The singer-songwriter reflects on the life experiences that inspired his text My Cross to Bear and the Allman Brothers’ contribution to music.
Musician Gregg Allman
Tavis: Gregg Allman is a Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who, of course, co-founded the legendary band that bears his name, The Allman Brothers. Started by playing mostly R&B covers but went on to create a string of their own hits, including iconic songs like “Rambling Man” and “Melissa.”
The new book about his life in and out of music is called “My Cross to Bear.” Gregg Allman, an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Gregg Allman: Thank you very much, Tavis. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. “My Cross to Bear.” Why you chose that as a title?
Allman: Well, I wrote a song called “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” and it wasn’t so much the title of the song, but it just seemed – and it’s hard to name a hound dog. So I tried and tried. I was going to call it “Beyond the Thrill.” That was going to be the name of it.
It didn’t seem to perk up too many ears, so the people at the publishing company, really nice people, they all started throwing me a bunch of names, and that one came around and, I don’t know, it kind of grows on you. A name has to –
Tavis: Sit with you for a while.
Tavis: Yeah. I asked that to start our conversation because this is a tough book to read – a tough book in the sense that there have been so many ups and downs in your life and in your career, about which you were very candid, about which you were very honest about.
But I asked why “My Cross to Bear” because it seems like you have had to bear, sometimes of your own doing, so many crosses in your life. So I think it’s an appropriate title. But you’ve had some serious ups and downs in this life of yours.
Allman: Yeah, but I’m still smiling. (Laughs)
Allman: Yeah, like, when I look back on my life, I just remember back what happened in ’74, or something. It seems like only the real good stuff comes to mind. I don’t think of all the tragedies and all the funerals. That just doesn’t come to mind at all. I guess I’m really blessed that way.
Tavis: How do you not think about the death of your brother? When you say the good stuff comes to mind, I think I take what you mean by that, but how do you repress those memories, those thoughts about your brother, particularly?
Allman: Well, I felt – after he died I thought I’d never get over it. Then I started thinking about him a little more than I was thinking about me. It’s a very selfish thing.
As they say in the bible, that you’re supposed to rejoice when people die and mourn when they’re born, because it’s one of the most painful acts you go through in life, is being born, and dying, I don’t know, but I believe. I don’t know. It’s got to have a name.
Tavis: Yeah. Again, I only go here because you talk about it in the book. You tell, again, a painful story, for me, at least, about the last conversation with your brother before he passed away, here again, one of those crosses to bear. How painful to relive that story?
Allman: Not as much as it used to be.
Allman: Like I was saying, right at first it was just, oh, you couldn’t – it was worse than a broken heart. He was not only my brother, he was my mentor. He was like a father figure. I came to the conclusion I probably leaned on him a little too much.
Somehow got it turned around, and like now, sometimes on stage, I can feel his presence so vividly that I’m just waiting to hear him start into a solo.
Tavis: How did losing him so early in your musical career, so early in the band’s life, how did that challenge you, how did that coerce you, how did it help shape and develop you in terms of coming into your own?
Allman: Ooh, it did it, let me tell you. You never know how much you are leaning on somebody until they die, and then where’s my crutch? I just had to bite the bullet, man, and pull up my bootstraps and start stepping, because all the other guys in the band, they’re all wondering, what are we going to do now?
So we called a meeting and everybody knew – they didn’t know what the solution was, but they knew that if we didn’t keep playing that no telling what would happen.
Tavis: You talk about, to your point now, Gregg, you talk about some tense times after Duane passes away, tense times inside the band – it’s not surprising, I suspect – some tense times about the direction and who the leader of the band was going to be.
There were some personality conflicts you talk about in the book after your brother passed away.
Allman: Yeah. Yeah, and everybody’s still half-crazed. I said first, let’s all just go our separate ways for about a month, maybe two, if it takes it. I went to Jamaica. Oh, God, because it was rugged. I was going through a divorce at the same time.
Tavis: How did you navigate having to revisit that all over again when you have another band member who dies in another accident near the same location as Duane?
Allman: It was like, that one was like, it was just starting to get over, get mobile again, and we were talking about music and I had some new stuff already written, and it’s the first time I’d looked at it, and then that happens, and whew, I was – where was I?
I was somewhere in the Caribbean again, and they called me and said, “Don’t come home.” So I didn’t. I stayed down there, and they said it was pretty rough.
Tavis: How much more important – it’s always important, and you tell the story in the book, of course, a variety of stories – the music has always been the epicenter. The music has always been central in your life.
