Artist Lookback: The Allman Brothers’ First Two Albums, 1969-1970

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*Photo of the Allman Brothers’ First Two LPs On, Yes, Vinyl, By Your Intrepid Blogger

I was perusing the social media this weekend and saw that it had been two years to the day since the tragic loss of Gregg Allman. I can’t believe it’s been that long. I naturally reflected on Gregg’s passing, which we posted about when we heard the sad news, Gregg Allman,The Blues/Rock Legend, RIP: The Midnight Ride Is Sadly Over. I also found myself reflecting on the Allman Brothers Band, a truly titanic force in rock and roll. Gregg’s passing didn’t signal the end of the Allman Brothers, they had hung it up as a band a few years earlier when guitarist Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks left the band, but Gregg’s passing certainly signaled there’d be no reunions in the future. You can’t be the Allman Brothers Band without any Allmans… Sad thoughts, indeed.

As I thought about the Allman Brothers, I began to reflect on those seminal, early albums – their first two albums – and what an impact they’d had on me as a listener and fan. As you know, here at B&V we like to look back at certain phases of a bands career, be it The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s first two records (Artist Lookback: The Often Overlooked Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Two Brilliant LPs) or Muddy’s last three, Johnny Winter’s produced records (Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records). At B&V there are just certain eras in a band’s history that we feel must be highlighted, and early Allman Brothers is no exception. And to be honest, I’m surprised I haven’t broached the subject of the Allman Brothers in these pages prior to this. While I’m focused on the early albums today because I’m feeling a tad sentimental, I do need to make a mental note to return to look at their latter day albums, both with Dickey Betts and the one they recorded without him, Hittin’ The Note. Those latter day albums are the type of music that B&V was created to talk about.

I was slow getting to the Allman Brothers. In high school, I was always aware of them, it was hard not to be, with “Ramblin’ Man” in high rotation on the rock stations. “Midnight Rider” was also ever present. However, some of the earlier, great tunes like “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” were tracks that we only rarely heard on our local rock radio. I had a vague notion that the Allman Brothers had sort of “invented” Southern Rock. I had kind of relegated them to the same space as (gads) Molly Hatchet (who actually covered “Dreams” as “Dreams I’ll Never See”), the Marshall Tucker Band or the Outlaws. At the time, I was big into Lynyrd Skynyrd who took the Allman’s twin lead guitar model and turned it up to “11” with three lead guitar players. I figured back then that Skynyrd was the only thing I needed to know about Southern Rock. Oh, youth, wasted on the young. Truly there is so much more to the Allmans than Southern Rock. Not that I mind Southern Rock, Salina’s Sunset Sinners are slowly bringing that genre back to life out there on the Great Plains.

By the time I got to college, my roommate Drew turned me onto the Allman Brothers’ live album, At Fillmore East. That was when I first began to realize the Allman Brothers were so much more than a southern rock band. Yes, they were from Florida, but that’s the only thing about them that I’d describe as southern. They played an intense version of the blues, but they did so with a virtuoso jazz ethos. They could also be considered a jam band, but there seemed to be more structure to their music. And the blues don’t spring to mind when you think of jam bands… The Allman Brothers, to me, had more in common with John Coltrane than the Grateful Dead. The Allman Brothers were really unique in whatever genre you tried and pigeonhole them in. The version of “Whipping Post” on that live album stretched out to 22 minutes and covers an entire side of an album. It was the heaviest blues jam I’d ever heard.

Despite that education, it wasn’t until I’d actually moved to the south, sadly to Arkansas, that I discovered the Allman Brothers’ studio albums. Now, I’ll be the first to admit Arkansas isn’t really the “deep south.” It wasn’t like I was living in Alabama. However, Arkansas is south enough and close enough to Memphis to count. It was my good friend Joel, who first said, “Man, if you live in Arkansas you need to listen to the Band (Levon Helm is from Arkansas, just outside Memphis) and you have to have some Allman Brothers Band.” True words, indeed. It was in that lonely outpost of Ft. Smith, Arkansas that I first purchased The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South. Despite that being a rough time for me, I still look at those albums very fondly. I remember reading that when Belushi and Aykroyd first got famous they drove across America listening to blues and to the Allman Brothers. I taped both albums (one on each side of the cassette) and wore it out driving up and down Highway 71, from Shreveport to Kansas City. This music still conjures the road for me.

