The Allman Brothers
Ramblin’ Men For 45 Years
by Otis Stokes
Live albums are not usually a recipe for success, but in the case of the Allman Brothers Band, their 1971 breakthrough record, “Live At Fillmore East,” not only got their career cooking, it is considered among the best live albums of all-time and was later selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” by the National Recording Registry. I’m pretty sure that’s not how Greg and Duane Allman had it mapped out when they both picked up the guitar as boys in Daytona, Florida.
Greg started playing first, then Duane picked it up and quickly surpassed his brother when he dropped out of high school to practice constantly. Their first band was called the “Escorts,” which evolved into the “Allman Joys” in the mid-60s. When an African-American friend introduced Gregg to soul music, they began to incorporate it into their sound. In 1967, the group spent time in St. Louis, where a Los Angeles based recording executive discovered them; they consequently moved out West and were renamed the “Hour Glass,” cutting two unsuccessful albums for Liberty Records.
A “bummed out” Duane decided to move back and pursue a career as a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, while Gregg stayed behind in Hollywood bound by contractual obligations with Liberty, who believed he could build a solo career. At Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Duane Allman became the primary session guitarist, recording with artists such as Aretha Franklin and King Curtis. Duane suggested to Wilson Pickett they record a cover of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, the single went to number 23 on the national charts.
Fame signed Duane to a five year recording contract, and he put together a group, including Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby. He then recruited Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) after hearing his drumming on a songwriting demo of Jackie Avery, and the drummer moved into his home on the Tennessee River. Allman invited bassist Berry Oakley to jam with the new group, the pair had met in a Jacksonville, Florida club some time earlier and became fast friends. The group had immediate chemistry, and Duane’s vision for a “different” band, one with two lead guitarists and two drummers, began evolving.
Duane and Jaimoe moved to Jacksonville in early March 1969, as Duane had become frustrated with being a “robot” of those at Fame. A series of jam sessions lead to the forming of the lineup that would become the “Allman Brothers Band.” Dickey Betts joined as the second lead guitarist, Butch Trucks came on as the second drummer along with keyboardist Reese Wynans.
Duane felt strongly that his brother should be the vocalist of the new group and invited Gregg, who made it to Jacksonville and entered rehearsal on March 26, 1969, when the group was rehearsing “Trouble No More” by Muddy Waters. Although initially intimidated by the musicians, Duane pressured his brother into “into singing his guts out.” With the addition of Gregg, that eliminated Wynans because Gregg also played keyboards. After kicking around several different names, the six-piece band finally decided on the “Allman Brothers Band.”
The group moved to Macon, Georgia forged a strong brotherhood, spending countless hours rehearsing, consuming psychedelic drugs, and hanging out in Rose Hill Cemetery, where they would write songs. In need of more material, the group remade old blues numbers like “Trouble No More” and “One Way Out,” in addition to improvised jams such as “Mountain Jam.” Gregg, who had struggled to write in the past, became the band’s sole songwriter, composing such staple songs as “Whipping Post” and “Black-Hearted Woman.”
The band set off for New York City in August 1969, where they had planned to work with Cream and John Coltrane producer Tom Dowd, but they were unavailable at that time. Atlantic house engineer Adrian Barber stepped in to record the sessions for his first producer credit. “The Allman Brothers Band” was recorded and mixed in two weeks, and recording was a positive experience for the ensemble. The eponymous album was released in November 1969 through Atco and Capricorn Records, but received a poor commercial response, selling less than 35,000 copies upon initial release.
After the failed album, the band started to play live constantly performing over 300 dates and the crowds grew bigger from word-of-mouth. Traveling in a Winnebago brought about heavy drug use within the group, and although working often, the Allmans were the only two not struggling financially. The lack of money led touring member Twiggs Lyndon to stab and kill a promoter for not paying the band, he would claim temporary insanity.
Later that year, Duane accidentally overdosed on opium after a show. Their follow-up LP “Idlewild South,” produced by Tom Dowd, was recorded gradually over a period of five months in various cities, including New York, Miami, and Macon, and contained two of the band’s best-known songs, “Midnight Rider” (later a hit for various artists) and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which became one of the group’s most popular concert numbers. The album was slightly more successful than the previous album, but not enough to establish them. The band’s fortunes would finally change over the course of 1971, where their average earnings doubled. “We realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A light bulb finally went off, we needed to make a live album,” said Gregg Allman.
“At Fillmore East” was recorded over three nights (March 11, 12, and 13, 1971) at the Fillmore East in New York, for which the band was paid $1,250 per night. “At Fillmore East” was released in July 1971 by Capricorn Records as a double album, for the cost of a single LP. While previous albums by the band had taken months to hit the charts (often near the bottom of the top 200), the record started to climb the charts after a matter of days. “At Fillmore East” peaked at #13 on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart, and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America that October, becoming their commercial and artistic breakthrough.
Now suddenly very wealthy and successful, much of the band and its entourage now struggled with heroin addiction. Four individuals, group leader Duane Allman, bassist Berry Oakley, and roadies Robert Payne and Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell, checked into the Linwood-Bryant Hospital for rehabilitation in October 1971.
On October 29, 1971, Duane Allman, then 24, was killed in a motorcycle accident one day after returning to Macon. After Duane’s death, the band held a meeting on their future, it was clear everybody wanted to continue, and after a short period, the band returned to the road. “We all had this thing in us and Duane put it there. He was the teacher and he gave something to us, his disciples, that we had to play out,” said drummer Butch Trucks. The band returned to Miami in December to complete work on their third studio album. Completing the recording of “Eat A Peach” raised each member’s spirits, “The music brought life back to us all, and it was simultaneously realized by every one of us. We found strength, vitality, newness, reason, and belonging as we worked on finishing the album,” said Allman.
