Muddy Waters, The Allman Brothers Band: They Can’t Lose
This is an expanded and revised version of the story first posted May 3, 2010.
Fans of the Allman Brothers Band were up in arms. They were seriously angry.
It’s August ’75 and the sixth album by the Allman Brothers Band, Win Lose Or Draw, had just been released. Only two years before, their triumphant and nearly perfect Brothers And Sisters album made its way into stores and to the top of the charts.The album was a marvel from start to finish and incredibly challenging for any band, no matter how focused, to follow.
Scott Freeman, author of Midnight Riders, The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, recalls that with Brothers And Sisters, the band “had something to prove, and the fire in their bellies to make a strong statement about their future.” The album was a strong statement, but in the next two years, the band’s dedication to its future fell short.
While recording Win Lose Or Draw, the Allman Brothers Band was anything but focused. Drugs, financial problems and a wife named Cher confounded matters. The music wasn’t the priority it was before. Album producer Johnny Sandlin told Freeman of the difficulty of “just getting a quorum of the band members to show up for the recording sessions.” At least a couple of the recordings sounded like pale imitations of earlier works. Longtime fans derisively called the album “Lose.” Those fans felt betrayed. Yet a question still lingers. Did such a great band, so recently at its peak, really record such a bad album?
Well, yes and no.
A goodly portion of Win Lose Or Draw sounds half-baked. The weakest of its songs would have been acceptable if recorded by an emerging group, but the Allman Brothers Band was anything but emerging. They had overcome tragedy and scaled the heights. Through much of the decade, they were considered the finest rock group in America. Expectations were built and the band’s followers counted on more great work. Fans felt personal about it.
Still, there are moments on Win Lose Or Draw when the magic reappears. A cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Sweet Mama” is a pleasant surprise. With its upbeat country-blues feel, Richard Betts seems to enjoy singing it more than he does his own compositions on the album. “High Falls,” an instrumental named after the great waterfall and Georgia state park north of Macon, is a pleasant and intelligent piece of music. Written by Betts, the melody soars. “High Falls” does not equate “Jessica” from Brothers and Sisters but Betts’ guitar playing, and the keyboard work by Chuck Leavell make it a terrific companion piece.
The album’s highlight is the opener, a rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Lose What You Never Had.” It’s a pulsating tale of woe, with all elements of the band’s hard driving sound intact. Betts’ guitar blends with the stout vocals of Gregg Allman. He tells a sad story. Lost are his home, his money and his sweet litttle girl. Yet he should have never laid claim to a contented life in the first place. No talisman will work for him. The fatalism in Allman’s voice suggests he will continue to evade happiness.
In the midst of the hard charging blues is Chuck Leavell’s inspired work on piano. When it’s his turn to let loose, he does so with grace and high spirits. His playing all at once recalls Vince Guaraldi and McCoy Tyner. A dash of Gershwin is thrown in for good measure. It’s Leavell’s playing on this song that’s the most memorable part of the album. Not bad for a guy who had been with the band for less than three years.
Yet the memorable moments were few and far between. Most of Win Lose Or Draw was maligned by fans of the Allman Brothers Band. Releasing mediocre product was something unexpected from the Macon-based group. In early summer ’73 at the Omni Coliseum, Gregg Allman announced the upcoming album (Brothers and Sisters) would “be in your hands shortly.” The concert audience cheered as if they were told they’d never have to work again. That sort of fan loyalty is hard to earn. The loyalty was imperiled by Win Lose Or Draw. And what may have frustrated the loyalists most was “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” indicated the boys still had it in them.
Among the loyalists was a young Scott Freeman, who “checked every week with the little record store near my hometown in Western Georgia until (Win Lose Or Draw) finally arrived.” Years later he told ABB drummer Butch Trucks about his anticipation. Trucks gave off a chuckle, saying, “And I bet you were disappointed.”
There are at least two exceptional Muddy Waters’ recordings of “Can’t Lose What You Never Had.” The first, released in ’64, is a low-key, mid-tempo shuffle. Waters’ voice is strong as he laments how misfortune has struck him. His vocal performance reflects a sad acceptance of life’s cruel turns. It’s an example of how Waters wrapped himself in the blues and enabled his listeners to absorb them as well. Alan Lomax wrote in his book, The Land Where The Blues Began, of how Waters “sang and played with such finesse, with such a mercurial and sensitive bond between voice and guitar.” That impression was formed by Lomax shortly after he first heard Waters in 1941 and has been verified by blues aficionados ever since.
