The year before I went to college, a friend came back from his university with a new discovery -- a new group called the Allman Brothers Band. My friends and I loved the music, but it was beyond the capabilities of the fledgling band we formed a few months later. The intensity of the dual guitars of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts were powerful and Duane's slide guitar work was like nothing I'd ever heard. Younger brother Gregg wrote some fine tunes such as Whipping Post and the group quickly became one of my favorite bands.
All of this came to mind when the news came that Gregg Allman had passed at age 69, some 45 years after his older brother Duane died. The Allman Brothers had been a big part of my musical roots and my passion for the band endured.
When I went to college, I told all of my friends about the band, so we were excited when we saw the following poster about an upcoming live concert at Skidmore College, just about 30 miles north of our school RPI in Troy, New York as we approached the end of our freshman year.
We didn't have a car, but managed to get some rides up to the concert area and were there when the band set up. This was just weeks before the band released its Live at Fillmore East album. The music was phenomenal, even though we were hearing some songs like Elizabeth Reed and Statesboro Blues for the first time or in much more extended renditions than I'd heard on the studio versions. My recollection was that they played two long sets. Duane was clearly the leader and introduced all of the songs in addition to playing slide and lead guitars on his Les Pauls. Gregg's hair had grown long and blond, and he anchored the group on keyboards and vocals.
That fall I returned to college after a summer break and bought tickets to see the band again in November, 1971. We were all stunned to hear the news of Duane's death in late October that year. We'd expected the band would cancel, but the remaining members re-grouped and played the concert as scheduled. On some tunes, both Dickie and Gregg played guitar, and Dickie filled in the missing slide guitar parts, but the loss of Duane was palpable.
Tragedy continued to visit the band and by the next time I saw them in 1972, bassist Berry Oakley had also died. But the Allman Brothers Band carried on and forged a different sound with contributions from newcomers like pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williamson.
Duane had created a framework that was designed to last and you could never forget that there had been two Allman brothers in the original band. I saw the group several times during the next few years before they went through a period of breakups. As a musician, I learned from both Duane and Dickie on guitar and also learned to play some of Greg's best songs such as Midnight Rider and Melissa. Gregg's first solo album worked well and he did a fine job both on his own music and on songs like Jackson Browne's These Days.
During the Nineties, the band got new life as guitarist Warren Haynes joined the group and brought back the dueling guitars concept that had worked so well when Duane was in the band. Later in the decade, a young player, Derek Trucks, started filling in as yet another amazing slide guitarist.
I took my oldest son to see the band in 2007. This version featured both Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks on guitars -- both slide and electric -- and Gregg sang most of the vocals. It had been thirty years since I'd seen them, but the band played wonderfully and Duane's spirit was still present in the the band's style and intensity.
I've been in a rock group the last several years and I've brought in several of the Allmans' songs into the bands repertoire, including songs like "Statesboro Blues" and "One Way Out." Just last week, I played on the porch with several musicians from my church and we jammed on acoustic instruments on songs like "Midnight Rider", "Rambling Man" and "Melissa."
And now the youngest Allman brother has joined his older brother in the ranks of the departed. The two men leave a rich legacy of music that will stand the test of time. The Allman Brothers Band created a remarkable blend of southern rock and blues and bought an improvisatory ethos into the world of rock. Gregg managed to carry the flag as the surviving Allman and it's hard to dispute how well the band turned out even as the membership changed over the years. And his songs also live on, telling tales of life on the road and both the light and dark side of life. He will be missed.