The Allman Brothers Band: There Is A Mountain….
Gregg Allman was running late. Very late. He had been invited to a private party by Governor Jimmy Carter. Allman was certainly a special guest, but that night the guests of honor were Bob Dylan and The Band, in Atlanta for a pair of concerts at the Omni. Sadly, Allman was so late that by the time he arrived at the Governor’s Mansion, Dylan and The Band had already left. Carter was getting ready for bed. But from Jimmy Carter’s perspective, Allman was not too late. He welcomed Allman inside, put on a shirt and poured some scotch. He needed to talk with Gregg Allman.
Perhaps Allman wondered how long Carter had been into the scotch. In Midnight Riders, The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, Scott Freeman reveals Carter took Allman by surprise. “You know, I’m going to be your next President,” Carter said to Allman, listening politely. The Governor went on to say he wanted Allman’s support. Big time. “I need a little money to do this,” he explained.
Allman likely figured Carter was on a flight of fancy. No way was a little known Georgia governor going to be elected President of the United States in November ’76, less than three years away. Clearly, Gregg Allman was not alone in discounting Carter’s chances.
Veteran political reporter Jules Witcover, writing for Rolling Stone eleven months later, referred to candidate Carter as a long shot, “an even longer shot” than former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. In a field of dark horses, Carter was considered likely to bring up the rear or possibly secure a nomination as the Democratic Party’s V.P.
Still, Allman thought Carter a decent guy and that he’d do what he could to help him. On November 25, 1975, Gregg and the rest of the Allman Brothers Band came through, headlining a benefit concert for Carter’s campaign in Providence, Rhode Island. Jimmy Carter was much appreciative of the money it brought in, saying, “There’s no question that the Allmans’ benefit concert for me in Providence kept us in the race.”
In the wee hours of January 22, 1974, as he and Carter talked, Gregg Allman seemed on top of the world. The Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters album, released the previous summer, had soared to the top of the charts. It won ABB new fans and thrilled their hard-core followers. A few months after “Brothers and Sisters,” Allman released Laid Back, his first solo album. It featured two hit singles, including a slower and piercing remake of “Midnight Rider.” ABB biographer Scott Freeman regarded Laid Back highly, calling it “the finest record Capricorn released in the post-Duane Allman era.” From all appearances, things were going Gregg Allman’s way.
But as the Allman Brothers Band played for Jimmy Carter in late ’75, Gregg and the others were falling from their lofty perch. Their long awaited album, Win Lose Or Draw, released in August of that year, sold over 600,000 copies, and was praised by critics, especially Tony Glover in Rolling Stone, but was scorned by those who knew the band’s work best. The album had its high points, but it was clear the band had lost interest in working together.
Recently Chuck Leavell, then ABB’s pianist, said, “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 that the band was going to break up.” Despite the tough times, Leavell recalls that “At least Lamar, Jaimoe and I were trying to stay focused on the music.” He looks at his experiences gratefully, saying, “While Win Lose Or Draw had its challenges, it still had bright spots, and we still had a great tour to support it.”
Drug problems have long plagued many musicians, bringing discord to their bands. The hold that drugs had on Gregg Allman in the mid ’70’s brought on a new level of repercussions. Known to be a heavy drug user, Allman was targeted, and put in a tight spot by the Feds. To avoid serious prison time, Allman testified against one of the band’s road managers, John “Scooter” Herring, in federal court. For his testimony, Allman was granted immunity. Herring was sentenced to 75 years in prison for his part in a Macon-area drug ring.
Herring had been Allman’s valet and his friend but seemed most valuable to Gregg as the go-to source when drugs were needed. Valiantly, he and Willie Perkins, ABB’s veteran road manager, saved Allman’s life after he overdosed, pounding his chest and giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Allman’s heartbeat was revived. Little more than two years later, Allman provided the testimony the Feds needed to put Herring away.
Observers in ’76 certainly didn’t expect Gregg Allman to be around much longer. His reckless lifestyle was not conducive to a long life. Then there were those angry at him for his betrayals. If his vices didn’t kill him, there were people who might. The resentment ran that deep.
At the Herring trial, one prominent Maconite close to Capricorn Records told journalist Robert Sam Anson of New Times magazine, “Allman is finished.” Anson asked if he meant finished with music. “No, with breathing,” the man replied.
From all accounts, the other members of the Allman Brothers Band were finished with Gregg. The group’s guitarist, Dickey Betts, summed it up for Rolling Stone, “There’s no way we can work with Gregg again. Ever. When a man who’s worked with you for two years and saved your life twice is sitting there with his life on the line, and you walk into court and tap on the mike and say, ‘Testing, one, two, three,’ which is a fact, it’s what Gregg did……”
But the Allman Brothers Band did work together again. All the surviving members of the original group, along with two new players, guitarist Dan Toler, and bassist David Goldflies, headed for Miami’s Criteria Studios in late ’78 to record the “Enlightened Rogues” album. Released in early ’79, the album went platinum and received glowing praise from the critics. In Rolling Stone, John Swenson, wrote that Enlightened Rogues ranked among the band’s greatest albums, saying , “Gregg Allman may not look like Lazarus, but he sure acts like him.”
Fortune didn’t continue to smile on ABB, however. Following the Capricorn Records bankruptcy, they signed with Arista Records, a label that had built its success with artists such as Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester. Not a good fit. So it was no surprise that the two albums the group recorded between May ’80 and March ’81 for Arista conveyed little inspiration. The Allman Brothers Band sounded like so many of the other “corporate rockers” of the time, coming off like the Doobie Brothers, or even worse, Pablo Cruise.
