The Allman Brothers Story: How Gregg Allman Keeps Band Going After Duane's Death
In which a rock & roll band from Dixie struggles in dreary motels, six-session-a-night grinds and a $48,000 debt, then a couple years later plays to sellout crowds for $100,000 a night . . . all while riding shotgun to death
Allman Brothers on May 5th, 1969 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
By Cameron Crowe
December 6, 1973
The accent comes up out of Nashville, by way of Georgia, makes a dash across the States and ends up vaguely California. He sounds a bit like Kris Kristofferson; looks uncannily like his late brother, Duane. The hotel television is on; the sound is off. It is late, and the black and white movie – something surely about horror and death at this small hour – glows up on Gregg Allman's tired face like a moonscape in Macon's Rose Hill Cemetery.
Southern rock pioneer fused country blues with San Francisco-style extended improvisation, creating a template for countless jam bands
Rose Hill is where the band – the Allman Brothers Band – went in the lean scuffling days, back when they all lived in a two-room, $50-a-month apartment. Sometimes they'd eat psilocybin for inspiration. Sometimes a lonely, bluesy wail would rise out of that old graveyard: a song like Dicky Betts' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." It was a grassy, quiet place to be alone together and to talk about music, and love, and finite thoughts. In later years, Duane Allman would be buried there and the band would play a deeply felt set at the funeral in his memory. Bassist Berry Oakley, too, would die, ominously almost a year to the day after Duane. Eerily, the circumstances of the accident would – even the place where it happened – recapitulate the tragedy of Duane Allman. And Berry Oakley would be buried at Rose Hill.
Gregg Allman stares moodily at the silent television. The writer is asking him about the band's latest successes: about the rave reviews of their two-week long West Coast tour, about the new album, Brothers And Sisters, topping the charts. All six of their albums have now made over a million dollars; most have sold over a million units. In the past six months the Brothers have grossed between $50,000 and $100,000 on an average night. They headlined before 600,000 at Watkins Glen, and though an agreement with the promoter prevents an official statement on the Allmans' gross, a spokesman for Capricorn Records, the Brothers' company, states flatly that it was "astronomical." They have played to sell-out crowds in America's largest arenas and stadiums.
But Gregg Allman's mind, this quiet night after a tour de force marathon set at San Francisco's Winterland, is back in Macon, at Rose Hill. "The real question," he says, "is not why we're so popular. I try not to think about that too much. The question is what made the Allman Brothers keep on going. I've had guys come up to me and say, 'Man, it just doesn't seem like losing those two fine cats affected you people at all.'
"Why? Because I still have my wits about me? Because I can still play? Well that's the key right there. We'd all have turned into ******* vegetables if we hadn't been able to get out there and play. That's when the success was, Jack. Success was being able to keep your brain inside your head."
Duane and Gregory Allman were born in 1946 and 1947 in Nashville, Tennessee, just as the city was experiencing its first studio-building boom. In 1949, the boys' father, an Army first lieutenant, returned home from the Korean War for the holidays. The day after Christmas, he picked up a hitch-hiker . . . who murdered him.
"You've got to consider why anybody wants to become a musician anyway," Gregg says. "I played for peace of mind."
The boys' mother, Geraldine "Mama" Allman, went to school and became a CPA. "Somebody suggested that she put us in an orphanage. She politely told them to **** off and we went to Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. I couldn't get it on in school worth a sh*t."
In 1958, the family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. In the summer of 1960, 13-year-old Gregg took a summer job as a paperboy. "Worked all summer and cleared 21 bucks. It was getting toward the end of summer, the mornings were getting colder and I was in Sears and Roebuck to get some gloves with the money when I strolled by the guitar department and fell in love with those beauties. Found one that was $21.95 and the bastard behind the counter wouldn't let me have it. I came back the next day, got it, and proceeded to wear that son of a bitch out. I wouldn't eat or sleep or drink or anything. Just play that damn guitar."
