Photo by Danny Clinch
As the Allman Brothers Band’s lead vocalist, primary songwriter and principle organist, Gregg Allman’s name has been synonymous with southern-rock since 1969. But, since releasing his first solo album, Laid Back, in 1973, Allman has simultaneously established an eclectic solo career, scoring a pop hit in 1986 with “I’m No Angel” and, earlier this year, earning a coveted spot in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In early October, Allman also kicked off a tour with a clique of his closest “friends” which, as of press time, will stretch through a January 14 gig at Saint Louis, MO’s The Pageant (including a rare New Year’s Eve performance at Westbury, NY’s North Fork Theatre). In addition to material from his solo canon, Allman has rearranged several ABB chestnuts for his current tour and, on a number of cuts, has exchanged his trademark organ for an electric guitar. While rehearing for his upcoming tour, Allman looked back on his solo success, the Allman Brothers Band’ summer outing and why he’d rather be Jimmy Smith than Booker T.
MG- First off, I’m curious about the name of your band. Why go with the “friends concept” rather than simply touring under your own name?
GA- It’s Gregg Allman and a bunch of his friends, who happen to be killer musicians [laughs]. The Gregg Allman Band sounds like Gregg Allman and his hired hands. It’s not thatthis band is about all of us. I’d have called it something else, but then they wouldn’t have known it was me [laughs] and “the something band featuring Gregg Allman” just sounds weird [laughs]. I don’t wear my name on my sleeve, I’m not like that. As a matter of fact, my real good friends call me Gregory. I think the name Gregg sounds like a product or something—-in fact, I’m even trying to break my mother of calling me Gregg [laughs].
MG- When sculpting the setlist for you current tour, how much emphasis do you place on songs from your solo albums verses Allman Brothers Band material?
GA- There are certain songs I have written for the Brothers that people want to hear and they are going to hear them. But they have been rearranged. Like II mean weI mean me and my friends [laughs] do “Statesboro Blues,” but we do it funky, not as a shuffle. We do “Whipping Post,” but its funky, real rhythm n’ blues-like and I play guitar. Last year I had Willy Weeks playing bass and this year I have Jerry Jemmott, one of the most celebrated session bass players in America. And I got Steve Potts from Booker T on drums and Floyd Miles who I grew up with helping me sing and play percussion. I also got Neil Larson who knew my brother real well. He is a great piano player. Instead of taking a whole horn section out I am just taking the tenor player, Jay Collins, out this time. We have a couple of new songs and then we do songs off my six or seven solo records. I really need to figure out how many I got, but it could be worse—-I could only have one!
MG- What have your rehearsals been like?
GA- I live down here is Savannah, GA. I built me a house and I built me a studio attached to it, so I rehearse right here at home. There is something about thatyou really get down to it. I love rehearsal. Someone asked me once, “Do you like playing live or in the studio better?” I said, “Neither one, my favorite is rehearsal.” That is where things come together, that is where the magic culminates and then you look forward to going out there and killing them on the road.
MG- How much emphasis do you place on improvisation in your solo band?
GA- We do some jamming, but most of our jams are towards the end of the songs. The Brothers is sort of the same way. Take, for instance, “Elizabeth Reed.” With the Brothers, we’ll play the song and then leave the stage while the drums and bass do their thing and then we start jamming at the end. The first part of the song is different each night to an extent, but it’s the same basic melody. You have to make the song recognizable and then let it go. Jamming is something you don’t try forit is spontaneity in its truest form and it just happens.
MG- In September you played with R.E.M. at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction. How did that collaboration come about?
GA- It was kind of scary. I found out about it at the last minute—-it wasn’t really on the program. We had rehearsal the day before. So I got up to Atlanta the day before the actual event. They called me and said, “What do you think about doing a jam with R.E.M.” I said, “Well listen, how about we have a rehearsal the day before and see how it comes out?” We got along real good and the people running the show suggested “Midnight Rider.” But I forgot to tell them which version of “Midnight Rider,” cause there are two of them. So, R.E.M. rehearsed the Allman Brothers version and I got up there did the Laid Back version. But it worked real good [laughs]. We went over it four or five times and bam!
MG- You play a lot more guitar in Gregg Allman and Friends than with the Allman Brothers Band. How would you describe your style of guitar playing?
GA- I’ve been a rhythm guitar player ever since I’ve been playing music. There is really an art to rhythm guitar playing because we are playing percussion as well as accompanying the soloist, unlike the organ which is kind of like putting the gravy on the meat. I have always really admired Jimmy Smith. Anyone who likes jazz and the sound of the organ has got to admire Jimmy Smith, god rest his soul. But it dawned on me one day about ten years ago that I play more like Booker T than Jimmy Smith and I guess that’s just how it is [laughs].
MG- The Allman Brothers Band has produced some of the best guitarists of the rock-era. When you joined, did you initially aspire to play more guitar in the band?