As time passes, I’ve noticed that much of the focus on the early Allman’s catalog tends to fall on their masterpiece, the aforementioned live LP At Fillmore East. Don’t get me wrong, that album deserves all the attention it gets but I’ve started to feel like it has come to overshadow the Allman’s first two studio albums. I hear more about Eat a Peach, which is a hybrid live/studio album and contains Duane Allman’s last studio contributions to the band, than I hear about the first two albums. Naturally Brothers And Sisters also gets a lot of attention because of “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man.” I will always hold those first two albums in high esteem because before all the line up changes and all the great guitarists who came and went, there was never a more pure expression of the Allman Brothers’ vision than that original line up: Duane Allman & Dickey Betts both on lead guitar, Gregg Allman on vocals and keyboards, Barry Oakley on bass, and Butch Trucks & Jai Johanny Johanson on drums/congas/maracas/timbales. Heavy on the bottom with two drummers and heavy on top with two twin lead guitarists. If this band could have just stayed away from motorcycles (we lost both Duane Allman and Barry Oakley to  crashes), God knows what they could have accomplished. When they lost Duane, they really lost their leader. He was the alpha-dog…but I digress. Let’s look at those seminal, first two albums now. They were both combined into one CD, entitled Beginnings, that features a Tom Dowd remix for you CD fans out there.

The Allman Brothers Band – 1969

 After the implosion of their earlier group, The Hour Glass, Duane split California and became a session player at the legendary Muscle Shoals studios. Gregg was left behind to fulfill their contractual obligations. Inevitably Duane had formed a band, The Allman Joys with Betts, Oakley, Jaimoe and Butch. It wasn’t long before he realized they needed Gregg on vocals. One of the first tracks they rehearsed was the Muddy Waters’ classic, “Trouble No More.” In the Allman’s hands it was a bluesy/soulful classic. Pretty soon they were all living in the same house and had changed their name to the Allman Brothers Band as they felt a kindred, brotherly spirit between the members. They had wanted legendary producer Tom Dowd (Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd) to produce the album but he was unavailable. Adrian Barber ended up producing this stunning first LP. The album jumps right out of the speakers with a jazzy version of Spencer Davis’ “Don’t Want You No More” that bled quickly into one of Gregg’s originals, “It’s Not My Cross To Bear.” It was an amazing one-two punch announcing there was a new blues-rock band in town. Gregg ended up writing all the originals here. His “Black Hearted Woman” is another classic “my baby done me wrong” track on side one. Side two is where the genius is. It has only three songs but all of them are classics: “Every Hungry Woman,” “Dreams,” and the now standard “Whipping Post.” The live version of “Whipping Post” might be the definitive but I love the original. The bedrock drumming of Jaimoe/Trucks with Gregg’s soulful organ weaving around it, laid the foundation for Duane and Dickey’s guitars to soar. And soar they did. There’s nothing quite like this debut. Gregg sang with a despair usually reserved for a man three times his age. This is essential listening.

 

Idlewild South, 1970

Many bands suffer from the “sophomore slump,” but not so for the Allman Brothers. I have always felt that Idlewild South was a big leap forward. Before JFK Airport in New York was named for the slain President in 1963, it was known as Idlewild Airport. The band had a little cabin out on a lake where they would go to drink, play and burn local herbs for medicinal purposes, outside the earshot of the local constables. There was so much traffic out there, they decided to name it “Idlewild South” after their home away from home’s airport. You can hear the leap forward when you drop the needle on that first track, “Revival.” It’s an acoustic riff that builds to a gospel type song with a lovely message, “love is everywhere.” It was the first Dickey Betts’ writing contribution in the ABB. He went on to write their classic, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” a long moody instrumental for this album. The development of this band on this second album can probably be traced to a number of things: Tom Dowd’s more sympathetic production, the band’s growing confidence as a live act, Dickey’s songwriting contributions, the introduction of acoustic elements to the music. This was truly the sound of a band expanding their musical palette. Gregg’s songwriting is still razor sharp. “Midnight Rider” was such an awesome song, Gregg even cut it again solo and it sounds completely different. The last two tracks on the album, both invoking home, are amongst my favorite Allman Brother tracks. “Please Call Home,” is a wonderful blues song that completely conjures the Delta. The album’s final track, “Leave My Blues At Home” is more of an up beat, jump-blues kind of number. It’s all about leaving your blues behind you… two sides of the same coin. Barry Oakley does his sole lead vocal with the band on the well done “Hoochie Coochie Man” one of my all time favorite blues covers. With Idlewild South the Allman Brothers proved they were only scratching the surface in terms of studio work.

