As he confessed in his 1987 hit, Gregg Allman was “no angel.” Drug addiction, tragic deaths and divorce dented his personal life. Yet it is his musical life as a Southern rock virtuoso that became his legacy.
Allman, lead singer of the Allman Brothers Band and an engineer of the Southern rock style that inspired the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special, died Saturday at his home in Savannah, Ga, his website announced. He was 69.
"Gregg struggled with many health issues over the past several years," the statement posted on greggallman.com noted. "During that time, Gregg considered being on the road, playing music with his brothers and solo band for his beloved fans, essential medicine for his soul. Playing music lifted him up and kept him going during the toughest of times."
Born Dec. 8, 1947, in Nashville, Allman called music “the fever,” and he came down with it at an early age. He saved money from a paper route to buy his first guitar, and although his older brother, Duane, soon became the more proficient player, Allman found his own voice and concentrated on singing.
The brothers began playing and recording with various bands (the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass) and moved to L.A. Duane managed to escape the Hour Glass’ stifling record contract, but Gregg continued to languish under the label as a solo artist before returning home to the South — and to his brother— to front the Allman Brothers Band in 1969.
The group took up residence in a Macon, Ga., mansion nicknamed “the Big House” (which has now become the Allman Brothers Band Museum) and began cooking up a style that was at once rock, blues, country and jazz.
Allman was married six times in his life, most memorably to Cher, from 1975 to 1979. The pair was considered an oddity, and the album they recorded together (Two the Hard Way), billed as “Allman and Woman,” was considered a career low for both.
After Willie Nelson expressed concern about his health during the band’s 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Allman got sober, and he and the band hit the road once again. They toured extensively and started a yearly tradition at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre — the so-called “Beacon Run”— that had fans making yearly pilgrimages every spring. Although older and wiser, Allman’s past caught up with him; he went public with his Hepatitis C diagnosis in 2007 and underwent a liver transplant in 2010.
Allman leaves behind five children (Devon, Michael Sean, Elijah Blue, Delilah Island and Layla Brooklyn) , several of whom carry on their father’s musical legacy in their own bands.
H&H Soul Food is known as the kitchen that fed the Allman Brothers, and Mama Louise as their chef. More than 40 years ago, she started going above and beyond to nourish their band's palates and their souls. Our Yvonne Thomas spoke to Mama Louise as she remembers the Allman Brothers.
An ordinary day in 1969, Louise Hudson, known as "Mama Louise," welcomed a few out-of-the-ordinary guests into her Cotton Avenue restaurant. “I was looking out the window one afternoon and I said, 'Janie...' She said, 'What is it, Louise?' I said, 'Here comes a crowd of hippies!'” said Mama Louise.
Those hippies turned out to be Duane and Gregg Allman, along with the rest of the Allman Brothers band. Mama Louise could tell they were new in town and knew just how to make them feel at home. “They came on in. They were hungry, so I fed them and I just got to be their mama. I enjoyed them boys,” said Mama Louise.
Soon, the H & H Restaurant became the group's home away from home.
When the road trips ended, they'd come to see "Mama," as they called her, craving fried chicken, collards, everything she cooked. “Yeah, I stayed in touch with them,” said Mama Louise.
They flew her to some shows over the years and talked often. More than 40 years later, the memories still hang as heavy in the air as the chicken grease at H&H. “We turned out to be a family.”
But now, members of her family have passed on -- first, Duane Allman in 1971, and now, Gregg Allman. “It was shocking. I got so many calls the other night about it I just burst out crying,” said Mama Louise. Mama Louise says she's hurting but wouldn't change a thing about the journey and believes her boys are rockin' and rollin' in a better place.
Mama Louise says she does plan to attend Gregg Allman's funeral.
Chuck Leavell, former member of the Allman Brothers Band, says though he is sad about his friend and former bandmate's passing, Gregg Allman's spirit and music will live on.
Before they ever played together, Leavell says he was a long-time fan of Gregg and Duane Allman and their groundbreaking style of music.
"I actually used to watch Gregg and Duane play with the Allman Joys when I was a young teenager back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I grew up," he says. "All of us young musicians would make sure we went to go see that band anytime they came through town. They were just absolutely amazing."
Leavell says his admiration of Gregg Allman's talent only grew stronger as he worked with and opened up for the Allman Brother's Band.
"Gregg had the most amazing, beautiful, intriguing voice in Rock and Roll and it was very southern, as was his writing."
Leavell says Gregg was a true southern gentleman and often avoided the spotlight to let his music speak for itself. He says one of Allman's popular songs "Midnight Rider" sums up his friend's legacy perfectly.
