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 “Ramblin’ 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 choose 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 — you know, it’s hard to name a hound dog, you know. I mean, so, you know, I tried and tried. I was gonna call it “After the Thrill” or “Beyond the Thrill.”
That was gonna be the name of it and 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. Oh, it kind of grows on you, you know. 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. I mean, 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 ask 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 [laugh]. Yeah, I mean, like when I look back on my life, I just remember back what happened in ’74 or something. You know, it seems like only the real good stuff comes to mind.
I don’t think of all the tragedies, you know, the funerals and, you know, that just doesn’t come to mind at all. I guess I’m really blessed that way.
Tavis: Yeah. How do you not think about the death of your brother? 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 thought after he died, hell, I thought I’d never get over it and then I started thinking about him a little more than I was thinking about me.
It’s a very selfish thing. I mean, as they say in the Bible that you’re supposed to rejoice when people die and mourn when they’re born ’cause it is 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, you know. It’s got to have a name.
Tavis: Yeah. You — 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 — I mean, it was worse than a broken heart. I mean, it was, God, I mean, he was not only my brother. He was my mentor. I mean, he was like a father figure.
You know, I came to the conclusion I probably leaned on him a little too much and somehow got it turned around, you know. And like now, sometimes on stage, I mean, I can feel his presence so vividly that I’m just waiting to hear him starting to his soloing.
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 to shape and develop you in terms of coming into your own?
Allman: Oh, 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, you know? And I just had to bite the bullet, man, and pull up my bootstraps and just start stepping because all the other guys in the band, they’re all wondering, you know, what are we gonna do now?
So we called a meeting and everybody didn’t know what the solution was, but they knew that if we didn’t keep playing, that no telling what would happen. We went on playing. In 1970, I think, we played 306 nights. You know, 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.
I mean, it’s like we were in like New Orleans on Saturday night. We’d look for the 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 there was a couple of kind souls let us plug in and we’d have a band. Then we did that 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: 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: You knew you had made it then.
Allman: Yes, and that was such a good night because I saw a 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’d 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 to 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. You know, in my world, Hall of Fame? I mean, God, and we got in it so early seemingly, you know. But they just built it, you know, 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 [laugh].
Allman: [Laugh] So I just thought, man, if you can’t snap out of it for this, we need to go home and talk. And this time, I went to the rehab which was rehab at the Allman’s house. I hired a male nurse to come in there and give me whatever I needed intravenously. I walked around with a little pole. I think it was two weeks. I vaguely remember it.
All I remember is I didn’t feel good worth a damn. Right at first, it was real rugged and I wanted a cigarette so bad. 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: What’s your sense of The Allman Brothers’ musical contribution? What do you think of this corpus, this play list that you all have given the world?
Allman: Well, I think we came on a whole different genre of music, only it was the stuff that we were just always playing. We usually played Black music and I guess it just molded into a thing like that, you know.
Tavis: 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 and, because of the presence of that Black drummer during the era where you 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: Oh, really [laugh]. It 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 we’ll serve you, but we’re not gonna serve that, then the big N word, you know. I would be so embarrassed, you know, that she like openly called him that because he’s standing right there. I just wanted to tell her, you know, take your damn restaurant and stick it. And he’d always say “Don’t worry about it, man.”
Tavis: There’s a wonderful quote on the back of the book.
“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 & 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: Pleased to welcome Carole King back to this program. Her legendary career in music is the subject of “The New York Times” best-selling memoir, “A Natural Woman.”
In addition, she’s out with this terrific — and I do mean terrific — CD called “The Legendary Demos” featuring never before heard recordings of many of her iconic songs. Carole King, good to have you back on this program.
Carole King: Thank you.
Tavis: When you hear your demos, what do you think?
King: It’s very difficult for me to evaluate my own stuff. When I hear it, I go “How did that young woman know how to do that?” How did she — which is now I, of course — you can hear in every track the artist for whom the demo was destined, the song was destined.
