Brothers old and new: Gregg Allman (left) and Derek Trucks performing at New York''s Beacon Theatre last year.
Despite a history of tragedy and turmoil, the Allman Brothers Band keeps doing what it does best — playing live.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime show — and to this day, Butch Trucks still bumps into people who say they were there. “I can tell just by the look in their eyes whether they're lying,” the Allman Brothers drummer says — the concert was that special. It was the final Friday night gig at the legendary Fillmore East in Manhattan. “That night,” he says, “is still the musical pinnacle of my life.”
Promoter and club owner Bill Graham had asked the Allman Brothers Band to perform at the Fillmore East in June 1971 during the last weekend of that club's illustrious existence. This represented the end of an era not only for the Fillmore East, but — as it turned out — for the Allman Brothers as well. On October 29, 1971, just four months after the Fillmore closed, group leader and guitarist Duane Allman died in Macon, Georgia, in a motorcycle accident.
But on that Friday in June 1971, the Allmans were at their creative and musical peak. They had become regulars at the Fillmore, where just a few months earlier they had recorded the tracks for their classic live album At Fillmore East (Capricorn). “We played there so much and developed a rapport with the audience and with Bill [Graham],” says Trucks. “Saturday night was the final night; that was by invitation only for record company people and others in the music industry,” he recalls. “So to me, Friday night was the real closer. The real Fillmore audience was there. We got onstage about 1 a.m. and started playing, and played a more-than-two-hour set that was just magical. We were all locked into the same plane. We finished the set and we came back out, and I remember the feeling from the audience. I was sitting there with tears in my eyes, just overwhelmed.
“And we started jamming until about 8 in the morning,” Trucks says. “Now that's jamming, bro,” adds front man Gregg Allman. “After you play your set, you invite other people up, everyone jams, time goes on.” And then a surreal moment came: when the Brothers finished this musical marathon, there was no applause. “There was absolute, complete silence,” Trucks says. “Somebody got up and opened the door and the sun came pouring in. Everybody just quietly started walking out. I remember Duane walking in front of me, dragging his guitar behind, going ‘Goddamn, it's like leaving church,'' and it really was. The ironic thing is that [the] recording trucks were outside, but they weren't hooked up.”
So ended a crucial chapter in the history of the Allman Brothers, but numerous albums, countless shows, and plenty more personnel changes and melodrama were yet to come. (For a chronological overview of the band's history, see the timeline at left.) Although the Fillmore East now exists only in nostalgic photographs, the Allman Brothers have found another venue in Manhattan they can call home — the Beacon Theatre. Late last year, the band released a live album titled Peakin' at the Beacon (Epic). The lineup on that disc includes a number of the original members: front man and keyboardist Gregg Allman, drummers Trucks and Jaimoe, and guitarist and vocalist Dickey Betts. The rest of the lineup on Peakin' at the Beacon consists of bassist Oteil Burbridge, Trucks's nephew Derek Trucks on guitar, and percussionist Marc Quinones, all of whom are still with the band.
Gregg Allman at his Hammond B-3
But when the Allman Brothers Band hits the stage this year, you can bet the ranch that Betts won't be with them. That's because he was booted from the group last May. Although such publications as Revolver, the Boston Herald, the New York Post, and the Hartford Courant have reported rumors that Betts's firing was due in part to alleged substance-abuse problems (which Betts has denied), the official position of the band blamed “creative differences” for the split. A source close to the group said no reconciliation is likely “in the immediate foreseeable future.”
It's hard to imagine the Allman Brothers Band without Betts, who authored “Ramblin' Man,” the band's most successful single, and whose energetic and melodic playing has long been a signature element in the group's music. Still, the group's live shows will continue, even without the ramblin' man. For last summer's dates, Jimmy Herring, formerly of Aquarium Rescue Unit, filled Betts's slot. At press time, the band had enlisted former member Warren Haynes to perform with them during their annual Beacon Theatre marathon in March 2001.
