By Chuck Reece
Gregg Allman’s final album, “Southern Blood,” comes out today. When Allman died in late May, only a tight circle of his friends and associates knew the record was already was in the can.
The story of how and where that album came to be is beautiful, and I’ll tell it to you. But first, it’s important to note that if even you divorced “Southern Blood” completely from the story of its making — removed it entirely from the bittersweet circumstances of its creation — it would stand as a remarkable piece of music.
To my ears, “Southern Blood” is the purest expression Gregg Allman ever captured of who he was as a Southern musician — not as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, but as an individual, his own man, one who was a remarkable alchemist of the musical roots of our region.
The story of “Southern Blood” starts with a subject no one ever spoke publicly about while Allman lived: that Gregg never felt musically at home, not completely, as a member of the Allman Brothers Band.
I have a friend, DeWitt Burton, who is a lifelong roadie. He’s worked with the biggest acts in music — R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and during the final string of live dates from 2014 to 2016, for Gregg. DeWitt worked for Allman and his hand-picked road band — a big ensemble with a horn section, the same players who appear on “Southern Blood.”
DeWitt and I have a deal: He tells me backstage stories, and I promise never to publish them. Nobody in the rock and roll biz likes a loudmouthed roadie, so DeWitt keeps his talents as a raconteur in the shadows. But for this story, DeWitt and I have received special dispensation from management.
On June 1, five days after Allman passed away, I got an email from DeWitt with some Gregg stories, one of which knocked me for a loop.
“We were playing some outdoor stage out west,” DeWitt wrote. “Gregg would always come off stage and let Scott Sharrard and Peter Levin play a couple of their songs, and he’d take a breather. He was pretty frail. I had my ‘guitar world’ set up in a semi parked upstage. Gregg came off, and for some reason walked back there and stood next to me in the trailer. I was wearing this faux, straw pith helmet to keep the sun off my head. He chuckled and said, ‘Dr. Livingston, I presume.’
“We both had a good laugh, and I turned to him and said, ‘You know, having grown up in Georgia, it’s a real honor to be out here working for you. For many members of my own family, my career choice wasn’t legitimized until I got out here with you.’ He smiled, laughed, and said, ‘Well, you’re doing a great job, DeWitt, and we all appreciate it.’ We stood in silence, watching the band. Then, he offered, ‘You know, I love this band. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I love soul and R&B. This is my idea of the band I’ve always wanted to be in. You know, that two-guitar, jazz, improvisational thing — that was my brother’s idea.’ He smiled again and said, ‘Don’t get me wrong. It turned out all right, but this is what I’ve always wanted — a horn section, piano and organ, percussion. This is my band.”
You read that right. Gregg Allman led the Allman Brothers Band, one of the giants of rock history, for decades, but never thought of it as his own. The Brothers were Duane’s band.
But this band, the one he toured with for almost 10 years, until he could tour no more, was his.
You don’t have to take a roadie’s word for it, either; you can also ask Allman’s best friend of more almost half a century, Hewell “Chank” Middleton. I interviewed Middleton in August, and he chuckled when I asked about the story. He told me Gregg sometimes chafed at the extended guitar jams strung together in the Brothers’ latter years by guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.
“Him and Derek and Warren, they went through a little thing for a couple years about the guitar solos,” Middleton said. “Me and Warren and Derek, we had talked about it several times. So, I go to Gregg, and I told him, 'Bro, how can you have a problem with a guitar solo? Your brother did that. I guess my question to you is, how long have you had a problem with these guitar solos?' He looked at me and he goes, ‘Ever since my brother was alive.’ He was afraid to stand in front of Duane and say, ‘Hey, man, cut the solos off.’ If you look at the things he always did with his solo bands as opposed to stuff he did with the Brothers, all the stuff in his solo bands was very structured, like an R&B band. Gregory liked the structured music.”
If Gregg Allman loved the tightly structured sounds of Southern rhythm and blues, then it makes sense he would insist on recording his final album at the very wellspring of that sound: FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
The recurrence of Allman’s liver cancer steeled his resolve to do things his way, according to his manager of the last 15 years, Michael Lehman. In 2011, Allman had released “Low Country Blues,” a set of blues tunes backed by producer T-Bone Burnett’s band of studio aces, but that record did not scratch Allman’s itch to record with his own band.
“In 2012, he was diagnosed with the recurrence,” Lehman told me. “It was devastating. Gregg, being a very private person, had some hard decisions to make with respect to treatment and what he was going to do. He had been given a prognosis of 12 to 18 months. At that point, he decided, I'm gonna live my life. I'm gonna go out there and be on the road and be with my family, because that's really what he cherished and loved.”
