Gregg Allman, 1947-2017

Southerners don’t grow up without being surrounded by music. It permeates everything we do down here and, much like the food and literary traditions that dominate Southern culture, the music of the South informs and reflects our experiences.

I grew up with music playing around me, and one of the bands I remember hearing on the radio was The Allman Brothers Band. Their gritty and soulful sounds blended rock, country, and gospel-tinged R&B to help establish the expansive genre that we call Southern Rock. And now one of the band’s founders — one of the brothers whose name the band bears — has passed away. Gregg Allman was 69 years old.

Gregg Allman and his brother Duane grew up in Nashville and Daytona Beach and became interested in music at an early age. After forming their first band, the Allman Joys, in the mid-’60s, they relocated to Los Angeles, where Liberty Records attempted to groom Gregg for a solo career. Duane moved to Muscle Shoals and became an in-demand studio guitarist.

Eventually the Allmans settled in Georgia, formed the band that made them famous, and signed to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records. (To learn more about the history of Capricorn Records and the Southern Rock genre that grew up in Macon, Georgia, check out my book Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South.)

As The Allman Brothers Band became famous, tragedy struck when Duane and bassist Berry Oakley died in separate motorcycle accidents barely a year apart. Gregg held the band together, as he did when record executives tried to change their sound and when guitarist and vocalist Dickey Betts tried to impose his own vision on the group.

But above all else, Gregg Allman was an incredibly soulful vocalist. His lead vocals on numbers like “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider” take the listener along on the song’s journey, leading even the most jaded music lover to believe that he has lived every word of the song. Even his solo singles, like “I’m No Angel” and an even more soulful take on “Midnight Rider,” feel lived in and real, not contrived in any way.

Southern Rock is a full-band genre, with piano and organ as integral to the mix as guitars, drums, and bass, and Allman was a keyboardist like no other. As someone who loves the sound of a Hammond B-3, I can appreciate every note that his organ added to the band’s incredible work. Listen to the shimmering B-3 in “Jessica,” and you’ll see how incredible his work truly was.

Practically everyone in The Allman Brothers Band struggled with addiction, and Gregg was no exception. His addictions to alcohol and heroin took their toll on his health and his creative abilities, and he chronicled his difficulties in songs and in his autobiography, My Cross to Bear. (A production company began working on a film based on the book, but the production ended after an on-set accident killed a technician. Allman had a hand in urging the producers to abandon the project.) He avoided jail time for his drug arrest in 1976 by agreeing to testify against Scooter Herring, the band’s road manager, who also provided the band with narcotics.

He married Cher in 1975, a union that turned out to be as strange as it sounds. The tempestuous marriage produced a son, Elijah Blue Allman, as well as a poorly received album of duets. In all, he was married four times and had five children and three grandchildren. In his book, he wrote:

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.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s hard to imagine the music world without Gregg Allman in it. He loomed so large over the world of Southern Rock for nearly half a decade, and his legacy will continue anytime a would-be rocker sits down to pen a song, picks up a guitar, or walks up to a piano or organ to jam.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock / Randy Miramontez