When discussing the band's past, present, and future, Allman and Trucks don't dwell on Betts's departure. Instead, the two take us on an amazing journey through the history of the Allman Brothers as a performing band, from the early jam-packed days playing for hippies at Atlanta's Piedmont Park, to gigs at the Fillmore East, to sold-out concerts in cavernous arenas, to the post-Betts period. The two reveal many secrets behind the band's live prowess, and they tell — sometimes tearfully — how they've persevered despite the tragic deaths of so many bandmates and former members (Duane Allman in 1971, bassist Berry Oakley in 1972, bassist Lamar Williams in 1983, and bassist Allen Woody last year).
In March, you're continuing a grand old tradition — the Brothers' annual pilgrimage to the Beacon.
Trucks: I really love it, and this year's gonna be special. In past years, we tended to play the same set every night, or alternate two or three sets. This year, every night is gonna be different. You're gonna hear surprises, like an old Bob Dylan or Percy Sledge song. Gregg can sing the shit out of [Sledge's] “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Is a full-blown tour on the schedule yet?
Oteil Burbridge has become an integral part of the current band''s sound.
Allman: So far the main order of business is to go in the studio and record. After that, we'll get into the touring. All we have planned is the dates at the Beacon. We need a new record more than anything else.
How do you feel Peakin' at the Beacon turned out?
Trucks: It's a historical record — there's little doubt in my mind that it's the last [record on which] Dickey, Gregg, Jaimoe, and myself will play together. Musically, from what I've heard on it, I'm not blown away, but that's [not surprising considering] what happened [with Betts].
Many will argue that the Allman Brothers were the first southern rock band.
Allman: Southern rock is a term some guy came up with so they'd have a place to put our records in shops. Anyway, rock ''n'' roll was born in the South, so southern rock is like saying rock rock. The Allman Brothers are a contemporary blues and jazz band. That's about what it is. That's what we called ourselves before the term southern rock came along.
Trucks: I think very little of the term southern rock. Until we came along, there really was not a band that stayed in the South, kept its roots in the South, and did anything. We were told from the very beginning to get out of there, move to L.A. or New York: “You guys can't work out of the South.” And they also told us to get Gregg out from behind the organ, stick a salami down his pants, and let him jump around like Mick Jagger, and that we couldn't just stand onstage and play music like a jazz band. We said, “Screw it, we live in the South, we're gonna stay, and we love this music we're playing.”
“Ramblin' Man” might fall into that category of southern rock, but when you listen to the rest of our catalog, songs like “Dreams,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and “Midnight Rider,” I see no comparison whatsoever to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet especially, or the Charlie Daniels Band. The only parallel I see was that we were from the South and stayed in the South. What I think we did is open the doors for those bands to follow.
Has the musical approach of the band changed now that Dickey Betts isn't with you?
Trucks: My feeling is that before Dickey left the band, he completely dominated musically. It became really difficult to jam; it was follow Dickey or get lost. But this past summer, with [guitarist] Jimmy Herring aboard, we made a very conscious effort to get back to what we used to do in those first couple of years of the group, to work off each other, to use some dynamics — if you like heading in a different direction, go for it. By the end of the summer, there was really neat stuff going on, and I expect this year it's gonna continue. Jimmy is moving on to play with Phil Lesh.
Would you consider the Allman Brothers a jam band?
“We jam, but we're not a jam band.”
— Gregg Allman
Allman: That's not the Allman Brothers. Jam bands are starting to really come into being now. We jam, but we're not a jam band. Our music doesn't revolve around jamming. With jamming you just count it off and let it go. But an arrangement is put down, arranged, done over and over and over, and it's tight; jamming is loose. By the way, improvising happens spontaneously. Jamming is not something you set out to do.
What do you do when a jam turns into a train wreck?
Trucks: So what? But I don't recall any train wrecks recently. I do recall quite a few before the summer [laughs]. There were some at the Beacon where I thought, “Jesus Christ, I don't know how we'll get out of this.” But you just keep going until finally somebody takes control and gives everybody something to hold on to.
Talk about the band's early gigs.
