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Success, Sorrow and Song: Gregg Allman’s Hard-Lived Life of Rock

August 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jeffrey Brown talks to Allman Brothers Band co-founder and still-member Gregg Allman about his new memoir, "My Cross to Bear," which tells of his southern roots, his childhood dreams to be a doctor, the negative effects of drugs on his relationships, and the profound effects the death of his brother Duane had on his own life.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next: a hard-lived life amid the sound, success and sorrow of rock ‘n roll.  

MAN: One, two, one, two, three.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the bench behind his Hammond B-3 organ, Gregg Allman has been belting out the rock ‘n roll blues for more than 40 years.

The band he co-founded with his late brother Duane Allman, the Allman Brothers, is one of the most renowned in rock history, famed for its hard-driving live performances and hits like “Ramblin’ Man,” and “Melissa.”

Beginning in the late ’60s, the band grabbed audiences with a sound that brought together the Southern blues and electrified rock ‘n roll that Gregg and Duane Allman had embraced.

GREGG ALLMAN, Musician: It was our two loves music. He sort of leaned towards the country blues, which is un-electrified, like Robert Johnson, Elmore James. And I was really into Bobby Bland, James Brown, you know, people like Curtis Mayfield.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Gregg Allman has told of the musical voyage and a life of triumph and a great deal of travail in his new memoir “My Cross to Bear.”

Allman was born in Nashville in 1947, a year and 18 days after his brother, Duane. When he was just 2, his father, who had fought at Normandy, was shot dead by a hitchhiker while on home leave from Korea. As youngsters, the boys were sent to military school while their mother finished her degree. They all eventually moved to Florida.

It was one night in 1960, Allman says, that changed everything.

You went to a concert and you heard Otis Redding and others play. What did you hear? What changed? What happened?

GREGG ALLMAN: It was one of those reviews that they don’t have anymore.

And Otis took it, by the way. I mean, he would run back and forth across this just quarter-mile long stage. And he was about 7’2″. And was built, my God.

And my brother, I remember him going, you know, like, hey, man — your jaw is open. And I — he said, man. And the music was going. And he says something like, I have got to have me some of this, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: There was, however, a realistic streak in young Gregg Allman. He writes that he had actually intended to go to college and medical school.

GREGG ALLMAN: I mean no pun, but everybody and their brother had a damn rock ‘n roll band.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re looking around saying…

GREGG ALLMAN: I am, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re not going to make it here.

GREGG ALLMAN: We’re not going to make rent doing this. My brother said, but, no, man, we’re going to be the best. We’re going to be number one.

JEFFREY BROWN: There would be several intervening years and bands with names like The Hour Glass, even one called the Allman Joys.

GREGG ALLMAN: I didn’t name the band. I didn’t name have anything to do with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was Duane who gained fame first, an astounding lead guitarist who played on famous recordings by Aretha Franklin and other stars. Years later, he would be named the second greatest rock guitarist of all time by “Rolling Stone” magazine, just behind Jimi Hendrix, ahead of B.B. King and Eric Clapton.

What did he have? What made him different?

GREGG ALLMAN: Oh, man, it was there from the start. He had this like — it was like some kind of a thread woven into what came out of his guitar. But it made all the riffs like a continuous story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Allman Brothers Band came together and brought out its self-titled debut in 1969. They were seen as leaders in a new style of Southern rock, a tag Allman never liked.

GREGG ALLMAN: Rock ‘n roll was born in the South, man. It’s like saying rock-rock.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, it was born from that — from bringing together that…

 GREGG ALLMAN: Four kings of white and rock, two white, two black, Elvis Aaron Presley, Tupelo, Miss., Jerry Lee Lewis, Ferriday, La. Little Richard Penniman, Macon, Ga., Chuck Berry, Saint Louis, Mo.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1971, the Allmans recorded what is widely considered the finest live album ever made, “At Fillmore East.”

It would be their ticket to stardom. But just three months after its release, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle crash in their adopted home of Macon, Ga.

GREGG ALLMAN: Well, my brother died. And then it just started raining money. And, at first, you know, I screamed and yelled and shook my fist at the sky and yelled, shortchanged.

JEFFREY BROWN: The band members debated whether to continue.

GREGG ALLMAN: I told them, I said, we’re going to be the wind-up bunch of street junkies, or we can forget all that crap and go back to business as usual. And it was pretty much a landslide. Well, it was.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGG ALLMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The decision to just do it?

GREGG ALLMAN: Well, after hearing what the alternative is.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there was still more tragedy on the way. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley died in an eerily similar motorcycle accident near the spot where Duane was killed.

And all that raining money led to a torrent of problems for the band and Gregg Allman in particular through the ’70s and beyond, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, broken marriages, most famously to Cher.

Interestingly, this man who has lived life so loudly and publicly sees himself as quite the opposite.

You write about yourself. And even talking to you here, almost — you’re a shy person. Is that right?

GREGG ALLMAN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you get up on stage and you perform for thousands, hundreds of thousands of people.

GREGG ALLMAN: If I really looked out there and just scanned them, you know, I would probably go running off the stage, man.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGG ALLMAN: No, if I gave it serious thought, you know, I probably wouldn’t. Poof, disappear.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregg Allman is now 64 and sober 17 years. He was granted a new lease on life after a liver transplant two years ago. And he and the band, including the two original drummers, are still on the road all these years later.