The same summer, Duane Allman bought his first motorcycle, a small Harley. Gregg remembers the bike with a bittersweet smile and a small shake of the head. "Duane was sure a bastard when he was a kid," Gregg says with real admiration. "He quit school, I don't know how many times. Got thrown out a few times too. But he had that motorcycle and drove it until it finally just fell apart. When it did, he quit school. While I was gone, he'd grab my axe and start picking. Pretty soon we had fights over the damn thing, so when it came around to our birthdays – mine was in December and his was in November – we both got one. I got mine a little earlier than my birthday, actually. Matter of fact, I put hands on my first electric guitar November 10th, 1960, at three o'clock that Saturday afternoon. Duane's guitar got into the picture shortly after that."
Gregg gave the Sears guitar to a family friend and it is probably still somewhere in Daytona Beach the way Gregg last saw it; painted flat black with gold strings on it and containing two potted plants.
The Allmans took their electric guitars to led Connors, "a really intense cat who knew how to teach. He's probably still down there. He didn't teach any of that bullsh*t minute waltz business. I said, 'Man, I want to learn some goddamn Chuck Berry music!" . . . and he taught me."
While Gregg muttered and cursed his way through Sea Breeze Senior High School, "Duane stayed at home in the woodshed and got very good. Very fast. The local R&B station was always on and he had some old Kenny Burrell, Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry albums that he'd listen to over and over again to get the structure down. Duane Allman was the best guitar player. I ever heard who didn't read a note."
After a year of practice, Duane and Gregg were playing with local bands like the Shufflers, the Escorts, the Y-Teens. "The social scene in Daytona Beach was simple," Duane Allman once said, "the white cats surf and the blacks play music." The Allmans, of course, played music, and in 1963, in the era of civil rights marches and murders, Gregg and Duane joined a mixed band, the House Rockers.
"That's when the trouble started in the family." Gregg recalls. "Going to play with them niggers again? We had to turn my mother on to the blacks. Took awhile, but now she's totally liberated."
Duane never quite finished high school, but Gregg graduated in 1965. "That summer we went on the road as the Allman Joys. We had our own sound system, amps and a ******* station wagon. Big time. Our first gig was in Mobile, at a place called the Stork Club. Boy, it was a nasty ******* place. I was homesick and the band had broken up about 14 times before we got there."
Significantly, the internal bickering and the homesickness faded away as soon as the band began playing live club dates. It is as if the band draws its strength and determination from being "the hottest band around." They not only stayed on the road, they worked seven nights a week, six sets a night. Joe Tex's manager caught the Allman Joys at one of the Southern teen clubs and they eventually recorded two albums' worth of material for his label, Dial Records. One single was released, a "terrible psychedelic" version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" which went mercifully unnoticed. After listening to the other tracks, Killen advised the band to "go look for a day job."
While a year of constant playing and touring strengthened Gregg and Duane's determination and musicianship, it devastated drummer Manard Portwood, who was eventually fired. The bass, Bob Keller, was in and out of the band, trying to straighten up troubles with his wife. One of the two percussionists in the present Allman Brothers Band, Butch Trucks, played the same club circuit with his band the Bitter End and sometimes sat in with the Allman Joys.
The Allman Joys crumbled in St. Louis in early 1967. They were drummerless, and the new bass, Billy Canell, enlisted in the Navy to beat the draft. The pickup bass was caught trying to make off with the brothers' equipment. "We stole his bass and told him to get the **** out," Gregg says. "Sent his ass home."
Which is pretty much the way the Allmans handled such problems a few years ago. Things have changed a bit. When the fired drummer, Portwood, went out on the road a few months ago with a new band, he billed himself as "the original drummer for the Allman Brothers Band," a cheap but embarrassing gimmick that raised hackles on Gregg's neck. "We sent an attorney out there to talk that over with him," he says without particular emphasis, as if this is the way civilized folks deal with irritating problems.
