Vinson: Gregg Allman: Bearing the 'Cross' Until the End

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The front page headline of the May 28, 2017 edition of The Tennessean newspaper read, "Gregg Allman dies at 69." For the first few seconds, after reading the headline, I was in an emotional vacuum.
Certainly, I am merely one amongst a legion of fans mourning the loss of Gregg Allman, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee as well as, arguably, being the co-founder of 'Southern Rock' music. That said, would you believe me if I told you we might never have heard of Gregg Allman had it not been for The Beatles and Wilson Pickett? Follow closely as I attempt to gently weave this bit of rock 'n' roll tapestry.
When discussing Southern Rock, many groups come to mind: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Wet Willie, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, and others. However, the first time I recall hearing the term Southern Rock was when it was applied to the Allman Brothers Band/ABB. Moving right along ...

In was late 1968, and soul singer Wilson Pickett (of "Mustang Sally" fame) was recording an album at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, AL. Also hanging out at Fame Studio was a long-haired, free-spirited guitar virtuoso named Duane Allman. Allman and Pickett clicked right off the bat, and Allman ended up playing guitar on Pickett's cover of the Beatles' single "Hey Jude" (a hit for both The Beatles and Pickett).

Phil Walden, head of Capricorn Records in Macon, GA, heard Pickett's cover of "Hey Jude" and was so impressed with Allman's guitar playing that Walden decided to form a band with Allman as the nucleus. After a few changes, the original lineup for the Allman Brothers Band came together: Duane Allman on lead guitar; Gregg Allman, Duane's younger brother, on keyboards and vocals; Dickey Betts on rhythm/ lead guitar; Berry Oakley on bass; Butch Trucks on drums; and Jai Johnny Johanson on drums.

"That particular part Duane played [on Pickett's "Hey Jude"] changed music - it changed music to the point that Southern Rock was born," Fame Studio musician-producer Jimmy Johnson stated in a documentary titled "Southern Rock Revolution."

Though ABB had released two albums, "The Allman Brothers Band" in 1969, and "Idlewild South" in 1970, most music aficionados agree the commercial launch pad for ABB was their first live album, "At Fillmore East," recorded at rock promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore East venue, located in New York City. ABB's "At Fillmore East" was recorded March 12-13, 1971, and was released in July 1971. Considered one of the greatest live rock albums ever, "At Fillmore East" (a double LP) was ABB's first album to go platinum. Further, in addition to being chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2004, "At Fillmore East" sells well to this very day.

(NOTE: During the same aforementioned time frame, late '60s - early '70s, Bill Graham also owned and operated Fillmore West, an equally popular music auditorium located in San Francisco, California.)

Sadly, just as the Allman Brothers Band began to peak, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident, Oct. 29, 1971, in Macon, GA. Eerily enough, Berry Oakley also perished in a motorcycle accident, Nov. 11, 1972, only a few blocks from where Duane met his fate.

While many thought Duane Allman's untimely death would spell the end for ABB as a major act, Gregg--drawing heavily from a personal brew of soul-professionalism-and gut desire to make good music--managed to keep the band together ... and play on they did! The 1972 release of their album "Eat a Peach" established ABB as a world-class rock band. This status was further bolstered by the 1973 release of "Brothers and Sisters," ABB's most successful album, featuring the hit single "Ramblin' Man."

Gregg Allman continued to perform for the next four-plus decades, sometimes as a member of ABB, and sometimes as a solo act--usually called the 'Gregg Allman Band'--which brings me to the one time I saw Gregg perform live: It was around 1996, and the Gregg Allman Band was performing at 328 Performance Hall in Nashville, TN. Appearing on stage with Gregg that night, along with others, were: former Wet Willie front man Jimmy Hall on harmonica/vocals; Lonnie Mack, a.k.a. "Father of Modern Guitar," on guitar/vocals; Bekka Bramlett, former vocalist with Fleetwood Mac, on vocals; and Murfreesboro native Jack Pearson on guitar/vocals. Indeed, it was a jam session fit for the most scrutinous of ears, and I'm just grateful I was there to witness it.

Granted, I've always loved, still love, Gregg Allman's music. However, the attribute I most admire about the 'blue-eyed bluzer' is this: He managed to conjure up the strength to bear the cross of Southern Rock music from brother Duane's death in 1971 until Gregg's own death in 2017. Ironically, my all-time favorite Gregg Allman song is "It's Not My Cross to Bear," and, wouldn't you know, the title of his 2013 autobiography is "My Cross to Bear."

(NOTE: In addition to family members and several well-known musicians, those attending Gregg Allman's funeral, held June 3, 2017, in Macon, Georgia, were ex-wife/actress/singer Cher Bono, and 92-year-old Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, and former president of the United States.)

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Mike Vinson
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