In 1969 a revolution was launched from the streets of Macon, consisting of guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, and a uniquely spirited brotherhood. The revolutionaries of record were the Allman Brothers Band, who, as the founders of what became known as Southern rock, changed the course of popular American music and turned Macon into the recording hot bed of the 1970s. From 1969 to 1979, the Allmans called Macon home, and their contributions and exploits have become a legendary part of this town’s history. So, more than three decades after their arrival in Middle Georgia, it’s time to look back and remember what was, and appreciate what we still have, because through tragedy and triumph, trials, and tribulations, the Allman Brothers Band is still traveling down the road that goes on forever.
In March, 1969, the Allman Brothers Band came together, as six very eclectic musicians blended their varying talents into a cohesive unit. Brothers Duane and Gregg Allman had emerged from the mid-’60s Daytona Beach blues and R&B scene, and though barely out of their teens, their imposing skills were already obvious. Duane’s searing guitar work and Gregg’s soulful, bluesy vocals had carried them through the Southern club scene and out to California, where their talents were lost in the shuffle of the pop world. Duane headed back down South, and became an instant sensation as a session player in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, adding his distinctive guitar licks to tunes by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, and Clarence Carter. While in Muscle Shoals, Duane began jamming with Johnny Lee Johnson – now known as Jaimoe – a drummer who was deeply rooted in jazz. Duane and Jaimoe soon were joined by bassist Berry Oakley, who was then a member of a Jacksonville-based group called the Second Coming, which featured a guitarist named Dickey Betts. Although the Second Coming had a definite psychedelic-type sound, Betts’ musical background was steeped in country swing, and it made for an interesting mix when combined with Oakley’s Chicago blues roots. A move to Jacksonville brought the dual talents of Allman and Betts together for the first time, and a series of incendiary jams began to also include Butch Trucks, a classically trained drummer who played straight-ahead rock and roll. Everyone realized that they were onto something special, but they lacked one thing – the right vocalist. A quick phone call by Duane rescued his brother from exile in California, and on March 26, 1969, Gregg Allman arrived in Jacksonville to join the group – thus was born the Allman Brothers Band.
A chance to record an album for Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records brought them to Macon in April 1969, where they settled into an apartment building on College Street. They had little money and no guarantees, but they all believed in the same dream, a dream created and shaped by Duane. With their long hair and loud music, they were an unusual sight around town, and it took some adapting, but Macon soon become home. The days were spent honing their craft, and they were often subsidized by free meals at the H&H Restaurant, compliments of “Mama Louise” Hudson, who to this day remains close to “her babies.”
Late at night, the band would sometimes walk down to Rose Hill Cemetery, and in this eerie Southern Gothic setting, amidst the tombstones that sit hard along the banks of the Ocmulgee River, they would play guitars for hours, shaping their musical future.
Their debut album, The Allman Brothers Band, was released in November 1969, and from the opening notes, it was clear that a new and different genre of music had been born. All the elements – blues, rock, jazz, country, and R&B – had come together in an extremely powerful way. Duane and Dickey’s interlocking guitars created some beautifully melodic lines, while Gregg’s gruff vocals and keyboard work added depth and meaning to each tune. Berry’s bass laid down a solid foundation for everyone, and Butch and Jaimoe’s pounding interplay on the drums drove it all forward. It was the intensity and passion, however, that truly jumped out of the speakers. The Allman Brothers Band included tunes like the sinister “Whipping Post,” and “Dreams,” which showcased Duane’s ethereal slide guitar work. Their second album, Idlewild South, was released in 1970 to huge critical acclaim, and included the soon to be classics “Midnight Rider,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ .” As good as these albums were, however, it was impossible to capture in a studio what the Allman Brothers did best – which was play their music in a live setting.
From the onset, the Allman Brothers Band was a live performance group. The attitude was that they would play anywhere, anytime, for anyone who would listen. Their free shows at Central City Park in Macon and Atlanta’s Piedmont Park soon became legendary for the sheer intensity of the music. When playing live, it was clear that the sum was even greater than the formidable parts of the Allman Brothers. They were a band – a band that created dynamic, visceral music that no other group had played before. True road warriors, they played over 300 shows in 1970 alone, and always left the crowds wanting for nothing.