In '67, following the demise of the Joys, Gregg and Duane were living out of a van without so much as a telephone to contact a lawyer, or anyone else. They cruised on down to Nashville, and combined forces with drummer Johnny Sandlin, keyboard artist Paul Hornsby, and a "cat called the Wolf" on bass: part of another fragmented band called the Five Minutes. "They were a strong outfit," Gregg says, "and they were stuck without a singer or a guitarist. It all fell together and we started cooking." The new band played Nashville as the Five Minutes, then rambled back up Highway 41 to St. Louis and used the name Allman Joys.
"There were posters all over," Gregg says. "The Allman Joys Are Back! That band was really tight, playing R&B and Yardbirds tunes by the hundreds. Duane loved the early days of Jeff Beck."
One night the then high-riding Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stopped into a St. Louis club to hear the Allman Joys. Their manager, Bill McKuen, was impressed. He told the group that they didn't have to play the Southern club circuit, and that they could easily make it nationally. All they had to do was come out to California and he would take them under his wing. "Just come out and see what you think. . . . "
Gregg wasn't so sure it was all that good an idea. He was happy playing live club dates to wildly enthusiastic audiences and had the gut feeling that he wasn't going to get to play in California.
"I said, 'No, Duane. that's a jive lick. Let's don't do it.' He said, 'C'mon man, we'll go to L.A. We'll see all those pretty women and fine looking cars.' What could I say? It was unanimous."
In the end, it was Gregg who was right. The group signed with Liberty Records under the name of Hour Glass. "The record company's line," Gregg says, "was, 'We'll make you the next Rolling Stones.' All we wanted to do was play, but they wouldn't let us do live dates. We would have done small clubs in the valley, but they told us we'd blow the whole image if we did that. What did we know? They'd dress us up in these funny ******* duds and we just felt silly."
Liberty picked the material for the two Hour Glass albums, Hour Glass ("a pendulum of psychedelic and soul . . . " read the liner notes), and Power of Love. Though the material was good – Jackson Browne and Carole King compositions were included – it was not the Allmans' music. Furthermore, they hadn't played enough to live audiences and it sounded stiff, like the tracks on the Liberty LPs.
"We were misled," Duane once said of the Liberty period. Gregg is a bit more blunt. "Together those two records form what is commonly known as a sh*t sandwich." Neither record sold, and the band was in debt. "Liberty was paying all our expenses for us until we earned enough to pay them back." But a company pays only so much money on losing items and soon Hour Glass was "groveling for money just to get a burger." It got worse.
"We stayed first at the Mikado Motel, then at the Cahuenga down by the Hollywood Bowl. A real garbage motel. and all of us in one room. The manager caught us and we moved down to an even worse joint on Lash Lane. This place had no name at all. I got up the first morning we lived there, thinking I'd go swimming. As I'm walking down the hall, there was this door open. I happened to look in and there's this cat lying on the floor, covered up with a blanket. Cop standing there. The cat had left a note and downed 95 Seconals. It was the first dead person I'd ever seen."
The dead man in that sleazy room weighed on the brothers' minds. The same kind of down, dead thing was happening to their spirits and their music. "I think that's when we knew the whole L.A. scene had gone sour on us. Duane got fed up and when my brother got fed up, he got fed up. '**** this' he kept yelling. '**** this whole thing. **** wearing these weird clothes. **** playing this goddamn 'In a Gadda-da-Vida' sh*t. **** it all!'"
Hour Glass packed up and headed east, to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Fame studios, where they taped some of their own material without outside interference. Some of these tracks, including the "B.B. King Medley," appear on Duane Allman/An Anthology. After the sessions, Hour Glass split and Duane and Gregg took the van to Jacksonville, Florida, where their friend and sometimes pickup drummer, Butch Trucks, was preparing to record an album with his band (now called the 31st of February).
The Allmans worked on the LP as sidemen, and were paid as such. At one point in the sessions, Truck's lead singer was not around to do vocals, so Gregg sang through a few of the tracks in rehearsal. An album of those outtakes has recently been released as Duane Allman and Gregg Allman, on Bold Records. A 31st of February album was never released, which is just as well with Trucks, since he now considers his work on those sessions excruciatingly embarrassing.
