Trouble No More
Has Gregg Allman Finally Found Health and Happiness?
“I’ll go to the end…I’m not trained for much else, bro. Not to mention it’s my passion,” says Gregg Allman when he’s presented with a rumor that the Allman Brothers Band might hang it up after 2014, their 45th year. “You think of how many poor slobs drudge to work every day back and forth on the fucking freeway and just hating it, just despising it. And me man, I love to go to work! I don’t work…hell, I play. And what I get paid for is packing. Sometimes I’d rather take a mild ass-whippin’ then have to pack again. I play for the gods.”
Allman is experiencing another chapter in a long line of personal and musical resurrections. After thirteen years of triumphs, turmoil, decadence, deaths, membership changes, a breakup, reformation and breakup again – from their formation in 1969 until the early ‘80s – the ABB reunited once more in 1989 and haven’t had a spare moment since. Through it all, Gregg has pushed forward after many setbacks. His father was murdered when he was a child, his brother and Allman Brothers Band founder Duane died in 1971 and original bassist Berry Oakley died the next year. During the ‘90s and ‘00s, more members came and went, including original guitarist Dickey Betts who got the boot in 2000. Within the last three years, following a lifetime of hard-living and indulgence, Allman has had a liver transplant and lung surgery. Throughout it all he’s remained, along with original ABB members Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, signposts to the original art of playing music with muscle and heart.
2011 saw the release of his solo album Low Country Blues (Rounder), and his autobiography, My Cross to Bear (William Morrow), was published last year. Amid the many tales of musical prowess and the ability to get laid, it displayed his penchant to move forward. When the 45th anniversary of the Allmans is even suggested, he yells, “My God, IT WAS JUST THE 40TH!”
Speaking from his Savannah home, where he’s lived since 1999, Allman’s quiet speaking voice belies his onstage vocals where his blues growl mixes with a dexterous touch on his Hammond B-3 organ, a mix that became his signature 44 years ago. The success of the acclaimed My Cross to Bear, completed with music journalist Alan Light, allowed a deeper, more personal insight into this American musical treasure. He still can’t get used to his new role as a literary figure.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, “it came out in paperback and started selling all over again. I thought, ‘Man, what is the deal here? It’s the same damn book!’ [laughs]” He barely instigated the book and now it’s being turned into a movie, with tentative plans to begin filming in south Georgia later this year. All this is more than Allman ever anticipated. “The way it happened was, I didn’t sit down and premeditate this book. Actually, that was my journal I started keeping in 1981 just for the plain fact that I figured that someday I might be an old codger sittin’ on the porch in a rockin’ chair and I could pick up a few pages and thumb through ‘em and kind of relive it. I sat down and wrote out the first part of it, which was the equivalent of about four chapters. Then I got tired of writin’ it, [so] I just started recording it. So ultimately I acquired this duffel bag full of cassette tapes. And it was in my house and my manager said, ‘What you got in the bag there?’ And I said, ‘That’s…my life’ [laughs]. And he said, ‘Well, huh…let’s look at this.’ Then he said, ‘Man…this needs to be a book!” [And I said,] ‘Well, I don’t know, man, some of it’s pretty private.’ So after much wiggling and much downsizing it and trimming away hardcore parts [laughs], I let him go ahead and do it. Now they’re just now finishing up the script [for the movie version].”
Even though Allman will be involved with the movie, he won’t be in it. His main contribution will be the soundtrack, choosing some old songs and recording some new versions. “I am the main executive producer of it and I have the veto rights,” he says. “I don’t know [when it’s coming out], there’s a bunch of people doing it and there’s a bunch of money behind it. It’s all going to be shot in Savannah. I might do a little cameo…be sweeping up somewhere.”
In addition to touring with the Gregg Allman Band and the ABB, Allman finds time to be a supportive father. His son Devon, with whom Gregg will record in December, plays with Atlanta locals Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooton plus New Orleans’ Cyril Neville in the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Daughter Layla Allman plays with the harder-edged Picture Me Broken, which recently opened for Marilyn Manson at the Tabernacle. He says he enjoys both bands. In addition, his niece Galadrielle Allman recently released her father Duane’s box set Skydog. “I helped her do it,” says Gregg. “She outdid herself on that one.” Indeed.
2011’s successful Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett, will spawn a follow up and he’s also going to work on a record of originals. “Actually I’ve got two records in front of me,” he says. “There is a continuation of Low Country Blues coming up. And, I don’t know how you heard about it, the number one slot on my bucket list is to cut a record and the title will be simply All Compositions By.” As is his wont, Allman will co-write this album with others. “I like to write with other people,” he says, “then you get real variations of stuff. We play off each other – it works out good.”
Low Country Blues was Allman’s first album to come out on vinyl since the Allman Brothers’ 1991 album Shades of Two Worlds. He had nothing to do with the album’s format but does appreciate vinyl. “Oh yeah, I have a box of them sittin’ about 20 feet from me,” he says when asked if he’s seen the LP version. “Well, Mr. Burnett, he doesn’t hardly listen to anything unless it’s on vinyl. And I admire that. There are people who love vinyl. I went back to it after a while and it reminded me of what a pain in the ass it was [laughs]. Wiping off them records and putting them back in the sleeve and making sure everything is just right…it’s like spending the day doing your own deejaying [laughs].”