The Allman Brothers Band went on, even after the tragic losses of Duane Allman and Barry Oakley, to a long and storied career. They continued to deliver great albums and tours through out the 70s. After breaking up the band reunited in the 90s and put out four of their best studio albums and numerous live albums. But there will always remain something special for me with these first two records done by the original line up. These albums are an essential part of anybody’s record collection.

“Think I’ll drink up a little more wine, to ease my worried mind. And walk down on the street, and leave my blues at home. All behind.” – “Leave My Blues At Home”

LP Review: Gregg Allman, ‘Southern Blood’: A “Brother’s” Beautiful Farewell

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“I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m running out of time, my friend” – Gregg Allman, “My Only True Friend”

I saw on-line the other day that it was the anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September of 1970. Maybe it’s me, but it seems like in the old days rock stars more often than not met early, tragic deaths. Sometimes it was too much booze or drugs. Sometimes it was something darker and more tragic like Kurt Cobain taking his own life. All these young artists, taken too soon… It’s that whole morbid “27-Club” thing. Gregg and the Allman Brothers weren’t immune to tragic loss, early on, as both guitarist extraordinaire Duane Allman and bassist Barry Oakley were taken in their prime, both victims of motor cycle crashes, Duane after the Allman’s third album, ‘Live At the Fillmore East,’ and Oakley after ‘Eat A Peach.’

These days I’m seeing a recurring phenomenon that rock stars are thankfully living to ripe, old ages while continuing to be vibrant creative artists. However, as we all know, the road comes to and end. There’s only so much sand in the hour glass. Since I started this blog, we’ve seen the loss of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and now Gregg Allman all marked by the release of an album they were working on at the end. The first time I remember hearing anything like these releases was Warren Zevon’s extraordinary album, ‘The Wind,’ recorded while he was battling lung cancer. Bowie’s final album, ‘Black Star’ was the boldly experimental exclamation point on a boldy experimental career. Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ was a continuation of many of the themes he’d been exploring throughout his career, only…well, darker. These guys saw the end coming and used it for their art. (Both these LPs have been reviewed here on B&V.) And now, we have Gregg Allman’s last LP, the soulful ‘Southern Blood,’ which is nothing short of a beautiful farewell.

Don’t think for an instant this is a downer album about death. Yes, there are recurring themes: the road, time running out, and yes, mortality. But this is a vibrant, strong album with different moods. There is a presence on this record that hovers over Gregg, that of his long-departed brother Duane. The album was recorded with the talented producer Don Was at the helm, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where Duane was a session guitarist and where Gregg & Duane’s band Hour Glass recorded their first album. The chills-up-the-spine inducing first single, “My Only Friend, (reviewed on B&V Gregg Allman: “My Only True Friend,” The First Song From The Upcoming ‘Southern Blood’) was written by Gregg with Scott Sharrad as a conversation between Gregg and Duane. Gregg chose the song “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” a Johnny Jenkins cover, because Duane once played with him (who didn’t Duane play with?). Equally important, Gregg turned to his old, old friend Jackson Browne’s catalog to cover “Song For Adam,” a track Jackson wrote about his friend Adam Saylor who had died young, like Duane did… Gregg gets so emotional you can hear him break down toward the end of the song. It seems that as he neared the end, Gregg looked backward toward the beginning, toward Duane.

The Allman Brothers Band were so huge, especially in the 70s, they sort of overshadowed Gregg’s solo career. When you release one of the greatest live albums ever, ‘Live At Fillmore East’ and get credited with “creating southern rock” like the Allman Brothers did, you’re kind of a big deal. The Allmans were always considered a jam band, but I always considered them more of a blues band with a jazz sensibility. The virtuoso guitar playing over Gregg’s bedrock hammond B-3 was more powerful than most jam bands. However, starting with 1973’s ‘Laid Back’ Gregg began an up-and-down but quite often strong solo career. I have always loved his soulful 1977 record, ‘Playing Up A Storm’ as well. ‘Southern Blood’ certainly reminds me of ‘Laid Back’ in terms of the sound of the record. Gregg’s solo albums, especially the early ones, had a little more of the R of R&B than the Allman Brothers albums did.

Gregg’s voice, in spite of the illness, is very strong and expressive on this record. He was simply one of the most distinct, bluesy singers ever. I will say, the one thing about this record that surprised me a bit was there are few tracks that have a bit of a country feeling. For the most part, any time the Allman Brothers sounded a bit country, like “Ramblin’ Man,” it was typically the result of something Dickey Betts had written. Maybe that slight country vibe was Gregg reaching out to his old, estranged band mate. I heard they reconciled before Gregg’s death…I hope that’s true.