Meanwhile, the ghost of L.A. and past expenses began looming over the Allmans. Gregg got a call from Liberty "telling me to get my ass back to California, or they'd sue us for $48,000 that Hour Glass still owed them." For the first and only time in their musical careers, Duane and Gregg split. In L.A. Liberty recorded a solo album with Gregg Allman – and, as expected, they did it their way. "They did all the arrangements and all the songs. It was a 26-piece studio band and it was like they said, 'Stay in the corner, out of the way boy. We're cutting you an album.'"
Duane stayed in Jacksonville, hanging out at a club called the Scene and jamming with the Second Coming whose line-up included future Allman Band members: Berry Oakley on bass and lead guitarist Dicky Betts. Betts remembers that the Second Coming did "double lead guitar; the same sort of thing that Duane and I did later. A guy named Larry Rheinhardt and I would do twin guitar runs for 30 bars or so. Fast harmony playing. Which is where Duane and I got the idea for doing that kind of thing, only we did it much better, later."
Back at Muscle Shoals, Fame studios owner-operator Rich Hall was gearing up for an important Wilson Pickett session. Remembering Duane Allman's work with Hour Glass, he sent a telegram to Jacksonville. Duane jumped at the chance for a paying job. He suggested that Pickett record the Beatles tune, "Hey Jude." Wilson refused to sing any song with the refrain "Hey Jew." Eventually enlightened, he cut a track with Duane on lead guitar. It sold a million singles, and Duane was invited to stay in Muscle Shoals and play with some of the finest musicians in the country.
Rick Hall signed Duane to a contract. That paper was purchased by Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler on the strength of Duane's guitar work with Pickett. Wexler then sold the contract to Phil Walden, the young manager of Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. Walden was putting together a roster for his Atlantic custom label, Capricorn Records.
It was at Fame that Duane met Jai Johanny Johanson, a knock-around drummer who had worked behind the late Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and Joe Tex, among others. The two formed a fast friendship and Duane told Jaimo that whatever his next move was, he wanted Jaimo to be his drummer. "People ask me things like, 'Was I in the original band?'" Jaimo says. "sh*t, I was with the band when it wasn't no band."
Also at Fame, Duane cut a solo album with Berry Oakley and Sandlin and Hornsby from Hour Glass. The only track Duane ever liked was "Going Down Slow," a haunting blues tune on which he makes a rare vocal appearance. "He wasn't really hot on doing the solo album," Dicky Betts says. "See, Rick Hall wanted him to do a Hendrix power-trio thing. But Duane was too warm and personal for that. He needed a lot of other guys to get that full sound he wanted."
In search of those musicians and with the Capricorn-Walden contract in hand, Duane moved back to Jacksonville with Jaimo. They slept on the floor at Butch Trucks' place and took to jamming Sunday afternoons in the park. It took four or five Sundays to hit the right note; the day of the Legendary Jacksonville Jam, as Trucks calls it. "We set up at Oakley's house. Duane was there, so was Dicky and Jaimo and Berry and myself. We played three or four hours without stopping and when we finished, Duane looked around and said, 'Man, this is it.' He got on the phone and called Gregg in California."
That was March 23rd, 1969. In an introspective mood in the late hours of the night, Gregg once wrote a letter to a friend about his lonely California days. "I had been building up nerve to put a pistol to my head," he said. Depending on his degree of sincerity and Gregg asks that he be taken seriously on that – that call from Jacksonville may have saved his life. Despite his continuing debt to Liberty, Gregg left a note "and caught the first thing smokin' toward Jacksonville."
After nearly five years of squalor and frustration, of roadhouse and studio playing, the final and ultimate Allman Brothers Band had been formed. It was to be marked by a fanatic familial closeness, by talent and determination, and tragedy.
The Allman Brothers Band moved to Macon, where manager-label president Phil Walden was setting up Capricorn studios. In the first weeks they lived in a house at 309 College Street: two rooms with a bath and a kitchen that didn't work. Walden bought five or six double mattresses, and the whole band lived there with occasional female visitors from nearby Wesleyan College.
