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Gregg Allman – “such a wonderful life”

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Gregg Allman – “such a wonderful life” photo by Danny Clinch

Gregg Allman is on the phone, and he’s laughing as he recalls a trip to Maine with The Allman Brothers Band in the ‘90s. “We were playing there and they took us out to this island,” he remembers. “There was a 50 gallon drum full of lobsters and man, we partied – let me tell you. We had boats and it was just a very memorable time.” When I asked if he could recall the approximate date of that visit, he thought about it for a few moments. “It was probably the early ‘90s – no, wait a minute. It was probably the later part of the ‘90s because I had already gotten clean and sober and that was in 1996. Man, we had a ball.”

When The Allman Brothers Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the ceremony was capped with the usual all-star jam session and after-party. Allman says his party began a week early – technically, decades earlier. He recounts this story with vivid detail at the beginning of his new memoir “My Cross to Bear” (William Morrow), written with journalist Alan Light.

Gregg says that nearly every important figure in his life was present that evening, from his mother Geraldine to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, Allman Brothers’ producer Tommy Dowd (“our guru”) and Willie Nelson, who asked Allman, “Are you all right, Gregory?” Allman responded, “Willie, I am not all right.”

“I remember thinking, ‘You are better than this and it’s time for this crap to stop,’” he writes. A day after the ceremony, Allman agreed to enter a treatment facility in Pennsylvania. He figures it was his 11th trip to rehab and says he’d become quite savvy at fooling his doctors and counselors. “Dance for ‘em, get ‘em off your back for a while,” he would say to himself. Gregg left the facility early, which is usually a bad sign, but this time was different. Within days, the fog began to lift. “I have been released,” he said.

Allman’s sobriety reignited his passion for The Allman Brothers Band and put him on track to finish one of the most fascinating music autobiographies of recent memory. Painfully honest, shocking and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a book that is very difficult to put down.

Allman says it’s been a cathartic experience for him to finally put his rollercoaster of a life on paper – the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the good, the bad and the painful. The classic songs, the legendary shows, the groupies, six marriages (one of them to Cher – she’s still a friend), addiction, personality clashes, death and even a “foot shooting” party are all relived and delivered in a conversational style that makes you feel as if you’re sitting with Gregg on his porch in Georgia. You can almost hear his accent and the smoky-honey voice that delivered “Melissa,” “Dreams,” “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider” pouring from the page.

Brothers and best friends, Gregg and Duane (he called Gregory “Baybrah” – an amalgam of “baby brother”) were born one year and 18 days apart. They attended military school together, discovered music together and formed one of rock’s most beloved and respected bands in 1969.

Duane was an in-demand session player, adding head-turning guitar to records by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett before aligning with Gregg. An extraordinarily gifted guitarist, Allman’s slide playing is still the standard by which others are judged. Yet another “Greatest Guitarists of all Time” poll appears in the latest issue of “Rolling Stone” magazine. Duane Allman is remembered at number nine.

gregg3Gregg clearly recalls a concert in Miami in August 1970 when he looked down from the stage and saw some familiar faces – Allman Brothers producer Tommy Dowd, Eric Clapton and the rest of the band who would be known as Derek and the Dominos. Dowd was executive producer for what turned out to be the Dominos’ only studio album, “Layla.” After that show, both bands gathered with Dowd to jam at Criteria Studios, which prompted Clapton to “borrow” Duane for the duration of the album and make him an official Domino. “You could tell that history was being made,” Gregg recalls.

Fourteen months later, just shy of his 25th birthday, Duane was killed in a freak motorcycle accident, barely three months after the release of the Allman Brothers Band’s epic double live album, “At Fillmore East.”

Duane’s ghost follows Gregg through each chapter of “My Cross to Bear,” and Allman admits that he thinks about his brother and the last conversation he had with him every day of his life.

Following Duane’s death, Gregg struggled for control of the band with guitarist Dickey Betts – an issue that wasn’t resolved until 2000, when Betts was told that he was being replaced until he dealt with his own substance abuse. Betts claims that he was fired; Allman says otherwise. Betts’s departure from the band finally made sense to me after reading Allman’s book.

Guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks stepped in to give the band arguably their fiercest lineup since the classic ’69 – ’71 era. When they’re “on,” which is most nights, The Allman Brothers Band is a fierce force of nature. With an uncanny sense of musical telepathy, they give the audience a live musical experience unobtainable anyplace else.

Gregg Allman nearly died in 2010. Eleven years previous, doctors discovered a spot on his liver that eventually became a tumor – actually two. He also had hepatitis C – acquired, he says, not through drug use but through a tattoo he received in his 20s. Allman says it lay dormant in his system until being discovered in 1999.

Without a new liver, Allman was told that he would experience a slow and agonizingly painful death. Five months and five days after being placed on a waiting list, the call came. The transplant, and his body’s acceptance of the new organ, was a complete success. For the first time in detail, Allman shares this experience in “My Cross to Bear,” and his words are palpable.

In early 2011, after the release of his top five solo album “Low Country Blues” (recorded before the surgery), Allman headed to Europe with his band before he was scheduled to return for a series of U.S. shows – including one in Bangor opening for B.B. King.

During the tour, he caught a serious upper respiratory infection which caused water to collect in his lungs – a problem likely related to an immune system weakened by too much work. The rest of the tour was called off. It was a decision as painful for Allman as the infection.

gregg2The situation was worse than anyone realized - including his doctors. “My blood pressure went to zero,” Allman says. “They made a big incision across my back and went in there. They said they had surgical debris down there, blood clots…” This scare is referenced in the opening sequence of the book, where Gregg was visited in a dream by Duane who told him that it was not his time.

In late May 2012, Gregg proposed to his girlfriend, Shannon, and says that, in many ways, it feels like the first time. “I found the right one,” he told me. “I feel like she’s my first wife, you know? It’s altogether different. I can trust her. It’s wonderful – it is really wonderful.”

The Allman Brothers Band’s summer tour began last Saturday, July 21 and comes to Boston for two nights on Aug. 7 and 8. “A player has got to play,” he says. “What I’m really looking forward to is getting back in the studio with the Allman Brothers Band. Yes sir, I have been writing. There is no doubt that there will be another Allman Brothers Band album,” he told me.

An interview with Gregg Allman

For this interview with Gregg Allman, I invited Chris Ross to sit in. Knowing that Chris is a great admirer of Gregg’s, I was curious to find out what he would ask Gregg given the chance and, truth be told, I wanted to eavesdrop for a few minutes and listen to two of my favorite singers chat. We spoke with Gregg in late June, just before he began several days of rehearsals with The Allman Brothers Band for their summer tour.

Dow: Gregg, I’d like you to meet Chris Ross. He’s a very popular singer and songwriter here in Maine.

Allman: Sure enough!

Ross: Hey man, it’s really an honor to speak with you. I want to thank you for helping me figure out how to sing like I mean it and to be honest with what I’m saying.

Allman: Well, thank you.

Ross: Are there any newer songwriters out there that you find yourself listening to these days?

Allman: I think the last thing I listened to that I really enjoyed was Kings of Leon. That was good. I get all of this stuff in the mail and I listen to every one of them. That’s how I got my song “I’m No Angel,” and I’ve been hearing some pretty good stuff. What’s the name of your band?

Ross: I’m doing the solo thing these days – just “Chris Ross.” I’d love to send you something, but I won’t ask for that.

Allman: Go ahead, man! Send it. (Gregg gives his address to Chris)

Dow: Gregg, you kept me up late when I was reading your book. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. After everything you’ve been through, I’m amazed to even be speaking with you right now, and I’m equally amazed that you were able to remember so much of what happened.

Allman: Well, I had some help with that. I started out writing it around 1981. I realized that I had been blessed with such a wonderful life, I thought, “Man, I ought to write some of this down like in a journal - so one day, when I’m an old codger sittin’ out on the porch in a rocker (laughs), I can thumb through these pages and kind of relive it again.”