Although Allman beat that prognosis by more than three years, he faced the probability that the next album would be his last. Allman laid down the law to Lehman.
“He said to me, ‘The only way I'm making another studio record, Mikey, is if we cut it at FAME … and we make it with my band and not a studio band.’ And those were his two directives. I had to follow those directives in order to get him back into the studio.”
Allman’s “fixation,” as Lehman puts it, on recording at FAME came not only from the fact that Muscle Shoals produced some of the greatest Southern R&B records, but also from his brother Duane’s association with the place. In 1968, Duane had legendarily pitched a tent and camped out in the FAME parking lot until he finally wrangled a chance to play a session with Wilson Pickett. Until the Allman Brothers Band came together the next year, Duane was a fixture at FAME, backing soul greats such as Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter.
Gregg was also insistent about finding a producer who could bring his vision to life, and he settled on another musical legend, Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records. Over the last 30 years, Was produced records for such artists as the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan, to name only a few.
Was told me he and Gregg struck up a friendship about a decade ago and that he kept tabs on Gregg’s career, secretly hoping one day to work with him.
“I had a Google search set up on him,” Was said. One day in 2015, a new interview with Allman popped up. “He said that he was about to start a new record that I was gonna produce, that we were going to record in Muscle Shoals, and it was gonna be called ‘Southern Blood.’” Was said. “And that was the first I heard of it. It was a very Gregg move, you know? Then, I saw him like a week later, and he was like, ‘I hope you're cool with that.’ I said, ‘Fuck, yeah, I'm cool with it. I've been waiting a decade for that.’”
Despite a career spent recording some of the world’s greatest musicians in the world’s greatest studios, FAME eluded Was.
“I'd never even been to Muscle Shoals,” Was said. “It was thrilling on so many levels, man.”
I told him that to Southern music nerds, FAME is holy ground.
“Absolutely, and you can feel that,” Was said. “It's wild, because it's located at a really nondescript intersection. There's like a Walgreens and a Papa John’s. It looks like you'd be anywhere in the country, really. And yet, when you actually pull into the lot ... well, at least when I did ... I got really choked up the first time. Just parking my car there and walking to the front doors. You see that the place hasn't really changed at all since the ’70s. You see all the pictures on the wall and everything. Then, you walk into that room, and it looks exactly the same as it did in all the famous pictures that you've looked at. It's quite a moving experience.”
“Southern Blood” was recorded almost entirely in March of 2016. It adheres to a concept Allman, Was, and Lehman agreed to a few months earlier: The album would contain mostly covers instead of original Allman compositions. An album of originals, Lehman said, “was gonna require a lot of downtime for him to get into his writing mode.” And they did not know how much time was left to Gregg.
Allman and his band’s guitarist and musical director of 10 years, Scott Sharrard, had settled on including Sharrard’s composition, “Love Like Kerosene,” a blues number that rocks like Howling Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” and a delicate version of Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was.” But beyond that, it fell to Don Was to help Allman and Sharrard find the right songs.
“At first, I was trying to see where he was at,” Was said. “We'd meet up in different places or I'd email things to him and suggest songs. We went back and forth quite a bit, and at first, I was just suggesting songs that I knew he'd sing the shit out of.”
But as they narrowed down, Was noticed something telling.
“By then, I could see what he was responding to,” Was said. “There were themes that he wanted to touch on. He and I never once discussed the fact that this was his farewell. I knew he wasn't healthy, but I don't think he would ever allow himself to think that way, which is why he lasted about three and a half years longer than doctors predicted he would. But I knew he was sick, and I knew he wasn't gonna get better. I could see what he responded to, and he responded to songs like [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Going, Going, Gone’ and [Little Feat’s] ‘Willin’’ and [the Grateful Dead’s] ‘Black Muddy River.’”
All three songs, in Was words, present “a mix of resignation and determination.” From Dylan: “I’ve just reached a place / Where the willow don't bend / There's not much more to be said / It's the top of the end.” From Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter: “I will walk alone by the black muddy river / Sing me a song of my own.” From Little Feat’s Lowell George, “I've been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet / Had my head stove in, but I'm still on my feet / And I'm still ... still willin'.”
“He reminded me of that truck driver in ‘Willin’,” Was told me. “All he wanted to do was stay out on the road and play. He'd just point them to where the next gig was. He'd be there for the next thing, and that was really his life. I think that was why he wanted to do the song, and I think that's something that he was trying to say in a number of songs.
