Gregg Allman: The “Lost” Interview
Back in 2008 I had the great privilege to interview Gregg Allman. He was 61 at the time, and had recently endured several health problems – including 24 weeks of interferon treatment for hepatitis C, and a debilitating case of sciatica. But, he insisted, those issues were behind him, and in fact he was itching to get back into the studio to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Allman Brothers Band’s formation.
In the wake of Allman’s recent death, many lauded him as a towering figure in southern rock. True enough, but it should also be emphasized that he was a man of great southern charm. As Warren Haynes noted, in a loving tribute, “on top [of the Allman Brothers’ music] was this beautiful voice that could be soothing, terrifying, mellow, angry, and amazingly natural and soulful all at the same time — and instantly captivating.”
Here is that 2008 interview, much of which has never before appeared in print.
Let’s talk a bit about the Allman Brothers’ history. [Allmans manager] Phil Walden once told me that the first concert the Brothers played was at the Boston Tea Party, opening for the Velvet Underground. That must have been a strange billing.
It was. And they were. (laughs) And I’m sure we were strange to them, too.
He also said some people were suggesting that you be moved out front, because you were the good-looking guy in the band.
… and that all of you dress up a little better.
(more laughter) They tried to get us to do a whole bunch of stuff. We didn’t do any of it.
Is it true that “Melissa” was the first song you’d written that you showed to the rest of the band?
I had 22 songs when I came into the band, not counting “Melissa.” I had kind of forgotten about “Melissa,” at that point. The only two songs of mine they accepted were “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Dreams.” The band learned those songs on the spot. They were pretty much like you hear them today – “Dreams,” especially. At that point I felt I really belonged.
“Dreams” came to you quickly, but some of the other songs took as much as a year to come together?
That’s right. “Queen of Hearts” took about a year and a half. But the ones that came quickly tended to be the best ones. Don Everly used to always say that as well.
In those early days, did being a racially integrated band ever cause trouble for the band, when you were out on the road?
Oh, yes. A lot of times people wouldn’t serve us food, or gas. We especially caught hell in Alabama, when we went to really small places. But that was a long time ago. Things have certainly changed, and hopefully they’ll continue to change.
What kind of music did you listen to on the tour bus, in those days?
A lot of jazz and a lot of blues — especially old country blues, like Robert Johnson. We listened to the Staple Singers a lot as well. And then we had funny tapes, comedy things with outtakes. I remember one that had Buddy Rich cussing out his band. (laughs) To this day, I find myself listening to the things I listened to in the old days. Also, when you finish a gig and get back on the bus, you’re still kind of revved up. For that reason I’ll often put on something like Marvin Gaye, something to help ease things down. Derek [Trucks] listens to some great stuff too.
Temperamentally, how much alike were you and Duane?
Oh, he was a triple Scorpio. If there was nothing happening, he would make it happen. And when he was sick, it was like no one had ever been sick except him. (laughs) He was always the first to face the fire, in any circumstance.
Being a Sagittarius, I’m pretty introverted. But I was forced to grow out of that, somewhat. Or quite a bit, actually. It was a matter of cause and effect. When my brother passed away, we all got together and said, “What do we do now?” I said, “We either play, or we go crazy. Those are our choices.” And we played. God, did we play. We were on the road for 306 days in 1970, and that stepped up after my brother died.
During those glory years for southern rock, and for Capricorn Records, was there a sense of camaraderie among the various bands, or was it more like a competition?
There was both, to some extent. We all understood we were playing different kinds of music. It wasn’t a question of one band being any better than another, although one band might be liked more than another. Skynyrd had more hits than the rest of us. I don’t know. There wasn’t that much camaraderie, because all of us were always on the road. We hardly saw each other, except maybe at parties or during those rare times we played gigs together. They were all a good bunch of people.
[Producer] Tony Visconti told me recently he felt the ’70s were the most creative period ever for popular music. What are your thoughts?
