Gregg Allman

Gregory Lenoir “Gregg” Allman (December 8, 1947 – May 27, 2017) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. He was known for performing in the Allman Brothers Band. Allman grew up with an interest in rhythm and blues music, and the Allman Brothers Band fused it with rock music, jazz, and country at times. He wrote several of the band’s biggest songs, including “Whipping Post”, “Melissa”, and “Midnight Rider”. Allman also had a successful solo career, releasing seven studio albums. He was born and spent much of his childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, before relocating to Daytona Beach, Florida.

He and his brother, Duane Allman, formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, which reached mainstream success with their 1971 live album At Fillmore East. Shortly thereafter, Duane was killed in a motorcycle crash. The band continued on, with Brothers and Sisters (1973) representing their largest sales. Allman began a solo career with Laid Back the same year, and was perhaps most famous for his marriage to pop star Cher for the rest of the decade. He had an unexpected late career hit in the song “I’m No Angel” in 1987, and his seventh solo album, Low Country Blues (2011), saw the highest chart positions of his career. Throughout his life, Allman struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, which formed the basis of his acclaimed memoir My Cross to Bear (2012). His final album, Southern Blood, was released September 8, 2017.

Allman performed with a Hammond organ and guitar, and was recognized for his soulful voice. For his work in music, Allman was referred to as a Southern rock pioneer and received numerous awards, including one Grammy Award; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. His distinctive voice placed him in 70th place in the Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time”.

Early life

Gregory LeNoir Allman was born at Saint Thomas Hospital on December 8, 1947 in Nashville, Tennessee, to Willis Turner Allman (1918–1949) and Geraldine Robbins Allman (1917–2015). The couple had met during World War II in Raleigh, North Carolina, when Allman was on leave from the U.S. Army, and were later married. Their first child, Duane Allman, was born in Nashville in 1946. On December 26, 1949, Willis offered a hitchhiker a ride home and was subsequently shot and killed in Norfolk, Virginia. Geraldine moved to Nashville with her two sons, and she never remarried. Lacking money to support her children, she enrolled in college to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)—state laws at the time, according to her son, required students to live on-campus.

As a result, Gregg and his older brother were sent to Castle Heights Military Academy in nearby Lebanon. A young Gregg interpreted these actions as evidence of his mother’s dislike for him, though he later came to understand the reality: “She was actually sacrificing everything she possibly could—she was working around the clock, getting by just by a hair, so as to not send us to an orphanage, which would have been a living hell.” While his brother adapted to his surroundings with a defiant attitude, Allman felt largely depressed at the school. With little to do, he studied often and developed an interest in medicine—had he not gone into music, he hoped to become a dentist. He was rarely hazed at Castle Heights as his brother protected him, but often suffered beatings from instructors when he received poor grades. The brothers returned to Nashville upon their mother’s graduation, and moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1959. Allman would later recall two separate events in his life that led to his interest in music. In 1960, the two brothers attended a concert in Nashville with Jackie Wilson headlining alongside Otis Redding, B.B. King, and Patti LaBelle. Allman was also exposed to music through Jimmy Banes, a mentally handicapped neighbor of his grandmother in Nashville, who introduced him to the guitar.

Gregg worked as a paper boy to afford a Silvertone guitar, which he purchased at a Sears when he saved up enough funds. He and his brother often fought to play the instrument, though there was “no question that music brought” the two together. In Daytona, they joined a YMCA group called the Y Teens, their first experience performing music with others. He and Duane returned to Castle Heights in their teen years, where they formed a band, the Misfits. Despite this, he still felt “lonesome and out of place”, and quit the academy. He returned to Daytona Beach and pursued music further, and the duo formed another band, the Shufflers, in 1963. He attended high school at Seabreeze High School, where he graduated in 1965. However, he grew undisciplined in his studies as his interests diverged: “Between the women and the music, school wasn’t a priority anymore.”

Musical beginnings

First bands (1960–1968)

The two Allman brothers began meeting various musicians in the Daytona Beach area. They met a man named Floyd Miles, and they began to jam with his band, the Houserockers. “I would just sit there and study Floyd I studied how he phrased his songs, how he got the words out, and how the other guys sang along with him”, he would later recall. They later formed their first “real” band, the Escorts, which performed a mix of top 40 and R&B music at clubs around town. Duane, who took the lead vocal role on early demos, encouraged his younger brother to sing instead. He and Duane often spent all of their money on records as educational material, as they attempted to learn songs from them. The group performed constantly as music became their entire focus; Allman missed his high school graduation because he was performing that evening. In his autobiography, Allman recalls listening to Nashville R&B station WLAC at night and discovering artists such as Muddy Waters, which later became central to his musical evolution. He avoided being drafted into the Vietnam War by intentionally shooting himself in the foot.

