Allman, Gregg with Alan Light. My Cross to Bear. William Morrow: New York, NY. 2012. 378 pages.
Duane and Gregg Allman grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and as teenagers lived with their mother in Daytona Beach, Florida. Duane is the recognized organizer and driving force of the original Allman Brothers Band (ABB); Gregg continues to be the primary songwriter and vocalist of this blues group. The book is a complete autobiography of the life of Gregg and a rich source of material on the life of Duane. Duane, a year older, died in a high-speed motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, two years after the band was formed. The bass player of the band, Barry Oakley, died approximately one year later also on a motocycle. The band, following personnel changes and numerous disbandings and reformations, continues to tour and record to this day. The band was a success from the start, but they were so different and innovative–their first two albums, though considered today to be great, did not sell heavily. That was okay; they knew they had something special and a great future if they maintained the brotherhood. After earlier years of doubt and disappointment, things just came together for the brothers Allman.
The discussion here is not of the greatness of ABB, but the life and times of Gregg and Duane prior to the formation of the band in 1969.The title of the book is taken from the song title, “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”– side one, second song, from the first ABB album entitled The Allman Brothers Band. In life, the crosses born by Gregg have been many. The brothers’ father was shot dead when Gregg was about two years old. When he was entering third grade, his mother shipped him and Duane off to military school fifty miles from home so she could complete studies to become a CPA; this was a lonely time for Gregg. Later in the book he sites loneliness as the reason for his six marriages. Back in the Nashville public schools for fifth grade, the older brother Duane was tough on him. Gregg tries to find value in these experiences: his Mom was doing what was best for them, and Duane’s bullying helped prepare him up for life. Other challenges in his life and not for discussion here are the alcohol and heroin addiction that had him in recovery many times, the five divorces, and the differences with band mate Dickey Betts that together with the aforementioned issues lead to the numerous band breakups. Cirrhosis of the liver lead to a successful liver transplant surgery in 2010.
A second stint at the Tennessee military school ended when the brothers simply walked away; they returned to Daytona Beach to form a band in the 1965 called the Allman Joys. Gregg finished high school. From the beginning the music was all blues. They played everywhere and often for free–just for an opportunity to play. No more formal schooling; they were committed to music. They played The Ventures, Eddie Hinton songs, and their psychedelic version of “Tobacco Road.” They began working on an unclaimed folk tune that would carry over to the Allman Brothers Band, “Trouble No More.” Gregg explained, “We also did a lot of old ethnic stuff . . . you could take some of those old album cuts, and there would be something on there–a hook that you could change or something–and who gives a damn who wrote it? It just had that old time feel to it, and we loved it (63). These were “traditional” folk tunes anyone could play and record, but not legally claim, for their own.
If you experienced the Viet Nam era military draft process, you have heard similar stories. Duane attempted draft avoidance by wearing panties to his induction physical, but the ploy failed with the induction official grabbing the garment and throwing it against the wall. The last ditch attempt to avoid induction was to put his hands in his pockets during the induction oath. He was sent home to await the arrival of a federal marshal and delivery to Fort Leavenworth, but the marshal never showed up. Facing army induction the following year, Gregg hosted a “foot-shooting party;” he was careful to shoot between the bones. He reported the following day on crutches with a huge bandage and was sent home. Not a word was written of the military, Viet Nam, nor that foot again. It sounds too easy to be true, but it is written in this book.
Assisting a guy with a paper route during his school years, Gregg made enough money to buy his first guitar, a “finger bleeder,” for twenty-two dollars. Simultaneously, Duane’s motorcycle broke down and he started playing Gregg’s guitar and the two fought over it. In the peacemaking process, Gregg showed Duane how to find his way around the guitar. Rather than do homework, Gregg played “constantly, day and night. My brother was worse, because he would play all day long, while my mother was at work. My brother passed me up in a flash–he got real good. . . That passion was second only to a woman, and it was one of them definite loves, because your guitar ain’t gonna leave ya, just like your dog ain’t gonna leave ya. He had a real love affair with that guitar (34).”
The brothers joined a band lead by Floyd Miles. Only one guitar player was needed, so “we’d switch off every other night.” Duane was getting better playing lead and also sang, but was not good at it. “Now, he damn sure couldn’t sing, as you can tell by some of the recordings he made. . . when I started singing, that was the best me and Duane ever got along during my whole damn childhood.” To resolve differences, Duane had encouraged Gregg to learn to sing. Gregg conceded Duane’s superior guitar play with this comment, “. . . you quit school and have had nothing to do for a whole year but sit home every day and play (46).” Agreeing to concede to strength is the basis for a trade agreement.
By late summer of 1965, the Allman Joys band was on the road playing from Pensacola to St. Louis. Gregg met John Loudermilk who mentored him in the art of song-writing, “John Loudermilk taught me to let the song come to me, not to force it, not to put down a word just because it might rhyme or fit. He taught me to let the feeling come from your heart and go to your head.” On the road between Nashville and St. Louis regularly, “we played five sets a night, forty-five minutes a set, six nights a week.” The roadhouse crowds were working class and demanding. “Everybody would request whatever was real hot on the charts, and you’d better know how to play that son of a bitch, and if not, you better learn it tomorrow afternoon. . . the old roadhouses had chicken wire in front of the band so they won’t get hit by the bottles (69).”
