By Bill Friskics-Warren
Gregg Allman, a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, the incendiary group that inspired and gave shape to both the Southern rock and jam-band movements, died Saturday at his home in Savannah, Georgia. He was 69.
His death was announced in a statement on Allman's official website. No cause was given, but the statement said he had "struggled with many health issues over the past several years."
The band's lead singer and keyboardist, Allman was one of the principal architects of a taut, improvisatory fusion of blues, jazz, country and rock that – streamlined by inheritors like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band – became the Southern rock of the 1970s.
The group, which originally featured Allman's older brother, Duane, on lead and slide guitar, was also a precursor to a generation of popular jam bands, like Widespread Panic and Phish, whose music features labyrinthine instrumental exchanges.
Allman's percussive Hammond B-3 organ playing helped anchor the Allman Brothers' rhythm section and provided a chuffing counterpoint to the often heated musical interplay between his brother and the band's other lead guitarist, Dickey Betts.
His vocals, by turns squalling and brooding, took their cue from the anguished emoting of down-home blues singers like Elmore James, as well as more sophisticated ones like Bobby Bland.
Foremost among Allman's influences as a vocalist, though, was the Mississippi-born blues and soul singer and guitarist known as Little Milton.
"'Little Milton' Campbell had the strongest set of pipes I ever heard on a human being," Allman wrote in his autobiography, "My Cross to Bear," written with Alan Light (2012). "That man inspired me all my life to get my voice crisper, get my diaphragm harder, use less air and just spit it out. He taught me to be absolutely sure of every note you hit, and to hit it solid."
The band's main songwriter early on, Allman contributed expansive, emotionally fraught compositions like "Dreams" and "Whipping Post" to the Allman Brothers repertoire. Both songs became staples of their epic live shows; a cathartic 22-minute version of "Whipping Post" was a highlight of their acclaimed 1971 live album, "At Fillmore East."
More concise originals like "Midnight Rider" and "Melissa," as well as Allman's renditions of blues classics like "Statesboro Blues" and "Done Somebody Wrong," revealed his singular affinity with the black Southern musical vernacular.
Allman also enjoyed an enduring, if intermittent, career as a solo artist, both while a member of the Allman Brothers Band and during periods when he was away from the group. His recordings under his own name were typically more subdued, more akin to soulful singer-songwriter rock, than his molten performances with the Allmans.
A remake of "Midnight Rider" from "Laid Back," his first solo album, reached the pop Top 20 in 1973. "Laid Back" also featured a cover of "These Days," an elegiac ballad written by Jackson Browne, who on occasion roomed with Allman while he was living in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
"Low Country Blues," Allman's sixth studio recording as a solo artist, was nominated for a Grammy Award for best blues album in 2011. Produced by T Bone Burnett, it consisted largely of interpretations of blues standards made popular by performers like Junior Wells and Muddy Waters.
His final studio album, "Southern Blood," produced by Don Was, is scheduled to be released this year. All his 2017 tour dates were canceled in mid-March.
In 1977, Allman and singer Cher, to whom he was married at the time, released the album "Two the Hard Way." (They were billed on the cover as Allman and Woman.) The project was poorly received by critics and the record-buying public alike.
Allman struggled for years with alcohol, heroin and other drugs, and entered treatment for them numerous times, before embarking on a path of recovery in the mid-1990s. He was later found to have hepatitis C and received a liver transplant in 2010.
As a member of the Allman Brothers Band, Allman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. He was admitted to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and, with the Allman Brothers, received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2012.
Gregory LeNoir Allman was born on Dec. 8, 1947, in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his older brother were raised by their mother, the former Geraldine Alice Robbins, after their father, Willis Turner Allman, a combat veteran of World War II, was murdered by a hitchhiker in 1949. Captain Allman was killed in a robbery by a veteran he had befriended earlier in the day.
The brothers attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee, until their mother, who was working as an accountant, moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1959. Gregg Allman's early aspiration was to become a dentist.
He took up the guitar before Duane did, but he was a keyboardist and vocalist by the time the two worked together in local bands while they were in high school. As the Allman Joys, they played clubs in the South and recorded a single, a version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful."
The brothers moved to Los Angeles in the late '60s and formed a group called the Hour Glass, which released a pair of psychedelic-leaning pop albums for Liberty Records. Neither was successful.
In 1968, everyone in the band, except for Gregg, moved back to Florida after being released from their recording contract. He stayed behind when executives at Liberty decided he had commercial potential.
Duane joined a Jacksonville band, called the 31st of February, led by the future Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks. (Trucks died in January at 69, a death later ruled a suicide.)
Duane also worked as a session guitarist in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and New York, recording with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, saxophonist King Curtis and other artists before talking Gregg into becoming the lead singer for Trucks' band. Gregg had by then grown disenchanted with the West Coast music scene.
The group later added bassist Berry Oakley, percussionist Jai Johanny Johanson (known as Jaimoe) and Betts and became the Allman Brothers Band. They released their debut album in 1969 on Capricorn Records, an Atlantic imprint based in Macon, Georgia. They also toured widely and developed a devoted following with their next two albums, "Idlewild South" and "At Fillmore East."
On Oct. 29, 1971, just before the group achieved mainstream popularity, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident. Oakley died in another motorcycle crash – both accidents were in Macon – a little more than a year later.
The Allman Brothers Band continued to perform and record, for various labels and with a variety of musicians, over the next four decades, despite disbanding and regrouping at points during the 1970s and '80s. They sold out upward of 200 shows during their annual residencies, beginning in 1989, at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before finally calling it quits after an appearance there in 2014.
Allman is survived by his wife, Shannon; his sons, Michael, Devon and Elijah Blue; his daughters, Island and Layla; and three grandchildren. All of Allman's five children except Island – each of the five has a different mother – have played music professionally.
"All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman," an album recorded live in Atlanta that paid tribute to Allman's enduring influence and reach, was released in 2015. It featured performances by Allman and by contemporaries and inheritors like soul singer Sam Moore, country star Vince Gill, Widespread Panic and steel guitarist Robert Randolph, another jam-band favorite.
"It's an exceptional feeling to see all those young folks at the shows," Allman wrote in his autobiography, discussing the intergenerational appeal of the music that he and the Allmans created in the '60s and '70s.
"When I was a kid, I didn't listen to Tommy Dorsey," he continued. "There was a generational line drawn when it came to music. Kids today love Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead – all kinds of good music. They love the Allman Brothers. There's that old saying, 'Fun for ages 6 to 60,' and by God, that's what our audience is."