Remembering Gregg Allman

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Gregg Allman died of liver cancer at 69. Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images

Jam bands aren’t known for their vocals. Most tout a singer (or two) and songs with traditional verses and choruses, but really, jam-band songwriting is an exercise in drawing up blueprints for the many forms a composition can take onstage every night. The Grateful Dead lucked out with Jerry Garcia, who sounded enticingly soulful and worn beyond his years, and Phish does well with Trey Anastasio, who sells every line on boyish charm. But for every one of those, there are a hundred bands who seem to have hired their singers by drawing names out of a hat. It’s par for the course, since most of the point of seeing jam bands live is to get God-high and enjoy the elite-level improvisation. You don’t go to Moe for hot buttered soul. The golden exception to the rule, of course, is the Allman Brothers.

Gregg Allman wasn’t a born singer. He took on the role out of necessity; his brother Duane called him up one day as he finished up contract session work in California (following the demise of the brothers’ early band Hour Glass) effectively ordering him to come back East and sing for the brand-new band he’d just put together. You can hear naïveté in the honey-throated howls of the 1969 The Allman Brothers Band’s “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Dreams,” two songs from the first batch of compositions Gregg brought to the fledgling unit. He sounds unsustainably strong, like a man charging toward an inevitable collapse. The attack is a little too forceful for the setting. The pain in his lyrics seemed lived in. It brought an earnest, believable rawness to the task of matching the white heat of a band with dueling guitarists and drummers.

Though his voice was powerful, Allman was the rare singer that waved off the spotlight in his flagship band, a team player who bristled till the very end at even being called a star. (“We don’t use the words ‘rock and roll star’ around my house,” Allman told the Chicago rock radio station 93XRT in an interview last summer.) He picked up the organ after teaching Duane guitar because he recognized his brother’s skyrocketing talent and the edge a secondary instrument would give them in forming a band. Gregg was happy to hang back and lay out Hammond grooves while his guitarists took the lead, from the Duane era to the ’ 70s stretch where the Allman Brothers Band was essentially Dickey Betts’s outfit on through the Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks incarnation. (Gregg’s solo stuff is just as important to appreciating his easygoing charm. He let his folk and soul instincts fly on those, cutting beautiful, laconic renditions of “Midnight Rider” and “Please Call Home” on 1973’s Laid Back and live takes of “Dreams” and “Queen of Hearts” on 1974’s The Gregg Allman Tour that felt like floating.)

The Allman Brothers Band might’ve been peculiar in structure — longtime drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson says Duane cribbed the two drummers bit from James Brown — but it was a revolution in style and substance. The effortless, radical slipperiness of the Brothers’ mix of blues, jazz, rock, soul, and country still feels like a wizard’s trick. The legendary Fillmore East recordings of “Hot ’Lanta,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and “Whipping Post” sound like the work of three different bands at their exalted peaks. It’s astounding that the band that made the jazzy, jammy “Les Brers in A Minor” and “Blue Sky” could also pull moves like the smooth, yearning “Melissa” and the quiet folk of “Little Martha” on the same album. The Allmans are said to have lit the match that sparked the Southern rock explosion, but leaving it at that feels reductive. For a stretch in the early ’70s they’re not just Southern rock innovators, they’re one of the best bands to walk the earth of any stripe. Great Allman jams dispensed with pesky constructs like time and genre, radiating weird waves between players and throughout auditoriums.

Gregg and Duane’s creative pliability was borne out of a South in slow but necessary flux in the ’50s and ’60s. By day, segregation relegated innovative black artists to the backwoods roadhouses and juke joints of the chitlin’ circuit while Elvis and the like got to be the face of the new rock and roll. Overnight, rebel DJs at the Nashville radio station WLAC piped all the hottest singles from black artists out to an audience that stretched from the South to the Midwest. The Allmans respected not just black art but black players; as kids, Gregg and Duane got lessons from an older black guitarist their mother once refused to allow into her home, and later, they caught hell having Jaimoe and bassist Lamar Williams in their ranks in their adopted home state of Georgia. “If a musician could play, we didn’t look at his skin color,” Gregg wrote in his 2012 memoir My Cross to Bear.

“Nobody around here had seen guys who looked like them,” soul food legend and friend of the band Mama Louise Hudson said in Alan Paul’s 2014 oral history One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. “A lot of the white folk around here did not approve of them long-haired boys, or of them always having a black guy with them.” Southern rock occupied a peculiar axis of Mason-Dixon pride and reverence to blues and soul veterans who were hampered and harangued by the politics of the South. Gregg always pushed back. He didn’t placate audiences’ blind patriotism and racism the way Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. have. Last year, he spoke out against North Carolina’s transphobic “bathroom bill,” and when asked about the confederate flag in 2015, he told Radio.com, “If people are gonna look at that flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say burn every one of them.”

As much as brotherhood and thoughtfulness color Gregg Allman’s legacy, so, too, does pain. Loss seemed to plague the singer from birth. Gregg’s father was murdered by a hitchhiker when he was a toddler. His band was rattled at its peak by the losses of Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley in two motorcycle crashes just about a year apart along the same stretch of Macon, Georgia, road. It’s easy to feel cursed in circumstances like those, but Gregg turned to music to pull him through. “I played for peace of mind,” Allman told Cameron Crowe in a 1973 Rolling Stone profile. Excesses, loss, substance abuse, drug busts, and label troubles derailed him more than once, but the minute you counted Gregg out, he’d mine beautiful art from his adversity. A voice and a mind that couldn’t be silenced by the worst struggles life can offer doesn’t stop resonating in death. He lives anew every time we press play.

Remembering Gregg Allman