And I just listen to that and I’m quite taken with that, but I’m so far removed from it that I don’t feel like immodest by saying that, but just sort of marveling it. When I was young, I did that?
Tavis: Another strange question here. When you hear certain of these demos, to your point now, demos that you wrote for other people, obviously it’s your stuff. You can record it any time you want, but do you ever say to yourself, “I wish I’d held that one back?”
King: No, no.
King: No, because it’s always a pleasure when somebody does record it. And one of the fun things about, for example, “Natural Woman.” you hear my original version as presented to Aretha Franklin and her producers and then I recorded it later on the “Tapestry” album and you have my book there.
The title is “A Natural Woman” and there’s this whole chapter about “A Natural Woman” and from the beginning, through the end, to the end, and there’s really no end because people keep recording it.
Tavis: Yeah. You were very open, very honest, very courageous, I think, about your marriages and particularly one that was abusive.
Tavis: Maybe I got to spend more time going back through the Carole King play list, but I’m trying to figure out where that came out to the extent that it ever did come out in the songwriting, in the music. Did I miss something in here, your corpus?
King: You know, I don’t know if or where it did because the man that was abusive to me was named Rick Evers, just so we clarify who it isn’t [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, got it.
King: And I was kind of taken over. His personality took me over and he influenced my songs and I don’t think I really did my best work when I was with him. If it did come out, I really can’t specify which song…
Tavis: That may be the answer, though. That’s why I said I had to go back through my Carole King corpus here because maybe the way that it came out, to your point, is not doing your best work.
King: I think that’s right.
Tavis: That may be the result of it.
King: I think that’s right. I was trying to speak for him in a lot of cases and, you know, he wanted to be a star and I was the vehicle to that and he’s gone now and I don’t think he was ever happy being here and he overdosed on drugs and took himself out of the mix. The only reason I wrote about it, it was scary to write about it because it was a very painful thing.
But I did it because I figured if there is one woman — and there are some men that are abused as well — but there’s one woman out there that thinks it’s her fault and that she deserves to be treated that way, my message is you don’t deserve to be treated that way. You deserve to be safe and that, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you and it can happen to anyway.
So that was my reason for including it in the book, to say it could happen to Carole King. I had money, I had fame, I had a support system, I had family, but I just fell into it because that’s how it works.
Tavis: And you stayed, by your own admission, too long.
King: I stayed too long and, after you’re smacked upside the head and you stay? And in the book — I don’t want to talk about it here because it’s so complicated, but in the book, I outline why women stay and I’d always said I’d never stay with a man like that, I would leave in a New York minute. But I didn’t and the reasons are sort of outlined in the book. It’s very complex, but we do stay until we realize…
Tavis: One last question on that. If not release through your expression, which is songwriting, then, as you look back on it, write about it in the book, how did you navigate your way out of that? How did you navigate your way through it?
King: Oh, through is more complicated, but navigating out of it was — I came to a realization that it was time to go and I took my children and went away and, while I was away, he overdosed on drugs. So I was already on the way out. I finally came to the realization that this was detrimental.
Tavis: On to happier stuff.
King: On the happier stuff.
Tavis: On the happier stuff.
King: But I do hope people will read that who are in that situation and have the courage to know. I even put a little box in the book where to go to get help.
Tavis: Yeah. Happier times. You obviously know that I am a huge fan of yours and a huge fan of James Taylor and anywhere that Carole King and James Taylor appear, I’m there on the front row, as you know.
King: I know. I saw you.
Tavis: Happened to see me a thousand times on tour when you guys were out a couple years — you probably thought I was stalking you guys, you saw me so many times on tour. When I say James Taylor, you think what?
King: I think friend.
King: I think a special connection musically that I’ve not experienced with a lot of people in the same way. And, again, I describe this in the book in such a lovely, wonderful way. I put myself back in the moment of playing with him for the first time. It’s the same whenever we come together again after years we don’t see each other, we don’t play, we might not speak, but here we are, hello, and that’s what happened in the “Troubadour” tour.
Tavis: I was there. I was at the Troubadour.
