Gregg Allman: The Road Less Traveled
Gregg Allman doesn’t have a catalog of hundreds of original recorded songs like, say, Tom Waits or Willie Nelson. He hasn’t cranked out platinum albums like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty. But Allman, as both a member of the legendary Allman Brothers Band and as a solo artist, played a major role in defining the musical tastes of a generation, and set the standard for live performances that helped birth the American jam bands of today. While The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and other Brits made the blues fashionable, Allman was arguably the first, and best, white American male blues singer of the FM rock era. And he’s responsible for having written songs that are a part of the American consciousness on many different levels.
Allman and his older brother, Duane, were influenced by the blues artists of the 1950s and ‘60s, and by the R&B that traveled the airwaves at night from Nashville’s WLAC-AM. But while Duane gravitated toward the guitar side of things, Gregg chose to emulate blues and singers and songwriters such as Jimmy Reed and Elmore James. He decidedly ended up at a different destination, combining those influences with more complicated and unconventional chord progressions (at least in the blues sense) in the creations of such songs as “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” “Midnight Rider,” “It’s Not My Cross To Bear,” “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and others.
As much as he’s known for his music, though, Allman became even better known to the general public for a life of rock and roll excess and several failed marriages, including one to pop star Cher. The good, bad and ugly moments of his life and career were chronicled in his 2012 autobiography My Cross To Bear. Whether he meant to or not, Allman became a true bluesman in every sense of the word while he was still in his 20s. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1947, Gregg originally was the Allman brother who played the guitar, though relatives and ancestors were musicians as well. Then older brother Duane caught the music bug, and a new hybrid of blues, rock and soul from the southern states soon took its place alongside the other evolving musical genres of the ’60s.
“Duane saw me with the guitar,” Gregg recalls, “and asked, ‘Whaddaya got there?’ I said, ‘That’s MY – capital M-Y – guitar. Then the fight started. But then I basically taught Duane how to play, taught him the math, the I-IV-V.”
It wasn’t long before Duane’s ability on the six-string had surpassed his younger brother’s. “If you look at a full-length picture of him you’ll see how long his fingers were,” Gregg says. “He picked it up, and … well, you know what happened.”
“What happened” was that Duane became a major voice among session guitarists in the late 1960s, playing for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs and others at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When Duane assembled an ensemble in Florida that needed a lead singer and songwriter, little brother Gregg was enlisted. The Allman Brothers Band was born, with Duane becoming one of the all-time legends of guitar – especially slide guitar – and Gregg becoming a major voice of the rock era both literally and figuratively, as well as the composer of songs that are classics to this day.
The Allman Brothers Band was at its peak when Duane died in a 1971 motorcycle accident, and bassist Berry Oakley also died on a bike less than a year later. Since then, Gregg has soldiered on with different incarnations of the band and as a solo performer.
Allman says that while his influences as a writer are still primarily from the blues arena, he also respects the more acoustic-based acts that were popular during the late 1960s when he lived in Los Angeles, where he briefly was a roommate of Jackson Browne’s.
“There really weren’t any pop writers out there (in L.A.) who influenced me,” Allman says. “I’m dyed-in-the-wool in the blues, you know? But aside from the blues, I dug people like Jackson, of course, and Tim Buckley and Jesse Colin Young. I liked a lot of those folkie-type dudes.”
Along the lines of those acoustic singer-songwriter tunes is Allman’s “Melissa,” a classic best known for the version on the Allman Brothers Band album Eat A Peach, but which was also recorded in Florida in 1968 by Gregg and Duane’s band The 31st of February. “Melissa is the first one, the first song I ever wrote and kept,” Gregg says. “I was 17.” With its instantly recognizable acoustic guitar progression that begins on an open E, the song is a classic rock staple that has edged its way into the playlists of some AAA radio stations.
Another Allman acoustic guitar-based classic, and perhaps his best-known song, is “Midnight Rider,” the non-resolving story of a man on the run, presumably on horseback. “Midnight Rider” has been covered by such artists as Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson with Toby Keith, Jamaican singer Paul Davidson, Patti Smith, Alison Krauss, The Drifters, Bob Seger, Hank Williams, Jr., Stephen Stills and more. At Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Music and Food Festival in Nashville a few months ago, southern rockers Blackberry Smoke performed the song, with Allman himself taking the stage later that night to sing it with Brown’s band and guests Sheryl Crow and John Mayer.
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