Trucks: We started in Jacksonville, Florida, and then we moved to Macon, Georgia. We had been practicing for about four weeks in Macon in an old warehouse, and a couple of weeks before that in Jacksonville, and had all this music, and we were just busting to play it for somebody. Finally somebody suggested, let's just go to Atlanta, to Piedmont Park and find a place and play, so that's what we did. We threw everything in the truck, drove up to Atlanta one Sunday afternoon, found a flat spot where there was some electricity not too far away, plugged up, didn't ask anybody anything, and just started playing. And within a half hour or so, these couple thousand kids were standing around and dancing and waving flags and this and that. The next week, this underground magazine wrote an article about the Allman Brothers being the band of the revolution, the band of the people, and that we'd come to play for the tribes [laughs]. It turned into a weekly event.
Allman: It was a lot of fun. I was younger and had a hell of a lot more energy. They don't let you do that anymore, not unless you put up a cash bond. “There will be hookers and bikers and dope dealers” — they told us that same crap and eventually made it impossible for us.
Gregg, when did you start playing organ?
Allman: When my brother called me to come join the Allman Brothers, he said, “Oh, by the way, before you hang up, we're getting you a Hammond organ” [laughs]. I said, “Wait.” [Then he said,] “Well, I know you've always wanted one.” The organ tied all the other instruments [in the band] together.
Were you playing keyboards before that?
Allman: Yeah, a smattering, but I played more guitar.
Who were some of your influences as a player?
Allman: Booker T and Jimmy Smith.
What about singers?
Allman: Ray Charles, Little Milton, Otis Redding — anybody you hear, if you like them, will possibly have some influence on you.
Talk about what it was like playing with Duane.
“Before Dickey left the band, he completely dominated musically.”
— Butch Trucks
Trucks: I'll tell you right now that Duane probably had more impact and more effect on my musical life — which has led to the rest of my life — than anybody else. I can still remember the day he just reached down inside of me and turned me on. I had played for years, and I knew I could play, but I didn't have a whole lot of confidence. If things weren't really going well, I'd get apologetic and go “Uh-oh, they don't like what we're doing,” and back off.
One day we're at this place outside of Jacksonville, just jamming. We're playing this shuffle, and it's not going anywhere. I remember him turning around and just looking me in the eye and playing this real intense lick, and it's almost like he's saying, “Come on!” And I went “Shit” and kind of backed off. He did it again. About the second or third time, I got pissed and said, “Man, what the hell are you trying to do, embarrass me?” And I just started pounding on the drums, and all of a sudden the jam just took off. He backed up, looked me dead in the eye, smiled, and said, “There you go.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. He said essentially that you know you can play, and it may not always be great, but you have no reason to apologize. Quit being scared, stop this silliness. I never did it again. All of a sudden he just flipped a switch and got rid of that nervousness, that doubt. And that's the kind of effect he had on people. He was this ball of fire, this completely charismatic man who spread that kind of feeling.
Eat a Peach was dedicated to Duane.
Trucks: That was the last of Duane [on album]. And that was all there was. We had gotten into the studio with him and recorded “Stand Back,” “Blue Sky,” and “Little Martha.” In fact, it was during a break recording that album that Duane got killed, and we had to go back and finish the album without him. That's when Gregg knew he had to get “Melissa” [which Gregg wrote before the formation of the Allman Brothers Band]. “Melissa” was Duane's favorite song. And that's when Dickey wrote “Les Brers in A Minor” — the “Brers” meaning the brothers, but one less than before. You can listen to “Blue Sky” — the interplay there between [Duane] and Dickey. It was real special. “Mountain Jam” was from the Fillmore recordings. And then you had Duane's song, “Little Martha,” the only song he ever wrote. It's still hard for me to listen to that and keep a dry eye. I went out to dinner with him the day after he wrote that song for his girlfriend [gets choked up]. He called her Little Martha. We went out to his apartment in Atlanta, and I remember him sitting in a beanbag and playing that song over and over.
Allman: He was one hell of a guitar player. His slide playing was pretty fierce. He's probably known for his slide playing most of all.
Trucks: In the very early years, he wasn't that good at [slide]. He'd go pull that damn slide out and we'd go, “Oh, shit [laughs], he's gonna do it again.” But eventually, oh, shit! Duane definitely rewrote that particular approach to slide playing. He defined the style.
