Gregg Allman's Rock And Rules

Surviving a life in music
Gregg-Allman.jpg
Led by singer/keyboardist Gregg and his late guitarist brother Duane, The Allman Brothers Band’s wild blues defined Southern rock in the ’70s, blazing a trail of high living and fiery jams.
From a life dedicated to music, here are Gregg’s words of wisdom...

Read on for our full interview with Gregg Allman. An edited version of this feature appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine.

When did music first come into your life?

I discovered the six silver strings when I was about nine years old. I was visiting my grandmother in Nashville, where I was born. The family had already moved down to Daytona Beach, where my mother had always wanted to go. My father was murdered when I was two and my brother was three, and she never ever re-married. She’s still with us - she’s down Daytona Beach, ninety-three and in perfect health. She’s been my steadfast backer, my strength; she’s my favourite person in the whole universe.

Anyhow, my grandmother lived in a housing project in Nashville. I would go see her... I still hadn’t crossed over to that Daytona Beach thing - I had to change schools in the middle of the year and it just sucked, you know? It really did. I was at her house one hot August afternoon and there was this boy that lived across the street and his name was Jimmy Bain, and he was pretty retarded. I don’t know if he had Down’s Syndrome or what - he seemed to have all of his faculties about him, but he just seemed to have stopped growing mentally at the age of about six. Of course, he was old; he was like eighteen or twenty. Anyway, he was outside, and he had a 1947 Packard - I remember it well because that’s the year I was born. It looked like a limousine to me then, but you know, as I look back on it, Packard made some pretty big cars that weren’t even limousines.

Anyway, he was out there painting it with a house paint brush! He was painting the tyres, he was painting the chrome, he was painting everything but the windows. He said, ‘We can’t be painting over them there windows’. He says, ‘I was gonna tape ’em up but it just takes too much time.’ (Laughs) Anyway, I look up on the porch and here’s this thing shaped kinda like an hourglass with a neck on it. I said, ‘What you got there, Jimmy?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s my guitar.’ I said, ‘Can you play it?’ He said, ‘Hell yes I can play it, or it wouldn’t be there!’ (Laughs) He was kind of a Barney Fife type, you know? So I said, ‘When you get through, when you find a breaking moment there, will you come play me something?’ He said, ‘Sure’, and he laid his paint brush down, wiped his hands off, picked up the guitar - it was almost in tune but he got right in. I don’t know, maybe he was autistic? I don’t know. Anyway, he wasn’t quite right. So he played ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain When She Comes’.

(Laughs) I’ll never forget it, man. I was just... Something about that guitar just enthralled me. And so I said, ‘Man, can you teach me how to do that?’ And he said, ‘Sure man, if you’ve got any sense at all’. And I’m thinking, if this sumbitch can do this, I’ll be able to tear this fucker up! (Laughs) So he taught me the map of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, which is a three-chord turnaround, right? He taught me that sitting there that afternoon, and man, I went like, ‘Whoah!’ Every fibre of my existence was yelling, ‘Man, look what we did for ourself!’ And I couldn’t wait to learn more; I had the fever. See people, they talk about ‘well, he inherited this great voice’, but that’s bullshit. Or, ‘his father was a great guitar player so of course he is’. That is crap. What is passed along is the passion to want to play, and hopefully the first lesson given is simplified as that boy did with me. Because I did the same thing with my brother.

I remember when we went home for Christmas, I got a guitar and he got a motorcycle. Right along about February, he brought it home literally in a sack. It just fell apart, man. It was one of those little Harleys, one of those two-cycle jobs. They called it a 165 or something like that. So, I played lead guitar and my brother sang. It just was not it. I was no guitar player and he was no singer. So, time passes, and everybody we meet that was involved with a guitar or musicians attract each other - you know, ‘Hey man, what you doing? What you playing?’ ‘Well man, I got this new record by Jimmy Reed’.

And that got me, because that was just what the guy taught me, those three chords. So we’d trade off records and trade off licks. Life was good behind it too, because if you had a problem - you know how girls can be so fickle when you’re that young - if you had a heartache or if you had the blues about anything, when in doubt, play your guitar. You fill that hole. It was almost like a narcotic. It was a real healing thing, a temporary pain killer.

Was it ever a problem for you being white, living in the South, and listening to black music?

Well, one of the guys that really sent me a long ways was a guy - as a matter of fact today he’s till in my solo band - called Floyd Miles. See we had this band. Have you ever been to Daytona Beach? It’s an old beach town, and Main Street goes from the river across the whole peninsula to the beach, and when it gets to the beach it turns into a big pier. The pier goes out in the water, and there’s a big house on the pier - it’s still there today - and that was the Ocean Pier Casino. It wasn’t for gambling, they just called it that. They’d throw dances there every weekend. There was a band - well, there was kinda two bands - the rhythm section was called The House Rockers, and the singers were called The Untils, and that’s where Floyd was.