Time at home in Macon was a precious thing, and in January of 1970, Berry Oakley and his wife Linda rented a stately 18-room Tudor-style mansion on Vineville Avenue. Called the “Big House,” it became the hub of the band’s universe whenever they were in town. There they would rehearse, eat meals, play pool, and simply enjoy a communal lifestyle based on the special brotherhood that had been forged through their music.
By 1971, it was clear that the time had come to make a live recording, so on the nights of March 12 and 13, 1971, the tapes were rolling at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East Auditorium, and the result was At Fillmore East, which is quite simply the greatest live album in rock music history. Produced by Tom Dowd, At Fillmore East captured the very essence of an Allman Brothers’ performance. From the thumping “Statesboro Blues” – the group’s signature tune – to the haunting “Elizabeth Reed” through to the masterpiece that was “You Don’t Love Me,” it was stunning in its musical dimensions. At Fillmore East shot up the charts, and Rolling Stone declared that the Allman Brothers Band was “the best damn band in the country.” Because of the vision of Phil Walden and Capricorn Records, Macon suddenly became the focal point of the recording industry, and Southern rock began to flourish. Groups like the Marshall Tucker Band, Grinderswitch, and Wet Willie called Macon home, Lynyrd Skynyrd would soon take off in Jacksonville, and the Allman Brothers found themselves at the forefront of a rock and roll phenomenon.
All the members of the band enjoyed their hard-earned success, particularly Duane, who was the driving force behind it all. He was recognized as a genius for his guitar work, both with the Allmans and for his contributions to Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. His scorching musical dialogue with Eric Clapton helped make Layla perhaps the best guitar album ever recorded, and made Duane a bit of a legend in his own time. The Allmans toured incessantly through 1971, playing to bigger and bigger crowds, and the music grew still more emotive. In October, as they started work on another album, the future looked promising – then in one day, the heart and soul of the group was gone.
On October 29, 1971, Duane Allman jumped on his Harley Davidson and left the Big House, bound for his home in West Macon. At the intersection of Hillcrest and Bartlett, a large flatbed truck turned in front of him, forcing Duane into a skid. He was thrown from his bike, and suffered massive internal injuries which proved to be fatal. Duane Allman was dead at age 24.
The shock to the music world was huge, but the blow Duane’s death dealt to his band was immeasurable. They decided to carry on and keep making music – it was what Duane would have wanted. The Allman Brothers went back into the studio as a quintet, and finished off their next record, Eat a Peach. Filled out with tracks recorded during the At Fillmore East dates, Eat a Peach fully caught the spirit of the Allman Brothers at the pinnacle of musical brilliance. The studio cuts included Gregg’s sor-rowful laments “Melissa” and “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” Dickey’s lovely “Blue Sky,” and “Little Martha,” the gentle acoustic guitar duet written by Duane. Among the live tracks was the band’s opus – a 34-minute “Mountain Jam,” which best defined the Allman Brothers as a performance group.
Though they were devastated, the band continued to play on, and by mid-1972, they felt it was time to make an addition to the group. Instead of placing a guitarist in the impossible position of replacing Duane Allman, they opted for another keyboard player. 20-year-old pianist Chuck Leavell entered the line-up, and his smooth and jazzy runs across the keys added a new feature to the band’s sound. Chuck fit in nicely, and in October, 1972, the Allmans went to work on a new album. It had a been a year since Duane’s passing, and things were finally beginning to settle down – then unbelievably, fate’s cruel hand struck again.
On November 11, 1972, Berry Oakley was killed in a motorcycle crash when his bike collided with a bus on Napier Avenue in Macon. Berry was killed only three blocks from the site of Duane’s accident, and like Duane, he was just 24 years old. Berry had been particularly shattered by the loss of Duane – he had completely shared in Duane’s ambitions for the band, and if Duane was the musical visionary of the Allman Brothers, Berry was the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood. Appropriately, they were laid to rest side by side in Rose Hill Cemetery, on a scenic terrace overlooking the Ocmulgee River – not far from the spot where they had made the late-night music they loved.
