This month is quite a celebratory time for the Allman Brothers. Marking their 40th anniversary as a band, the group is in the midst of their annual three-week run of shows at New York’s Beacon Theater.
For this year’s Beacon residency — the band’s 20th — the Brothers are paying special tribute to founding guitarist Duane Allman. A parade of guest players is expected, with rumors swirling that even Eric Clapton and B.B. King may put in an appearance.
In the following interview, Gregg Allman fondly recalls his brother Duane. He also reminisces about the old days while looking forward to what’s ahead.
You had already written several songs before the Allman Brothers came together. Wasn’t "Melissa" the first original song you showed the group?
Well, I had 22 songs when I came into the band, not counting "Melissa." I had kind of forgotten about "Melissa," by that point. The only two songs of mine the band accepted — from those 22 — were "It’s Not My Cross to Bear" and "Dreams." The band learned those songs on the spot, and they were done pretty much like you hear them today. That was especially true of "Dreams." That's when I felt I really belonged.
It was your brother Duane who first suggested you play the Hammond B-3. Why did he feel that instrument was a good choice?
He knew I was interested in B-3s, ever since we had played a particular club in St. Louis [as the Allman Joys]. There was a band playing next door, called Mike Finnegan and the Surfs. Mike Finnegan is a wonderful guy. He plays now with Crosby Stills and Nash. Anyway, I asked Finnegan, "What's that piece of furniture up there on-stage?" (laughs) He says, "Furniture! That's my instrument!" Then he went up there and starting wailing away on the B-3. I was like, "Whoa!"
How much alike were you and Duane, temperamentally?
Oh, he was a triple Scorpio. If nothing was happening, he would make it happen. And when he was sick, it was like no one except him had ever been sick. (Laughs.) He was always the first to face the fire, in any circumstance.
Being a Sagittarius, I'm pretty introverted. But I was forced to grow out of that when Duane died. When Duane passed away, we all got together and said, "What do we do now?" I said, "We either play, or we go crazy. Those are our choices." So we played. God, did we play. We were on the road for 306 days in 1970, and we stepped that up after my brother died.
In the early days you spent most of your waking hours on a tour bus. What kind of music did you listen to?
A lot of jazz and a lot of blues — especially old country blues, like Robert Johnson. We listened to the Staple Singers a lot as well. We also had comedy tapes, with funny outtakes. I remember one that had [drummer] Buddy Rich cussing out his band. To this day, I find myself listening to the things I listened to in the old days. When you finish a gig, you're still kind of revved up. For that reason I often put on something like Marvin Gaye, something to help ease things down.
In those days was there camaraderie among Southern bands, or was it more a case of competition?
There was both, to some extent. It wasn't a question of one band being better than another, although one band might be liked more than another. Lynyrd Skynyrd had more hits than the rest of us. I don't know. There wasn’t that much camaraderie, because we were always on the road. We hardly saw each other, except maybe at parties or in those rare instances where we played gigs together. They were all a good bunch of people.
The producer Tony Visconti said recently he feels the '70s were the most creative period ever for popular music. What are your thoughts?
He may have a point. There was such a wide range of stuff. There was the San Francisco movement, the Southern rock movement, the Young Rascals and the whole New York thing — with the Band and so forth. Songwriters were at the top of their game. Things were much freer in those days. It was a time of frolicking — a free-spirited time — and the music gave people something to hang onto during the Vietnam War. I'll never forget it.
The Brothers did lots of benefit shows for Jimmy Carter during his run to the White House. What are your memories of that?
It wasn't a matter of politics, for us. He was our friend. And I certainly never believed he was going to make it to the White House. A Southern president? You must be kidding. I remember an event at the governor’s mansion. We were late for a party — the last guest had just left — and we went inside. Governor Carter had a bottle of J&B scotch on the table. We sat there and passed the bottle, and he said, ‘You know, I’m going to be the next president.” I almost choked. And then he said, "I need some money." (Laughs.) I told him I would run it by the other dudes — the idea of doing the benefit shows. But I was sure they would want to do them. He was such a nice guy, and of course we loved to play.
Did you ever visit him at the White House?
I shared the first meal he served there — back in the section where the family lives — sitting right next to him. We were invited to stay overnight. I was going to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. I'm a little over six feet tall, and the bed in there is about level with my waist. It's narrow as hell, but it's so far off the floor it has steps going up to it.
The music of the '80s went in a much different direction from the style of the Allman Brothers. How did you deal with that?
I went back to playing clubs. Butch Trucks went back to school and began teaching. Jaimoe Johanson had his jazz band, Sea Level. Dickey Betts and I toured together — Dickey in Great Southern, and me in the Gregg Allman Band. This was in the "I'm No Angel" days. Finally, in 1989, we decided to get back together again.
Did the rise of classic-rock radio play a part in that decision?
That's right. Exactly.
You've been clean and sober for 13 years. Was there a pivotal event that made you decide to stop drinking?
Yes. On the day we received the award for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, before the ceremony, I tried to measure out my alcohol intake. I didn't want to be shaky, but I didn't want to look drunk, either. Willie Nelson presented us with the award. We walked on-stage, and Willie said to me, "Gregory, you all right, boy?" And I said, "Willie, I am not all right." In the acceptance speech, I intended to say a bunch of things about my mother, and about Bill Graham. But I just said, "This is for my brother — my mentor," and then I split. Afterwards I looked at that footage, and I never took another drink. And I never will.
You've said elsewhere that with Derek and Warren in the band, the Allman Brothers are more like the group was in the old days. How so?
There's less hassle. There's more sitting down and communicating with regard to arrangements. At rehearsal, if anybody raises their hand, the music stops — just like that. We talk things over, and then we count it off again. And that's the way it should be.
You're on your way to becoming an elder statesman in the tradition of the blues artists who came before you. That must be gratifying.
It really is. I would like to think I'm part of that tradition. I'm not old and rickety enough to be there just yet, but give me about 15 more years. (Laughs.) I never thought I would be making music this long. I never thought I would live this long. The traveling gets harder, but the playing gets better.
You once said, when you were about 25 years old, that if everything fell apart right then, you had still had a great run. And here you are, still making music 35 years later.
(Laughs.) What I was saying, I’m sure, is that I was thankful for all the great fun I had had, at such an early age. Every day, back then, involved something new — something to discover, something to learn, something to play. There was never a dull moment. I’ve had a very interesting life.