You have guys with hit songs. The problem is they’re not the band to pull it off.
GM: Some of these Hour Glass tracks seem to set the stage for what would become The Allman Brothers.
JL: The (Hour Glass) title track on Power of Love, that’s a great song. The second you hear it you perk up. By early ’68, Gregg’s voice had matured so much from the Allman Joys’ sessions only two years prior. On “Power of Love” its bold, it’s dynamic. It’s there throughout the rest of the record. The fact that GA finally got to record six or seven of his own songs ensured that the band was going to be more comfortable playing their own material. What I really like as a musical study is the song “I’m Hanging Up My Heart For You.” It’s a prototypical Allman Brothers blues song in that you’ve got great phrasing by Gregg, and Duane is wrapping his runs around the vocals. It’s the boiler plate for “Stormy Monday,” “Need Your Love So Bad,” “Outskirts of Town” and “Jelly Jelly.” If you were to ask me what is the one track on that album that says “This is what the Allman Brothers are going to be,” I’d probably pick that one. When you listen to it it’s not quite evolved and they need different players but it's coming to the surface.
BH: You also have to put this in the context of the times. Those of us who got turned on the band in like ’71, by the time you started going backward to understand where these guys come from you realize that if you heard these records in ’66 or ’67 it might have meant more. You definitely hear the moments of brilliance here. You hear where stuff is coming from. We are releasing this material individually but all at the same time because we’re trying to make a statement.
GM: The Hour Glass experience seemed to create some tension between Gregg and Duane.
JL: I think it was not just between the two brothers but with Paul (Hornsby), Pete (Carr), and Johnny (Sandlin), too. They all knew they were on the wrong label and that they wanted to do something different. There’s no better evidence that it wasn’t going to work than when they all went to Muscle Shoals and cut that B.B. King medley. It’s as rockin’ as you can possibly get. They take it back to Liberty and the label just laughed at it. That was it. That’s when Duane said enough, I’m done, and it led, of course, to The 31st of February sessions. There are moments of brilliance there and you can see how this is going to become The Allman Brothers.
GM: Hour Glass wasn’t the end of the road for any of the band members, was it? They all went on to do bigger things.
JL: I couldn’t agree more. Pete Carr has done amazing work, with Bob Seger for example, and Johnny and Paul had great careers as producers. It’s funny how Duane found a way to pick the right guys. Hour Glass didn’t work but it wasn’t the band’s fault. To pick out Pete Carr, who was a guitar player and get him to play bass — that’s exactly what Berry Oakley was. Berry was a guitar player who became a bass player. Duane could find those people. He did it with Hour Glass and he did it again when he hand-picked The Allman Brothers.
GM: It’s been said that Duane got the gig at Muscle Shoals’ FAME studios because they admired his work with Hour Glass. How ironic!
JL: You had the right ears listening. Liberty had the wrong ears on. It’s no different than in sports where it doesn’t work for a guy on one team and he gets traded and he starts a whole new career. Sometimes it’s just the environment. I just hope that with this release people understand that they aren’t listening to The Allman Brothers. They are listening to how they evolved. The Allman Joys’ material makes you realize how young they were and you have to remove your preconceived notion of The Allman Brothers. These were kids right out of high school, just basically a cover band finding their way, searching for their sound, and there are elements there.
BH: They had cut some demos there. So there was some familiarity with him. And he was a young, upstart guitar player who had enough confidence to walk in there and say “Hey, I’m here to do sessions.” The story goes that Jaimoe was in the next studio and in between takes Duane would go over and jam with him. I think that energy carried over.
GM: As the story goes, everyone but Duane thought they needed Gregg to join The Allmans Band.
JL: It was the only period in their brief time together that there was a separation. The guys were angry that Gregg stayed in California. During that four-month period from late ’68 to early ’69, Duane was looking to move forward. He put a band together and he had what he needed. But even with that he realized that there was only one guy who could sing in his band. Duane was not a singer. Betts hadn’t really started to sing yet, and they had Reese Wynans in there who was a great keyboard player but he was not a lead vocalist either. So by default, and for the good of all of us, Duane made that phone call and the rest is history.