“I think, overall, he was trying to tie up the loose ends of his life and make sense out of it, both for the fans who'd been with him for a long time and for himself, too,” Was said. “What was the meaning of this whole trip? For him, the meaning was staying out on the road and playing shows. That's when he was whole and alive and the closest to who he really was. That's the real Gregg Allman. It wasn't some show he was putting on. You were seeing him as he really was.”
Allman sings every song they chose with a youthfulness I would have thought impossible, and his big, tight band honors them flawlessly. But it feels appropriate that the best expression of Allman’s attitude near the end of his life comes from the one original composition on “Southern Blood,” a song called “My Only True Friend” that Allman co-wrote with Sharrard.
Sharrard remembers vividly how the song came to life during a visit to Allman’s home.
“I was at his house in Savannah, and we had a long night hanging out, just talking,” Sharrard said. “We had a lot of talk about Duane this one night. I mean, it just went on and on. It was amazing. I was getting all these incredible stories about their time on the road, and they worked their way into my dream cycle. I woke up in the house when the sun was coming up over the swamp, and I remembered immediately this one portion of the dream where Duane was talking to Gregg. And I remembered a couple of things that he said to him in the dream, and I ran downstairs, and I grabbed a guitar and started writing, and that's literally the first two lines of the song.”
You and I both know this river will surely flow to an end
Keep me in your heart, keep your soul on the mend
The song remained a work in progress until a few months later, in October 2014, when the Allman Brothers Band was playing its final run of shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
“I was scheduled to go to his hotel and write with him for a whole day off,” Sharrard said. “I got to the hotel, and he sat me down and he kinda dismissed everyone else from the room. He told me that he had basically received what was a terminal diagnosis. He was very vulnerable with me, and up to that point, we had never crossed that line together.”
Sharrard’s duty became immediately clear to him.
“In that moment, when he showed me that vulnerability, instead of saying, ‘Hey, man, maybe I'll just give you some time,’ I went right to that song. And I said, ‘Man, let's finish the fucking song,’ and that's when that line was born, in that hotel room.”
The line Sharrard is talking about is the most chilling of the album, and it opens the chorus of the song.
I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul, when I’m gone.
We will be.
The chorus of “My Only True Friend” ends with this line: “I can’t bear to think this might be the end. But you and I both know the road is my only true friend.”
Even Gregg’s truest friend, Chank Middleton, agrees the song is a fitting farewell not only to Allman’s fans, but also to his family and friends. Chank can speak with authority. Only Chank and Gregg’s wife, Shannon, were at his bedside when he died. For Chank, it marked the end of a 48-year friendship.
In 1969, Middleton was fresh out of high school in Macon, working the shoeshine stand in a local barbershop. Next door, Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden was beginning construction on his Macon recording studio in what had been an upholstery shop. It was summer, and the Allman Brothers were rehearsing inside the still unfinished studio.
“Over there, it didn't have a drink machine, didn't have no air conditioning in that building at that point,” Middleton remembered. “They would go in there and rehearse, and they'd come over in the barbershop, because we had air conditioning and a Coke machine. They wouldn't get a haircut. They had long hair, I had an Afro. We were all about the same age, so they would all sit around the shoeshine stand and talk to me. They would get their shoes shined.
“Gregory, what stood out with him was the first time I shined a pair of his shoes,” Middleton said. “He got up on the stand, I shine his shoes, and he got these shades on that I really, really just fell in love with, you know? So, I'm thinking, man, that's some bad shades. I'm shining his shoes, I'm looking up at the shades, and when I got through with his shoes, he got out the stand and said, 'How much I owe you, man?' I told him, ‘A quarter, man.’ He gave me a quarter, and he said, 'You really like these shades, don't you?' I said, ‘Yeah, man.’ And he pulled his shades off and hand ’em to me and he says, 'This your tip.' Boy made my month, OK? Those are cool-ass shades. I still got the shades.”
“You’ve really still got those shades?” I asked him.
“I do,” he replied. “Everything that he gave me from his heart, I kept.”
Their friendship grew from that moment, but it became a constant in both men’s lives two years later, in October of 1971, on the night Duane Allman died after a motorcycle crash.
“Me and Gregg, we bonded the night Duane died,” Middleton said. “From that point on, I guess... I don't know... I can't say I took Duane's spot, because couldn't nobody do that. But I just really started being his other brother, OK?
“Yeah,” Chank concludes, “but hey, I sure came second to the road. That's for sure, OK? That's what the song is about, the road. That his the only true friend was the road, the highway.”
And unlike our lives, the road, as Gregg Allman reminded us, goes on forever.