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Gregg Allman:A Midnight Rider’s Long Road Back
Well I ain’t no saint and sure as hell ain’t no savior.
Every other Christmas I would practice good behavior.
That was then. This is now.
Don’t ask me to be Mr. Clean ’cause, baby, I don’t know how.
Summer ’73. The Allman Brothers Band emerged from tragedy and artistic challenges to deliver what some still consider their finest studio album ever. The music was holding up great. Fans had wondered, though, how Gregg was holding up. The brash lyrics of “Wasted Words” provided an answer. A headstrong guy was leading the best rock band in America.
But all the success Gregg Allman achieved over the next two years couldn’t keep him from being trapped. Such a thing occurs easily when one has developed a serious drug addiction obvious to more than a few associates. And it really gets tough when the long arm of the law becomes interested; even tougher when the government gets manipulative.
Gregg Allman was an easy target. He might as well have scrawled “Bust Me” on his shirt.
In 1975 the Feds were investigating Macon, Georgia’s drug pipeline, looking for big fish. Allman was positioned, against his desires, to cooperate with the Feds on their expedition. The federal grand jury demanded Allman testify in hopes they could land J. C. Hawkins, boss of the local Dixie Mafia.
In his book, Midnight Riders, The Story of the Allman Brothers Band, Scott Freeman revealed the Feds’ plan. The prosecutors would squeeze Macon pharmacist Joe Fuchs and Scooter Herring, one of the Allman Brothers Band’s road managers, as hard as possible so they could nail Hawkins. Freeman wrote that “Gregg Allman became the perfect wedge.”
Contacted recently, Freeman said that at the time of the Scooter Herring trial, no one knew it was tied to a federal investigation of the Dixie Mafia. “What the Feds often do with conspiracy cases,” Freeman said, “is to start charging underlings and then flipping them into prosecution witnesses in exchange for lighter sentences.”
Freeman explains, “They alleged that Scooter had connections with the Dixie Mafia boss and they used that whole drug case involving Gregg as leverage. That’s why Scooter got such an overwhelming sentence, they wanted to flip him. But he refused…I interviewed the U.S. Attorney in Scooter’s case and he suggested I go look at the Dixie Mafia case file. And it was all in there. Suddenly it all made sense. For Gregg, it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…..He was put in a no-win situation.”
According to Freeman, the prosecutor’s game plan was never made public until his book was published, nineteen years after the trial. Freeman notes Allman could have used the advice of some level-headed friends, adding he still feels bad for all Gregg went through with the Feds.
Gregg Allman’s testimony against friend Scooter Herring kept him from doing time, but that didn’t make him a free man. Herring’s sentence (later overturned) was like a cell door slamming shut on Allman too. His career, his band, his friendships and his life were all at risk.
Stand Back…. Freeman’s book reports Allman was pained by the brotherhood turning on him. He thought the members of the band would understand his quandary: testify or go to jail, but none of them were even at the trial. Allman decided they had made up their minds on hearsay alone, and that shook him. “I figured when the chips were down, if they were brothers, they wouldn’t have turned me out like they did.”
In his book, Freeman wrote that no one in the Allman Brothers Band comprehended the workings of the judicial system, nor the weight of Gregg’s dilemma.
They naively thought that if Gregg had told the jury that Scooter had been hired to help him cope with his drug problem, it somehow would have made the charges disappear. No one knew about the depth of Scooter’s involvement, that he had brought on his own fate by his stubborn refusal to testify against the Dixie Mafia.
Try It One More Time…. In late ’77 Allman’s stormy marriage with Cher ended. She filed for divorce again; this time she meant it. Returning to Macon, Allman was determined to put his band back together. For starters, that would require the others to hear him out.
For ABB lead guitarist Dickey Betts, nothing spoke as loud and clearly as the transcript from the Herring trial. Betts gained a new perspective upon reading it, deciding that Gregg Allman had “his ass between a rock and a hard place.” Gaining the sympathy of Betts was key. By late summer ’78, the word was out: The Allman Brothers Band was getting back together. Work on a new album would begin soon.
The four surviving original members, along with guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies (pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams decided not to rejoin as their own band, Sea Level, was doing well) headed to Miami’s Criteria Studios to record the Enlightened Rogues album. All in all, it was a grand effort. The first two songs on the album, “Crazy Love,” and “Can’t Take It With You,” rocked at full tilt. The magic was back. Good reviews came streaming in and the album went platinum. But sadly, for more than a decade, this would be the only great achievement by the Allman Brothers Band.
