Remember that Righteous Brothers song, “Rock and Roll Heaven”: “If there's a rock and roll heaven/Well you know they've got a hell of a band”?
Well, if that’s the case, some would say they’ve now also got the drugs-and-alcohol-addled, his-life’s-a-soap-opera, rat-on-the-roadie train wreck. But maybe also an under-rated lyricist and vocalist. Gregg Allman checked outlast week, a life ended early likely, in some measure, because of self-indulgence and hard living.
The deceased was, of course, one of the eponymous founders of the Allman Brothers Band, among the titans of 1970s rock, particularly of the Southern variety. It’s easy, particularly for me, to write him off as the aforementioned train wreck/soap opera, but his back story is more interesting, and his impact perhaps larger, than I would have thought.
Most music fans know of the most notable of the band’s tragedies, the death of Gregg Allman’s 13-months-older brother, Duane, in an October 1971 motorcycle (actually, it was a Vespa scooter), barely two years after the group was formed. But I wasn’t aware (or had forgotten, if I did know it) that another one of the founding members, bassist Berry Oakley, was killed in a cycle accident a year later, not far from where Duane Allman died.
But the biological Allman brothers had gotten a taste of tragedy and difficulties early in life. Their father, an Army officer, was killed by a hitchhiker he’d picked up, when the boys were toddlers. Their mother sent them to a military academy — where Gregg Allman was beaten by instructors when he got bad grades — so she could go to college and make enough money to support her children.
The brothers got turned onto music in Nashville, Tenn., where they lived for a time, in part by a concert they attended in their early teens. (Killer lineup: Patti LaBelle, B.B. King, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson.) Gregg Allman got interested in the guitar with the help of a neighbor of his grandmother.
The brothers started performing music in the Y Teens in Daytona Beach, Fla., where the family had moved. They later returned to the Nashville-area military academy, where they formed their first group, the Misfits; they started another band when they returned to Florida, in 1963.
Most successful rock musicians formed or performed in several bands before making it big, but the Allman boys actually had some commercial success with their pre-Brothers groups. Their first professional outfit, the Escorts, morphed into the Allman Joys, who did well in clubs and theaters in the south.
Gregg — who had started singing lead with the Escorts, at Duane’s urging — took up keyboards during this period, and also started writing original songs. Some of those songs were recorded in 1966, but weren’t released for seven years, and then apparently without the artists’ approval.
The Joys got through one rough stretch in 1967 with the help of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Bill McEuen, who helped them relocate to Los Angeles and get a recording contract. That resulted in a couple albums being released under the name (picked by their manager) of the Hour Glass. The group didn’t like the music, and getting out of the contract proved difficult.
Gregg stayed behind to fulfill its terms, while his brother and the others returned to the South. There Duane met Butch Trucks and Dickie Betts, who would become the other founding members of the Allman Brothers, which came to fruition after Gregg returned from LA. The rest, as they say, is history — except when it was hysteria, and tragedy.
The Allman Brothers self-title debut album, released in late 1969, didn’t do much. But extensive touring helped turn their second LP, “Idlewild South,” into a Top 40 album. Their third, the live “At Fillmore East,” was an even bigger success right after its release, in the late summer of 1971.
That’s when I first recall hearing the band, hanging out at a friend’s apartment in Janesville. I liked their music, and heard more of it on Radio Free Madison when I returned to the Mad City the following year. The Allman Brothers had a lot of success in the mid1970s, surviving the death of the two founding members for a time.
But their drug use was legendary, and pervasive, and Gregg Allman’s life took on its train wreck aspects at that time. First he alienated his bandmates by testifying against the group’s security man during the latter’s drug trial, then he took up with Cher, the pop star (Sonny’s ex) turned actress.
The couple tried to turn their Hollywood marriage into a concert performing career, but their audiences didn’t play nice together, with fights breaking out at concerts. The two broke up in 1978, and the Allmans (who had broken up two years earlier) reunited that year. But that only lasted four years, and Gregg — who had had some solo success in the mid-70s — apparently spent more time drinking than performing, recording or writing.
Allman and Betts had played some gigs together in the mid-80s, and they got the band back together for a 20th-anniversary reunion tour. That led to new recordings, and regular touring for the next two decades, although there were a number of changes in personnel.
The substance abuse continued, and Gregg Allman was too drunk to speak when the Allman Brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That prompted him to kick his addictions, but his health began deteriorating the following decade, beginning with Hepatitis C, followed by liver cancer.
Allman underwent a liver transplant in 2010, but the new organ also became cancerous, and he also developed heart problems. Those maladies caught up with him May 27.
The Allman Brothers recorded 18 albums, and sold a pile of records. They won two Grammies (a Lifetime Achievement Award and a Best Rock Instrumental, for “Jessica”), and rank in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest-of-all-time lists, as a band and as individual musicians.
Gregg Allman, who wrote most of the group’s songs, particularly the better-known tunes, should get a lot the credit for that. He ranks 70th on the Rolling Stone “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” list, and was a Grammy Award winner in his own right, from a solo career that produced six studio albums (a seventh is due out this fall, posthumously) and three Top Five singles, including the No. 1 “I’m No Angel.”
Still, you have to wonder what he might have accomplished without the excess, and the sideshows and complications (he fathered five children by five different women). For that matter, what would the Allman Brothers become had not Duane and Berry Oakely died early?
Would Duane’s Derek and the Dominos alliance with Eric Clapton have continued, and affected the Brothers’ fortunes? One thing’s for certain — I need to augment my meager collection of the band’s music, limited to one greatest-hits LP.