A second version is included on the Fathers and Sons album, recorded in ’69. Along with his longtime pianist, Otis Spahn, Waters is backed by Paul Butterfield, Sam Lay, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Mike Bloomfield. The fluid and energetic guitar work by Bloomfield adds heat to what Waters considered one of his favorite songs. While Bloomfield was already celebrated for his dazzling guitar on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album, it was playing with the blues masters that really excited him. In ’68 he told Rolling Stone that he played with “millions of blue cats.”
I played with them, I was helped by them. There are pictures of them on my wall: different cats who are special friends. Like Big Joe Williams, he was like a father, a close friend. With guys like Muddy, man, it’s like seeing your old uncle. Seeing Muddy on the road or at a gig or something, it’s like gigging with your older brothers and uncles…….It’s a very close thing. The older cats have gotten a lot of work because the younger cats have talked about them, and said, “man, you think I’m good, you should hear cats like Little Walter; man that cat can play harp.” That’s what Butter said.
Bloomfield’s work with the “blue cats” served as his way of “giving back” to the blues community, an endeavor in which The Allman Brothers Band have long participated. “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” was one of many blues numbers they’ve covered, giving much deserved exposure to the “blue cats” the late Mike Bloomfield raved about. On their early albums, the Allman Brothers Band infused classics by Waters, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Willie McTell, T-Bone Walker and others with new fire. For that alone, the band’s impact will endure.
The reality, though, was that a legacy built in such a short time still meant little in the seventies rock scene. Record labels and fans called for solid material by established acts annually or at least every two years. When a band was under unusual pressures and still delivered, there was satisfaction, but exhaustion would likely intrude. So it was with the Allman Brothers Band. They were fractured. The spark was missing. The band’s biographer Scott Freeman believes they were in the “process of imploding” as they recorded Win Lose Or Draw. Yet, given all the disruptions, Freeman says “what’s surprising is that it’s as good as it is.”
* * * * *
Shortly after this story posted, we reached out to former ABB keyboardist Chuck Leavell. Indicating this story was an honest portrayal of the Allman Brothers Band in ’75, he remembered that “those were indeed tough times,” and “that at least Jaimoe, Lamar and I were doing our best to stay focused on the music.”
Leavell proved willing to talk more about those “tough times” and some of the good times since. The following are excerpts from e-mail correspondence between Leavell and Like The Dew.
Did you recognize that things were falling apart and the end (for the ABB) was near?
Yes, it was obvious to all of us that change was coming. There were mixed feelings about Gregg’s immunity testimony against Scooter Herring. There was a sense of some band members just being tired and wanting to do something different. There were other factors in private lives going on, and it became clear the band was going to break up. Lamar, Jaimoe and I were trying to stay focused on music and that brought about the birth of Sea Level. We had played as a trio for our own enjoyment…. calling it “We Three.” But when the ABB broke up, we decided to add a guitar player (Jimmy Nalls) to the unit and give it a different name.
How did you feel as it began to crumble? Scott Freeman reported in his book, “Midnight Riders,” that you were so excited to join ABB in ’72. His reporting on that was very thoughtful.
Sure, coming into the ABB in ’72 was a huge step for me in many ways. Musically, financially, personally. I was totally buzzed about it and wanted so much to contribute to the band. I gave it my all and then some…and for those 4 years it went really well. While “Win, Lose or Draw” had its challenges, it still had bright spots and we still had a great tour to support it. But as we came off that tour and faced the reality that we were all tired and then the drug bust situation with Scooter came into play….it just became too much.
So, as you saw the end near, were you bitter or did you just decide to make the best of it, as you did with Sea Level?
I was disappointed, because I thought we could work through the problems. But in the end I was wrong, (we were) just bound to break up and that was that. We had no choice but to accept it and move on, and that’s exactly what we did. In the end, it all worked out. Lamar and I were contacted about rejoining the band when the reformation came about around ’78…. but we had committed ourselves to Sea Level and didn’t think it was the right thing to break up Sea Level and go back to the ABB, It was a tough choice, but I believe it was the right choice. I may never have had the opportunity to play with the Stones had I gone back to the ABB. The Stones led me to Clapton; Clapton led me to George Harrison and of course in the down times between working with all of those artists were my solo recordings. So the Gods were looking after me and I’m grateful for the way things have turned out!
This story continues The Southern Song of the Day series