I think he may well have a point. There was such a wide range of stuff. There was the San Francisco movement, the southern rock movement, the Young Rascals, and the whole New York thing, with The Band and so forth. Songwriters were on top of their game. Things were much freer in those days. It was a time of frolicking — a free-spirited time. And the music gave people something to hang onto, during the Vietman War. It was a thoroughly good time. I’ll never forget it.
What’s your most vivid memory of the benefit shows the Allman Brothers did for Jimmy Carter, during his run to the White House?
It wasn’t a matter of politics, for us. He was our friend. I was certain he wasn’t going to make it to the presidency. A southern president? You must be kidding me. But we did it because we liked him, and because he seemed like a terrific guy. The first thing he did was give amnesty to everyone who had gone to Canada, to avoid the draft. I thought that was real cool.
There’s a story about your visiting him at the governor’s mansion, where you sat around drinking scotch?
That’s right. We were late for a party — the last guest had just left — and we went inside. He had a bottle of J&B scotch on the table. We sat there and passed the bottle, and he said, “You know, I’m going to be the next president.” I almost choked. And then he said, “I need some money.” (laughs) I told him I would run it by the other dudes — the idea of doing the benefit shows. But I was sure they would want to do them. He was such a nice guy, and of course we loved to play.
Did you ever visit him at the White House?
I shared the first meal he served at the White House — back in the section the family lives in — sitting right next to him. We were invited to stay overnight. I was going to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. I’m six-feet-one-and-a-half inches tall, and the bed in there comes to about my waist. It’s also narrow as hell, but it’s so far off the floor it has steps going up to it.
It was Duane who suggested you play the Hammond B-3. Why did he feel that instrument was a good choice for you?
He knew I was interested in B-3s, ever since we had played a particular club in St. Louis [as the Allman Joys]. There was a band playing next door, called Mike Finnegan and the Surfs. Mike Finnegan is a wonderful guy. He plays now with Crosby Stills and Nash. Anyway, I asked Finnegan, “What’s that piece of furniture up there on-stage?” (laughs) He says, “Furniture! That’s my instrument!” Then he went up there and starting wailing away on the B-3. I was like, “Whoa!”
Did he teach you anything?
Well, he said, “What you need to do is pick up a bunch of records by Jimmy Smith.” So I went out and started buying Smith’s records, and became really enchanted with his playing. He was the B-3 player. There’s an album of his called The Sermon. The title track takes up one whole side, and the other side has just two songs. One is “JOS,” which stands for “James Oscar Smith,” and the other is “Flamingo.” “Flamingo” is one of the most romantic songs ever. It’s got Lee Morgan on trumpet, Stanley Turrentine playing tenor, Tina Brooks on alto, Art Blakey on drums, Kenny Burrell on guitar, and other players whose names I can’t remember. It’s filled with incredible licks.
I did. I finally got to see him when he was 76 years old. He was playing at a club in New York. His hands had slowed a bit, due to arthritis, but his foot hadn’t lost a thing. He was beating bass on that thing like there was no tomorrow. He died two or three years ago, at the age of 77.
It’s been said that your sound — and maybe even your style — comes from your talent for manipulating the Leslie. Do you agree?
Yes. I consider that a compliment, and I pride myself on doing just that. I know all the right buttons to push. I’ve found three or four main sounds — among the many sounds available — that I use most of the time. But that said, my playing does change from time to time, and evolves. At one time, with my solo band, I had a full set of horns, and the first thing I did was cut what I was playing by half, or more. Everyone should have the experience of playing with a big horn band. It’s like playing in an orchestra. You learn not to over-play. You just play your part, when it comes.
The music of the ’80s went in a much different direction from the style of the Allman Brothers. How did you deal with that?
