“I don’t think I ever really wished for fame. I just – music, just does it for me.” – Gregg Allman
Anyone who has followed this blog for more than five minutes knows of my love for the Allman Brothers Band. I’ve long since done a tribute to the band which you can read here. I would be totally remiss if I didn’t say something about brother Gregg who passed away yesterday, May 27, 2017.
If Gregg wasn’t the greatest white blues singer of the rock era, I don’t know who was. His voice was so deep, so bluesy, so soulful, that at the tender age of twenty, he already sounded like a guy who’d been down that long, lonesome road. And then some. Even in his earliest recordings, says Sheryl Crow, “He sounded like he’d already lived a thousand lifetimes.”
Gregg talked about singing in his 2012 autobiography, My Cross to Bear. (One of Gregg’s earliest songs is a great blues called, “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.”) When they were living in Daytona Beach as teenagers, he and his brother Duane played in a band with a local blues guy named Floyd Miles.
“Floyd gave me a tip about singing,” Gregg writes. “Don’t sing from your chest,” he said. “Tighten up your tummy. That’s where you sing from. That’s where the power comes from. You’ll get it when you don’t think about it.”
Gregg, by his own account, got it and never thought about it again. (Never went back to dental school either, his fallback profession, I shit you not.) I don’t think he rated himself as highly as other people did. Rolling Stone lists him as #70 on their all-time greatest singers. Me, I’d rate him a lot higher. But that’s just me.
Overlooked in Gregg’s pantheon of skills is his fine work as an organist. It totally seems to get overlooked and you can hear great stuff in songs like “Stormy Monday,” or “Hot ‘Lanta.” Here’s a tasty number from Gregg’s 2011 album, Low Country Blues. It’s called “Little by Little:”
Gregg was a fine songwriter too. “Midnight Rider,” is a countryish song that pretty much everybody has covered. That long lonesome road? Sure. You live long enough, eventually, you’ll wind up hitchin’ a ride on it.
I could post that one. But I’m instead gonna go with a really nice song, “Please Call Home,” originally from the Allmans’ second album, Idlewild South (1970.) Here’s a sweet version from their Beacon run in 2009. (Clapton joined them on that run but not on this tune. Nothing wrong with Warren and Derek’s playing here.) Warren’s tribute to Gregg on his passing is here.
Spotify link (w/Dickey Betts)
Gregg also wrote “Melissa.” and the classic “Whipping Post,” a song about love gone pretty damn wrong. I posted previously about how Gregg wrote it on an ironing board cover with burnt matches because he couldn’t find paper and pencil.
I recently saw an interview of Gregg by journalist Dan Rather. (Rather may seem like an unusual choice but he’s actually a fellow Southerner which I think makes a difference. When Gregg talked about how California’s great but it doesn’t have Southern food, Rather was right there with him.) Gregg talked about how his father was murdered by a hitchhiker when he was two. So he was raised by his eccentric motorcycle-riding mother Geraldine.
And also somewhat by his older brother Duane who went on to some notoriety of his own. Where Gregg was shy and somewhat withdrawn, Duane was what we might today call a Type-A extrovert. He was a leader and a cut-up.
Duane, of course, died later in a motorcycle accident. Duane was everything to Gregg who lost not only a brother but also a father figure, albeit one who used to beat him up and bust his balls on a fairly regular basis. And then about a year later, weirdly, bassist Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle accident not too far from where Duane died.
I think that to some extent it was this combination of tragedy and loss, along with the “anything goes” lifestyle of a rock musician that led Gregg to a self-medicating place where he would eventually wind up going to (count ’em) 14 rehabs. “But I didn’t go to 15,” he advises.
As is well known, Gregg was – to quote a song he did a few years back – no angel. He liked to party. And he put away, at one point, a quart of vodka a day. In his interview with Rather, he says I “had a liver transplant, I had Hepatitis C, and I had cancer.” (We were supposed to go see him at a small outdoor venue a few years back. Bought tickets and everything but it was canceled as were so many of his shows in the last few years.)
In fact, when the Allmans were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Gregg was so severely fucked-up on alcohol he couldn’t put a coherent speech together. He saw himself later on TV and was appalled and “cried like a baby.”
Gregg had about six wives, one of whom was, famously, Cher back in the Seventies. This fact alone kicked Gregg into tabloid celebrityhood. We won’t talk about the album they did together. They had one kid, Elijah Blue, but couldn’t go the distance. Gregg blames himself for the failure but maintains they remained good friends. “Words,” she tweeted on hearing of his death, “are impossible.”
I mentioned in my Allmans post that I saw them many times, maybe 15 or 20. The very last time I saw them was in 2014 at the Beacon Theater in New York at one of their last shows. Jack Bruce died the same day. They played “Politician.” (I originally had tickets for the final show but due to Gregg’s shaky health, the show was postponed till later in the year.)
They played their very last show on October 28, 2014, but finished the show after midnight on the 29th, 43 years to the day from Duane’s death. After that, Gregg continued to play as a solo artist but I think he missed playing as many gigs as he made.
Gregg is one of the few celebrities I ever met. Walked right up to him, shook his hand. Talked to him for a little bit. How did this magical event come to be? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother story and it’s one I’ve been working on for a while. I hope to finish it and post it sometime this year. Trust me, you will enjoy it.
With the death earlier this year of drummer Butch Trucks, the only remaining members of the original band are guitarist Dickey Betts (73) and drummer Jaimoe (72).
Gregg was working on an album called Southern Blood when he died. Produced by Don Was, it’ll be released later this year.
Oh, one more thing. In that interview with Dan Rather, Gregg was asked which song of his he’d want played after he’s gone. “The next one,” he said. But what else Rather persisted. “Well,” Gregg said. “Anything by Muddy Waters.”
So here you go, Gregg. A Muddy song you guys covered on your second album, “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Hope it gives you as much pleasure as your music has given me over the years. Rock on, brother.