What were some of the albums you were listening to in those early years of the Brothers?
Trucks: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, John Coltrane's Giant Steps and My Favorite Things. Also Miles's Bitches Brew and Herbie's Crossings were huge influences on us. That freedom, that direction, that spontaneity the great jazz cats had is what we were after.
What was [original bassist] Berry Oakley like to play with?
Trucks: Berry was of that same vein as Duane. He went at it with a vengeance. He played with a thumb pick, with fire and intensity — he was like a third lead guitar. He'd play with Dickey and Duane and they'd go into the stratosphere.
Allman: I don't know what exactly was unique about [Berry's] playing. He played what needed to be played — didn't put any extra in there and didn't put too little in there. And I've never, to this day, seen anybody else do it the same way. He was amazing. He really was. He was a unique bass player and unique person, and a wonderful person at that. I miss him badly, man.
A drummer and a bass player have a special interaction that goes on, so has it been difficult for you [Butch] and Jaimoe to get used to the different styles of the various bassists over the years?
Trucks: In this band it's different. [Producer] Tom Dowd told Allen Woody when we were recording the Seven Turns album — and Allen started playing his real straight bass lines — “Goddamn it, if we'd wanted a bass player in this band we'd have hired one.” And he was trying to get the point across that with the Allman Brothers' style, [bass playing] is more like playing guitar, only it has four strings on it.
What was Allen Woody like to play with?
Allman: He was real good or he wouldn't have been playing with us. We auditioned, and he was last. And there were a lot of good musicians, too. His attitude was real good. He was so funny, man. That guy could make you laugh from sunup to sundown.
What do Oteil and Derek bring to the band?
Allman: Young blood and new life.
Trucks: What's there to say about Derek? Good God almighty. A very old soul in a very young body. And he's got such taste. He'll take a solo and start out very quiet, very sparse, and then play with it and play with it and get to the point where you're almost going, “What's going on?” and then all of a sudden he'll just grab it again and build it. And for a kid who's only 21, he knows when to quit. Like the great jazz cats, Derek learned when not to play. Once you reach that peak, and get everybody to that point and energy level, then let it go, let someone play, and then build it again later. It's kind of like makin' love. You have the foreplay, then you build and build to a climax. And then you start over again if you're man enough [laughs]. A great musician is probably a great lover.
Trucks: Playing with Oteil, now, it's just the goddamnedest experience I've ever been through. He's been one of the biggest changes [for the band] because he's so good and unique, has such an unbelievable feel and sense of rhythm and musicality. He's awe-inspiring to me. When he gets on a roll, it's hard for me to keep up with him.
Talk about the Allman Brothers' two-drummer approach.
Trucks: The way Jaimoe prefers to play is very jazzy. He grew up listening to the great jazz cats. There was a time when if you weren't watching, you'd think you were listening to Max Roach. To play with that kind of power, with Duane, Dickey, and Berry, he'd have to play in a way that he really didn't want, so when he and I started playing together, it worked. I played the rock ''n'' roll, that's my background, along with classical. Our styles complemented each other. Plus Duane loved the fact that James Brown had two drummers.
How do you avoid stepping on each other?
Trucks: It's something I don't think you can program. At least you can't program it and get up and play with the level and intensity you need to. Every band I've seen with two drummers, like .38 Special, they work every lick out and play exactly the same thing night in and night out. Where's that? That eliminates any ability to improvise. You're locked into a certain thing you have to play. And then with the [Grateful] Dead, I loved [Bill] Kreutzman's playing, and Mickey [Hart] was always so careful to play around him. It was almost minimalist, it never really moved my soul. When Jaimoe and I get up and play, we just go for it, full tilt.
How did Marc Quinones get into the band?
“Rock ''n'' roll was born in the South, so southern rock is like saying rock rock.”
