Gregg Allman was in good spirits when he answered the telephone at his home near Savannah, Ga., last month. The singer/keyboardist had recently been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Atlanta. He was already a member of the Georgia and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Allman Brothers Band. But in September, he was honored by Georgia as a solo act.
Allman sounded sincerely moved to be in the company of his heroes, fellow Georgia greats James Brown, Little Richard, Otis Redding, “Statesboro Blues” composer Blind Willie McTell and his late brother, Duane Allman, who was also inducted, posthumously, as a solo act in 1982.
“I appreciated it quite a bit,” Allman said in his soft, Southern drawl.
The 58-year-old was inducted along with R.E.M., whose members joined him on a rendition of “Midnight Rider,” the Allman Brothers song Gregg rearranged as a hit single for his 1972 solo album “Laid Back.”
Allman also covered “Georgia on My Mind” and performed a solo acoustic guitar version of “Melissa,” a song he said he wrote in 1966 but didn’t make public until he performed it at Duane’s funeral in 1971. The song eventually appeared on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1972 double-album classic “Eat a Peach.”
“It was my brother’s favorite of the ones I’d ever written,” Allman said. “I’d tried to write it a bunch of times before. When I finished I didn’t really know about it. I showed it to my brother and he loved it. I don’t know why we never recorded (while he was alive).”
When Allman gave his acceptance speech in Atlanta, his wife, Stacey, daughter Island and Sarasota, Fla., resident Barbara Strauss were among those in attendance. Strauss is the woman behind the Sarasota Blues Festival, where Allman and his solo band will perform Saturday.
This year’s festival lineup also features Allman’s 31-year-old son, Devon, who fronts the rock ‘n’ soul band Honeytribe.
“It’s really great,” Allman enthused. “I remember the first time I heard that (jazz great) Dave Brubeck was going on the road and had two of his sons in his band. I thought, man, what a great thing, to have your kids play with you.
“Now, (Devon) is no kid, he’s half as old as me,” he said chuckling.
His other son, Elijah Blue, from his marriage to Cher, fronts the hard-rock band Deadsy. The proud father was quick to point out that both his boys accomplished everything on their own. (Although Allman did say he gave advice to Devon when his son asked what he needed to do to kickstart his career. Gregg replied: “Play as many shows as possible.”)
Which led to a recounting of his early days with the Allman Brothers Band.
“In 1970 we worked 306 nights and I don’t think I made enough to pay income tax, I think I made $1,600 for the year,” Allman said, laughing. “We’d play Philly on a Saturday night and find a park to play for free the next day.
“We’d borrow a generator and somehow, some way, set up and start playing and the next thing you know 2,000 people are there ... All that’s changed, though. I called up a city official in Atlanta recently about doing a freebie on a Sunday. He said: ‘You’ll need to leave a $500,000 cash bond in case anyone steps on the grass.’ “
Allman has maintained a solo career almost as long as he’s fronted the Allman Brothers Band. Whereas the Brothers perform a harder, more guitar-driven style of rock ‘n’ roll, Allman’s solo performances are marked by jazz and soul flourishes, including saxophone solos and mellower arrangements.
His solo career began with “Laid Back,” a masterstroke featuring the hit reworking of “Midnight Rider,” as well as fresh, emotional originals like “Multi-Colored Lady” and “Queen of Hearts.” The album also includes his definitive rendition of former roommate Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”
“That’s my baby,” Gregg said of “Laid Back.”
Allman’s other solo work includes the hit title-track to his 1987 comeback “I’m No Angel” and his albums “Playin’ Up a Storm” (1977) and “Searching for Simplicity” (1997).
Allman was in the middle of recording “Laid Back” at the height of the Allman Brothers Band’s fame. The group had recently released its biggest-selling album, “Brothers and Sisters,” and was playing stadiums across the country. Allman was at the studio in Macon, Ga., finishing “Laid Back,” which caused him to arrive late for a party then-Gov. Jimmy Carter was throwing for Bob Dylan at the governor’s mansion.
“We pulled up at this U-shaped driveway and there must have been 30 cops,” Allman recalled. “We stop at this little guard house and I say: ‘Looks like we’re a little late. Please tell the governor I’m sorry. Please tell him I was working on my record.’
“And we’re getting ready to leave and the one guard yells for us to come back. I thought, Oh God, here comes a federal ass-chewing.”
The guard told Allman and his crew to proceed toward the mansion.
“I could see this guy standing on the porch, no shirt, no shoes, just Levis,” Allman remembered with amusement. “I thought, who’s this bum at the governor’s mansion?”
The “bum” was none other than Gov. Carter. The peanut farmer-turned-politician sat Allman down, poured a scotch, looked the rock star in the eye and said he, Carter, was going to be the next president of the United States.
“I almost spit in my drink,” Allman recalled. “I didn’t think he had a chance in hell. There hadn’t been a Southern president, in, hell, since what? Jefferson?”
Then the future president enlisted Allman’s help. “‘I need help, I need your money’,” Allman recalled Carter telling him. “As we sat there and talked I realized he was a stand-up dude and we became friends. That was the main reason we did it. I hoped he’d make president and we played quite a few benefit shows for him and raised close to a million dollars, I’ve been told.”
The Allman Brothers Band were invited to the president’s inaugural ball in 1976 to celebrate with their new buddy.
Asked if there is a politician today he would be so generous with, Allman laughed.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said. “It’s slim-pickings. I don’t know what the hell is going on. The Democrats can’t make up their mind and I always followed that path ... Bush, he should have kept his ball team (the Texas Rangers) and stayed out of politics. We all would’ve been better off.”
Allman, who self-medicated himself for decades, told the Bradenton Herald last May that he got sober on Oct. 29, 1996—the 25th anniversary of Duane Allman’s death. By all accounts, he has remained on the wagon. In addition to working on new music, he said he is two-thirds finished with his autobiography. Unhappy with past Allman Brothers tomes such as “Midnight Riders,” by Scott Freeman, Allman decided to tell the tale himself.
“Might as well put it out there as it is,” Allman said. “My book is funny, but there are some tearful parts. I stay away from the drug and alcohol stuff except to warn people you’re being fooled if you think you sound your best up there when you’re stoned.”
Allman hasn’t released a solo record since 1997, but The Allman Brothers Band’s latest studio release, “Hittin’ the Note” (2003), was hailed as the group’s best album in decades. Allman said he plans to work on both new solo and Brothers albums next spring. His current solo tour takes him through the winter. Next spring and summer he will again team with the Brotherhood.
“I’m looking down the barrel of 60 years old, I’m 58, people say there’s gotta come a day,” Allman said. “But retire from what? If the tour bus don’t kill me I’ll do this as long as I can. I got to play because as much as I have been playing the last 10 years with my two bands I’ll get home and just be exhausted. But four or five weeks later it’s like ‘Come on, let’s do something.’
“I built me this house. It’s my first and last one,” Allman continued, his voice lifting with emotion. “It’s so beautiful. It’s surrounded by these old virgin oaks. Gen. Sherman came through here after he burned Atlanta but he said Savannah was too beautiful to burn. I’m right on a little bayou. I can see porpoises right by my dock. We go out here and catch big old sharks and I don’t even have a boat. We catch shrimp down there, too, big shrimp. I love Savannah, it’s the deep South.”