I’ll let Gregg describe how he was to begin playing organ. It started with the first Allman Joys tour on a stop in Pensacola when a female friend and her mother bought him a Vox organ because they wanted him to have it. “At first, there wasn’t a lot I could do on it. . . When it came time to play ‘Wooly Bully,’ I could do it on the Vox. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ no problem—I had it. The organ came with a plastic card that was laminated, and it went A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and major, minor, augmented, third, ninth, fifth, and there was a little picture in each block, with little red dots showing where your fingers go. That’s how I learned to play keyboard.” Later in Birmingham Gregg picked up a used Leslie 147 amp and “. . . hooked it up and ran it through a Beatle Top amp, and that son of bitch sounded real close to a Hammond (B3 organ), which added so many dynamics to the band (70).” Shortly after the Allman Brothers Band was formed and perceived success was imminent, the members bought Gregg a Hammond B3 and he has been a fixture on the organ ever since.
Duane was a great slide guitar player and Gregg has the story: “It was his birthday (and he had a cold), so I went and bought him a bottle of Coricidin. . . Then I went by the record store and got that first Taj Mahal record, with all the butterflies on the cover and him sitting on a rocking chair. We’d played with Taj before, borrowed an amplifier from him. So I got Duane that record and the pills.” Gregg took the gifts over to Duane’s and left them on his front porch. Twenty-four hours later, Duane called, “Get over here quick, babybrah (for baby brother). Quick, man!” Duane had taken the pills out of the bottle and removed the label. “He put on that Taj Mahal record, with Jesse Ed Davis playing slide on ‘Statesboro Blues,’ and started playing along with it. When I left those pills by his door, he hadn’t known how to play slide. From the moment that Duane put that Coricidin bottle on his ring finger, he was a natural (90).” Of course, he then practiced for hours at a time with the same passion he displayed when he learned to play guitar–another story of the muse, passion, and practice combining to produce excellence on an instrument.
Band members from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band discovered the Allman Joys playing in St. Louis-Nashville and convinced them to come to Los Angeles and sign a recording contract with Liberty Records. Their first album under the band name Hour Glass and including, along with Gregg and Duane, Johnny Sandlin and Paul Hornsby, was a big flop. On top of that, Liberty imposed restrictions on the frequency of band performances–the band felt their progress was being impeded. They were able to make forays into venues like the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and the Fillmore West, where they played sets in front of The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and Moby Grape; and, at this time Gregg befriended LA luminaries like Jackson Browne and Steve Stills.
Like all newly-formed bands with a contract, the Hour Glass was struggling to find their professional selves. The bass man of this five-piece group “took a whole handful of acid and never quite came back;” he had to go home to Alabama. Considering hiring a West Coast bass player, “. . . if they ain’t from the South, just forget about it. It would be like trying to train an accountant to be a bouncer.” At this time, they were playing blues and R&B; people from Liberty Records were telling them to play popular music. The brothers objective was to play their own music—“It’s like the difference between owning a car and being a cabdriver.” Lastly, some of the same people were telling Gregg to move out front where a vocalist belongs; he writes “As long as it sounds good, why should it matter if someone is standing up or sitting down? Sounding good was what mattered, and my brother really believed that (91).” The replacement on bass guitar was Pete Carr from Port Orange, Florida; he worked out well and the second Hour Glass album was much improved over the first; plus, Gregg had seven original songs on it with the one exception being “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles.
Due to continuing philosophical differences with Liberty, the Hour Glass disbanded. Duane returned to Florida and the others went their separate ways. They all resented Gregg for staying in California, but Gregory thought it necessary to fulfill contractual obligations with Liberty. While on the West Coast, he worked hard at songwriting and produced the basic formula for “Dreams,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” and “Melissa” — future popular ABB songs. Explaining this flurry of tunes, “I didn’t know why I was doing it. I guess it was because of all the emotions and feelings that were going through me every single day. I felt pretty much abandoned by my brother and the other guys. They laid some pretty heavy shit on me (101).” Gregg heard Duane was doing some great sessions work at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Gregg kept writing, while living wherever in Los Angeles. “I had access to a Hammond . . . so I could work up some stuff with it. Half the time I was walking around and I didn’t have enough to eat (102).” The pursuit of music success continued, “this was March 1969. . . the phone rang. It was my brother, calling me from Jacksonville, telling me to come back to Florida.” This was the beginning of the story of the Allman Brothers Band–Duane had organized the six members and Gregg was soon to meet Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe.
I have written of this period in the Allman brothers lives to highlight their love of music and each other; this book is about brotherhood and not about success in the music business. Becoming a songwriter and mastering an instrument are the points of emphasis here; Allman says he was never in it for the money, but for love of the music, blues music. “The only thing I think about is where we are going to play next. Two hundred people or twenty thousand people, I just want to play (298).” Nevertheless, this book reveals the hazards of the business–the band breakups, the lingering addictions, and failed marriages are his regrets. “I have had me a blast . . . but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it (378, last page).” Throughout the personal setbacks, Gregg Allman, with the help of his brother’s inspiration and early guidance, retained his music principles and was able to achieve a great deal of artistic success.
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