When Gregg Allman was two years old, his father offered a lift home to a hitchhiker, who murdered him. Lacking any financial security, his mother enrolled him and his older brother, Duane, in a military academy, while she studied to become an accountant. At the time, Gregg Allman believed that his mother hated him but he later came to realise that the alternative was to be placed in an orphanage. When he was 12 years old, his mother graduated and Gregg and Duane Allman returned to live with their mother in Florida. A year later, he attended a concert given by Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, B.B. King and Patti LaBelle. This inspired the brothers to form a band and after several false starts, The Allman Brothers Band came into existence in 1969, when Duane Allman was 23 and Gregg Allman was 22.
Duane Allman was exempt from the draft but Gregg Allman was eligible. One afternoon in 1965, Duane Allman came up with an idea to keep his younger brother out of the military. They decided to have a “Foot Shootin’ Party”. Gregg Allman drank heavily, drew a target on his moccasin, called an ambulance, and then shot himself in the foot. The next day, he limped into the recruiter’s office and got a medical exemption.
After constant touring in 1969 and 1970, the release of “At Fillmore East” in 1971 confirmed The Allman Brothers Band as possibly the greatest live act in the U.S.A. at the time. The double album consists of only seven songs and is perfect driving music. Three months after its release, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle crash. He was riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle at high speed, in the western part of Macon, Georgia. As he approached an intersection, a flatbed truck stopped suddenly, forcing him to swerve sharply. He was thrown from the motorcycle, which landed on top of him and skidded another 90 feet with him pinned underneath it, crushing his internal organs. The Allman Brothers continued to record after Duane Allman’s death until 2004, releasing 18 albums.
In 1976, Gregg Allman was threatened with a grand jury indictment if he didn’t testify against his dealer. The dealer was also the band’s road manager, Scooter Herring, who had, more than once, saved Allman from an overdose. Herring received a 75 year sentence, which was later reduced to 30 months. His bandmates considered him a snitch, and in 1976 the band temporarily broke up.
Gregg and Duane Allman struggled with addiction to numerous drugs; they quit heroin, but continued to take cocaine. The last conversation between the brothers was an argument over cocaine: Gregg Allman had taken some of his brother’s supply, and later denied it when accused. He later wrote: “I have thought of that lie every day of my life“. Gregg Allman continued to struggle with alcohol and drug addiction until 1995. In 2007, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C and the following year, three liver tumors were discovered. Despite a liver transplant in 2010, he died in May 2017 of liver cancer.
Gregg Allman was married seven times (including to Cher for three years) and fathered five children, three of whom have had musical careers. He said “every woman I’ve ever had a relationship with has loved me for who they thought I was“.
“Southern Blood” was recorded in March 2016 at Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where many great songs by The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Solomon Burke, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John and Aretha Franklin were recorded. Gregg Allman died in May 2017 and the album was released in September 2017.
The opening song on the album, “My Only True Friend”, was written by Gregg Allman and Scott Sharrad, who was the lead guitarist in Gregg Allman’s band. It is the only original song on the album which was produced by Don Was who said that he was “reluctant to call “Southern Blood” an album about dying. Gregg was explaining his life and making sense of it, both for the fans who stood with him for decades, and for himself.” Nevertheless, “My Only True Friend” is written from Duane Allman’s point of view, talking to his brother with lines like “I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul, when I’m gone” and “I can’t bear to think that this might be the end.”
The quality of the music is unarguable, being a magnificent example of Southern rock at its best. To my ears, the musical style and Gregg Allman’s voice bear a strong resemblance to Jason Isbell’s album, “The Nashville Sound”. When Jason Isbell toured in 2017, he paid tribute to The Allman Brothers by playing a nine minute version of “Whippin’ Post”, which had taken up the whole of Side Four of “At Fillmore East”.
Greg Leisz plays pedal steel guitar on five of the songs on the album. Along with Stuart Duncan, he is one of the truly great session musicians and he has played on numerous albums. including Altered Beast by Matthew Sweet, Torn Again by Peter Case, Ingenue by k.d. lang, Standing In The Breach by Jackson Browne, Soul Journey by Gillian Welch, Monovision by Ray Lamontagne, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen and Downhill From Everywhere by Jackson Browne.
A number of tracks on “Southern Blood” are well known. “Willin'” appeared on Little Feat’s debut album, “Going Going Gone” is from Bob Dylan’s “Planet Waves” and “Once I Was” is the first track on Side Two of Tim Buckley’s second album, “Goodbye And Hello“.
When I started my degree course at Royal Holloway College in 1972, I brought Jackson Browne’s eponymous first album with me. (It’s often mistakenly called “Saturate before Using” because of the instructions on the water bottle that forms the cover). Many people had not heard of Jackson Browne and so I became instantly popular and a sought after musical expert. This is what I anticipated, anyway. Despite this imaginative fantasy never materialising, I did play it to a couple of newly acquired friends and I remember sitting in Paul’s darkened room with Dai, listening earnestly to “Song For Adam”, a beautiful song about the death of a long lost friend. We were three 18 year old’s, displaced from our homes, contemplating mortality. We listened in silence and, being 18 year old males, we were unable to talk about the profound impact it had on us. When Gregg Allman covered the song in 2016, Jackson Browne accompanied him. After he sung “It seems he stopped his singing in the middle of his song“, he was overcome with emotion and was unable to complete the final words which are “Well I’m not the one to say I know but I’m hoping he was wrong“. Due to his illness, Gregg Allman was never able to come back another day and complete his singing and producer Don Was decided to release the song without the missing line.
Reviews for “Southern Blood” were justly enthusiastic. Of all publications, USA Today put it best with this comment. “Allman’s voice delivers in peak form. If this were the debut of a new singer on the rise, critics would laud his control of nuance, his expressiveness and ability to get inside a lyric“
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