Sean Kirst: Gregg Allman, his Canisius High show and lives that it changed - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: Gregg Allman, his Canisius High show and lives that it changed

Doug Cameron is a guy who knew some answers. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the day in 1976 when Southern rock legend Gregg Allman, in Buffalo for treatment for addiction, did a surprise concert at Canisius High School. He startled hundreds of students gathered for what they thought would be a routine assembly.

Allman died a few weeks ago, from complications related to liver cancer. The tale from Canisius touched off a passionate response. Stories poured in from readers who in some way were connected with the show.

Yet the piece opened up as many questions as it answered. Memories can shift over four decades. Some Canisius graduates, for instance, recalled the show opening dramatically, with Allman immediately backed by a full band. Others said it started with Allman and a violin player doing a couple of songs by themselves, before the curtain opened and the concert took off.

The violin player was Cameron. At the beginning, he and Allman did play alone, he said.

It was part of an unlikely Buffalo friendship that changed Cameron's life.

Listen to Gregg Allman's surprise concert at Canisius High School in 1976

"Gregg used to invite me over to his psychiatrist's house – he was living with a psychiatrist – and we'd sit there and play some tunes together," said Cameron, a Rye native who was a 20-year-old student at the University at Buffalo at the time.

"I remember one time he invited us to go apple picking in Orchard Park and a limo pulls up in front of the dorm complex and Gregg and Cher (Allman's wife in 1976) and I went apple picking and handed the apples to the limo driver. I loved the Allman Brothers, and I was amazed. It was like a dream. I couldn't believe it was happening."

After Allman left Buffalo, he and Cher asked Cameron if he wanted to stay with them in California. Cameron accepted. For a while, he lived in the same house as Cher and her children. Allman was struggling with substance abuse. Cher was trying to make the marriage work. When the couple argued, they'd both turn to their guest for advice or comfort. "I was a kid in college, and I felt like I was a marriage counselor," Cameron said.

Gregg Allman and Cher with Freeze, the band that backed up Allman in 1976 at Canisius High School: Left to right, Mike Davis, Doug Cameron, Howie Bartolo, Gregg, Cher, behind Cher is Ellard James “Moose” Boles, Gary Zamory, Eric Cappotto. (Photo courtesy of Myron Sharvan)

Still, he remains deeply appreciative. Trained in classical violin, the bond with Allman helped accelerate Cameron's long and successful career as a recording artist. He's lived out many dreams, in no small part because Gregg Allman happened to sit in one night, more than 40 years ago, while Cameron was playing at The Tralfamadore in Buffalo.

Allman was impressed. He asked Cameron to join him at a benefit for the Buffalo Philharmonic at the old Mulligan's on Hertel Avenue. They were accompanied by Freeze, a popular Buffalo bar band of the time. The gig went well. When Allman agreed to play for the teens at Canisius, he knew where to turn for support.

That answers another question: How did Freeze become Allman's band at Canisius? Keyboard player Michael Davis and drummer Eric Cappotto said most of the band lived in an apartment complex on Slate Creek Drive, in Cheektowaga. Freeze, with origins in Syracuse, had achieved enough local prominence that it had a gig almost every night at Patrick Henry's or some other Western New York nightclub.

Out of nowhere, Gregg Allman called. "He said these kids from a local high school requested a show, and he wanted to know if we would play with him," said Cappotto, now retired from the heating and air conditioning business – although he's never stopped drumming.

Sean Kirst: How Gregg Allman and Cher stunned Canisius High 'assembly' in 1976

Mike Militello, senior class president in 1976 at Canisius, got the ball rolling. He learned Allman was in treatment for a drug problem in Buffalo, and he figured out where he was staying. Militello asked his friends to join him in writing letters. The goal was seeing if the famed musician might visit their school.

It was a Hail Mary pass that worked. Allman was moved by a letter from Brian Procknal, another senior. He called Procknal at home, kicking off the conversations leading to the show. According to a 1976 article in the Canisius school paper by John Curran, a senior then who is now a justice in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Allman and Freeze met at Canisius for an evening sound check, the night before the event.

Militello and Procknal were there, joined by a tiny cadre of students. They were all in disbelief "at helping to carry stage flaps with Gregg Allman," as Militello puts it.

Gregg Allman and Cher with Canisius High School students Brian Procknal (left) and Mike Militello, 1976. (Photo courtesy Brian Procknal)

Michael Davis, a keyboardist with Freeze, is now a photographer with The New Times, a weekly paper in Syracuse. He said the late Gary Zamory, a Freeze guitarist, knew Allman for many years, which helped cement the connection in Buffalo. Myron Sharvan, a photographer who captured many back stage images at Canisius, remembers Allman putting his hand on Zamory's shoulder and saying:

"You remind me of playing with Duane," a reference to Allman's brilliant brother, killed a few years earlier in a motorcycle crash.

Allman was still weighed down by grief, and Davis said the band understood why he was putting on the show:

To be well, he needed to perform.

Everything came together on an October afternoon. Five students – Procknal, Militello, Daire Irwin, Curran and Brian O'Shea – walked onto stage as it began, standing before hundreds of students grimly prepared for a science assembly. Procknal introduced Allman, and one of Militello's most powerful memories as they left the stage was the collective joy and disbelief that swept through the auditorium.

He believes that's why – even today – the tale has such resonance.

"I think the Gregg Allman concert at CHS was so improbable that it ever happened and extremely positive once it did," Militello wrote in an email. "Because of that, everyone who attended has a life-long positive connection. The story to this day is so compelling that those who have heard the story for the first time, 40 years later, connect as well."

As the teenagers tried to grasp what was happening, Allman and Cameron did two songs, "These Days" and the Allman Brothers classic, "Melissa." Then the curtain rolled back, Allman and Freeze got down to business and hundreds of Canisius students rushed to the floor.

Doug Cameron, Gregg Allman: A life-changing friendship, built in Buffalo. (Image courtesy Doug Cameron)

Another point of argument, settled by Militello: There were no female students in the crowd. Militello made a plea to the principal of the nearby Nardin Academy, an all-girls school, asking if some of those teens could attend.

The answer? "No, no, no," said Militello, now an entrepreneur in California.

In the following days, Rev. Joseph Papaj, the Canisius principal, received many calls from irate parents and alumni. Not everyone was thrilled about the Canisius embrace of a long-haired rock star in recovery from a drug problem.

Papaj said the warm reflections in recent weeks, after Allman's death, reinforce what he felt in his gut: The concert happened because a prominent musician, moved by a teenager's letter, went out of his way to do something kind.

Curran, the high school kid who interviewed the legend, only spoke to Allman one more time. Like many in the audience, he became a lifetime fan. Curran recalls how he and some friends bought tickets when Allman appeared in Buffalo in the early 1980s. They were on their way to the show when a limousine went by.

None of them doubted who was inside. They raced after the limo, caught up at a red light – and saw Allman's mane of long blond hair behind a window.

Curran began hollering from the car about how he was part of the group that met Allman at Canisius, how none of his friends ever forgot the moment. As he shouted, a curious Allman rolled down the window. He caught the gist of Curran's story, then replied with five words before the limo pulled away:

"Yeah, how are those dudes?"

Those dudes are honored, eternally, that he chose to play for them.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work here. 

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