Allman: Absolutely, yes.
Tavis: How much more central did the music become, have to become, to help you navigate through these difficult times?
Allman: Well, see, up until the time of my brother’s death, we had two different records. They packaged them later and called them “Beginnings.” But both of them, they just released them and they just (makes noise). They come on the charts at 200 with an anchor.
They just didn’t do anything, and I’ve always been like the doubting Thomas of the band, so I went to my brother, I said, “See? I told you we weren’t going to make enough to pay rent.” I said, “Now I’m glad I finished high school.”
Then we went on playing. In 1970 I think we played 306 nights. It was – people ask you all the time, well, how did you make it? How’d you know when you made it?” I’m not sure what “made it” is, but we just got around and played everywhere we could.
If, like, we were in, like, New Orleans on Saturday night, we’d look for a park on Sunday and go set up. We had a big collection of these 50-yard-long extension cords, right, and we’d see if a couple of kind souls would let us plug in and we’d have a band. We did that, like, in just about every town we went to.
Tavis: You just loved playing.
Allman: Oh, still do.
Tavis: Anytime, anywhere.
Allman: Yes, sir.
Tavis: For anybody.
Allman: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) When you said a moment ago, “I don’t know what ‘made it’ means,” I assume you had to know that you had made it when you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Allman: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Tavis: Yeah, you knew you had made it then.
Allman: Yes, and that was such a good night, because I saw playback of it the next day and I quit everything that day.
Tavis: The drugs, you mean?
Allman: Drugs, alcohol, smoking cigarettes, snorting anything – everything.
Tavis: So all that you’ve been through in your life and career, all the ups, all the downs, all the challenges, all the travails, you end up seeing one playback – clearly you had seen yourself in playback countless times, so why that particular playback after the induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the impetus for you to get sober and clean?
Allman: Well, that is like going to see the grand wizard of Oz and him knighting you or something. In my world, Hall of Fame, I mean, God, and we got in it so early, seemingly. They’d just built it, so fate would have it that we’d get in. The stipulation is you have to have a record out for 25 years, and I think it has to be a hit, too.
Tavis: That always helps. (Laughter)
Allman: So I just thought, man, if you can’t snap out of it for this, we need to go home and talk. This time I went to the rehab which was rehab at the Allman’s house. I hired a male nurse to come in there to give me whatever I needed intravenously.
I walked around the little pole. I think it was two weeks. I vaguely remember it. Alls I remember is I didn’t feel good worth a damn, and right at first it was real rugged, and I wanted a cigarette so bad. All that, all that, coming off all that, and I wanted a damn cigarette. Those things are just – oh. I’m so glad I’m not chained to those things anymore.
Tavis: You’re not the first person, the first rock and roll artist to fall prey to drug abuse, but how did that happen for you? How do you recall that you ended up, for so many years, being addicted?
Allman: Well, I had a lot of – I inherited this – I can’t pronounce the name; it’s a tooth thing, though. It’s like when you’re in the womb and they, I don’t know, they come by with the last coat of enamel, they passed my mother up.
Anyway, he had dentures by the time he was 16, and I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can abuse your teeth that bad. Anyway, I guess I was in my late thirties, I finally just – because I had had abscesses and I had crowns and I had all these – I’ve got a million-dollar smile (laughs) for sure, and finally this one dentist that I happened upon, he said – he took me back in the dark room where they look at all the X-rays, and he said, “I want you to look closely at this tooth. It’s yours.
“When you see the top, it’s been crowned,” he said, “But look at the bottom real close,” and he, like, enlarged the whole thing, and it looked like a little jigsaw puzzle. He said, “Man, the top of the tooth went bad. What makes you think the bottom isn’t going to do the same thing?”
He says, “What you have here is, this a mouth disease. This is lack of hard enough enamel,” and my teeth were, they were real soft.
Tavis: So you were self-medicating all this time.
Allman: Absolutely. Then before that, somewhere along the way everybody’s trying to pass you a powdered backstage pass. This particular year that we worked so many nights, this guy says, “Well, try a little of this.” In the ’70s, man, people were taking anything, everything. It was like I don’t want to say kosher, but nobody –
Tavis: It was everywhere.
Tavis: And everybody was doing it.
Allman: Absolutely. Everybody. So I took me a little snort of this stuff and it made everything all right – temporarily. He didn’t call it by any name at all. I just eased on out, had about 10 hours of sleep – that’s about all the time we had before we had to load up again – and whew. Before too long I ran into him again.