There was Floyd, his cousin Tootie, and Elmo - sounds like a real threesome don’t it? (Laughs) They sang in front of this band who needed a guitar player. They didn’t need two, so me and my brother would switch off every other night. We made six dollars a night! It was great! I couldn’t imagine. ‘We are getting paid to play!’ (Laughs) That just knocked me out, man! That went on all two or three summers. Anyway, Floyd and me were always really, really tight. I don’t leave home without him. He’s a hell of a singer, he’s a hell of a drummer, he’s a hell of a percussionist, and I think he’s also a good mojo, you know? (Laughs) Like I said, I don’t leave home without him - he’s good luck, I think. So anyhow, in doing that, with these three black guys, we had to play mostly rhythm and blues - there was some blues stuff in there. We played what we wanted to play too - we’d been in other bands before that and they were like Beach Boys tunes, just surfing music and stuff like that, and I thought, ‘Man, this music doesn’t have a hell of a lot of substance to it’.

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Presumably you couldn’t have played in some places being a mixed race band?

Yeah, we played some pretty rough joints. We played a couple that had chicken wire on the front so the beer bottles wouldn’t hit you.

What do you do in that situation?

You don’t do anything! You’ve got the big chicken wire screen and the bottles bounce off. They were usually throwing them at someone else - they weren’t throwing them at us! They’d bounce off some poor redneck’s head. But then above us, there used to be a cage with, you know, Sweaty Betty and her sister - go-go girls, you know? We’re talking back in the Sixties. But I told them - I’ve always been the real Doubting Thomas in the band - I said, ‘We’ll never make enough to pay rent doing this’.

Because The Beatles had just come out, and everybody and their brother had a band. This was about 1964, ’65. Finally I graduated in ’65 and we took off on the road, playing what we called the Chitlin Circuit. We did that for about eight years, and went out to California and tried to get a record deal. They jacked us all around, man. They get you real far in debt with them, then you’re stuck. Back then, the law was they could lock you on their label for seven years...

And choose not to do anything?

That’s right. So they came up to us and they said, ‘Alright, we’ll let all the rest of y’all go if he stays and records with the studio band’, pointing to me, right? They all just left. They said, ‘Screw this’, and cussed me, man, that I didn’t leave and go with ’em. I said, ‘Look man, they’re gonna freeze you guys out’. As it was, my brother went to Muscle Shoals and got onto the staff there. He recorded with Aretha and Wilson Pickett, all kinds of different people - Herbie Mann, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge - a whole bunch of mostly black artists.

Me, I was just sitting out there writing. I tried a couple with this... Ugh, the producer was an ex-shoe salesman from Miami, and man, he was a hell of a shoe salesman (laughs), but he wasn’t a producer worth a shit! So finally, one day - March 26th 1969 - we’d been apart a little over a year and my brother calls me and says, ‘Man, I’m tired of being a robot. I got to get back on the road. I put this killer band together - I got two sets of drums...’ I said, ‘You mean like two full sets of drums?’ He said yeah. I was thinking: train wreck!

Leading up to that, while you were all touring together, what was keeping you going? Was it a belief in that someday it was all going to work out? Was it ambition to be successful? What kept you motivated?

Well, we would go to a club and we’d be booked in there for two weeks and they’d hold us over for twenty-eight. Every place we went was like that. We started building kind of a name for ourselves around the South East, and I thought, ‘Shit man, if we do this long enough it’s bound to catch on’. Sure enough, it was doing it.

So you’d definitely encourage sticking to your guns?

Yeah. I mean, a couple of times I got real discouraged and thought, ‘Man, why don’t I just go back to med school and just say it was fun while it lasted’, chalk it up to experience, you know? And I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Because I wanted to play. I tell you, I can answer that question in one word: passion. I had such a passion for playing, and I still do, man. If anything it’s gotten more and more serious.

You didn’t have an ultimate goal, you just had a desire to do the work?

Absolutely. That was basically it, and that kept it up. Long story short, we met this guy named Bill Graham. One night I was talking on the phone to my brother, and just as I was about to hang up, he said, ‘I need you to play Hammond organ’. I said, ‘Je-e-sus!’ Because there’s no way to practice on one of those things unless you own one.

The rules are: you don’t sit on my Harley, you don’t mess with my wife, and you don’t think about sitting behind my damn Hammond. That’s the rule of thumb, you know? (Laughs) So we met this cat named Bill Graham, and we would just hop back and forth between San Francisco and New York. If there ever was a house band for the Filmore, we were it. We played there at least twice a month, in one or the other.

Do you believe in putting that legwork in, getting out there and playing as much as possible?

Oh yeah. Hell yeah. Those were the years when you had endless energy. Kinda like my puppies, man. I look at them and I think, ‘God, if I even had half of that energy I’d be a billionaire’.

You changed instruments, going to the Hammond. Ultimately, The Allman Brothers band were known for very complex rhythms and timings, and diversified your music and styles. Is that something you’d recommend to people, to experiment and try out new ideas?

Oh hell yeah, man. Anything goes. There’s different, there’s strange, there’s out of the ordinary, but there’s also garbage. It’s a fine line too, but there’s nothing wrong with trying it, because at absolute worst everybody in the band can get a real good laugh and then you can go on to play something else, but yeah, try anything once.

There are a number of bands that feature brothers, from The Kinks to Oasis. How do you juggle the personal and professional relationships when you’re in a band and spending all your time together?