"It says 'the road goes on forever,' and it certainly will with Gregg's music."
Leavell says he was honored to be part of the tribute concert to Gregg in Atlanta a few years ago, and the number of stars that showed up to take part speaks volumes about Allman's influence on southern rock and the music industry.
"Gregg meant so many things to so many different people, and I think that was one of the wonderful things about Gregg is there was so much music to choose from."
No matter where Gregg's career took him, Leavell says the Macon community always had a special place in his heart.
"Macon, Georgia was in Gregg Allman's blood. There's no doubt about it. There were so many times that we spent there in so many situations, whether we were recording at Capricorn Records or whether we were rehearsing in Macon or when we would do shows in Macon."
Leavell is currently working in London and will not be able to attend Allman's funeral, but he says there will be a celebration concert in Gregg's honor at a later date.
Back in the 1960s when the Allman Brothers were just about to hit it big, they hung out with a local band called Boogie Chillun.
Gary Harmon and Asa Howard sat down with us to share some memories.
"It was on social media, somebody picked it up and said it.... and the music just stopped," Asa said, remembering when they found out about Allman's death.
A fitting impromptu tribute from fellow musicians for Gregg Allman.
Boogie Chillun reunited for an annual Allman Brothers festival a few years back, but their memories stretch over 50 years.
"Well, I just remember him as a buddy, you know, back in the day," Asa recalled. "Part of our band and part of the Allman Brothers Band, they lived in a lot of different places -- Orange Terrace and College Street."
"We were in the studio when they showed up and they had no equipment or nothing," Gary remembered. "There's pictures of Gregg playing my Hammond B-3. They hadn't been in Macon but a couple of weeks, and we asked them to play with us and they did, and of course, they didn't get paid, so we gave them the money we made."
The Allmans went on to make millions. Gary eventually became a professional photographer. Asa has always had a love affair with music.
The Back Porch Lounge has a lot of Allman and Boogie Chillun memorabilia on the wall, and Gregg Allman never forgot his Central Georgia roots.
"Our band's the only one that's even named in Gregg's book," Asa said. "I mean, he said when they came to town, there wasn't much going on except a band called Boogie Chillun."
And remember that famous Allman hit that Gregg wrote, 'Midnight Rider?'
"Actually, Gregg had just written the song, and we were in the studio and we were in there and he sat down and played it for me on the piano, and he said, 'I think this may be a good song to put on one of y'all's albums,' but it was such a commercialized song that it was actually Phil Walden that kept the song for the Allman Brothers," Asa explained.
Gregg was good with a pen, but these guys have respect for him on every level.
"I think the first song they played in the studio when we were there was 'Trouble No More,' and it was unbelievable, and when Gregg opened his mouth, it was phenomenal," Gary recalled.
The music world is singing a somber tune after the death of Gregg Allman.
The Allman Brothers Band influenced the music industry across the country, but plenty of local fans credit the group with putting Macon on the map.
Our Mary Grace Shaw sat down with members of the band Stillwater who say the Allman Brothers opened up the door for them.
“When they came along, they opened a humongous door for bands from the south,” said Stillwater guitarist Mike Causey.
Many say The Allman Brothers introduced the world to the southern rock genre alongside artists like Charlie Daniels and Barefoot Jerry.
“They kind of had a little bit of everything. They had soul, R&B, rock and roll. Like I said, it was different,” said Causey.
In the late 1960s, Gregg Allman, his brother Duane, and four others came together to form the group.
Soon thereafter, they left Jacksonville, Fla., for Atlanta to be closer to the fledgling independent label Capricorn Records founded by the late Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden.
The band’s presence in Macon is credited as being the catalyst for the city’s cultural transformation.
Causey says it was Gregg's voice and the music behind it that shaped his band Stillwater.
“I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play guitar and do what we did,” said Causey.
He says they recorded at Macon’s Capricorn studios with The Allman Brothers. As a result, they ended up opening for the band in Texas.
“That was exciting you know because we wanted to do what they were doing,” said Causey.
However, it was at a small bar in Macon where Causey and his band member Rob Walker say they actually got to play onstage with Gregg.
“This police man that Gregg obviously knew came up and started going, ‘Gregg it’s time to go.’ And Gregg kind of leaned over and said, ‘Billy just a little longer please,’” said Walker.
It’s a memory that Walker says he will cherish forever.
“That was such a wonderful thing to witness. You know I wish we had him for a little bit longer now,” said Walker.
Kristen McGrath, USA Today contributed to this story