I said, “Hey.” He said, “Follow me.” One morning I woke up and something was not right. I felt like I’d been out in the woods and that a bunch of bugs had bit me or something. It was terrible. It was terrible. Then as the realization hit me, and I went, “Oh, you stupid -” and by then it’s too late.
Tavis: You were an addict at that point.
Allman: Then here comes the teeth – round and round we go.
Tavis: I have been honored to have on this program a number of times James Taylor, and JT has famously talked about the period in his life when he was drug addicted and what he had to go through to get off of it.
He’s joked on this program before about not remembering so much of the good stuff early on in his career because he was so high for a good part of that. Do you recall or do you regret not being able to clearly remember and be present in those moments where the music was so rich and being enjoyed by so many people?
Allman: I tell you, I have a hell of a memory. Not an immediate memory, but the long time. I can remember stuff that my good close friends would say, “Man, you remember that?” and I say, “Yeah, don’t you remember this, this, this happened, and then we were here,” and they say, “Man, I don’t know.” You remember it just plain as day.
Tavis: So you recall a lot of the great moments on stage?
Allman: Oh, I do, I do. I do.
Tavis: What do you – obviously, when you make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s a major statement on the part of those folk about your musical contributions. But let me ask Gregg Allman what his sense is. What’s your sense of The Allman Brothers’ musical contribution? What do you think of this corpus, this playlist, that you all have given the world?
Allman: Well, I think we came on a whole different genre of music, when there was the stuff that we were just always playing. We always played – we usually played Black music, and I guess it just molded into a thing like that.
Tavis: You know what’s amazing about that –
Allman: I think they made a very good contribution.
Tavis: Yeah, I think you made a good contribution, too. What’s fascinating about it is when you say, unapologetically, and all your fans know this, you played Black music, you played soul music, you played R&B, whatever you want to call it, that’s what you guys did so well, but you talk in the book about how, even though you’re playing Black music, to use your term, you have a Black drummer.
Because of the presence of that Black drummer during the era when y’all were playing in so many places down South, you guys caught hell for having a Black drummer, even though you’re playing Black music.
Allman: Whoa. Really. (Laughs) Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
Tavis: It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? So they loved the music; they don’t want you having a Black guy playing in the band.
Allman: That’s it. That’s it. We used to have all kinds of trouble. I hate to name places, but, oh, “We’ll serve you, but we’re not going to serve that,” then the big “N” word. I would be so embarrassed that she, like, openly called him that, because he’s standing right there. I just wanted to tell her, “Take your damn restaurant and stick it.” But we had – and he’d always say, “Don’t worry about it, man.”
Tavis: You still love playing? You still love gigging all these years?
Allman: I love it.
Tavis: I look back at the start – of course, you talk about it in the book – at the start of The Allman Brothers, and I started going through the names of the band that you all went through, so many names before you finally settled on the Allman Brothers Band.
Tavis: But you guys were literally at one point called the Allman Joys?
Allman: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was like, I hope that wasn’t Gregg’s idea, man.
Tavis: I don’t want to bust your chops about that.
Allman: I hated that –
Tavis: The Allman Joys?
Allman: I hated that name. (Laughter)
Tavis: As well you should. (Laughter) Good Lord.
Allman: Oh, man, me and my brother went round and round and round about that.
Tavis: That was Duane’s idea?
Allman: Yep. (Laughter)
Tavis: Duane made a lot of important contributions; that was not one of them. (Laughter)
Allman: That was definitely not one of them.
Tavis: That was not one of them. I love the quote on the back of the book here. There’s so many things I could talk to you about with regard to the book, because again, you can’t do justice to your musical legacy in 30 minutes, and that’s why you’re in the Hall of Fame.
But there’s a wonderful quote on the back of the book, and I suspect that the book company knew what they were doing, William Morrow, when they chose this to be on the cover.
“The music was so important to us that there wasn’t any time for chatter. We wanted to play, and we just played and played all day. The only thing we wanted to do was get our sound tighter and tighter, get it better and better.
“We played for each other, we played to each other, we played off each other, which is what The Allman Brothers is all about. We were like Lewis and Clark, man – we were musical adventurers, explorers. We were one for all and all for one.”
All about the music.
Allman: That’s right.
Tavis: The new book from Gregg Allman is called “My Cross to Bear.” Gregg, thank you for a rich musical legacy, and thanks for coming on the program. Good to have you on.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
[Video segment of Allman Brothers Band live musical performance]
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