Well, you become more than brothers and more than friends. People always say don’t get involved in money with your family, but then, when you stir in passion, talent and music into that whole equation, it all seems to smooth it right out. Because first of all, you don’t go into it thinking money, you go into it thinking profession.

You’re thinking, ‘What can I do to make this more of a profession?’ Then you seem to skip all that everyday bullshit about, you know, ‘I think my cut ought to be bigger’ - that lame shit. I’ve seen it happen. Speaking of The Kinks man, maybe you can tell me, is that little tiff that Ray and Dave get into, is that like part of the act?

Well, in his interview with Clash Ray Davies told us his relationship with Dave was worse than what you read in the papers...

I just don’t see how they can do it for so long. Are they really unhappy with each other?

Who knows. They haven’t worked together for years. It’s happening now with the acrimonious split of Oasis. Talking of your relationship with Duane, when he passed away, did you grieve for the loss of a brother or the loss of a band mate?

All of the above, man. He was a mentor, he was a father figure, he was a brother, he was a whole lot of stuff, man.

It must have been a difficult choice to carry on?

I just figured if we didn’t... After it happened, after we all got our brains back together somewhat, we all met in Macon and everybody was saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’ I said, ‘Look, if we don’t play, first of all this whole thing has been in vain. Second of all, we’re gonna wind up like junkies and drift on out, never to be heard from again and not mounting to anything.

Think of how our boy who’s just fallen would feel, because he will be watching us.’ And I think everybody actually already had those same kind of thoughts, so it wasn’t really all that... It wasn’t like having to talk somebody into doing something that they half-heartedly wanted to do. I think people were just waiting to hear and going, ‘Please please make everybody want to go back to playing’, because that’s what we had to hold on to.

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It’s said that you were the more introverted of the two brothers - Duane was the opposite. Do you think you took on any of his characteristics after he died?

Oh man, a whole bunch of ’em! Yeah, as the years go by I notice more and more and more. I was pretty much the - not passive, but I was just the introverted one of the family, I guess.

Was that your way of coping, to take on a bit of your brother?

Yeah, well, he was a triple Scorpio, man. He was the first to face the fire. If there wasn’t something going on, he’d jump and cause something! (Laughs) It was never dull around that boy. It was wonderful. We were always doing something and going somewhere. It was all good, man.

In the Seventies there were a lot of Southern guitar bands that followed in your wake. Were you flattered or jealous? Did you think that The Allman Brothers were setting up a legacy?

Actually I felt very complimented, because when somebody tries to imitate you, that’s probably the best compliment they could give you.

How do drugs turn from being recreational to a problem, and how do you avoid that?

You just don’t ever pick them up, man. They’re a lie - you know that one commercial that says cocaine is a lie? That probably says it best for all of it. I used to think that I always had stage fright - it’s kind of a blanket feeling of inadequacy. Though you’ve done it so many nights before and pulled it off with flying colours, you just don’t think that tonight you’re gonna be good enough.

I don’t know what brings on that feeling, but let me tell you, more musicians have it than you would imagine, they just don’t tell anybody about it. They think it’s some kind of weakness that they should have shared a long time ago, but you just can’t help it. And I tell you what, I wouldn’t give mine up for anything because it keeps me on my toes. But if I was in the mindset that, ‘Ah yeah man, we’re gonna step out here and kill ’em’, I promise you something major would go wrong.

You’ve been sober for some years now. How easy is it to maintain sobriety?

Oh, there’s nothing to it, man, if you pass six or seven years. I can’t imagine something that could happen and would make me go back to that crap. Because all it does in the long run, that shit makes you feel bad, man. All you have is just a little time in there where you feel absolutely fantastic, and you’re not supposed to feel absolutely fantastic - especially 24/7.

The best way to feel the closest to that is to leave all the shit alone to begin with. That includes the drink. If you’re a male and you have anybody in your family that had the least problem with alcohol, you’re a sitting duck - you ought to hit the family tree thing on the Internet and find out if there’s any drunkards in there. I told both my sons, I said, ‘Look, let me tell you...’ And it was like a brick wall. I might as well have been trying to blow out a lightbulb.

Having been lauded and celebrated as a great and unique singer, have you attempted to look after your voice?

I’ve looked after it. I tell you what, it seems like the more sober I got, the better it sounded, because the better I could hear and the better I could feel. And if you can feel what’s coming from out of your soul, that makes you feel better to do it even better, and so on and so on. And I’m probably singing better now than I ever have.

Finally, if you had to give one piece of advice to someone who was looking for a life in music or a career as long as yours, what advice would you pass on?

Don’t get hung up on one person’s doings, teachings, or guidance - there’s lots of different ways to go. Let ’em guide you in the music, but that’s where you draw the line. To a lot of people drugs and alcohols are synonymous to musicians, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I tell you, if I could change one thing in my career, it would be to just wipe out all the drugs and alcohol. Some people say, ‘Well man, then you probably wouldn’t be who you are today’, but God, let me tell you, it takes it out of you. It makes you grow old before your time.

Words by Simon Harper
Photography by Danny Clinch


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