Trucks: I heard Marc playing in this club with Spyro Gyra, and he just blew me away. I went backstage after the show — this was when we were finishing Seven Turns [released in 1990] — and I went up to him and said, “Bro, I'm stealing your ass.” He asked me who I played with. Later I was talking to a couple of others in Spyro Gyra and they said that as soon as I walked out the door, Marc said, “Who the fuck are the Allman Brothers?” He grew up playing Latin percussion and had no idea who the Allman Brothers were. About two months later, he was in a Memphis studio with us.
Butch, does having a percussionist in the band give you and Jaimoe the freedom to pull back a little and play more simply?
Trucks: Actually, with Marc it's the reverse. He's so rock solid that I feel a little freer — I can get out further, experiment a little more and twist the beat around more, and he's always going to be there.
Back to the band's history for a moment. You broke up for the second time in 1982, but regrouped at the end of the ''80s. What made you get back together?
Trucks: New people like Stevie Ray [Vaughan] were really catching on, and ZZ Top was doing well, and then Bonnie Raitt started really hitting. We started calling each other, saying, you know, there may be a market out there. Polygram was about to release the Dreams box set, so it seemed like a good excuse to do a tour, and we got together and brought on [guitarist] Warren Haynes, who had been working with Dickey, and I met Allen Woody because he was playing with the Artimus Pyle Band, who were working at my studio. We took it on the road for a year to see if it was going to work, and it did.
Despite all the personal tragedies, the Brothers have always managed to keep on keepin' on.
Trucks: I was sitting in my office last night looking at the wall — at the number of people in those pictures who aren't here anymore. It's been tough. But death is a part of life. It's the other side. It has to be dealt with.
Allman: We have to keep going on. What else would we do?
Jeff Perlah is a music journalist based in New York City and is the managing editor of Car Stereo Review's Mobile Entertainment magazine.
Band forms in Jacksonville, Florida, with Duane Allman (guitar), Dickey Betts (guitar and vocals), Gregg Allman (keyboards, guitar, and vocals), Berry Oakley (bass), Butch Trucks (drums), and Jai Johanny Johanson, later known as Jaimoe (drums).
The Allman Brothers Band (Capricorn) is released.
Idlewild South (Capricorn) is released.
At Fillmore East (Capricorn) is released; Duane Allman dies in a motorcycle crash on October 29.
Eat a Peach (Capricorn) is released; Oakley dies in a motorcycle crash on November 11, three blocks from where Duane died; keyboardist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams join the band.
Beginnings (Capricorn) is released. Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn) is released; “Ramblin' Man” climbs to no. 2 on the charts.
Win, Lose, or Draw (Capricorn) and The Road Goes On Forever (Capricorn) are released.
Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas (Capricorn) is released; the band breaks up.
Band reunites, with guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David “Rook” Goldflies replacing Leavell and Williams.
Enlightened Rogues (Capricorn) is released.
Reach for the Sky (Arista) is released.
Brothers of the Road: The Best of the Allman Brothers Band (Polydor) is released.
The band breaks up again.
Former bassist Williams dies.
The band reemerges with original members Gregg Allman, Betts, Trucks, and Jaimoe, and adds Warren Haynes (guitar), Allen Woody (bass), and Johnny Neal (keyboards); Dreams (Polydor) is released.
Seven Turns (Epic) is released; Johnny Neal leaves; Live at Ludlow Garage (Polydor) is released.
Shades of Two Worlds (Epic) is released; percussionist Marc Quinones joins band; Decade of Hits (Polydor) is released.
An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band (Epic) and The Fillmore Concerts (Polydor) are released.
Where It All Begins (Epic) and Hell and High Water: The Best of the Arista Years (Arista) are released.
The Allman Brothers Band is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; 2nd Set (Epic) is released.
Woody and Haynes leave the band, replaced by Jack Pearson (guitar) and Oteil Burbridge (bass).
Mycology (Epic) is released.
Pearson leaves the band, replaced by Derek Trucks.
Longtime crew member Joe Dan Petty dies; The Allman Brothers Band: The Millennium Collection (Universal/Polydor) is released; Dickey Betts is ousted, replaced temporarily by Jimmy Herring; former bassist Allen Woody dies; Peakin' at the Beacon (Epic) is released.
Warren Haynes agrees to return for the 2001 Beacon shows.