I went back to playing clubs. Butch Trucks went back to school and began teaching. Jaimoe [Johanson] had his jazz band, Sea Level. Dickey [Betts] and I toured together — Dickey in Great Southern, and me in the Gregg Allman Band. This was in the “I’m No Angel” days. Finally, in 1989, we decided to get back together again.
Did the rise of classic-rock radio play a part in that decision?
That’s right. Exactly.
Was it always easy for the Allman Brothers to resist trends, to resist whatever was musically in vogue at a given moment?
Yes. We always stuck to our guns. That’s one reason we’ve lasted as long as we have.
You’ve said that with Derek and Warren in the band, the Allman Brothers are more like the band was in the old days. In what respect?
There’s less hassle. There’s more sitting down and communicating with regard to arrangements. At rehearsal, if anybody raises their hand, the music stops — just like that. We talk things over, then count it off again. And that’s the way it should be.
What are your thoughts about some of today’s southern rock bands — Drive By Truckers, North Mississippi Allstars, groups like that?
I’ve heard some of them. Those two you just named are really good. I like Ray LaMontagne a lot, and blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa.
You’ve been clean and sober for, what, 13 years now?
That’s right. Alcohol was the worst, for me. It’s just sloppy. It’s not like I was using some designer drug; it was just cheap vodka. It was ridiculous. It took me so long to get the fact that I had a problem. If strawberries make you break out in hives, you stop eating strawberries. It’s no big deal. But that’s not true with liquor. It’s a social thing, and everybody does it. But it’s a lie — just like they say about cocaine, in that TV spot. If you abuse alcohol, you’re going to feel terrible the next day. And you’re going to take years off your life.
What’s been the most positive thing, musically, about getting clean and sober?
Sometimes the music can get so bad, you clean up. I would listen to a show that was done on a night I’d been drinking, and one done on a night I was sober, and the music sounded about the same. But for the show where I had been drinking, it was as if I had three tongues, instead of one. Nothing was enunciated right. You couldn’t tell an “S” from a “Z.” After listening to that a few times, and having someone leave me because of problems with alcohol … she said, “I can’t sit here and watch you slowly commit suicide.”
Is it still difficult?
Well, what did it for me was, when I received the award for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during the ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria, I tried to measure out the drinking that day. I didn’t want to be shakey, but I also didn’t want to look drunk. Willie Nelson presented us with the award, and we walked on-stage, and Willie says to me, concerned, “Gregory, you all right, boy?” And I said, “Willie, I am not all right.” I intended to say a bunch of things about my mother, and about Bill Graham, but I just said, “This is for my brother — my mentor,” and then I split. I looked back at that footage, and I did not take another drink, sniff, nothing else. And I never will.
You once said, when you were about 25 years old, that if everything fell apart right then, you had still had a great run. And here you are, still making music 35 years later.
Well, what I was saying was that I’m thankful for all the great fun I had, at such an early age. Every day back then involved something new — something to discover, to learn, to play. There was never a dull moment. I’ve had a very interesting life.
You’re on your way to being an elder statesman in the tradition of the blues artists who came before you. That must be gratifying.
It really is. I would like to think I’m part of that tradition. I’m not old and rickety enough yet. (laughs) Give me about 15 more years and I’ll get there. I never thought I would be making music this long. I never thought I would live this long. But it gets better every year. The traveling gets hard, but the playing gets better.
Do you have any plans for a new album, either with your solo band or with the Brothers?
I would like to get into the studio with both bands — with my band and with the Brothers. The Brothers definitely have to get into the studio. It’s the 40th anniversary, and it’s time.
You’ve been working on your autobiography. How’s it coming along?
I’ve got about 60 more hours to go. The hardest part of it is the chronology. I’ll be trying to set some things straight — like that Scooter stuff [a reference to Scooter Herring, Allman’s personal road manager in the ‘70s]. But mostly it’s all positive. This has been a ball. Of course there are bumps in the road, and heartaches, but hell, show me a life that doesn’t have heartaches, and I’ll show you a life that isn’t full.