For all the twisted, jingoistic turns Southern rock took over the past four decades, there is no mistaking the fact the genre began with the Allman Brothers Band. And as the name so aptly inferred, that band began with two voices: the guitar lead of Duane Allman and the singing of younger sibling Gregg Allman.
Listen to the Allmans’ first three albums and you will experience a thrilling hybrid that summoned the blues, Southern R&B, a touch of organic psychedelia, jazz and gospel. Southern rock hadn’t descended into the stars-and-bars waving party parody that would eventually mesh with a highly marketable brand of commercial country music in the 1980s. It was instead a junction where the roots music innovations of the South merged. But all Southern rock — every last note, in fact — came in the wake of what the Allmans designed on 1969’s “The Allman Brothers Band,” 1970’s “Idlewild South” and 1971’s genre defining “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.”
Then, of course, the Allmans story went South in a whole different way. Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died in separate motorcycle crashes in nearly the same location, leaving only one Allman at the helm. Then stardom hit with all the excesses the 1970s could muster. Gregg Allman soaked them all up, too. His celebrity status skyrocked even as his indulgences nearly killed him. The Allmans struggled on through breakups and reunions, bad blood and new blood. But by then, the band had largely become a mere protégé, one of many, to a music it had earlier spearheaded.
That’s not to say there weren’t fine recordings in the years to come. Both the band’s “Brothers and Sisters” and Gregg’s solo debut record “Laid Back” (released within months of each other during the second half of 1973) steered the Allman sound away from the guitar innovations Duane had pursued into a more steamlined but still soulful variation while 1979’s “Enlightened Rogues,” 1988’s “Seven Turns” and 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note” encapsulated the merits of three successive versions of the band. None of them, though, matched the seemingly effortless sense of adventure offered on those early Allmans records.
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The announcement of Gregg Allman’s death Saturday at age 69, sadly, isn’t surprising. It seems the singer has been cheating death for the better part of his career through a bounty of typical rock ‘n’ roll vices to a bout of Hepatitis C that led to a liver transplant to numerous maladies that interrupted a still active career in recent years.
Allman played Danville and Lexington as recently as last year with a capable revue-style program, but he looked and sounded frail, a walking testament to self-inflicted ravages.
It’s an easy estimation to say that an artist’s early work is oftentimes his or her best. But in Allman’s case, it really was. Soak in any of the recordings he was part of up through the end of 1973 and you will be witness to the voice of a generation and a genre at the peak of its stylistic strength.
“I say prayers of thanks every day,” Gregg told me in an interview prior to the Danville concert. “I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. I’ve had a beautiful life.”