The Escorts evolved into the Allman Joys, the brothers’ first successful band. After a successful summer run locally, they hit the road in fall 1965 for a series of performances throughout the Southeast; their first show outside of Daytona was at the Stork Club in Mobile, Alabama—where they were booked for 22 weeks straight. Afterwards, they were booked at the Sahara Club in nearby Pensacola, Florida, for several weeks. Allman later regarded Pensacola as “a real turning point in my life”, as it was where he learned how to capture audiences and about stage presence. He also received his first Vox keyboard there, and learned how to play it over the ensuing tour. By the following summer, they were able to book time at a studio in Nashville, where they recorded several songs, aided by a plethora of drugs. These recordings were later released as Early Allman in 1973, to Allman’s dismay. He soon grew tired of performing covers and began writing original compositions. They settled in St. Louis, Missouri for a time, where in the spring of 1967 they began performing alongside Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby, among others, under various names. They considered disbanding, but Bill McEuen, manager of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, convinced the band to relocate to Los Angeles, giving them the funds to do so.

He arranged a recording contract with Liberty Records in June 1967, and they began to record an album under the new name the Hour Glass, suggested by their producer, Dallas Smith. Recording was a difficult experience; “the music had no life to it—it was poppy, preprogrammed shit”, Allman felt. Though they considered themselves sellouts, they needed money to live. At concerts, they declined to play anything off their debut album, released that October, instead opting to play the blues. Such gigs were sparse, however, as Liberty only allowed one performance per month. After some personnel changes, they recorded their second album, Power of Love, released in March 1968. It contained more original songs by Allman, though they still felt constricted by its process. The band broke up when Duane explicitly told off executives at Liberty. They threatened to freeze the band, so they would be unable to record for any other label for seven years. Allman stayed behind to appease the label, giving them the rights to a solo album. The rest of the band mocked Allman, viewing him as too scared to leave and return to the South. Meanwhile, Duane began doing session work at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he began putting together a new band. He phoned his brother with the proposition of joining the new band—which would have two guitarists and two drummers. With his deal at Liberty fulfilled, he drove to Jacksonville, Florida, in March 1969 to jam with the new band. He called the birth of the group “one of the finer days in my life I was starting to feel like I belonged to something again.”

The Allman Brothers Band and mainstream success

Formation, touring, and Duane’s death (1969–1971)

The Allman Brothers Band moved to Macon, Georgia, and forged a strong brotherhood, spending countless hours rehearsing, consuming psychedelic drugs, and hanging out in Rose Hill Cemetery, where they would write songs and more—”I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my way with a lady or two down there”, said Allman. In addition to Gregg, the band included Duane and Dickey Betts on guitar, Berry Oakley on bass, and Jaimoe and Butch Trucks on drums. The group remade blues numbers like “Trouble No More” and “One Way Out”, in addition to improvising jams. Gregg, who had struggled to write in the past, became the band’s main songwriter, composing songs such as “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider”. The group’s self-titled debut album was released in November 1969 through Atco and Capricorn Records, but suffered from poor sales. The band played continuously in 1970, performing over 300 dates on the road, which contributed to a larger following. Their second record, Idlewild South, was issued in September 1970, and also received a muted commercial response.

Their fortunes began to change over the course of 1971, where the band’s average earnings doubled. “We realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A lightbulb finally went off; we needed to make a live album”, said Gregg. At Fillmore East, recorded at the Fillmore East in New York, was released in July 1971. At Fillmore East peaked at number thirteen on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart, and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America that October, becoming their commercial and artistic breakthrough. Although suddenly very wealthy and successful, much of the band and its entourage now struggled with addiction to numerous drugs; they all agreed to quit heroin, but cocaine remained a problem. His last conversation with Duane was an argument over cocaine: Gregg took some of his brother’s supply, and later denied it when accused. In his memoir, My Cross to Bear, Gregg wrote: “I have thought of that lie every day of my life told him that lie, and he told me that he was sorry and that he loved me.”

Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971 in Macon. At his funeral, Gregg performed “Melissa”, which was his brother’s favorite song. “I tried to play and I tried to sing, but I didn’t do too much writing. In the days and weeks that followed, I wondered if I’d ever find the passion, the energy, the love of making music”, he remembered. As the band took some time apart to process their loss, At Fillmore East became a major success domestically. “What we had been trying to do for all those years finally happened, and he was gone,” Gregg remembered. He later expanded upon his brother’s passing in his memoir:

“When I got over being angry, I prayed to him to forgive me, and I realized that my brother had a blast. Not that I got over it—I still ain’t gotten over it. I don’t know what getting over it means, really. I don’t stand around crying anymore, but I think about him every day of my life. Maybe a lot of learning how to grieve was that I had to grow up a little bit and realize that death is part of life. Now I can talk to my brother in the morning, and he answers me at night. I’ve opened myself to his death and accepted it, and I think that’s the grieving process at work.”

Mainstream success and fame (1972–1976)

After Duane’s death, the band held a meeting on their future; it was clear all wanted to continue, and after a short period, the band returned to the road. They completed their third studio album, Eat a Peach, that winter, which raised each member’s spirits: “The music brought life back to us all, and it was simultaneously realized by every one of us. We found strength, vitality, newness, reason, and belonging as we worked on finishing Eat a Peach”, said Allman. Eat a Peach was released the following February, and it became the band’s second hit album, shipping gold and peaking at number four on Billboard’s album chart. “We’d been through hell, but somehow we were rolling bigger than ever”, Allman recalled. The band purchased 432 acres of land in Juliette, Georgia, which became a group hangout. Berry Oakley, however, was visibly suffering from the death of his friend, and in November 1972 he too was killed in a motorcycle crash. “Upset as I was, I kind of breathed a sigh of relief, because Berry’s pain was finally over”, Allman said.

The band unanimously decided to carry on, and enlisted Lamar Williams on bass and Chuck Leavell on piano. The band began recording Brothers and Sisters, their follow-up album, and Betts became the group’s de facto leader during the recording process. Meanwhile, after some internal disagreements, Allman began recording a solo album, which he titled Laid Back. The sessions for both albums often overlapped and its creation caused tension within the rest of the band. Both albums were released in late 1973, with Brothers and Sisters cementing the Allman Brothers’ place among the biggest rock bands of the 1970s. “Everything that we’d done before—the touring, the recording—culminated in that one album”, Allman recalled. “Ramblin’ Man”, Betts’ country-infused number, rose to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and gave the band their biggest hit. The group returned to touring, and played arenas and stadiums almost solely. Privately, the group was dealing with miscommunication and spiraling drug problems. In 1974, the band was regularly making $100,000 per show, and was renting the Starship, a customized Boeing 720B used by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. “When got that goddamn plane, it was the beginning of the end”, said Allman.

Band member relationships became increasingly frustrated, amplified by heavy drug and alcohol abuse. In January 1975, Allman began a relationship with pop star Cher—which made him more “famous for being famous than for his music”, according to biographer Alan Paul. The sessions that produced 1975’s Win, Lose or Draw, the last album by the original Allman Brothers Band, were disjointed and inconsistent. Upon its release, it was considered subpar and sold less than its predecessor; the band later remarked that they were “embarrassed” about the album. Though their relationships were fraying, the Allman Brothers Band went on tour for some of the biggest crowds of their career. Allman later pointed to a benefit for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter as the only real “high point” in an otherwise “rough, rough tour”. The “breaking point” came when Allman testified in the trial of security man Scooter Herring. Bandmates considered him a “snitch”, and he received death threats, leading to law-enforcement protection. Herring was convicted on five counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and received a 75-year prison sentence; they were later overturned and he received a lesser sentence. For his part, Allman always maintained that Herring had told him to take the deal and he would take the fall for it, but nevertheless, the band refused to communicate with him. As a result, the band finally broke up; Leavell, Williams, and Jaimoe continued playing together in Sea Level, Betts formed Great Southern, and Allman founded the Gregg Allman Band.

Mid-career and struggles

Marriages, breakups, and music (1977–1981)

Allman married Cher in June 1975, and the two lived in Hollywood during their years together as tabloid favorites. Their marriage produced one son, Elijah Blue Allman, who was born in July 1976. He recorded his second solo album, Playin’ Up a Storm, with the Gregg Allman Band, and it was released in May 1977. He also worked on a collaborative album with Cher titled Two the Hard Way, which, upon its release, was a massive failure. The couple went to Europe to tour in support of both albums, though the crowd reception was mixed. With a combination of Allman Brothers fans and Cher fans, fights often broke out in venues, which led Cher to cancel the tour. Turmoil began to overwhelm their relationship, and the two divorced in 1978. Allman returned to Daytona Beach to stay with his mother, spending the majority of his time partying, chasing women, and touring with the Nighthawks, a blues band.