Released in February 1972, “Eat A Peach” was the band’s second hit album, shipping gold and peaking at #4 on Billboard’s Top 200 Pop Albums chart. Tragedy would strike the band again the following year when Berry Oakley, who was visibly suffering from the death of his friend, began to drink excessively consuming drugs, and was losing weight quickly. According to friends and family, he appeared to have lost “all hope, his heart, his drive, his ambition, and his direction,” following Duane’s death. On November 11, 1972, slightly inebriated and overjoyed at the prospect of leading a jam session later that night, Oakley crashed his motorcycle into the side of a bus, just three blocks from where Duane had been killed in a bike accident. He declined hospital treatment and went home, but gradually grew delirious. He was taken to the hospital shortly thereafter and died of cerebral swelling caused by a fractured skull. Oakley was buried directly beside Duane at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Ironically, the same place the band used to hang out and write songs.
The band unanimously decided to carry on and arrange auditions for new bassists, with a renewed fervor and determination. Several bassists auditioned, but the band picked Lamar Williams, an old friend of drummer Jai Johanny Johanson’s from Gulfport, Mississippi, two years removed from an Army stint in Vietnam. At that point, Dickey Betts had become the group’s primary leader during the recording process. “It’s not like Dickey came in and said, ‘I’m taking over. I’m the boss. Do this and that.’ It wasn’t overt; it was still supposedly a democracy, but Dickey started doing more and more of the songwriting,” said road manager Willie Perkins.
“Brothers And Sisters” was an enormous success, peaking at #1, resulting in the band becoming “the most popular band in the country.” “Ramblin’ Man,” Betts’ country-infused number, was added to radio stations immediately, and it rose to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. With the band now commanding $100,000 per show, there was less friendship and more miscommunication and spiraling drug problems.
In 1974, the band began renting “The Starship,” a customized Boeing 720B used by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. “When we got that goddamn plane, it was the beginning of the end,” said Allman. The sessions that produced 1975’s “Win, Lose Or Draw,” the last album by the original Allman Brothers Band, were disjointed and inconsistent. Gregg Allman was largely living in Los Angeles and dating pop star Cher, while becoming more famous for being famous than for his music. His vocals were recorded in L.A., as he could not be bothered to return to Macon much.
Upon its release, it was considered subpar and sold less than its predecessor; the band later remarked that they were “embarrassed” about the album. This led to the band’s eventual break up. Betts formed the band, “Great Southern,” and Allman founded the “Gregg Allman Band.” With many “Allman Brothers Band” reunions of various members over the subsequent years, as well as recordings, the band always managed to tour.
In 2000, an eight-show spring tour at the Beacon Theater in New York led to even more strained relations in the group. “It had ceased to be a band, everything had to be based around what Dickey was playing,” said Allman. Anger boiled over within the group towards Betts, which led to all original members sending him a letter, informing him of their intentions to tour without him for the summer. Betts responded by hiring a lawyer and suing the group, which led to a permanent breakup. “I had no idea that I would be snapped out of the picture. I thought it was cruel and impersonal,” said Betts.
Allman was finally sober and felt any more miserable shows with Betts would be a waste of time. Betts later received a cash settlement, which is subject to a confidentiality agreement. The band continued to tour throughout the 2000s, remaining a top touring act, regularly attracting more than 20,000 fans. The decade closed with another successful run at the Beacon Theater, in celebration of the band’s 40th anniversary. The run featured numerous special guests, including Eric Clapton, which all in the band regarded as the most “special” guest, due to his association with Duane.
Allman had a liver transplant in 2010, and suffered health setbacks for the following two years. He went to rehab in 2012 for addiction following his medical treatments. The band played another run at the Beacon in 2013 per tradition, and then continued to tour. In 2014, Haynes and Derek Trucks announced their decision to depart the group at the end of the year. The group intended their 2014 run of Beacon shows to be their last, but the residency was cut short when Allman developed bronchitis.
Finally, The Allman Brothers Band performed its last show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theater. During this historic final performance, in a low, shy voice, Gregg recalled the date, March 26th, 1969, in Jacksonville, Florida, when he first sang with the original lineup, started by his older brother, guitarist Duane Allman. “Never did I have any idea it would come to this,” Gregg added.
Then the band would one last time strike up Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More,” the opening number at that ‘69 jam session. “It felt like church,” guitarist Derek Trucks recalls, still awe-struck, two days later. “When Gregg stepped up, it went from this roar to total silence. From the first rehearsal, I was thinking, ‘How are we going to end this?’” Derek’s uncle, founding drummer Butch Trucks, had suggested the Waters song. “But nothing else was scripted,’ Derek adds. “The idea was one of us would say something. Then onstage, no one’s jumping. So it was like, ‘OK, Gregg, hit it.’” And hit it they did, by playing into the early hours of October 29th, the Allmans’ concluded their life on the road on the anniversary of Duane’s death in a 1971 motorcycle crash.
The one fence left un-mended, unfortunately, was the Allmans’ relationship with original guitarist Dickey Betts, who was fired after years of mounting tensions. Derek reveals that there was “a lot of communication between his camp and our camp” about Betts joining the group onstage at the Beacon, “right up to rehearsal, even during the show week,” but to no avail. Each side, Derek claims, let the notion die. Ultimately, Betts was represented on the 28th by the Allmans’ performance of his compositions “Revival” and “Blue Sky” and Derek and Haynes’ exquisite, haunting guitar harmonies in Betts’ signature instrumental, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.” During the night’s intermissions, a video screen displayed a message: “The road indeed goes on forever. So stay calm, eat a peach and carry on…” After 45 years, I guess that just about says it all.