Twiggs Lyndon, the band's first road manager, remembers that, "The band lived there a while and when we began to get $100-a-night gigs, Duane moved a block and a half away and Dicky moved down the street. At the foot of College Street is this old cemetery, Rose Hill. We all used to go down there and have a good time. Dicky would sometimes go down there at night with his acoustic guitar and write songs." In fact, most of the songs from the first album, The Allman Brothers Band, came out of writing done at Rose Hill.
The most famous of the Rose Hill songs is Betts' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." "I wrote that song for a certain person," Dicky says, "but I didn't know what to call it. There was a tombstone nearby that read In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, so that's what I called the tune. Some writer once asked me how I wrote the song and Duane said, 'Aww, he ****ed some girl across a tombstone and that's what it's about.' Don't you know that got printed in an instant. You can imagine how the girl I wrote it for felt after that."
With the new material rehearsed, the band chose an agent and set out on the road doing nearly 500 dates in two years. "For a long time," says Butch Trucks, "our only mode of travel was an Econoline van. Eleven of us, with nine sleeping in the back on two mattresses. The only way we made it was with a great big old bag of Mexican reds and two gallons of Robitussin HC. Five reds and a slug of HC and you can sleep through anything."
The first two or three tours bombed but, says Trucks. "Phil Walden had complete faith in us, and I'll respect him forever for that. I think he sunk about $150,000 in us. He was close to bankruptcy a lot of the time and Atlantic kept telling him we didn't have a chance. But during that first three years, Phil never once tried to change us."
The Allman Brothers Band was released in 1970. It was a moderate critical success, but didn't do much for the band's financial status. "We found out in New York once that we had to be at the Fillmore West in a week," Twiggs remembers. "We barely had enough money to make it and when we came across the Golden Gate Bridge, we couldn't scrape up the toll between 11 of us. We had to park and go around hitting up people. 'Hey, we're the Allman Brothers and we're playing the Fillmore. We'll let you in free if you give us a dime. . . . '"
By the time Idlewild South, the second Allman Brothers album, was released, the band had picked up a growing and dedicated audience. More attention was focused on the group after Duane's work with Eric Clapton on Layla. Even though Duane appeared once or twice with Derek and the Dominoes, roadie Red Dog says, "He never forgot about the Allman Brothers Band. He might be out there playing for a week, a week and a half, then he'd have to come back. . . . He was the father of the family."
By October of 1971, the third album, The Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East, was on its way to the top of the charts and million-selling status. There were overflow crowds at every stop, and it seemed time, after two years on the road, to take a short vacation and enjoy some success.
It was on that vacation that Duane Allman was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. "The night before he got killed," says Red Dog, "Duane and I were talking. We had just gotten into Macon a couple of days before. 'We've got it made now,' he said. 'We're on our way. Ain't gonna be no more beans for breakfast.'"
The next day, October 29th, 1971, Duane visited the Oakley house to wish Berry's wife, Linda, a happy birthday. Shortly after leaving the house – about 5:45 PM – he swerved to avoid a truck which was moving in the same direction, but which he had apparently not seen in time after it turned onto the street. The cycle skidded and flipped over, dragging Allman nearly 50 feet. He died of massive injuries at the age of 24.
Stricken and grieving, the band returned to Macon from various vacation sites. There was no question in anyone's mind: The band would carry on. They played at the funeral in Macon's Memorial Chapel: a hollow, moving set; and joined hands with folks like Dr. John and Delaney Bramlett to sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
A month later, they made good on two scheduled Carnegie Hall dates, then threw themselves into feverish work completing the fourth album, Eat A Peach, released in early 1972. And success, like tragedy, dogged the band.
But the real question, as Gregg Allman puts it, is not why the Brothers are popular; it is how they managed to survive the loss of their driving force, the focus of their energy, the "father of the family."
"I think," says a close friend of the Brothers, "that Duane's loss was much more traumatic than anyone realizes. He was pretty arrogant sometimes, and I think one critic said he had 'an ego that could fill the Grand Canyon,' but he had a talent to match. Most of the guys at that funeral were stuporous with grief, but they handled it beautifully, and I think you really have to look at it communally. Duane's death was like an amputation. The organization cauterized the wound and tried to forget about it. They had to.