So I started keeping this journal really religiously and I had a little trouble with the chronological order – just like you were talking about. So luckily, there was this guy on the Allman Brothers road crew who knew. You could ask him, “Where did the Brothers play on Oct. 5, 1981?” and he’d fire it right back at you. Sometimes he would consult this little book but he knew it.

So it got to where he would come over every Thursday and set up his little recorder and he’d say, “Alright, tell me about this time … tell me about Watkins Glen” (on July 28, 1973, the Allman Brothers played in front of 600,000 people at this raceway in New York). He’d say, “Tell me about getting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award,” and he had it down, you know? That’s how I did it. He would tell me one little thing and that would open up my memory to a whole bunch of stuff.

Dow: All of those conversations were recorded?

Allman: They sure were. I had 67 pounds of cassette tapes (laughs). I was talking with my new manager one day and I said, “You know, I used to keep this old journal,” and I gave him a couple of tapes. He took them home, listened to them and said, “Man, I’ve got to hear the rest of these,” so he took the whole bag home. Then he came back to me and said, “A publishing company is interested.” (laughs) I said, “You’re kidding!” and sure enough, they were [interested]. It came on the best seller list at number two! I couldn’t believe it!

Dow: I’ve been listening to The Allman Brothers Band for most of my life, but only now do I feel like I know Duane. After reading your book, he became very real to me.

You tell the story about playing in the chapel during his funeral and how you told the rest of the band, “If you’re thinking about stopping, don’t.” What do you remember about those first Allman Brothers Band gigs without Duane?

Allman: (long pause) Oh… they were a little limp. (laughs) No, actually, as I remember, the more we played, the stronger I got. The stronger everybody got. We were back and we were hearing the same music. It sounded the same. Not that we sold ourselves short or anything. I mean, what did we think it was going to sound like, right? (laughing)

Dow: Duane gave us so much in such a short period of time, and I’m not sure he’s ever received the full appreciation he deserves. Just now, talking about him with you, I’m thinking of that famous seven note intro riff to “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes. I was fortunate to meet Eric Clapton in 1985, and during our conversation he told me that Duane came up with that intro. Eric said that Duane took the vocal melody from Albert King’s song “As the Years Go Passing By” and sped it up. After I heard Albert’s song, I could hear it.

Allman: (laughs heartily) That’s where that came from! Ha! (Gregg sings the vocal melody from King’s song) “There is nothing I can do.” (laughs) Exactly! I’ll be damned! Thank you.

Being a stickler for accuracy, I wanted to make sure that my memory of what Clapton told me was correct. Last week, I contacted the only other person who could know with relative certainty from whom the “Layla” intro originated - Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos. He played and sang on all of the Dominos’ material and co-wrote much of it with Clapton. Whitlock’s initial response: “Eric came up with it and Duane sped it up.” Then he came back with, “I believe that Eric was being generous as always, but I will defer to what EC says. I will not go against his memory.” Whitlock confirms the Albert King connection to “Layla” in his excellent 2010 memoir “A Rock and Roll Autobiography.”

Dow: Gregg, how is your mother, Geraldine, doing these days? It was a great pleasure to read about her in your book. What an amazing lady.

Allman: Thank you – she is just fine. She turns 95 on July 8! Oh, she is fit as a fiddle, man.

Dow: Warren Haynes played here in Bangor the other night with Gov’t Mule and they were fantastic. He and Derek Trucks contribute so much to The Allman Brothers Band. I get the impression that you love those guys and you really love being with them on stage.

Allman: I really do. Both of them equal. They’re two of my best, best friends. Oh man. Well, they all just got a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. This lineup that we have now, thank goodness, has been the same lineup for 22 years. They were going to give just three of us a “lifetime achievement” Grammy and we had a little discussion with them. They gave one to everybody in the band. That was a real treasure, there.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Catch up with him at www.Facebook.com/MikeandMike and www.MikeDow.net.

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