Gregg and the soul of the Allman Brothers Band


There are so many ways to tackle Gregg Allman’s career and the impact he made on music through nearly 50 years in the business. It’s daunting, but this is an attempt.

There was his brilliant keyboard playing, particularly on the Hammond B3 organ, that added depth and color to some of the Allman Brothers Band’s punchiest songs and longest jams. There’s his unquestioned leadership of his namesake band, formed with his brother Duane Allman in 1969 and kept alive through most of the next 45 years. There was also his solo work, which peppered a few hits onto the charts in the years when the Allmans lay dormant.

But to fully understand the power that Gregg Allman had on music is to hear his voice. Put on the band’s second album, Idlewild South, circa 1970, and flip to the second side. There, on “Please Call Home,” the piano will kick in, Duane’s guitar will lead the music, and then Gregg’s voice will take over, pleading and yearning and begging its subject to stay:

“Take one last look before you leave
‘Cause oh, somehow, it means so much to me...”

It’s on par with any of the best soul singers of the era. It crosses genres and defies boundaries, and it’s a shining example of what made the Allman Brothers Band so great and so irreplaceable.

His voice was what gave the Allmans the edge over their contemporaries in the Grateful Dead and the like. There was a discipline to the music that older brother Duane instilled in the band and kept the musical exploration, while still thrilling and unpredictable, roped within the confines of the song and a greater sense of purpose. It wasn’t about atonal stoner jams that completely deconstructed and were then rebuilt. It was a marriage of the blues and jazz, free flowing but indebted to a greater cause.

On the first two albums, Gregg’s voice didn’t compete for space with the guitars of Duane and Dickey Betts but lived alongside them, punctuating the fluid lines with a gruff foundation. Roaring out from underneath a soaring Duane piece was Gregg’s voice, all power and rough edges. He roars in at the start of their debut album — following the instrumental “Don’t Want You No More,” he wails just before the band settles into the deliberate blues of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.”

Like black ink on the page, he brought gravity to everything the band did. From 1989 to 2014, the band became as dependable as anything in the business, trading in the years of dysfunction and excess for a steady slate of gigs every year. With the addition of guitarist Derek Trucks in 2000 and Warren Haynes’ return in 2001, the band locked into their final lineup and provided perhaps the greatest version of the post-Duane band. Their 2003 record Hittin’ the Note was a surprising thrill that has held up well in the years since, with Gregg and Haynes co-writing most of the album, keeping the band relevant into the new century.

And with all those shows, all the thrilling performances at New York City’s Beacon Theatre and the triumphant returns to disc, Gregg finally slid from “Duane’s little brother” into the elder statesman he’d always sounded like. He kept the band grounded and shepherded them through their final years, culminating in one final, thrilling show at the Beacon — nearly four hours of music through three sets, playing nearly every song from the band’s first four albums. Listening to it over the past few days, it’s been easy to forget that this was recorded in 2014 and not 1973.

He was a road warrior, but the soul in his voice is what made everything seem so deep and so honest. One of the songs not played from those earliest days in that final show was “Please Call Home,” the penultimate track from their sophomore effort. It has the kind of soul that could make Joe Cocker cry — it’s at once willful and mournful, carrying all the depth of what made the South and the music that came from it great.

It was the first song I thought of when I heard he was gone. I pictured Gregg, Duane, Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe in an empty house, refining and rehearsing it for no one in particular, heads down, minding their instruments while Gregg played piano and sang his heart out in the background. Duane was the leader, Gregg the presence on the side with his voice booming out from behind the shadows. It wouldn’t be long before the spotlight inevitably turned to him. Voices like that won’t be ignored.

May 29, 2017

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