The Allman Brothers Band - Biography
The Allman Brothers Band single-handedly spurred the rise of Southern rock; every other blues-inflected rock group spawned below the Mason-Dixon line, from Lynyrd Skynyrd on down, operates in their shadow. The group’s Florida-born namesakes, guitarist Duane Allman and his younger sibling Gregg, led the group to fame with a combination of instrumental virtuosity and gritty soulfulness. The group came to the fore during the rock ballroom era of the ‘60s, and their vaunted jamming prowess often led them to be compared to another nonpareil live act, The Grateful Dead, with whom they frequently shared stages in their heyday.
The band weathered a series of personal tragedies that robbed them of Duane Allman and founding bassist Berry Oakley, both claimed in tragic accidents a year apart at the height of the band’s popularity. Nonetheless, The Allman Brothers Band soldiered on through a multitude of personnel changes and enough interpersonal drama to sunder a unit of lesser sinew. Today, 40 years on, they are still “hittin’ the note,” and remain one of the most popular touring acts in existence; their annual concerts at the Beacon Theatre in New York, where they have now logged more than 300 performances, remains a bonding rite for Allmans freaks around the globe.
Howard Duane Allman, later to be better known by his middle name, was born in Nashville on Nov. 20, 1946. His brother Gregory Lenoir Allman was born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, 13 months later, on Dec. 8, 1947. Shortly after Gregg’s birth, their father, a serviceman, was shot to death by a fellow enlisted man. They spent their boyhood primarily in Daytona Beach, Florida, where their mother worked as a certified public accountant.
Both playing guitar, Duane and Gregg moved through the teen combo scene in Daytona Beach. As The Escorts, they recorded an unsuccessful demo session; as The Allman Joys, under the auspices of producer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk (author of the garage band standard “Tobacco Road”), cut an unsuccessful single. Around this time, the Allmans jammed for the first time with a local drummer named Butch Trucks.
Seeking new horizons, The Allman Joys relocated in 1967 to Los Angeles, where they were signed to Liberty Records. They recorded two albums for the label, Hour Glass (1967) and Power of Love (1968). Both LPs, comprising largely cover versions and a handful of lukewarm songs by Gregg, were recorded without a glimmer of understanding by producer Dallas Smith; the latter album includes an instrumental version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” with Duane on electric sitar.
A fateful Hour Glass session at producer Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, came to naught, and, after a flop single featuring Gregg with session players that employed the Hour Glass name, both brothers returned to Daytona Beach. There, they briefly recorded with Butch Trucks’ band The 31st of December. They also sat in with another regional group, The Second Coming, which included Florida-born guitarist Forrest Richard “Dickey” Betts and Chicago-bred bassist Berry Oakley III.
In late 1968, Duane Allman returned to Muscle Shoals, looking for work. Having gained a formidable facility on slide guitar, his explosive playing highlighted such attention-getting tracks as Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude” and Aretha Franklin’s “The Weight.” He would go on to cut notable dates with talents as diverse as saxophonist King Curtis, bluesman Otis Rush, former Steve Miller Band guitarist Boz Scaggs, and blues singer-guitarist John Hammond, Jr.
One of the people who took a growing interest in Duane’s burgeoning rep was Phil Walden, the former manager of the late Stax soul star Otis Redding. Walden approached the guitarist about managing him, and, when Hall offered Allman the opportunity to record a solo album, introduced him to a jazz-schooled drummer, Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson. He ultimately was not involved in the sessions, which never came to fruition, but the drummer became a fast friend, and the two musicians moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where they hooked up first with Butch Trucks and then with Oakley, Betts, and keyboardist Reese Wynans. A two-hour jam session convinced them that they should form a band.
At that moment, the missing link in the original Allman Brothers Band returned from Los Angeles. Mooted as the group’s organist (and supplanting Wynans, who would go on to join Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble), Gregg Allman’s arrival solidified the six-piece line-up that would record the Allmans’ first two studio albums and a storied live set.
Signed to Walden’s Atlantic-distributed Capricorn Records imprint, the group recorded their self-titled 1969 debut album in New York in just six days; it included the future concert perennials “Dreams” and “Whipping Post.” The album’s sound – an enticing and unprecedented mix of rock and blues with a free-swinging, almost jazzy underpinning – got attention in some quarters. While the LP only managed to reach the bottom quarter of the top 200 albums chart, The Allman Brothers Band attracted wider attention through their blow-out live shows; their sets at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York and Fillmore West in San Francisco created excited word-of-mouth.
Riding this momentum and now living communally in a spacious house in Macon, Georgia, the Allmans issued their second studio album Idlewild South (1970) less than a year after their debut. Cut over the course of months between tour stops, the collection included “Midnight Rider” and Betts’ instrumental showpiece “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” This time, record buyers were primed, and the album shot to No. 38 on the national charts.