Originally this album was going to be a record of all original compositions, since Gregg’s previous album, the T Bone Burnett produced ‘Low Country Blues’ was mostly all blues covers. ‘Low Country’ is an exceptional record and a real return to form… Gregg’s plans to write new material for ‘Southern Blood’ were dashed by his health issues, but he and his manager and guitarist/musical director Scott Sharrard made some exceptional choices in cover material.

The album opens with one of Gregg’s best tracks ever, the haunting, previously reviewed “My Only Friend.” Written by Sharrard and Gregg, Sharrard conceived the song as a conversation between Duane Allman and Gregg. He said it was almost eerie how Gregg responded to the verses he supplied him… It’s the high point here. Hell, it’s a high point of Gregg’s career. All of the songs from this album, again mostly covers specifically chosen, tell the holistic story of Gregg’s life. The man didn’t just sing the blues, folks, he lived them – whiskey, women, drugs, lawyers, legal issues, and in the darkest chapter of his life, Cher… These songs tell that story. Well, not the Cher part.

From the cover songs, there’s so much to love here. Allman dusts off the old Dylan chestnut, “Going, Going, Gone” which Dylan did on ‘Planet Waves’ with the Band. Gregg’s version here may just be definitive. Apparently when his manager suggested it, Gregg said, “wow, that’s kind of dark, man.” Indeed it is. Of the more surprising selections, they do the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” one of the tracks I mention as having a real country flavor. I’m not a huge country music fan, although I always liked the Dead’s foray’s into country-rock on say, ‘Working Man’s Blues.’ Gregg’s vocal is impassioned on the track and it just works. The song, “Out of Left Field” is a beautiful thank you to a lover. I’m hoping Gregg had someone at the end… everybody needs someone at the end… for me, it’ll be the Rock Chick.

I love that they also chose to do some blues songs here. Muddy Waters’ “Love The Life I Live” is a great, joyful blues number. Hearing Gregg Allman sing Muddy Waters, well, he was just born to sing Muddy songs… Or Willie Dixon songs, either way you look at it. The Jenkins’ cover, “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” the nod to Duane, is another great blues tune here. “Blind Rats…” has a real New Orleans, swampy vibe to it. It’s a nice slow crawler of a record with some laid back horns. I also love the fact that he covers Lowell George of Little Feat’s “Willin'” on this record, another great road song… “And if you give me weed, whites, and wine, Show me a sign, I’ll be willin’ to be movin’.” Great stuff! And a really funny song. There are moments in “Willin'” where the band tails off and it’s just Gregg’s voice…outstanding! “Love Like Kerosene” is anther track written by Scott Sharrard and it’s a nice bluesy, scorcher. “Kerosene” may be the most upbeat song on this record. Great guitar/horns interplay with a nice boogie-woogie piano solo.

When Duane and Gregg’s band Hour Glass broke up and Duane went back to Muscle Shoals to do session work, the record company threatened to sue them. To avoid that, Gregg agreed to remain in Los Angeles, and to cut a solo record. It was a low point for Gregg as he was far from home and his brother was back east. A young songwriter, a kid named, uh, Jackson Browne, who’d written tracks for the first Hour Glass album, was looking for a roommate. Believe it or not, Gregg Allman and Jackson Browne were roommates. While it may have been a low point for Gregg, it produced one of the longest lasting rock and roll friendships ever. On his first solo album, Gregg did Jackson’s oft-covered track, “These Days,” and I believe Gregg’s version is definitive.

For ‘Southern Blood,’ Gregg not only turned back to those early days by recording Jackson’s haunting “Song For Adam,” he has Jackson singing harmony vocal on the track. It’s, again, an inspired choice. Clearly as he breaks down while singing toward the end of the song, you know Gregg was thinking of Duane, who had died too soon. The fact that Jackson Browne showed up this way, with a beautiful harmony vocal for his old friend, is one of those special moments in life that must be celebrated. Good on ya, Jackson. ‘Southern Blood’ started with “My Only Friends,” which gave me chills… and it ended with “Song For Adam” with Jackson on harmonies… more chills. Those two voices, from those two old friends, intertwining… not a bad way to go out.

There are two bonus live tracks on the record… they’re nice to have but not essential. I’d say the two bonus tracks are more for the completist… FYI.

I can’t say enough good things about ‘Southern Blood.’ It’s essential listening for Allman Brothers fans, Gregg Allman fans, and well, fans of rock and roll music everywhere. This ranks amongst Allman’s best work (solo or with the Allman Bros Band) and it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a few more years and few more records from the man. Turn this one up loud…

There’s only so much time, only so much road left for any of us, folks… use it well.