The Allman Brothers Band reunited in 1978. Allman remembered that each member had their own reasons for rejoining, though he surmised it was a combination of displeasure with how things ended, missing each other, and a need for money. The band’s reunion album, Enlightened Rogues, was released in February 1979 and was a mild commercial success. Betts’s lawyer, Steve Massarsky, began managing the group, and led the band to sign with Arista, who pushed the band to “modernize” their sound. Drugs remained a problem with the band, particularly among Betts and Allman. The band again grew apart, replacing Jaimoe with Toler’s brother Frankie. The band considered their post-reunion albums—Reach for the Sky (1980) and Brothers of the Road (1981)—”embarrassing”, and subsequently broke up in 1982. “It was like a whole different band made those records In truth, though, I was just too drunk most of the time to care one way or the other”, Allman would recall.

Downtime, a surprise hit, and another reformation (1982–1990)

Allman spent much of the 1980s adrift and living in Sarasota, Florida with friends. His alcohol abuse was at one of its worst points, with Allman consuming “a minimum of a fifth of vodka a day.” He felt the local police pursued him heavily; during this time, he was arrested and charged with a DUI. While he did not consider himself “washed up”, he noted in his autobiography that “there’s that fear of everybody forgetting about you.” Southern rock had faded from view and electronic music formed much of the pop music of the decade. “There was hardly anybody playing live music, and those who did were doing it for not much money, in front of some die-hard old hippies in real small clubs”, he later recalled. Nevertheless, he reformed the Gregg Allman Band and toured nationwide. At one point, he attempted to reconnect with his children, though, according to him, “it just wasn’t a good situation”.

By 1986, he felt tired of having little funds, and briefly toured with Betts for an Allman Brothers Band reunion. After recording several demos, Allman was offered a recording contract by Epic Records. His third solo release, I’m No Angel (1987), sold well; its title track became a surprise hit on radio. Allman released another solo album the following year, Just Before the Bullets Fly, though it did not sell as well as its predecessor. In the late 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles. He married Danielle Galliano in what he dubbed midlife crisis. The marriage began with Allman overdosing—”so started off with a bang”, he said. He dabbled in acting for the first time, taking a small part in the film Rush Week (1989), and his final role two years later in Rush. Allman greatly enjoyed the experience: “It was a different facet of the entertainment industry, and I wanted to see how those people worked together.” The Allman Brothers Band celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1989, and the band reunited once more for a summer tour, with Jaimoe again on drums. They featured guitarist Warren Haynes and pianist Johnny Neel, both from the Dickey Betts Band, and bassist Allen Woody. The band returned to the studio with longtime producer Tom Dowd for 1990’s Seven Turns, which was considered a return to form. “Good Clean Fun” and “Seven Turns” each became big hits on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The addition of Haynes and Woody had “reenergized” the ensemble.

Reforming the band and breaking addictions (1991–2000)

The newly reformed Allman Brothers began touring heavily, which helped build a new fan base: “We had to build a fan base all over again, but as word of mouth spread about how good the music was, more and more people took notice. It felt great, man, and that really helped the music”, Allman recalled. Neel left the group and the band added percussionist Marc Quiñones, formerly of Spyro Gyra, the following year. They recorded two more studio albums—Shades of Two Worlds (1992) and Where It All Begins (1994). Allman’s daughter, Island, came to live with him in Los Angeles, and despite early struggles, they eventually grew very close. “Island is the love of my life, she really is”, he would later write. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1995; Allman was severely inebriated and could barely make it through his acceptance speech. Seeing the ceremony broadcast on television later, Allman was mortified, providing a catalyst for his final, successful attempt to quit alcohol and substance abuse. He hired two in-home nurses that switched twelve-hour shifts to help him through the process. He was immensely happy to finally quit alcohol, writing later in his autobiography: “Did I get any positive anything out of all that? And you’ve got to admit to yourself, no, I didn’t. You can see what happened and that by the grace of God, you finally quit before it killed you.”

