May 29, 2017
…and Gregg Allman taught me to sing
Finding out that Gregg Allman passed away on May 27, 2017 was one of those moments when things seems to stop and the sad reality sinks in. In the last few days many have said that it wasn’t a surprise. We all knew that he was sick, but we certainly didn’t want to give him up yet.
It was another hot summer day back in the early 1970s when I first heard The Allman Brothers Band (album). It hit me as a complete bolt of emotion when that first growl of Ain’t My Cross to Bear came on the stereo. A few minutes later Whipping Post provided me with my first experience listening to a record that truly evoked fear. What has the person singing like this been through to create those songs and sounds? I don’t I’ve ever had another experience like that.
Gregg Allman sang with conviction. You believed him. He could deliver a line. Gregg Allman taught me how to sing. Ok, He didn’t literally teach me how to sing but he taught me that you had to live inside the song, and believe in what you were singing. He taught me the song was about me even when it wasn’t my story. It was somebody’s story. Those are the songs I want to sing today. Those are the songs I look for.
I now know blues singers communicate the same depth of emotion. I know where Gregg got it. But lord, this man had the blues and he was sharing them with me. Truth is, I probably got to the Allman Brothers Band to hear Duane Allman because I was an aspiring guitar player, though I don’t remember how I first got intrigued enough to buy that album (Beginnings). I suspect that it might have had something to do with listening to The History of Eric Clapton and it’s Derek and the Dominos songs. Whatever it was, it started a lifelong journey on which I have logged countless hours listening to records, tapes, CDs, mp3s, whatever I could get my hands on. And yes, I know it’s not all gold, there were some years in there that maybe shouldn’t have been recorded, but the rest has served as a profound soundtrack.
During the time that I got old enough to start going to concerts, the Allman Brothers were split-up, but then somehow, they resurrected in 1979 with Enlightened Rogues and a tour. Let me say that this is not a critics’ favorite. It is a favorite of mine. We all know what it’s missing, Duane, Berry, even Chuck Levell. But hey, there was a new guitar player – Dangerous Tan Toler – and it was back to twin guitar possibilities that had been missing (aside from the odd studio session with Les Dudek). Most of all there was Gregg, sounding like Gregg, even if Dickey was still exerting some dominance in terms of song writing. And, I think there are some great songs on there. Give Dickey credit for Crazy Love and its high-energy slide. But, when Gregg sings Can’t Take It With You, I believe him. Blind Love – I get it. Just Ain’t Easy – there it is, the blues. Then the tour came around. Thursday, April 26, 1979 and the Allman Brothers Band there in front of me.
Rich lived on our dorm floor at UMass Amherst. He was there on the GI Bill. Got a 0.00 GPA for a year until they finally threw him out of school. We all loved the Allman Brothers so he got a bunch of us tickets. He arranged for everyone to get a ride from Amherst to Springfield; everyone except him. The night of the concert, it was pouring rain. He showed up in Springfield soaked and he forgot his ticket! So, he thumbed back to campus and then back to the concert. Driving, it’s about a half hour each way. But hell, it was the Allman Brothers!
In the days leading up to the concert I kept hoping that they would open with Don’t Want You No More/Ain’t My Cross to Bear. When they came out on stage and started with that (and it surely wasn’t a given – Statesboro Blues might have also been as logical a pick, we didn’t have the internet to check out set lists back then) I was in heaven. There was that voice making me believe he was a tortured soul.
At the end of the next school year was the last huge UMass spring concert, in the football stadium. Lonnie Liston Smith, B.B. King and The Allman Brothers Band! May 10, 1980. I have this recollection of Gregg being helped onto the stage. Those may not have been his best years but I don’t remember thinking that the music was anything less than great. I really can’t testify to the quality all these years later but I can tell you that the memory is not of a diminished band.
Later I got to hear the Betts/Haynes version of the band in Springfield and then the Haynes/Trucks version a couple of times in Chicago. I cherish each one of those concerts now. It’s funny, with or without Dickey Betts (and I love Dickey Betts) to me it’s still the Allman Brothers Band. They can leave the Betts songs out and I’m still fine. For me, the Gregg Allman songs made the band. From the time of Whipping Post scaring the hell out of me, Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More signaling that though Duane was gone the band could carry on, the haunted Midnight Rider in both its incarnations or, later on, Come and Go Blues (particularly the Laid Back version), End of the Line or Old Before My Time with its gently picked acoustic guitar, Gregg was a great if not prolific composer. If he had only made The Allman Brothers Band album in 1969 his place as a composer would have been secured.
It’s been said that the Allman Brothers created Southern Rock. I never thought of them as Southern Rock. They were from the south and their music came from deep in that soil. But, they were the blues. They didn’t stick to 12 bars and AAB lyric forms. But it was the blues. It was the next step in the blues. It took in all the influences: John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, and Dickey’s affinity for bluegrass and country music. When the Allman Brothers played it still came out sounding like the blues. If Southern Rock was a frame of mind more than a musical style then fine, but if you are talking about the music, just call it the blues. Jam band, sure, but only because they made it ok to extend the song and go someplace different every night. It was the blues played through their collective experience and essentially that is what the blues have always been for the African Americans who created it and the white Americans who were looking for a different America; one that made an interracial band like the Allman Brothers possible, one that made valuing something beyond money and economic success important.
I think that those of us who paid attention to the band went through each phase of the band with the personal stories, the fights, the reunions, the reconfigurations, the growing up and maturing. We followed the 21-year-old Gregg Allman up through his 69th year. He was always the center of it. We cared who the guitar players were because that is another legacy of the band. It mattered that they could conjure up Duane. It mattered that it was Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. No other band with two drummers had that much rhythm and Marc Quiñones just solidified it. The Allman Brothers (with 4 members on the Rolling Stone Top 100 guitar players list) are important because of their guitar players, and because of the rhythmic propulsion of their drummers, and because of the song writing of Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, and because Gregg Allman was the vocalist. He wasn’t the only vocalist but he was the vocalist. He was the tortured bluesman. He was distinctive. He meant it when he sang and he taught lots of people, me included, to put yourself in the song and live it as you sing it. And that’s how he lived life.
Thursday, April 26, 1979
Start Time: 7:00 PM *
Band: The Allman Brothers Band
Venue: Civic Center
Location: Springfield, Massachusetts
New Riders of the Purple Sage opened
- Don’t Want You No More
- It’s Not My Cross To Bear
- Can’t Take It With You
- Can’t Lose What You Never Had
- Need Your Love So Bad
- Blind Love
- Blue Sky
- Just Ain’t Easy
- In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
- Statesboro Blues
- Try It One More Time
- One Way Out
- Whipping Post
- Ramblin’ Man
- Midnight Rider
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken
- Mountain Jam