In a stroke of commercial and aesthetic inspiration, Capricorn decided to capture The Allman Brothers Band in full concert flight on its next album. Edited down from two nights of performances at the titular venue on March 12-13, 1971, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East (1971) was an impressive summation of the group’s muscular, hard-jamming prowess on stage. It became a huge countercultural hit, peaking at No. 13 on Billboard’s album chart.
Before sessions could be completed for the Allmans’ next studio album, disaster struck. On Oct. 29, 1971, Duane Allman -- who had recently been featured trading leads with Eric Clapton on Derek & the Dominoes’ two-LP classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1971) – died in Macon after crashing his motorcycle en route to a surprise birthday party for Berry Oakley’s wife. He was 24.
With just three songs featuring Duane in the can, the five-piece band regrouped to finish what became the half-studio, half-live two-LP set Eat a Peach (1972). The album included the poignant Gregg Allman originals “Melissa” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” Betts’ “Blue Sky,” and the thunderous live “Mountain Jam,” The ABB’s heavyweight take on Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain.” “Dedicated to a Brother,” it rose to No. 4.
A second tragedy befell the group on Nov. 11, 1972. A little over a year after Duane Allman’s death, bassist Berry Oakley plowed his Triumph motorcycle into a bus less than a mile from The Allman Brothers Band’s communal home – and a mere four blocks from the site of his band mate’s fatal accident. He, too, died at 24.
Astoundingly, the Allmans bounced back from this second horrific event with a refreshed lineup that included guitarist Les Dudek, bassist Lamar Williams, and keyboardist Chuck Leavell, which recorded Brothers and Sisters (1973). This second album “Dedicated to a Brother” represented the group’s commercial pinnacle: Lofted by Dickie Bett’s rolling single “Ramblin’ Man,” a No. 2 hit, the album occupied the nation’s top slot for five weeks.
The Allmans managed to record just one more album, Win, Lose or Draw (1975), a No. 5 chart entry, before falling apart completely. Dickey Betts was increasingly involved in solo work, as was Gregg Allman, who was also distracted by his escalating heroin habit and a benighted marriage to vocalist Cher. The group imploded when Allman testified against the band’s security director during a federal narcotics trial. In the aftermath, Leavell, Williams, and Johanson formed the punnily-named Sea Level.
The groundwork was laid for the first Allman Brothers Band reunion in 1977, when Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts encountered each other at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural. In August 1978, Allman, Johanson, and Trucks appeared with Betts’ band at a date in New York’s Central Park; eight days later, they reunited with Lamar Williams at Capricorn’s company picnic. The following year, despite ongoing legal acrimony between the band members and with their label, The Allman Brothers Band’s reunion album Enlightened Rogues reached No. 9.
Two other albums followed on Arista: Reach For the Sky (1980) and Brothers of the Road (1981). Indifferently written and recorded, they met with diminishing commercial results; moreover, after Reach For the Sky, Johanson was fired after threatening to audit the band’s books.
By the late ‘80s, the Allmans’ old wounds showed signs of healing: Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts’ groups shared a tour in 1986, and a variant version of the ABB performed some live dates. In 1989, the release of PolyGram’s boxed set retrospective Dreams finally convinced the members of the group to reform and sign with Epic Records.
The reconfigured ABB cut three studio albums – Seven Turns (1990), Shades of Two Worlds (1991) and Where It All Begins (1994) – and issued two live albums on Epic. The studio sets were stoked by the playing of guitarist Warren Haynes, who recaptured the spirit of the early Allmans, and bassist Allen Woody, who went on to form the jam-band trio Govt Mule.
In 1995, The Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year, they inaugurated their annual March series of concerts at the Beacon Theatre.
There have been further comings and goings in the years since. Annoyed by Dickey Betts’ increasingly errant playing, and clean and sober since 1996, Gregg Allman fired the lead guitarist in 2000. Following Allen Woody’s death in August 2000, Warren Haynes rejoined a lineup that now also boasted Butch Trucks’ son, guitar prodigy Derek Trucks, and returnee Jaimoe Johanson. The now seven-piece lineup produced the widely-praised Hittin’ the Note (2003), which was issued on The Allman Brothers Band’s own label, Peach Records. It was succeeded by the live album One Way Out: Live at the Beacon Theatre (2004). The old Manhattan venue celebrated 20 years as the Allmans’ Big Apple home with a star-studded 15-night run of shows in 2009, featuring an appearance by Eric Clapton, who played songs from Layla with the group in homage to his late guitar partner Duane Allman.