Gregg Allman bares his Southern rock ’n’ roll soul in “My Cross To Bear.”
Allman, 65, who wrote and sings lead vocals on most of The Allman Brothers Band’s songs, unashamedly shares the details of a hard-rocking life in his memoir, which just went to paperback.
A gifted singer-songwriter, whom country-rock star Charlie Daniels describes as the finest white blues singer he’s ever heard, the Nashville native had an early life filled with tragedy that included the murder of his father when he was 2 years old and the death of his brother Duane in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Duane died just as The Allman Brothers Band was hitting its stride.
Besides those topics, Allman explores his six marriages (including his three years with pop star Cher), substance abuse, the “cursed band” and its many breakups, and his years as a student at Lebanon’s Castle Heights Military Academy.
While he disses Heights for the most part, it was at here that the brothers formed one of their earliest bands, The Misfits.
“We played there at the school at dances after football games. They’d bring girls in from town, and we would play for those dances, and they let us wear civilian clothes. That was a real treat for us,” said Allman during a phone interview Friday.
So what prompted the musician behind such hit song as “Midnight Rider,” “Whipping Post,” “Melissa” and “I’m No Angel,” to spill his guts before the public?
“It wasn’t something I had planned. It just kinda happened,” he says. “Back in about 1983 or ’84, I thought, ‘I’ve had such a great life. Maybe I ought to write some of this down, and when I get to be an old codger maybe I can sit on the porch and read it.’”
Allman began keeping a journal and later had a friend sit with him and ask questions, thus for a year they recorded his remembrances. Eventually, he had a duffel bag full of cassette tapes.
“My manager came over one day and asked what was in there, and I told him, ‘My life.’ So one thing led to another. He shopped it around, and sure enough someone wanted it for a book. Now they’re talking about a movie,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
He describes his autobiography as “just the life and times of a rock ’n’ roll musician.”
“There are other books out about the [Allman] brothers, like ‘Skydog.’ They’re just about six guys going around the country sowing their wild oats and playing their music. That’s just crap,” said Allman.
“We’re all human. We all have feelings. I thought, ‘What the hell, yeah. I’ll set the damn story right. I did get involved in a lot of stuff, but I mean it wouldn’t have been a good book without it.”
After their shortened days at Heights (neither were graduates), Gregg and Duane, who was a year older, formed The Allman Joys in1965 and cut their eyeteeth playing on the chitlin’ circuit. “These were Southeastern roadhouses where they put chicken wire in front of the stage so beer bottles wouldn’t fly around you,” Allman recalls.
With the July 1971 release of “At Fillmore East” on the Capricorn label, the Allman Brothers Band, composed of Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe Johnson and the two siblings, was on its way to fame and fortune. Then Duane, whom “Rolling Stone” magazine named as the No. 2 guitarist of all time behind Jimi Hendrix, was killed Oct. 17, 1971, in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Ga.
Now, almost 42 years later, Gregg says he still misses Duane “every day.”
The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner continues to tour with The Allman Brothers Band as well as with his own Gregg Allman Band and says his songwriting is going well. About his biggest solo hit, “I’m No Angel,” and all of his music, he says, “If it’s a hit here: I’m pointing to my heart, it’s a hit.”
The bluesman, who plays keyboards and guitar, was nominated for a Grammy two years back for his album “Low Country Blues,” and says, “I am ready to go back in the studio this year.”
Regarding The Allman Brothers Band’s fan base, who are all ages rather than merely survivors of the '60s survivors, he says, “They know they’re gonna get their money’s worth. We always play at least two-and-a-half to three hours.”
And as for his marriage to Cher, which produced son Elijah Blue, Allman says they are still very good friends.
Among his girlfriends in his earlier days were two daughters of famous men.
“My home in Nashville was in Belle Meade, not the wealthy part. I lived near Parmer Elementary School. When I was in second grade, my childhood sweetheart, Merle Atkins, lived on the next hill, and after school I’d go up to her house and her daddy, named Chet, would play ‘Davy Crockett,’ and we would sing and eat cookies,” he says of a pleasant memory.
As for a sad one, he was involved with Jenny Arness, the daughter of “Gunsmoke” star James Arness, who committed suicide after their breakup. A few days after the tragedy, TV’s Marshal Matt Dillon called Allman to tell him that it was not his fault.
Suffering from hepatitis C and cirrhosis, Allman, who has been clean and sober since 1996, got a new lease on life three years ago with a liver transplant. The surgery also changed his outlook on life.
“I got quite a bit more spiritual. I would be getting sick about now. I probably would have a year left. Just to know they put a new heart in you and it saved your life, that will bring you to your knees,” said the father of five children.
Allman lives near Savannah, Ga., with his fiancé, Shannon Williams, and two dogs, Otis, a Yorkipoo, and Maggie, a miniature poodle.
The surviving Allman brother relaxes with numerous hobbies, saying, “I collect knives, gold coins, motorcycles and muscle cars. I go deep-sea fishing quite a lot. My songwriting to me is really fun and relaxing and still feels quite a bit like a hobby.”