By Lisa Morgan
There is one genre that costs its player almost everything in order to be able to deliver it with the integrity and simple, stripped down honesty that it was created for; this one brand of music demands that you live through it to legitimately deliver it. BB King lived through it and therefore it lives though him. BB’s own brutal beginnings are evidence of it as even he has said, “Playing the blues is like having to be black twice. Stevie Ray Vaughan missed on both counts, but I never noticed.” Gregory LeNoir Allman, born December 8, 1947, in Nashville, Tennessee, is one such American Rock and blues singer, one that many call the ‘best white blues singer of all time’. Inducted with the Allman Brothers Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Gregg also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2006. His distinctive voice placed him in 70th place in the Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time”. Gregg Allman will always be known as a singer, songwriter, keyboardist, guitarist, and founding member, but most importantly and proudly, he will be known as a brother of The Allman Brothers Band.
The two Allman brothers suffered loss and hardship early on when their father was murdered by a guy he gave a ride home to from the local bar. The relationship between Gregg and his younger brother Duane was explosive in the early years. “I thought he was going to kill me,” shared Gregg. “He tried to hang me once, and it almost worked.” But when Gregg was given a guitar and Duane took interest in it, the dynamic suddenly changed. “We had those silver stings in common that made everything change. After we started playing music together, things began to meld. We were closer than brothers and closer than friends; we were a strong unity. We knew that if the two of us were together, we were never gonna starve, and we were always going to have protection. It was a very secure feeling. There’s more detail about that in my book (My Cross to Bear).”
I was extremely honored to hear Gregg tell me his first hand, personal experiences, as he walked me through music history. In his laid back, down to earth, southern drawl, he said, “I was just clowning around in Los Angeles, at the ripe old age of 19, trying to find work on my own, and I wasn’t doing really well at it at all,” Gregg recalls. “Then on March 26, 1969, the phone rang and it was him (his brother, Duane). He said, ‘Gregg, I’m tired of working out of this studio in Mussel Shoals. I’ve got five guys together, including me and I want to get out on the road.’ Then he paid me the greatest compliment of my life. ‘I need you to come here, round it up and send it someplace.’ I said, ‘Let me hang up quick and I’ll get there.”
This was the start of Rock and Roll history. A number of characteristic songs that brought the Allman Brothers Band success were written by Gregg. Unusual for the time, the band was based in the Southeastern United States. Their music incorporating an innovative fusion of rock, blues, and country, and their music became known as “Southern Rock”.
Following the death of his brother Duane Allman in 1971, and death of bass guitarist, Berry Oakley, one year later, both in motorcycle accidents, the band struggled on and continued to perform and record. Allman developed a solo career and a band under his own name. Allman’s solo music has perhaps a greater resonance of soul music than his work with ABB, possibly because of the influence of artists such as Bobby Bland and Little Milton, singers who he has long admired. Once again, Gregg was living the genre that his voice has, so famously, represented.
I asked Gregg how he dealt with the loss of his brother. “I don’t know if you’ve had somebody close to you die or not,” he began in a voice that reflected the loss as if it had only recently happened. “It’s hard. It’s real hard. But in this case, I know in my heart and soul, like I knew then, if it had been the other way around, I would have wanted them to go on to greatness, and I’m pretty sure that my brother would have wanted the same.”
Addressing Gregg’s very public battle with drugs and alcohol, I asked him where his health and sobriety stood. He reminded me that it was all in his book that I had admittedly not read. After giving me just a little bit of grief about that, he then went on to share, “I’m 19 years clean and sober and have a brand new 29 year old liver! I feel like a million bucks most of the time. I did have a bit of a scare this past month. I went to London recently and got a hold of a parasite or something. I was feeling really down. It scared me to death. I thought there was something wrong with my liver.”
I prodded Gregg about how he won the battle of his addictions. He reminded me that it was all in the book. “Oh boy it took a big one. I didn’t know how to stop. Nobody does. I didn’t know the first thing to do. All’s I know, is when I’d stop, hours later, my body would be just crying for it. It would overtake me, and I’d go to the bar. I did most of my drinking at home. I didn’t like to be seen and all that shit. It finally came to me in 1996. I got a letter saying ‘You’ve been voted to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ So I said, ‘Oh my God, I cannot go up there and look like I’ve so much as thought about having a drink!’ Well that was impossible. So that day, I measured the exact amount- I sat down and figured it out – just how much I could drink per hour, so I wouldn’t have the shakes but wouldn’t be all gaga.” He started laughing and apologized. “I realize I can’t say that ‘cause there’s a ‘Lady Gaga’, so to be politically perfect, I’ll say I didn’t want to get screwed up! I was staying at the Waldorf Astoria, of course. I went down stairs to get some Marlboros and of course, I saw everybody there. Band members I hadn’t seen in years! All sitting at the bar, sayin’, ‘Common Gregg, let us buy ya one.’ That was a mistake. Long story short, I get to the ceremony, and I could barely stand up. I was kind of rockin’ back and forth. Willie Nelson who was presenting it to us asked me, ‘Gregory, are you all right boy?’ I said, ‘No sir, I am NOT alright.’ He said, ‘Well, you want to sit down?’ And I said, ‘Will, there ain’t no chairs up here.’ We went on through with it. I meant to say something about everybody who had a hand in getting me there, and I walked up there and said ‘This is for my brother’, and walked off,” he said reflecting the deep disappointment he bore at the memory. With ice in his voice he continued, “Some kind soul shoved that video in my face the next morning while I was all hung over! That did it. That DID IT! I said to myself, ‘This has gone too far! I’m not going to live like this!’ “
“I went home to California, ordered a private male nurse to my house. It was the only time out of 14 rehabs that I didn’t have that tiny voice way in the back of my head saying, ‘Yeah, man, we’re gonna do this dance for ‘em, and go through all this crap like everybody wants us to. We’ll clear on down the road. We’ll be alright then; we’ll have a couple of cold beers and watch the game.’ It doesn’t work like that! This time the voice wasn’t there. And that’s about the only thing comforting about the whole thing. That voice was not there. The next two weeks, I quit cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and all of it. Today I can barely remember it. I remember I hurt like hell all the time, and that there was an earth quake. It was so bad, I guess my mind just wiped it out.”
“I don’t go to meetings,” he added. “Meetings work for most people. They bothered me. I went to my buddy, Waylon Jennings, and I said, ‘Man, what do you do when you go to the damn meeting and they ask you for an autograph!’ ‘ Anonymous, my ass!’ Waylan said, ‘Man, I don’t go to meetings. Me and Mr. Johnny Cash sit down at the kitchen table over a coffee pot and we yap about things once a week. That’s our meeting.’”
It was here, Gregg politely told me he had to cut the interview short but invited me to come back stage to see him, but with an assignment. I am to read his book because he promises to quiz me on it. Perhaps then he’ll be able to tell me more about the new album he’s heavy into where he is writing every song himself. Or maybe he’ll have more information about the movie that they’re making from his book, My Cross to Bear, the one I am reading. Maybe he’ll know who they’re casting as the young Gregg Allman and the “not as young” Gregg Allman.
I did get to sneak in the awful question, “What’s your favorite song?” He laughed politely and said, “That’s like asking, which one is your favorite child!” He took a second to ponder it. He came back with, “The next one.”