So it’s 1988, I’m 21, summer time’s in full, humid swing in rural Illinois and my college buddies and I are shooting pool at the local watering hole.
A row of noise-enhanced Harleys adorned with black leather studded saddle bags line the dimly-lit parking lot. Plastic pitchers of cheap beer slide across the weathered bar as darts fly through the air (so does the occasional fist as my crooked nose can attest–the “other guy” is just fine, by the way).
The backdrop soundtrack resonating from the jukebox of this dive bar is the signature electric guitar power A5, G5, D5 chords and variations thereof that are the hallmarks of Southern Rock and its missionaries: Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, and the father of them all, The Allman Brothers Band.
This is the sound of my young adulthood … a foot-stompin,’ beer swillin’ blue-jeans and T-shirt wearin’ heartland American life and put to music.
But now The Allman Brothers, this most iconic of American bands, is finally calling it quits after an on-again off-again run that can trace its beginnings all the way back to 1963 in Daytona, Florida when musical brothers Duane and Gregg Allman formed The Escorts and will end in New York City in 2014.
That, my friends, is an impressive chunk of time for any band in any genre. But it has been a bumpy road.
Throughout the mid-1960s amidst the turbulence of de-segregation and social unrest, Gregg and older brother (by 13 months) Duane toured the Deep South as The Allman Joys, eventually landing a recording deal with Liberty Records. Gregg was a keyboardist and gifted song-writer/singer. Duane was, quite simply, one of the greatest rock/blues guitarists of all time.
They moved to Los Angeles and were re-packaged as The Hour Glass. Unsatisfied with the label’s control, The Hour Glass disbanded; Duane returned to Florida and Gregg stayed in LA to fulfill contractual obligations to Liberty.After landing a spot as a session musician at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Duane assembled what would become his eponymous band. But he needed a singer.
In March 1969, he recalled his “bay-brah” who left LA behind to join up and The Allman Brothers Band was born.
Though based out of Macon, Georgia, The Allman Brothers Band tore up the road playing more than 300 shows in 1970 including famous gigs at the Fillmore East and West–yet earning so little money Gregg had nary a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of.
As he recalls in his autobiography, My Cross To Bear, “I’d lie in bed at night wondering … was this whole thing going to blow up in our face?”
But the band’s musical virtuosity and unique blues/rock/country fusion earned them the reputation as the one to see. The talented line-up of Gregg on the organ and vocals, Duane on guitar, the great Dickey Betts sharing lead on guitar, Berry Oakley on bass, and the twin-drumming rhythm machine of Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson created what Rolling Stone called “the best damn rock and roll band of the past five years.”
Despite critical acclaim their first two studio albums, The Allman Brothers and Idelwild South flopped. But Live At The Fillmore East, released in July 1971, launched them to superstardom and is a standard against which live albums are judged to this day.
Then their world fell apart.
Just three months after the album’s release, on October 29, 1971, Duane Allman the young prince of Southern Rock, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon. He was 24.
Though devastated, Gregg decided the band should soldier on with Betts carrying the full weight of lead guitar or “none of us would amount to shit,” as he shared in the documentary Sweet Home Alabama: The Story Of Southern Rock. They released the break-out hybrid studio and live album Eat A Peach with some Duane tracks still on it then the hugely successful Brothers And Sisters which featured their most successful single, Ramblin’ Man, written by Betts and added almost as an afterthought.
Tragedy then hit the band again while recording the latter album when, just 13 months after Duane, bassist Berry Oakley was killed–also on a motorcycle and just a few blocks from where Duane died.
Hardened by the loss of Duane the previous year, and having watched Oakley spiral into depression after his good friend’s death, the band accepted it and persevered. Decades of heavy drug use and alcoholism plagued many in the group.
The band continued even as Allman made many trips in and out of rehab, suffered a near death by overdose, they endured federal drug charges against a one-time manager and the growing estrangement between Allman and Betts who was coming into his own and asserting band control having written and/or sung on some of their biggest hits: Ramblin’ Man, Jessica and Blue Sky.
Their personality clash would tear the original band apart. (Betts’ continued drug and alcohol abuse and attitude would eventually get him booted out of the ABB permanently in 2000, according to My Cross to Bear.)
Over the years many players have come and gone although Allman and Trucks have remained constants. They disbanded and then re-formed three times over the years and rotated in some of the best musicians the genre had to offer including the current line-up of guitarists Warren Haynes and Butch’s nephew and prodigy Derrick Trucks, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and percussionists Marc Quinones and Johanson.
They have, over the years, featured guitarists “Dangerous Dan” Toler and Jack Pearson, pianists Chuck Leavell, Mike Lawler and Johnny Neal, bassists Lamar Williams, David Goldflies, and Allen Woody and drummer Frankie Toler.
Beyond the musical virtuosity and a clear “the respect for music” as REM’s Mike Mills (out of Athens, GA) called it in the Southern Rock documentary, what is the key to The Allman Brothers’ longevity in a business that will chew up and spit out so many bands?
I think it lies in the fact that the Allman Brothers tapped into a uniquely American sound. A concoction of black Delta blues, Gospel, country twang and heavy metal all Cuisinarted into something new and energetic and fun.
Of all its pioneers, it was the Allman brothers–Duane with his tell-tale ripping slide guitar and baby bro’ Gregg of the sensually raspy voice–who are most responsible for unleashing their unique genre upon a USA thirsty for a sound all its own.
What the Allmans and others created was a vehicle through which we could recapture the pentatonic-based blues that the British artists of the 1960s co-opted, brilliantly electrified, refined and exported back to us. Southern Rock was our reflexive response to The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin and others.
Although don’t call it “Southern Rock” to Gregg. He will be the first to remind us that rock and roll originated in the South. “‘Southern Rock’ hell. Just call it ‘Rock Rock!” he said on more than one occasion, and he has a point. Although no one can argue with the brilliance of Clapton, Page, Beck, Townshend and the other lads from the UK, they would not have existed but for the advent of the blues sound that percolated up from the post-reconstruction Deep South.
And it came at a time when, after a hundred years of being looked down by the country outside Dixie while suffering their own racial dysfunctions at home, the South was looking for a reason to be proud again … and the rest of the country looking for a reason to love the South again.
It is no coincidence that the advent of the southern Allman Brothers and the rest, the growth of southern Capricorn Records and the election of a southern peanut farmer as president (for better or worse) happened in tandem.
Although in the past decades blues-inspired Southern Rock and the more traditional blue-grass-oriented Country Music have fused into the more urbane Country sound on display at the CMA Awards and the like, the Allman Brothers have staked a claim as one of the quintessentially American bands.
The group has been awarded 11 Gold and five Platinum albums between 1971 and 2005. Rolling Stone ranked them 52nd on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004.
They have really been a constant in my entire adult life … Duane and Gregg first played together four years before I was even born! And even though I’ve never seen them in concert, I guess I always felt like “well, I’ll catch ‘em when they come around next year.” But I am coming to the cold realization that there is no next year for this great band. So it’s now or never.
Fortunately the Beacon Theater in New York is nearby. The time has come for them to do other things full time. All good things…as they say. But The Allman Brothers influence will be with us for years to come. No doubt about it, these cats left their mark. Their music reminds us what is best in American culture. Erudite Europeans may point to empty Cathedrals, or fading paintings or classical music written by men long dead while decrying us for a lack of culture. But, hell, we got the Allman Brothers in the here and now.
So take that, your highnesses! And they will always be ours … for a little while longer, anyway.