Thus, another break-up. In ’82, the members of the Allman Brothers Band again went their own way, not to record together again for eight years.
Much in the record industry had changed radically since November ’69, when ABB released their first album. By the late seventies, the punk and new wave movements regarded the successful and established bands in the rock scene as “dinosaurs.” Rock and roll musicians were perceived as having strayed far from their roots to enjoy the comforts of their limos and Lear jets. The spirit of community and brotherhood in the music had faded. The Allman Brothers Band were not the only rockers to so badly lose touch, but their story makes for a great microcosm of what had gone wrong with the rock scene.
For ABB, that spirit of community was never more evident than on “Mountain Jam.” An improvisation of Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain,” the 33 minute and 38 second instrumental was one of many highlights on their brilliant ’72 album, Eat A Peach. Recorded at New York’s Fillmore East in March ’71, “Mountain Jam” still fascinates and delights its listeners, even those who have heard it a thousand times or more. It takes the original song by Donovan to bold new heights. Yes, it’s Donovan’s song but the cerebral jamming is 100% Allman Brothers Band. Who would have thought the Zen influenced jaunty sing-along could be so transformed? What John Coltrane did for Rodgers and Hammerstein with “My Favorite Things,” The Allman Brothers Band on “Mountain Jam” did for Donovan Leitch.
Scott Freeman’s critique of “Mountain Jam” in his book, Midnight Riders, the Story of the Allman Brothers Band, eloquently captures the beauty of the band’s performance, describing Duane Allman “at the pinnacle of his powers.”
He begins his solo on bottleneck, one of only three times he would play slide in standard tuning on an Allman Brothers song, with notes that are gentle and caressing. Then he slides the bottle up high, and the band pushes him with a series of descending notes played in unison. Duane brings it back down and the music comes to a near halt. Duane takes off the Coricidin bottle and glides the song into “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The notes bend upward as though it’s music escaping from the very core of his soul, and every so often he’ll suddenly jump high on the scale. The sounds coming from his Les Paul are filled with sadness and finality, as though he knows he is playing his own eulogy.
The song drifts back into its main theme and for one final moment, the Allman Brothers Band is in its full glory. Butch hustles back to his tympani and the ending rumbles up in a wave of sound. Dickey plays screaming notes over the finale while Duane uncharacteristically lays back and is hardly noticeable, as though he is making a symbolic passing of the torch.
“Thank you,” a breathless Duane yells into the mike when the song is finished. “Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, Jai Johnny Johnson, Gregg Allman, and I’m Duane Allman. Thank you.” It is as if he is closing the book on this magnificent group of musicians, waving to the crowd and walking off the stage. For the very last time.
The Allman Brothers Band has climbed and fallen from the proverbial mountain on numerous occasions in the span of more than four decades of making music. Their rising to the mountaintop is easily understood and well earned when their sheer talent and dedication come together. When everything jells, they’re regarded as America’s best rock band. But the falls have been rough and well documented. Sadness, tragedy and embarassment piled on, especially when the falls could have been prevented. Admirably, they’ve picked themselves back up every time.
In 1989, the four surviving original members, Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Jai Johnny Johnson (Jaimoe) and Butch Trucks reunited once again. Betts was asked to leave the band for “personal and professional reasons” in 2000, but The Allman Brothers Band has remained an active part of the music scene. Eight albums, four recorded live and four in the studio, have been released since 1990. All have provided examples of the band’s innate brilliance, especially their last studio effort, Hittin’ the Note, released in 2002. It’s a nearly flawless album featuring brilliant guitar work by Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks, nephew of ABB drummer Butch Trucks.
A key track on Hittin’ The Note is “High Cost of Low Living,” a song that naturally brings to mind Gregg Allman and all he’s lived through. It also recalls Scooter Herring, who in ’78 had his sentence reduced to 30 months. Before leaving for federal prison, Herring declared he had forgiven Allman, and that he didn’t hate him. He understood how Gregg Allman’s judgement had been clouded for so long. There were no hard feelings.
Herring passed away, due to natural causes, in November ’07.
There is much reflection on Hittin’ The Note,which Allman considers the best album they’ve made since Eat A Peach. Allman and Haynes collaborate beautifully on their composition, “Old Before My Time,” a wistful song that appraises life’s opportunities, those won and those lost. In All Music Guide, reviewer Thom Jurek wrote that “Allman sings with the world-weariness that has truly been his lot in life.” Calling it “a country song of regret, remorse and resignation,” as well as the album’s most haunting song, Jurek concludes it “literally stops the listener in his or her tracks.”
Along with reflection, there is always the desire to move on and make things better. According to reports, Allman has been clean and sober since 1997. Three years ago he told The Tahoe Daily Tribune that since he’s been sober, “it’s like a veil has been lifted from my eyes……everything sounds better, food tastes better, life is just fantastic.”
Now 62 years old, Gregg Allman can clearly attest to the hard realities he sings about, and he does so with great energy and spirit. Less than one month ago, he and the rest of the Allman Brothers Band played a three and a half hour set at the Macon City Auditorium. The band had the hometown crowd cheering, just as the people in New York did on those magical nights at The Fillmore East. The road goes on forever and the trip is still exciting.
This article continues The Southern Song of The Day series.