sits in a chair in the middle of
the den of his Atlanta hotel
suite with a commanding presence
bordering on regal. Never mind
the fact he’s wearing a white
T-shirt and baggy dark pants
with feet shrouded in gray socks.
Immediately, those piercing eyes slice through you. Though his stare may be expressionless, he seems to know something you don’t. And that makes sense, because Allman has seen it all. When he begins talking about that colorful past, his eyes change. They seem to dance nostalgic at the mention of his older brother, iconic guitarist and Allman Brothers Band founder, the late Duane Allman.
Duane Allman; Photo Courtesy of Kirk West
Duane would’ve turned 70 this month. At the beginning of the band’s ascension to superstardom, in late October of 1971, Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“He always called me ‘bay-bru’,” Gregg recalls, “short for baby brother.” Yet, Duane packed a lifetime of experience into his short career. Being a studio guitar slinger for the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin; curator and leader of The Allman Brothers Band; and a member of Derek & The Dominoes alongside Eric Clapton all before the age of 25 simply numbs the mind.
“Everything just fell into place,” Gregg says.
In honor of his brother’s birthday, Gregg spoke exclusively with The 11th Hour about he and Duane’s earliest musical experiences together, including his brother’s discovery of slide guitar.
On he and Duane fighting over his childhood guitar:
“It was like $21.95. It would actually make your fingers bleed. (Laughs) But I was just enchanted with it. My brother, he got a motorcycle. He brought it home in a bag one day; it just fell apart. He looks at me and says, ‘What you got there?’ And I said, ‘Man, that’s my guitar.’ Well, the fights broke out, because I showed him a couple of chords and right away he was just a natural. Every time I’d put it down, he’d have it. To keep peace in the family, my mother, of course, bought him one. And we got serious about it, man. We went to see our first concert, which was one of those revues. Headlining was Jackie Wilson; and before him was Otis Redding; and before him was B.B. King; and before him was Patti LaBelle and The Blue Belles. …There was a big piece of furniture onstage. And I asked my brother, “What’s that big hunk of furniture that cat’s sitting behind?” He said, “Man, don’t ask me.” It was a Hammond organ. I loved the sound coming out of it, and that was the first Hammond I had ever seen.”
On the rigorous touring of the Allman Joys:
“My brother passed me (musically) like I was standing still. He got real good, real fast. Well, he quit school. I always had it hammered into me that I needed a high school education. …So I had to finish school. We had started a band called The Allman Joys, and they waited nearly a year for me to finally graduate from high school. I didn’t even go to graduation. We hit the road July 5, 1965, and started touring the chitlin’ circuit. We learned some Beatles songs, but we stuck mostly to rhythm and blues, from Wilson Pickett to Little Anthony to Little Richard. We played all that stuff, man. We’d dig up something obscure, and sometimes a club owner would come up and say, ‘What was that song you played tonight? I don’t recognize it, so don’t play it again.’ It was rough, man. We did about six or seven years of that. We were doing six sets a night, seven nights a week, and were making $111 apiece a week. And we’d rehearse in the afternoon. When you’re young, you’ve got the energy. We just couldn’t get enough. Passion had really taken hold. We’d learn a new song just about everyday. As I look back on it now, it was a lot of hard work. I never could make ends meet, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It was so much fun. All along I would thank God for not making me have to go to a damn office or sit in a cubicle all day, everyday under florescent lights. My main passion was also how I made a living. Not much of one, but it was enough. …I never dreamt in my wildest dreams it would turn into what it’s turned into.”
The Allman Brothers Band
On Duane learning slide while they were living in Los Angeles in the late 1960s:
“We went out to L.A. and this manager signed us up. He didn’t have us doing anything. We wouldn’t play anywhere and it was just maximum boredom. Finally, somebody had taken me out to where they had filmed ‘The Lone Ranger’ and all of the old cowboy movies. You could rent horses there. Nobody went with you. You’d just take a horse and go. I finally talked my brother into going with me. The stable was up this hill and you had to ride your horse down the hill and cross this paved highway. I said, ‘Man, be careful, because the horse is shod. If he falls, he’ll bust both of your asses.’ Well, guess what happened. The horse got spooked and fell over on its side. And my brother’s left elbow hit the pavement. He got a hairline fracture. He couldn’t play. At the same time, he a real bad cold. So he wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t come around me, let me come to his house or anything. It was all my fault (Laughs). So it was about this time of year, and it came around to his birthday, November 20. I went to the store and got him the first Taj Mahal album, and I just grabbed him a bottle of cold pills. …I put it by his door, knocked on the door and split. About two hours later, I got a phone call from him. He said, ‘Man, get over here quick.’ And I did. He had his arm in a sling. He was listening to the album, and I saw all of these cold pills all over the coffee table. He told me he had washed the label off of the pill bottle. Then he said, ‘Listen to this.’ He was already pretty well burning it up. He had listened to Jesse Ed Davis, who played with Taj. And we had played together with (Taj Mahal’s band) at this club across Laurel Canyon. A lot of us played over there; ZZ Top, Jackson Browne, and the list goes on and on. We all didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out. Anyway, my brother finally healed up and he was all right. But that’s when he first started playing slide. I’m sure he would’ve picked it up further on down the road.”
On being stuck in L.A. for nearly a year in the late 1960s while Duane recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala.:
“Those were the worst months of my life. On March 26, 1969, the phone rang and it was my brother. And he said, ‘Man, I’m tired of being a robot for these yokels down here in Alabama. I want to get back on the road.’ He told me he had five guys, including myself. And he asked if I was still writing. I had written quite a few songs, but most of them wound up in the garbage. I wrote ‘Melissa’ when I was 17 years old. I didn’t show it to anybody, and I didn’t show it to him for about a year and a half. He’d get drunk and say, ‘Bro, go get your guitar and play me that song about the gypsy.’ I wrote ‘Dreams’ in L.A. I brought that one and ‘It’s Not My Cross To Bear’ to the band. We all met up in Jacksonville for the first time. ‘Dreams’ is the only song I ever wrote on a Hammond organ. I played it for them, and I was in. We learned it on the spot, and we still play it the same way we learned it. Duane was really taken by that tune.”