On June 27, 1971, when the legendary Bill Graham introduced The Allman Brothers Band at the very last show at the Fillmore East, he said,
“…for my amateur ears, in all my life, I’ve never heard the kind of music that this band plays: the finest contemporary music. We’re going to round it off with the best of them all, The Allman Brothers.”
For a man who had been the premier promoter in San Francisco since 1965, bringing to life the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, just to name two, that was quite a statement. Graham wasn’t some sort of outlier in this opinion, either. Rock music’s “Journal of Record,” Rolling Stone, proclaimed in their review of At Fillmore East that the Allman Brothers Band was “the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years.”
What made The Allman Brothers Band so great? It probably depends on who we’d ask.
For one, by the time Gregg and Duane got the Band together, they had already toured in Motown and R&B bands. Duane was a session guitarist, playing in the studio with stars such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, from whom he picked up soul, gospel, and blues. The brothers also brought in jazz, folk, country, and bluegrass influences—and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll, which in 1969 was just over a decade old. (Some of these influences come out in a big way in Gregg Allman’s latest solo work.) They also decided to work with two percussionists and two lead guitarists.
In short, the mightily innovative Allman Brothers Band crafted an entirely new kind of sound, drawn from a vastly eclectic range of sources. They invented ‘southern Rock,’ a label none of the band ever liked; perhaps even more than the Grateful Dead, they also started the “jam band” movement. For historians, The Allman Brothers Band represents the beginning of a new chapter of uniquely American music, with uniquely American roots.
Of course, none of that mattered to the fans. Part of the success of the Band was that all of this worked together seamlessly—and that seamlessness, too, was a big part of the Allman sound. Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, both masterful musicians in their own rights, played in phase with one another beautifully. Duane Allman’s “Les Paul guitar through a Marshall stack” sound still stands as one of the best, most distinctive guitar tones in any genre, and forty-some years later, his name still comes in high up on just about every Best Guitarist Ever list.
What made The Allman Brothers Band great for me, though, was Gregg Allman’s voice. When I listen to At Fillmore East now, it is nearly impossible for me to believe that Gregory was only twenty-four years old then. The unique timbre of Gregg’s singing voice conveyed to me a vast depth of feeling. The gravelly strain just sounded like a man who had known loneliness and desperation, and it made songs like Ramblin’ Man and One Way Out seem like something more than just songs. I think they spoke to a lot of us about who we really are. And somehow, even though there wasn’t anything that dramatic happening in my life, I could feel that I, too, had been tied to the Whipping Post…but they weren’t gonna catch the Midnight Rider.
It almost seems to me now that Gregg Allman has had to live his way into all the heartache that came through in that young soulful voice. Only three months after that famed final show at the Fillmore East, Duane Allman, only 25, would die in a tragic motorcycle accident. Only a year and two weeks later, just three blocks from that same spot in Macon, Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley had a motorcycle accident, and died that night. Drug addiction, alcoholism, six marriages, five children, eleven or seventeen or eighteen times through rehab, depending who you ask, and finally a liver transplant in 2011—Gregg Allman has been through a lot.
Haven’t we all, though? And isn’t that the point? That our sufferings, real or perceived, self-infllicted or not, are somehow lessened and made beautiful by setting them to song and story and sharing them? That we return again, and again, to what we love, what makes us feel real and alive, and that that makes us human? ‘The road goes on forever…’ and something of all that still comes through to me every time I hear Gregg Allman sing.
Assistant Professor of Religion
Christian Haskett joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as an assistant professor of religion. Haskett’s academic specialty is the history of Buddhism in Tibet and India.He also works on Jainism and Hinduism, as well as Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other South Asian languages. Haskett has a B.A. in English from Marywood University. He earned a M.A. in religion from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in languages and cultures of Asia from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For information about Gregg Allman, performing at the Norton Center on January 8, 2016, click here.