Mar 23, 2002, 2:43 pm EST
Reluctant superstar Gregg Allman has spent more than 33 years in the spotlight as the vocalist and a founding member of southern rock monolith the Allman Brothers Band. Almost single-handedly, the Allmans revolutionized southern music, giving it a pride and luster that it hadn’t had since antebellum times.
With his gritty bluesman’s voice and his formidable musical skills, Allman insists that he is still uneasy in the spotlight–a claim that is hard to believe given his genteel ease onstage.
But Allman has never been one to rest on his impressive laurels, those same laurels that helped land his band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. “I play every show like it’s my last,” he said. “Fortunately that’s never turned out to be the case.”
The Allman Brothers Band wound up their annual run at New York’s Beacon Theatre on March 24, with every one of the nine shows sold out. After a brief lay-off they will make a long overdue visit to the studio, where they will record their first studio album since 1994’s “Where It All Begins.”
SoundSpike: Tell me about “I’m No Angel: The Best of Gregg Allman,” which is due from Sony/Legacy on May 28.
Gregg Allman: Well, there are three songs that I do with my solo band that [have also been] done by the Allman Brothers. I try to totally rearrange the songs. Like for instance, on the “Laid Back” album I cut in 1973, the way you hear “Midnight Rider” on there is the way it was written. “Idlewild South,” [The Allman Brothers’ album on which “Midnight Rider” appears], came out [in 1970]. I took the song to the band first–I took it in its skeletal form–and that’s what you hear on my solo album.
Had you been writing songs all along that you wanted to put out as a solo album? Did you always have a feeling that you were going to do solo albums as well as the Allman stuff?
It was always in the back of my head, and I put it into action in 1973. What happened was, I took one of the songs [I wrote] in to the band and they didn’t care for it.
Which one was it, do you remember?
Yeah, it was “Queen of Hearts.”
I think you once said that it took you a half an hour to write “Melissa.” And then, there’s that really infamous story about you writing “Whipping Post” on an ironing board with a burnt match. Did it really happen that way, or was that an urban myth?
No, that’s absolutely the truth, but “Melissa” probably took me an hour and a half. As for “Whipping Post,” I was staying in this place with my brother. I’d just gotten to join the band. Jacksonville, Florida. He was staying with some girl–“‘Some girl!’ Remember her name”–she had a baby that was asleep, right next to the room I was in, in a real old house. And the floors were real squeaky. And I couldn’t, you know, I couldn’t find a light anywhere. I found this ironing board. It was already set up. [If it] hadn’t been already set up, I wouldn’t have touched it. And I found these kitchen matches, you know, the strike-anywhere? Strike one, blow it out, strike another one and write with the blown-out one, and light another. I kept at it until it was done.
Did the band really write songs in graveyards?
Not so much. We’d go down there and just, you know, take a guitar, and you know. And we’d …
Yeah. Bag. Not gonna say sheets in the wind, but in the bag, about half in the bag, we’d go down to the graveyard. I don’t think I ever brought anything out of there that I used. I know Dickie [Betts] did. I think brought some titles or something out of there. But aside from that, I don’t know. But weird thing, that’s the graveyard that my brother’s buried at.
That’s the one in Macon, Ga.?
How did you feel when Bill Graham said to you guys that the Allman Brothers were going to be the most important band in America? Did you believe him?
Of course not. I didn’t believe him. But maybe the rest of them did. I thought it was one hell of a compliment and I knew that we–you know, I mean, I’m no fool–I knew we had something, because he’d pretty much heard it all. And though he wasn’t a musician, I had never really seen him fail when it came to grouping different musicians, different shows together. And he made some of the most exciting shows. I mean, with the damnedest people, I mean people like Doc Watson and Mama Maybelle, the Staples Singers, you know.
The Allman Brothers seemed to have a special place in his heart. Didn’t you play at the final night at the Fillmore East?
Oh, yeah, but I mean, he was really fair. He didn’t throw weight around just because he was Bill Graham. Another of the many things that I got from Bill Graham is always remembering who you are–who you were, and who you always will be. And I would like to think that I am pretty much the same boy I used to be.
I remember years and years ago you said that you wanted to be a dentist. I would have thought that music was more like a calling for you. Was music really secondary for you?
Well, I mean it started out as like a hobby. You know, [I would] see this one guy do it and say, “I think I’ll give this a try.” And course everybody’s asked me, you know, “Who do you think you are, Elvis?” you know, and no, I don’t think I’m Elvis. Which probably made me the big Doubting Thomas that I probably still am about things, but that’s cool. Being that way when something really good does break, it’s really a pleasant surprise.
I think having too much faith sometimes is bad because it doesn’t make you push as hard.
Yeah, really. I play every concert like it’s gonna be my last one. I actually think about that before each concert, unless I’m like really doing something and changing some songs around, and backstage talking to the band, what have you. Most of the time it’s like probably, after we get dressed, get in the car and go from the hotel into the gig.
What do you think of when you’re onstage? Do you get so in the moment that you don’t think, or does your mind keep going active when you’re performing?