His 1987 single “I’m No Angel,” credited with reviving his solo career during a dry spell, reveals his knack for knowing a good song when he hears it. The unsolicited hit was written by Tony Colton and Phil Palmer. “One day in the mail… and I listen to everything that comes in the mail, believe it or not. And 98.8% of it is crap. But ‘I’m No Angel came in the mail [laughs]. And you know who sang the damn demo, of all people? This is weird – I have it somewhere here in the house if I could find it – Bill Medley from the Righteous Brothers! I thought, ‘What in the hell is he sending me a demo for?’ ’Cause let me tell you brother, he smoked it! I thought, ‘Jeez I’ll do this!’” With the suggestively appropriate line, “Let me show you my tattoo,” “I’m No Angel” draws attention to the rumor that every member of the ABB has a mushroom tattoo. Allman shares the truth. “On their calf, ‘bout half-way up,” he reveals. “That’s a fact. Everybody who’s ever played with us has one.”
Often overshadowed by the stellar musicianship of the other Brothers, Allman is a first-rate keyboardist and finger-picking guitarist. He’s most noted as a Hammond B-3 organist, yet his passion for the instrument is rarely delved into. “I have six,” he reveals. “You have to take two [on the road], ‘cause, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked in the back of one, but it was before they had perfected printed circuits, therefore the only thing you had to go by were the different colored wires. So what you have back there is a clusterfuck of wires of different colors. If one of the wires gets disconnected or shorts or whatever, there is no time, so you have to take a spare. So I have two with my band, I have two with the Brothers, I have one in Cleveland at the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame and one is sitting in my studio right outside.” As many times as this Stomp and Stammer writer has seen Allman, an onstage organ swap has never been witnessed. “I just did, just recently,” he says. “I think I’ve had to change out three times in my career. Let me say this: Hammond organs…they stopped making them in 1971. I have five ‘69s and one ’70. And ’69 was their best and finest year. That just so happens that’s when the Brothers came into being and that’s the year of the first one I ever owned – my brother bought it for me. Later I had to hock it to get enough money to feed the band…at a low point during the ’80s. I tried to buy it back but the guy wouldn’t sell.”
When it comes to guitars, Allman is excited about his new Johnny Cash model Martin acoustic, but also still likes his old Washburns, the company for which he used to be an endorser. He still has his old Gibson J-45 on which he wrote “Sweet Melissa.” “My brother had to hock…he used to play a ’57 [Fender] Telecaster with a ’55 Strat neck on it. And he hocked that son of a bitch; he traded even for a J-45 for me.”
Talking about guitars is one thing, but Allman was forced to go on a press junket when his book came out and found himself talking with all sorts of strange people about his personal life. He was seen on Piers Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, The View and even Oprah. He was not comfortable with such attention. “I don’t like doing things like Oprah and The View…shriveled up old ladies,” he says. “I have zero in common with them.” Morgan even got Allman to introduce the world to a woman purported to be his fiancé. “He was just pushing and pushing and pushing and I was, ‘Give me a fucking break.’” Allman says, “She’s a very dear friend of mine.” They did not marry.
The normally reticent Allman is very chatty when it comes to the excitement he has regarding his new lease on life. After a very unhealthy period he had a liver transplant and lung operation and now he feels great. “Shit, I can’t believe I’m 65,” he says. “And I don’t feel a day over 30. Not now.” He freely tells the story of his operations, transplant, flooded chest cavity and partial lung removal. “I had a series of operations. The transplant came off just textbook. And [afterward] there was a big applause and all the doctors and nurses were like, ‘Yeah! Alright!’”
He was not out of trouble. “I had a pending European tour; this was not very long after the transplant. And I went. I shouldn’t have done it. I got back [home] and I got [to the hospital] by wheelchair, I couldn’t walk, I was in rough shape.” After going into respiratory arrest he had part of his right lung removed. “It was awful,” he says. “So then the healing starts. And after ’bout thirteen months I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! Am I ever going to get back right?’ I thought I had done the wrong thing. And I thought, ‘This is not living, this is existing.’ And nothing turned me on; I didn’t get inspired by anything.”
Things finally got better at the end of last year. “My [Gregg Allman Band] winter tour the last few years has started the day after Christmas and goes until about the middle of January,” Allman explains. “So on the 23rd [of last December] I woke up and something was different. I jumped out of that bed just like a spring was under me. And I have felt like a million bucks ever since, hoss.”
Allman is excited to finish his recent summer tour with the solo band, opening a series of shows for Hank Williams, Jr., and will be in Atlanta with the ABB on Labor Day. He loves to play and has reclaimed his inspiration. “I’m looking out at the river from my kitchen window right now and it’s fucking beautiful, man. I’m in the pink, man, I feel wonderful. I just love life. I love every moment of it.”
Photo by Danny Clinch.