Low Down Dirty Mean….Things went downhill. Quickly. The band’s longtime label, Capricorn Records, declared bankruptcy. Talk about adding insult to injury; the Allman Brothers Band was the foundation of Capricorn, but the four original members came away with losses of nearly $1 million after the courts approved the label’s reorganization plan. Phil Walden, Capricorn’s President, walked away with his personal fortune untouched. The Allman Brothers Band, signed with Arista Records, the label that made the world safe for Barry Manilow. It would be a long time before the magic, reclaimed on Enlightened Rogues, would resurface.
In less than three years after their great comeback, The Allman Brothers Band recorded two albums for Arista: two forgettable albums that could have been recorded by a hundred acts. Seemingly, Arista had little respect for the band’s legacy. The company wanted catchy songs that could be hit singles, never mind how banal the songs might be. The dynamic blend of blues, country, rock and jazz taken to great heights by the band’s stellar musicianship was so yesterday. Why push the boundaries and fulfill Duane Alllman’s vision when the group could sound like the Doobie Brothers? At least that seemed the attitude of the “suits” at Arista. Scott Freeman wrote that Arista’s tight reins had sapped the band of life. Arista cared so little for great music that the Allman Brothers Band was hardly inspired to create any. Gregg Allman put it succinctly, “More than anything else, the record company just broke our spirits.”
Everybody’s Got a Mountain to Climb…..It seemed the broken spirits wouldn’t mend this time. The band’s members went their separate ways, finding little success. In ’87, Gregg scored a hit single with the title track from his album, I’m No Angel, but that was a blip on the screen. There were some onstage reunions but it wasn’t until nearly a decade had passed since their last Arista effort that the Allman Brothers Band recorded a new album. In October ’90. the band released “Seven Turns.” It was worth the wait. Most importantly, the album marked the beginning of what’s been a sustained comeback.
Three excellent studio albums have followed, with the best and the latest, Hittin’ The Note, released in 2002. Also a part of the band’s amazing comeback are four live albums, including One Way Out, a 2-CD set released two years after Hittin’ The Note. Even with the departure of Dickey Betts, the 21st Century has been a great time for the Allman Brothers Band. Guitar prodigy Derek Trucks (nephew of ABB drummer Butch Trucks) and Warren Haynes have added new dimensions to the band’s dual lead guitar stylings, reviving Duane Allman’s vision for the band. Today, the Allman Brothers Band not only provide great sounds, they and their story, one of perseverance, and dedication to their art, compel awe.
The long road back hasn’t been without its bumps, either for Allman or the band. Dickey Betts, who wrote many of the band’s best songs, had demons of his own to battle. After a few drinks, his mood could get ugly. Betts’ erratic behavior led the Allman Brothers Band to fire him. One report stated he was fired by fax. Another simply said he left the band for personal and professional reasons. Even considering the new heights to which Derek Trucks has led the band, Betts’ departure is sad. From 1969 to 2000, he was a vital part of the Allman Brothers Band’s distinctive sound.
Revival….The addictions that landed Gregg Allman in the Macon courtroom continued to plague him. According to Allman, it wasn’t until 15 years ago that he decided once and for all to get clean. As reported by Timothy Finn in the May 19 Kansas City Star, Allman said he “cut out all the bad habits, everything at once: the smoking, drinking, coking, heroin. All of it. I really don’t remember it either. There was a period of about a month that was really terrible. I came out of it very weak for a while, but then I started feeling together. And that was exceptional. I loved that part of it……..I must sound like a damn goody-two-shoes, but I’ve been clean 15 years in November, and I’ve never felt better in my life.”
Now 62, Allman not only brings renewed vigor to his performances with the Allman Brothers Band, but to his solo work as well. He tours with a 7 piece band, offering a great mix of R&B numbers, ABB favorites and selections from his solo albums.The tour is getting rave reviews, including one by Finn after a recent show in the Kansas City area, in which he wrote that “Allman still had plenty of deep, smooth Georgia soul” in his voice.
And the news gets even better: Gregg Allman’s first solo album since ’97 will be released next January. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring Dr. John on piano, the album is described by Allman as “very old school….It’s got some really old songs on it, Billie Holiday-old songs.”
Allman said that Burnett gave him an mp3 player that had 10,000 songs on it. Burnett handed the player to Allman and said, “Hey man, pick out what you like.” Burnett picked out some as well. Allman claims “We came out with some really great ones, and we laid those bad boys down and recorded them. And it came out real nice.”
“Real nice” is an apt desription of how Gregg Allman has felt the last 15 years. The Midnight Rider no longer thinks about anyone catching him.