BH: Look, I wasn’t there and I can only speak to what I heard. There was a rift between Gregg and Duane. On the other hand, Duane was a very clever guy. He may have been trying to get the other guys to “talk him into it.” Duane was quite capable of having manipulated this to where bringing Gregg back was “their idea.” I don’t know where the truth is. He was that bright a guy, that bright of a leader. Like Jerry Garcia, he always had more “say” than others.
GM: An early version of “Melissa” is here. What prompted Gregg to sell the rights to the song so soon after this?
JL: Gregg always felt that Steve Alaimo (former manager) had taken advantage of him. When they finished the February sessions, in order to get back to California they needed money. So to pay for his ticket back and fulfill the Liberty contract he sold Steve Alaimo half of "Melissa." For $600 or whatever Steve Alaimo paid Gregg, he got himself a goldmine. Eventually, Gregg bought back the rights for $10,000. He never looked back very favorably on that record.
GM: Gregg’s solo career was always a bit more pop- oriented, is that why his performance here seems so natural, so seamless?
JL: Remember, Gregg loved R&B. His favorite singer was Bobby "Blue" Bland. He was an R&B singer who could sing the blues. You can hear that plainly on these tracks. He just happened to end up being the lead vocalists of one of the greatest jam bands of all time.
GM: On his solo records he often revisited Allman classics, usually with a different approach than the original. Was there anything here that he might have revisited?
JL: There were songs on these records that he could have, and is interesting that there are some songs on The 31st of February album like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that Duane ends up doing with (Eric) Clapton on Layla.
BH: I don’t think that Gregg would have revisited any of this. Gregg didn’t like to look back. For instance, Gregg was never a fan of the live stuff we’ve been putting out because it wasn’t studio perfect. It’s also not the arrangement that they play on the record. Gregg was always the one trying to take off the rough edges whereas the other guys wanted to go out and expand upon what they had done. That balance is what makes it all work.
GM: The speed with which they went from the Allman Joys to The Allman Brothers Band is remarkable!
JL: When you listen to these records you say “OK, I get it!” You also say “This is amazing how quickly they evolved." The whole window of time is skewed with Duane Allman in that he lived double-time compared to most people. He crammed 50 years of living into 25. Musically, if you listen to where Duane Allman was on those first records and where he was by Eat A Peach? It's five years from the Allman Joys’ sessions in Nashville till Duane Allman’s death in 1971. That alone lets people listen to these records with perspective. Look at what happened in five years.
BH: I think that is the thing that people miss. The time period between the ages of 19 and 23 for almost every band is the most creative. They’re starving and are really focused on the music. To hear where some of this came from (because there aren’t a lot of live Hour Glass or Allman Joys tapes floating around) is no different than hearing pre-Rolling Stones Keith Richards recordings.
GM: This is going to be a big year for Allman fans! [Read a review of the retrospective box set, Trouble No More.] What’s next?
BH: One of the things we are going to do is a Record Store Day vinyl-only from 1/31/71 Fillmore West. Then there’s the Erie, PA show that I want to say is either 2004 or 2005. What happened there was this: We couldn’t find a Tuesday show anywhere that routed to what we were doing. So we go to do the show and I can still picture the theater. It only had two dressing rooms and I remember telling Gregg that he had to change in the hotel or on the bus. He said, “One of those?!” I said, “Yeah, one of those.” Somehow the stars aligned that night. It’s the only show that I ever remember where everyone came off the stage, looked at me and asked, “Can I get a copy of tonight’s show?” We were doing the instant live stuff at that point. They all knew that and were getting copies that they’d either leave on the bus or throw into a suitcase, never listening to any of them again. That night all the stars for whatever reason aligned, and they looked at each other and said, “Man, that show was smoking!” From then on, whenever we started talking about shows someone would ask, “What about that show in upstate New York?” (Which they always meant as Erie, PA). That show just always kept coming up. And when we went back to listen to it again everybody agreed that it sounded every bit as good or better than we ever remembered. So that’s the thing that I think we will put out next.
JL: The Erie show is the best show that most people have never heard. You also never know what might turn up in someone’s attic, or someone’s trunk. We are always looking.