For much of the 1990s, Allman lived in Marin County, California, spending his free time with close friends and riding his motorcycle. He recorded a fifth solo album, Searching for Simplicity, which was quietly released on 550 Music in 1997. The album’s title reflected his search “for a more simple life” following his rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol. Despite positive developments in his personal life, relationships began declining in the band yet again. Haynes and Woody left to focus on Gov’t Mule, feeling as though a break was imminent. The group recruited Oteil Burbridge of the Aquarium Rescue Unit to replace Woody on bass, and Jack Pearson on guitar. Concerns arose over the increasing loudness of Allman Brothers shows, which were largely centered on Betts. “It had ceased to be a band—everything had to be based around what Dickey was playing”, said Allman. Pearson, struggling with tinnitus, left as a result. Butch Trucks phoned his nephew, Derek Trucks, to join the band for their thirtieth anniversary tour. Anger boiled over within the group towards Betts, which led to all original members sending him a letter, informing him of their intentions to tour without him. All involved contended that the break was temporary, but Betts responded by hiring a lawyer and suing the group, which led to a permanent divorce. That August, Woody was found dead in a hotel room in New York, which hit Allman particularly hard. In 2001, Haynes rejoined the band, setting the stage for over a decade of stability within the group.

Later life

Touring and health problems (2000–2011)

Allman moved to Richmond Hill, Georgia, in 2000, purchasing five acres on the Belfast River. The last incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band was well-regarded among fans and the general public, and remained stable and productive. The band released their final studio album, Hittin’ the Note (2003), to critical acclaim. Allman co-wrote many songs on the record with Haynes, and he regarded it as his favorite album by the group since their earliest days. The band continued to tour throughout the 2000s, remaining a top touring act, regularly attracting more than 20,000 fans. The decade closed with a successful fortieth anniversary celebration at the Beacon Theater, where the band would hold residencies most years during their reunion. In 2014, the Allman Brothers Band performed their final concerts, as Haynes and Derek Trucks desired to depart the group.

Allman struggled with health problems during the last years of his life. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2007—which he attributed to a dirty tattoo needle. By the next year, they had discovered three tumors within his liver. He went on a waiting list and after five months, he underwent a successful liver transplant in 2010.

In 2011, Allman went public about his battle with hepatitis C. He headlined Merck and the American Liver Foundation’s “Tune In to Hep C Campaign” to raise awareness and urge baby boomers to get tested and treated. As part of Tune In to Hep C, The Allman Brothers Band headlined a hepatitis C fundraiser and awareness concert at the Beacon Theater in New York. The concert raised $250,000 to benefit the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable and the American Liver Foundation for education and awareness efforts. The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable in October 2017 created the Gregg Allman Hepatitis C Leadership Award – an annual award to posthumously honor Allman and others who work on behalf of people living with hepatitis C. Michael Lehman, Allman’s longtime manager, accepted the award on his behalf.

Allman’s seventh album, Low Country Blues, was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Upon its release in January 2011, it represented Allman’s highest-ever chart peak in the U.S., debuting at number five. He promoted the album heavily in Europe, until he had to cancel the rest of the trip due to an upper respiratory infection. This led to a lung surgery later in 2011, and rehab in 2012 for addiction following his treatments. That year, Allman released his memoir, My Cross to Bear, which was thirty years in the making. In 2014, a tribute concert was held celebrating his career; it was later released as All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman.

Final years and death (2012–2017)

After the dissolution of the Allman Brothers, Allman kept busy performing music with his solo band, releasing the live album Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA in 2015. In 2016, he received an honorary doctorate from Mercer University in Macon, presented by former President Jimmy Carter. However, his health problems remained; he had atrial fibrillation, and though he kept it private, his liver cancer had returned. “He kept it very private because he wanted to continue to play music until he couldn’t”, his manager Michael Lehman said. He attempted to keep a light schedule at the advice of doctors, who warned that too many performances might amplify his conditions. His last concert took place in Atlanta at his own Laid Back Festival in October 2016, and he continued to cancel concerts citing “serious health issues”. He denied reports that he had entered hospice care, but was resting at home on doctor’s orders.

Allman died at his home in Richmond Hill, Georgia, on May 27, 2017, due to complications from liver cancer. He was 69 years old. His funeral took place at Snow’s Memorial Chapel in Macon on June 3, and was attended by once-estranged bandmate Dickey Betts, his ex-wife Cher, and former President Carter, among others. According to Rolling Stone, the mourners dressed casually in jeans per Allman’s request, and “hundreds of fans, many wearing Allman Brothers shirts and listening to the band’s music, lined the route along the funeral procession.” He was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, beside his brother Duane, and fellow band member Berry Oakley.

Before his death, Allman recorded his last album, Southern Blood, with producer Don Was at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album was recorded with his then-current backing band. The album was released on September 8, 2017, and received critical acclaim.

In My Cross to Bear, Allman reflected on his life and career:

Music is my life’s blood. I love music, I love to play good music, and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, “Nice work, little brother—you did all right.” I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast.

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