I kind of stay in the moment. Your mind will drift–it’s bound to sometimes. And you know, and you play some of these songs so many times, even some new ones you can put on automatic pilot. Just becomes that easy to you. And of course with a light show and everything, I mean you can really trip on out there, and you don’t have to take a thing. I think of a lot of stuff while I’m up there, but usually I try to stay right in the moment.
What does it feel like when people say the Allman Brothers are the granddaddy to jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic? Does that surprise you? Do you think that they do justice to like the legacy of the Allmans?
I don’t look at it like that. I don’t think that bands come in piles. I mean, everything that I hear or see, and sometimes touch, has some kind of effect on me. Does on everybody. More on some than others. And whether you know it or not, I mean, it can creep into your music, you know?
Yeah, your subconscious.
Right. And I mean, you might hate this one style of playing but you get maybe the tonal thing out of it, you know? And all this jam band stuff, I don’t know how—God, I don’t know, this is weird stuff going on. If I had to start over today, and I was 12 years old and I was, “Wonder if I should buy that guitar,” boy, I think I might just crack the books, get in school.
Didn’t you feel like you had this extraordinary gift, like, you must’ve been singing along to the radio and thinking, “Wow, I gotta do something with this?”
Oh, absolutely not! Oh, I’ve never thought my voice would warrant putting on the radio. I never thought it would be good enough, and by any means. I mean, forget about one of a kind. Like, when you hear [my voice] you know it’s me. [I just recognized that] about three or four years ago because, I mean, it’s hard to tell, you know? It’s you, and you’re your worst critic, and you sound like a million other people at once. And then pretty soon one day you wake up and say, “Well, by God, I do have a style all my own.”
Was there a moment where everything started gelling and you felt really good about it all?
Oh, hundreds of thousands of moments like that. Even though I was barely there, I really was proud when I got inducted in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame. I just wish we could redo it, that night. You know, let me have another crack at that acceptance speech. But I think that’s what it took to wake me up into getting sober.
You really probably were very close to changing your life at that moment, to be that honest.
Oh, yeah, really. I could see it coming, too. I knew exactly what was gonna happen that night.
Wasn’t that the night you said “rap was short for crap?” Do you still feel that?
Well, I like a groove. That’s the main reason I don’t like it. It’s not pleasing to the ears. It’s like bellowing into your ears. And whether it’s ebonics or not, you know, some shit that’s so fast you can’t understand it anyway, and you’re gonna–just get outta my face! Sing me a love song, or sing me something, make my ass shake. Like Sly Stone.
When you decided to get sober, was there one moment, a watershed?
It was a series of moments, and the whole thing kinda clicked into spiritualism, and naturally sobriety just came. And the big bonus was I found my soulmate.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about you?
Well, I don’t really know. A lot of times shyness can be misconstrued for people being stuck up, you know. I don’t know. I don’t really let out that much personal stuff. I don’t talk much on stage, because I just–I don’t have anything to say, you know? If you have something to say, I believe in saying it, but if you have to create something, you know, to try to be cool or whatever, or try to be witty–that I’m not, you know? And if I am, it’ll happen spontaneously, if it’s meant to happen. And it hasn’t happened yet, so, might not happen!
You do seem so stoic most of the time, and so unassuming.
I’m taking it all in. Somebody told me, “The quiet ones, you gotta watch.” [The guy] running his mouth over there, you don’t have to worry about him at all. And then some of ’em are both, you know?
Don’t you have arthritis in your shoulder?
Oh, man, I got it all down my spine.
The good news is that you get to sit down in your job. It could be worse if you were out there being a lead guitarist all the time.
That could be. Part of my problem, I have scoliosis. Curvature of the spine. It’s twisted of course to the left, because I’m on stage right, and I’m always turning to listen that way.
You left Northern California last year, and returned to the South. Where are you now?
I’m south of Savannah, Ga. Way out here in the country, on the river. And [there’s a] big dock out here, and it’s nice. [I live] on a big long cul-de-sac that comes way back. And just virgin oaks out back here that, are 200, 300 years old. And, oh, they’re beautiful, these big, huge spreading oaks.
I have a piece of property here, and I never have built a house before. My mother once told me, when she built our house in 1959, that that was such a satisfying feeling, creating her own house. And so I think me and my wife, my lovely new wife, are gonna do it. We’ve been together for almost seven years. Oh, you don’t know how good it is.
What’s the best cure for the blues for you?
Best cure for the blues? I get out there and get on one of my motorcycles, or go out the back door and go down to the dock and go fishing. Or me and my lady take off, go to the Caribbean. Go outside and play with the dog. Or go get rubbed down or go shopping. We’re fixing to do a lot of that. Oh, God, we’re gonna have our hands full.
Finally, how are things with the Allman Brothers now. You’ve had a lot going on in the past year, what with Dickie Betts leaving, and Warren Haynes returning.
Whole lot of change is going on in the Allman Brothers, and now things are down to real, good old peaceful, back to writing, you know, really grooving on it. And not really thinking about absolutely calling it quits with the Allman Brothers altogether, which is what we almost did. Instead we just pulled it right in two, so to speak.
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