"See, most of the Brothers are from rural areas in the South, from tight, close-knit families. They took their new identity partially from Duane and partially from the band. When Duane died, the question of identity became paramount. They switched their total allegiance to the family: The constant mention of brothers and sisters isn't any sham. It's a necessity.
"But if the band hadn't made it, it would have fractured the structure of their identities. They had to be successful, and if they hadn't – in 1971 anyway – I think each and every one of those guys could have tumbled off the deep end in some way."
For a while there was talk that the Brothers were looking for a replacement for Duane, but the idea was never discussed within the band. Betts tells why. "I think replacing Duane would have been one of the most uncreative morbid moves anyone could make. It would have cheapened our whole organization to hire someone and teach him Duane's licks."
The first few tours in 1972 weren't easy for the band. "We played some blues, let me tell you," Trucks says, sadly. "We still do. There's one place in our set . . . and it's for Duane. I'm not going to tell you exactly what or where it is, but it's always there. I feel it every night we play. We all do."
The new album, Brothers And Sisters, was begun last spring, and keyboard artist Chuck Leavell joined the band early in the sessions. He has added to the Allman sound, and freed them from an exclusive blues base. "I don't think I've changed the band as much as broadened them," Leavell says.
Most of the Brothers believe that it was the new musical direction that brought Berry Oakley out of a year-long depression he had suffered after Duane Allman's death. "When Duane died," Red Dog says, "Berry died. He loved and idolized Duane. For quite a few months, that's all he thought about. He was obsessed with Duane."
Oakley's playing degenerated, and though the band doesn't admit it, there had been some vague thought given to perhaps replacing him. "He wasn't himself during that time," Jaimo says. "He had lost all interest. Then when we got Chuck in the band, it was like seeing the light. He was back being the old Berry again, playing his ass off. Then it happened."
Not long after the band cut the best-selling "Ramblin' Man," Berry Oakley's motorcycle slammed into a Macon city bus. He was thrown 20 yards and died several hours later of a brain concussion. The accident occurred only three blocks from the site of Duane Allman's fatal crash, a year and two weeks later. Both were 24. Both are buried at Rose Hill Cemetery.
"It was so hard to get into anything after that second loss," Gregg says. "I even caught myself thinking that it's narrowing down, that maybe I'm next."
Typically, the Brothers chose to drown this kind of morbid speculation in hard work. Three weeks after the accident, the band began auditioning bassists. Lamar Williams had played with some soul groups before his Capricorn audition, but he had listened hard to the previous Allman records. At one point in the jam, Lamar stopped a band member and tactfully pointed out that he hadn't played his part correctly. Williams got the job, and now, almost a year later, says he feels "quite at home."
Still, it was a difficult thing in get in the studio and finish up Brothers And Sisters. Sometimes the band would spend a month on a single rhythm track. The record was finally released. It was an overnight gold record that gathered well-earned critical praise.
Recently, both Dicky Betts and Gregg Allman have been working on solo albums – Gregg's Laid Back was recently released. Rumors that either of them will soon embark on a solo career "are horsesh*t," Gregg says. Betts, who has taken to dressing a bit like a young Nashville sideman, has established the North American Indian Foundation, an organization designed to "raise money for the Indian people through benefits and fund-raisers."
Gregg still dresses in the patchy street style of his shuffling days. Last month he took a fancy to a $44,000 burgundy-black Rolls-Royce. He strolled into the New York showroom on little more than a whim and informed the salesman that he'd write a check for the Rolls in the window.
"I should have known they'd want cash," Gregg says. "******* cash! They must figure I go around carrying a suitcase full of bucks. I told them to stick it. Good Lord, to get that much money from my bank up there they wanted 20%. Isn't that sh*tty?"
Maybe so, but it's also a far cry from being 95¢ short on a $21.95 guitar.
This story is from the December 6, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.