GA- I was asked to play Hammond organ by my brother over the phone in March of ’69. He asked me to come play with the band. I was the last one to get there and, as he was hanging up, he said, “Oh, by the way, I need you to play B3 Hammond.” I was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait don’t hang up!” I had only been behind a B3 like three times. It’s kind of like a Harley Davidsonthey say, don’t get on one unless you know what you’re doing. It’s like, leave my wife alone, leave my Harley alone and leave my Hammond alone.
But one of those three times, I wrote “Dreams” and that was when my brother was working is Muscle Shoals doing studio work. We were apart for the first times in our musical career. Him being my older brother and us not having a father, I always kind of looked up to him. So when he asked me to come out and play organ I figured everything would be alright, as long as it was me and him because we had been through the trenches together man, playing the Shitland circuit as we called it. We played all the clubs around the delta for between 7 and 9 years.
A few weeks after I got there they put a blindfold on me and we go to Dickey’s Victorian-style house. It was back then when all the hippies were around and people lived together in these big crash pads. They took the blindfold off and there was this brand new, 1969 Hammond organ plugged into a brand new Leslie and about eight joints rolled up near the organ. They said, “ok my man, it is all yours and we will see you in a week.” So I sat there, day after day, with a record player learning different songs.
I was enchanted with the Hammond organ and two weeks later I brought 22 songs with me to the band. They said, “What da ya got?” I went through about 16 of em and they were like, um, next.” So, I’m really starting to sweat bullets, so I laid “Dreams” on them and they picked up their stuff and we learned it like you hear it on the record . Then bam, and all of the sudden I was respected, I was a writer and I was in the band.
MG- At that stage did you prefer playing piano or organ?
GA- I played piano in the Allman Joys, one of those old Wurlitzer pianos and I liked it. It was kind of like playing percussion. But there is a big difference between playing piano and organ. Playing a Hammond organ is like caressing a beautiful lady, while playing a piano is like going a few rounds with Sonny Liston.
MG- Your son Devon is featured in the November issue of Relix and his band, Honeytribe, is opening a handful of dates on your solo tour. Did you encourage him to play music?
GA- It’s wonderful man. I can’t wait to go on the road with him—-it’s going to be like a Fathers and Sons tour. Man is his new record goodI’m so proud of him. I never got into his thing—-I never told him or advised him until he asked for it. He said, “Dad I can’t get nothing happening.” I said, “Are you asking for my advice?” He said, “I am” and I said, “You got to get your butt out there and play. Play for free, do whatever it takes and don’t you dare pay some asshole who owns a club for you to play there because that is what they do in LA.” I said, “Get out there and let people see you and hear you.” He has lots of pride and didn’t want to use the name Allman, so he went out there as Schwartz and I said, “Man, you don’t look Jewish.” He’s got the same band he formed in high school and they just hit it. They got tired of playing what they were playing and started playing this great blues oriented rock and roll. Its great foot stomping, thumping rock and roll and I just love it to death. This will be our first tour together and I hope for many more.
MG- Speaking of passing the torch, Derek Tucks is currently on the road with Eric Clapton. Has his playing changed since linking up with Slowhand?
GA- No, that man is his own self, man. It is a great experience for him though. It’s a year tour and he is going around the world. It’s every other month. Eric came to us after the Beacon run and said, “Look I’d like to borrow Derek every other month starting in April.” I said, “Yeah man” and we cheered him on. He is getting a lot of good experience. The more experience he gets, and the more great players he plays with, the better he gets. He is playing some great songs as well. But he has his own style. He got into the Eastern thing and picked up a touch of it. It actually adds a nice little spice in the soup. He is an incredible kid, always smiling, and he has one blues-playing wife [Susan Tedeschi]! Talk about an underrated ladydon’t get me wrong, I love Bonnie Raitt to death but look out, here she comes.
MG- Bonnie Raitt recently played with the Allman Bands Band at a benefit in Greenwich, CT, correct?
GA- Bonnie Raitt has been a friend of mine for years. We played this great private party at this country club. We came into play and I didn’t know Raitt was going to be there. Man, her and Susan are the only ones I can think of who do what they do.
Man, I bumped into a bunch of my buddies this on the road. I saw Jackson Brown. He has this long gray beard now. I almost didn’t even recognize him. My road manager walked up to me before our show and said, “There is a guy over here who wants to change the set and put These Days’ on it.” I said, “What?!,” when I looked over his shoulder there was Jackson Browne with this long, seven inch gray and black beard. He always had this baby face and looked like he went to the Dick Clark school [laughs]. And I am going, “Change the set? I am on my way out to sit at the organ.”
MG- What were your thoughts on the Allman Brothers Band’s summer tour?
GA- We did all these Instant Live discs that you buy on the way out, right? I’ve gone back and listened to a few and, man, it seems like when we got the most exhausted we played our best concerts. I don’t know why, but you get your 103rd wind and towards the end it just got serious.
I hate to talk negative, but since we’ve been together since 1989 there were a few changes in the band’s personnel. But with the people we have now the band it’s at an all time high. It really is. We all have a lot of fun together againagain. All that went away for a few years there and then we changed around some personnel and I am just loving it again, man.