King: And before that, really, at the Troubadour Club in 2007, which we also have that out — Concord has that out.
Tavis: I was there too [laugh].
King: You were there for everything.
Tavis: Not for everything, but for this part I was.
King: You know what? I treasure it. I treasure that you were there. I treasure being part of that phenomenon. I’ve had a remarkable life. I seem to be in such good places at the right time. You know, if you were to ask me to sum my life up in one word, gratitude.
Tavis: Yeah. At the Troubadour Club, I’m there to see you and J.T. I’m sitting in my seat having a great time. I look to my right and I’m kind of bouncing and the person next to me is bouncing. I look over, it’s Jane Fonda [laugh]. It was just a surreal moment of bouncing next to Jane Fonda at the Troubadour.
To your point about gratitude, I was, again, fascinated near the end of the text. You spent a whole chapter basically talking about gratitude.
King: I do.
Tavis: And you highlight a number of persons whose work, whose gift, their gratitude being expressed through your philanthropy, through their charity. Strange, in a good way, but an interesting way to close a book. I’ve never seen a book where somebody spends a chapter just talking about gratitude and celebrating not her own philanthropy or charity, but the work of others. Interesting way to…
King: They inspire all of us. Paul Newman with his Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, Bono with his work to eliminate third world debt and, God knows, we all need debt eliminated. You know, just people committing themselves, people who take their fame and their success and spend time really working for a cause.
And my cause — you know, there are a million great causes. The cause you work on is dear to my heart as well, you know, eliminating poverty. But I live in the northern Rockies and, because I live there, I’m uniquely qualified to know how my neighbors see things and how it fits together as an ecosystem
And I found myself lobbying since 1990, I think, to protect the northern Rockies and I’ve made all these friends in Congress really on both sides of the aisle, people who care about the environment. And I just love the work because we haven’t gotten there yet, but just meeting all those people who really want to make a difference in that field is important to me.
Tavis: I’m not going to give out your home address, so don’t get scared.
King: Oh, it’s in the book, unfortunately [laugh], but, oh, well.
Tavis: [Laugh] You’ve lived — you had a home and spent a great deal of your time in Idaho, to your point, the northern Rockies in Idaho for about 33 years now, by my account. What has that space, or put another way, being away from the rat race, not being in New York, not being in L.A. except when you wanted to be, what has — my word, not yours — the solitude, I suspect, of being in that space done for your songwriting over these 33 years?
King: I think it can only have made it better.
King: I think that I am stimulated to write by the turmoil of the city, by the confusion, by the problems, but I’m also nourished by the solitude, the closeness to big, vast nature. Big places, you know, when people say, “Oh, what does wilderness mean you’re starving?” I get that, I get that.
But I also think that doesn’t mean destroy the wilderness because it’s an important part. And when you’re not starving, you’re going to want to have a place to go and your kids and your grandkids are going to want to have a place to go.
So I see it as my responsibility, yes, to help take care of the problems that are going on in the city right now, big problems, and rurally as well, but to take care of that wilderness for future generations. We have to, we have to.
Tavis: The love you have given, though, is boundless and I’m always delighted to have you on this program. This is so unfair to have a life that is so rich and so full that you can’t even scratch the surface of it in a 30-minute conversation.
But, thankfully, there is a “New York Times” best-selling book out now that you can pick up. It’s called “A Natural Woman” — wonder how that became the title [laugh] — written by the one and only Carole King.
Along with the new book, there’s some new music out as well. It’s called “The Legendary Demos.” So the timing of all this is a beautiful thing. As I said, it’s on the “New York Times” best-seller list and who’s surprised by that? Not me.
King: And available in vinyl, may I add?
Tavis: I love this. I really do love this. It’s a throwback.
King: Thank you.
Tavis: And I love you.
King: I love you too.
Tavis: And I’m glad to have you on.
King: And thank you for your work. I really appreciate it.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. It’s a love fest. I just adore Carole King.
King: I know, isn’t it?
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight [laugh]. You can download our new app in the iTunes App Store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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