Southern Blood Brother: The Life And Times Of Gregg Allman

When Gregg Allman released his final studio album Southern Blood on September 8, 2017, it became the last musical will and testament of Gregory Lenoir Allman and a poignant but celebratory reminder of everything this great American musician represented. Its sense of nobility was heightened by the fact that he knew, as he was making it, that it would be his closing statement, and it now stands as a bookend to a unique body of work that Allman created over nearly 50 years, both with his family and without.

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Gregg Allman was born on December 8, 1947 in Nashville, one year the junior of his brother Duane, with whom he would co-found the mighty blues-rock institution that was the Allman Brothers Band. Together they helped to create the very genre of southern rock, but before that, there were many dues to pay, in early bands and sonic adventures that stretched all through the 1960s, notably with the Spotlights, the Escorts, the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass.

Gregg was only two when his father was tragically shot and killed; early life was far from easy for the brothers, and even less so for their mother Geraldine, who raised them alone. They moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, when the younger brother was only nine. “I remember going down a road with oaks meeting overhead,” he told Southern Living magazine decades later. “I thought that was the hippest thing I’d ever seen.”

Gregg picked up a guitar in earnest for the first time in fifth grade, and music became his life, encouraged by early concerts (notably a soul revue featuring Otis Redding and others) and by his brother’s similar passion. “Duane and I caught it like an illness,” he said in the same magazine piece. “We didn’t eat, we didn’t sleep, we didn’t think about anything except music. I figured playing music was a temporary thing. Nothing worked out the way I thought it would.” We can all give praise for that.

By the mid-1960s, both brothers had taken the blues pledge and were worshipping at the altar of Muddy Waters and other heroes. In the guise of the Hour Glass, they landed a deal with Liberty Records and released a debut album late in 1967, made when Gregg was just 19. They effectively disowned it as far too poppy and insubstantial, and while a second album followed soon afterwards, the brothers were soon to find much more sympathetic inspiration.

It was Duane’s now-fabled work as a hotshot session guitarist at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that was the catalyst for what happened next. Gregg followed him to become the fellow linchpin of something that was more than a group: it was literally and metaphorically a band of brothers, with two lead guitarists in Duane and Dickey Betts, Gregg’s mellifluous organ runs and characterful lead vocals, Berry Oakley’s rock-solid bass and a strong emphasis on percussion, in the shape of both Jai Johanny Johanson, aka Jaimoe, and Butch Trucks. In late 1969, the self-titled debut album by the Allman Brothers Band arrived.

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America, and the world, weren’t fully ready for their superbly crafted (and, it must be said, chemically enhanced) blues-rock improvisation, but as the decade turned, Gregg and the group would become figureheads of the burgeoning southern scene. After Idlewild South, they created a record that redefined live recording and indeed the very concept of a rock concert, in the epic 1971 release At Fillmore East, forever a contender for the distinction of best live album ever made.

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After Duane’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1971, his brother wondered if he would ever find motivation in music again, or the strength to endure the loss. He did, just as he had in order to perform “Melissa” at his funeral. One of Duane’s favorite songs by his brother and one of the earliest that he completed, it would finally appear on album on 1972’s Eat A Peach.

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In an inevitably selective summary of Gregg Allman’s achievements, his debut solo album of 1973, Laid Back, demands special mention. Produced by the writer-artist with Johnny Sandlin, it was and remains a joyful exploration of his schooling in rhythm and blues, with a more soulful demeanor than he was usually able to adopt within the Allman Brothers framework.

Laid Back, which went on to win gold certification, included Gregg’s own version of one of his best-known songs, the much-covered “Midnight Rider,” first recorded by the Allmans on Idlewild South. It also featured a cover of Jackson Browne”s “These Days” and some delightful new compositions such as the gorgeous, blue-eyed soul number “Queen Of Hearts.”

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Allman continued his solo career somewhat fitfully in between recording and touring commitments with the band, and there were many triumphs still in store in both departments. Even if they were unable to maintain the platinum-selling standard of earlier releases, the Allmans kept a massive following and hit the top ten in America with their final album for Capricorn, Enlightened Rogues, in 1979. Its single “Crazy Love,” written by Betts, was also a Top 30 hit, and Allman contributed the outstanding “Just Ain’t Easy,” his voice and keyboards the perfect foil for Betts’ brilliantly nimble guitar features.

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Drugs and alcohol took an undeniable toll on Gregg’s physical and spiritual well-being, but he finally got free of their shackles, opting instead for the pleasures of fishing, boating and motorcycles. “My next drink literally could have killed me,” he told Southern Living. “You don’t know you have an addictive personality until you’re in the jaws of the beast.”

Allman’s later years were beset by poor health — he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2007 and had a successful liver transplant in 2010 — but happily he survived to see huge, renewed appreciation of his work, especially with 2011’s Low Country Blues, produced by T. Bone Burnett, which reached the US Top 5. It included a version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” written by his inspiration, Muddy Waters.

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His autobiography, My Cross To Bear, followed in 2012, and then came the return to one of his spiritual homes, FAME Studios, to make Southern Blood. Superbly brought to completion by producer Don Was, it fearlessly addressed Allman’s imminent mortality, but with such spirit and love that it stands as an inspiring last entry in his remarkable canon. It closed, appropriately, with another Jackson Browne cover, “Song For Adam,” on which his longtime friend and collaborator himself appeared.

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“I got to speak with him in the week before he passed,” said Browne on Allman’s death, “and I got to tell him how much his music and his friendship has meant to me. He recently recorded one of my early songs, ‘Song for Adam,’ and he and Don Was sent it to me to sing on, and I did.

Listen to the best of Gregg Allman on Apple Music and Spotify.

“That song, the way he sang it and where he sang it from — at the end of his life — well, he completed that song, and gave it a resonance and a gravity that could only have been put there by him. I will miss him.”

The debut solo album by Gregg Allman, Laid Back, and his long out-of-print live LP The Gregg Allman Tour are both available on 180 gram black vinyl and limited edition colour vinyl pressings.

Buy or stream Laid Back.

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