In January of 1974 I found myself in Macon, Georgia, the guest of Capricorn Records, interviewing The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and label chief Phil Walden, who also happened to have been Otis Redding’s manager. But the cherry on the cake was spending an afternoon at the sprawling ranch style house of Greg Allman, and talking to him at length about the misfortunes that had befallen the Allman Brothers Band.
The ABB was probably the biggest band in America at the time and Greg was suitably rock star-rish in that laid-back southern way that’s a bit disconcerting to us Brits. What I didn’t mention in this piece was that on the coffee table in his large living was a sugar bowl full of cocaine and that from time to time Greg leaned forward and scooped a spoonful up his nose. I also remember that his fridge in the adjoining kitchen was packed with bottles of Dom Perignon champagne which he referred to as ‘white wine from Fraynse’. The interview got off to a bad start for no other reason than Greg simply disliked giving interviews but he warmed up eventually and in the end we talked for over an hour. He also had a guitar or two to hand which he played, singing as he did. Indeed, he performed a short impromptu solo concert for me which was staggering really, and this was how I began the piece I subsequently wrote for MM. Here it is, slightly reworked, in three parts.
Gregg Allman picked up an old Gibson acoustic guitar and his nimble fingers to slid over the six new strings. He tuned it and cursed and tuned it again. It was a 1920 model that had once belonged to his brother Duane. Soon he was picking out notes as crisp and clear as the Georgia countryside surrounding his small estate.
He played ‘Come And Go Blues’ from his solo album, Laid Back, and told me it had been rejected by the Allman Brothers’ Band. Then he re-tuned it and his picking became familiar. He played and sang Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ perfectly. “That McCartney... shee-it!” he said.
Then he swopped guitars, choosing a 1942 blond Martin. More tuning and into the chords for ‘Long Black Veil’, the old tear-jerker about an innocent man who, at the time of a killing was ‘in the arms of his best friend’s wife’, and gets hung for it. I knew this from The Band’s first album, and Greg sung it beautifully. When he finished silence hung in the Allman living room like the tragedies that had befallen his group.
There was another brief pause, another tuning adjustment and Gregg played a solo rendering of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, the song the Brothers sang at Duane Allman’s funeral two years ago. It seemed I was sharing a moment of reflection, a very private moment I had no right to.
I wondered what exactly he was thinking, but I never really found out, even after speaking with him for over an hour. I don’t think anyone in the world knows what’s going on inside Gregg Allman’s head. He gives out his music and keeps the rest to himself.
He stopped and broke the atmosphere with a warm smile and a flick of the super-long blonde hair which habitually got in the way of his fingers on the fretboard.
A bunch of musicians were expected soon. I stood up and finished the glass of Dom Perignon champagne which Gregg had earlier described to me as “a little white wine from Fraynse.”
Then he was standing at the doorway of his luxury bungalow, one arm around his wife and the other waving goodbye.
“Mind y’all come back soon now,” he said in the way that Southerners always do.
The first time I saw Gregg Allman was on stage at the Los Angeles Forum last September. The Brothers were playing an Indian benefit concert and their set lasted almost four hours.
It was an incredible performance, the sort of show that has been turning American fans wild with delight for two years now.
The star of the show was that impeccable Southern gentleman Mr Richard Betts. His flowing guitar lines, his licks and his leadership, were the highlights of the evening and his new hit songs like ‘Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘Jessica’ sent the crowd into delirium.
The Allman Brothers today are the American Band, no matter what Grand Funk may claim to be; as different from the English superstars as anything can be. No American band will ever sound like Zeppelin or The Who; no English band will ever sound like the Allmans.
That night at the Forum they played until 2am and could happily have carried on all night; they have been known to do it. Gregg was hardly seen, though. He doesn’t believe in pushing forward, preferring to hide behind a Hammond than stand in the spotlight beside Betts. Despite his prowess as a guitar player, he did only a few numbers, playing a white Stratocaster.
He was, after all, the last musician to join the original Allman Brothers Band way back in 1969.
Gregg, like the rest of the group lives in Macon (pronounced May-kin) Georgia, which is also the base of Capricorn Records.
It’s a sleepy Southern town, population 120,000, with a lot of churches, three rock clubs and a white population who have still to reach complete integration with the blacks. It’s Dixie country, supposedly the land of cotton which inspired Stephen Foster to compose that music of the American heritage.
It’s been the home of the Allman Brothers for the past five years. When they first moved here they all lived in the same small house, and today they’re local heroes.
Phil Walden, the group’s manager, who also runs Capricorn Records and has a rock and roll track record stretching back to the early sixties, owns one of the rock clubs, a liquor store, the local travel agency, parking lots, the Capricorn Studio and sundry other properties. In Macon, a friend of Mr Walden is made very welcome.
Capricorn is a tightly knit family, drawn closer by the success and tragedy that has followed the Allmans all their lives.
It is the stuff story books are made of. The Allmans’ father was shot by a hitch-hiker before his two sons were old enough to know him. How any rock band could carry on – and become even more successful – after two key members died, seems beyond the realms of credibility.
Imagine the Beatles without George and Paul, the Stones without Mick and Keith or the Who without Pete and John.
The story is almost folklore by now. The band had finally managed to catch some success when the first tragedy struck. On October 29, 1971, Duane the leader and star guitar player, was killed when his motorcycle collided with a bus in Macon. They went back to work almost immediately, reaching higher goals to rub out the memory.
Then, a year and two weeks after Duane’s accident, bass player Berry Oakley was killed in similar circumstances. The accident occurred within a stone’s throw of the spot where Duane was hit.
It was a crushing, biting blow but they carried on regardless and have now attained the pinnacle of rock success. Today the Allman Brothers Band are the biggest, most successful rock band in the USA. But the riches and fame seem an embarrassment to Gregg Allman. He feels guilty that his bank account enables him to purchase Roll-Royce cars on a whim and seems perplexed that three years ago, when he worked twice as hard, he earned but a fraction of what he earns today.