The band was crushed – Duane’s death had put them on their knees, but Berry’s death flattened them. They had lost their two key leaders in a year, but once again, they decided to move on. Bassist Lamar Williams, a long-time friend of Jaimoe’s from Mississippi, joined up, and the group went ahead and recorded the most successful album of their career, Brothers and Sisters. Released in August, 1973, it quickly shot up to #1 on the Billboard charts, and “Ramblin’ Man” a country-rock tune penned by Dickey, peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 40. Brothers and Sisters also included the joyous Betts song “Jessica,” which featured Chuck’s exhilarating piano solo, as well as “Southbound,” “Wasted Words,” and “Come and Go Blues.” The Allman Brothers Band was now the most popular group in America – this was validated when Rolling Stone named them 1973’s “Band of the Year.” They did one of rock’s first stadium tours, and capped the year off by headlining the Watkins Glen Summer Jam in upstate New York. Playing along with the Grateful Dead and the Band, the Brothers captivated over 600,000 people with an inspiring three hour performance. The Allman Brothers Band had seemingly reached the musical mountaintop, but ominous clouds were forming on the horizon.
Though it took some time, the loss of both Duane and Berry inevitably took its toll. Without the leadership that they had provided, the focus of the band slowly drifted away from the music, and to the excesses that fame and fortune provided. Playing in the group became secondary to enjoying what being in the Allman Brothers did to one’s life, and the music suffered. Communication began to break down, and while there were still magical moments on stage, the band was clearly losing what made it special. Their next release, Win, Lose or Draw, represented this lack of focus. Although there were some great displays of talent, including the smoking “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” and Betts’ lilting “High Falls,” named for the state park north of Macon, much of the album was uninspired. They continued to tour, but the pressures and differing agendas became too much. They were no longer a brotherhood, but six musicians who only saw each other at show time. The spirit was gone, and the Allman Brothers Band slowly disintegrated. In late 1976, with much public acrimony and bad blood, the group broke up. Those early days in Macon seemed like a distant memory, and everyone went their separate ways. Gregg pursued a solo career, Dickey put together a new band called Great Southern, and Jaimoe, Chuck, and Lamar formed a fusion group called Sea Level. Seemingly, it was all over for the Allman Brothers Band.
There is nothing like time for healing wounds, however, and after several years apart, everyone realized that they all missed playing with their musical brothers. Following some heartfelt discussions, the Allman Brothers got back together with a show at Lakeside Park in Macon on August 24, 1978. It was like the bad times had never happened – the fire was still there, and they wanted to build on it. Chuck and Lamar opted to stay with Sea Level, so guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies were recruited from Great Southern to fill out the band. They recorded Enlightened Rogues, a tremendous album that brought back much of the old sound. The Allmans hit the road, and while things went well at first, the band got caught by the changing musical trends of the late ’70s. Disco and techno-pop were in, and Southern rock was out of vogue. Two subsequent albums dropped off dramatically in quality, and the band began to drift apart again. In January, 1982, the Allman Brothers broke up, apparently for good. They were victims of a shift in musical values, and the brilliance of Duane Allman and his bandmates was almost forgotten in the cheap glitter of the ’80s.
The musical pendulum swung around in 1989, however, and rock and blues were suddenly back in. “Classic rock” formats began appearing on FM radio, and groups like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane reunited. A compilation box set of Allman Brothers music entitled Dreams was released by Polydor Records in 1989 to very favorable reviews, and the original members of the band decided to give it one more try. Gregg, Dickey, Butch, and Jaimoe were joined by Warren Haynes on guitar, Allen Woody on bass, and keyboardist Johnny Neel, and they went back to the concert circuit. It didn’t take long for them to rediscover the past energy, and more importantly, an entire new legion of fans discovered them. The long guitar runs of Dickey and Warren captivated kids who hadn’t even been born when Duane and Berry were alive, and soon the Allman Brothers had regained their title as the best jamming rock-blues band of all time. Johnny Neel departed in 1991, but percussionist Marc Quinones signed on, giving a further boost to the already explosive rhythm section. The band made a triumphant return to Macon in December, 1991, playing four sold-out shows at the City Auditorium. They stole the show at the 1994 Woodstock II Festival, and in 1995 the Allman Brothers received the ultimate honor with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By 1996, they had released five superior albums, including the gratifying Where It All Begins, but in 1997, Warren and Allen left the band to dedicate themselves to their new group, Gov’t Mule. Despite this setback, the Brothers didn’t miss a beat. Slide wizard Jack Pearson and bassist Oteil Burbridge blended immediately into the mix, and the ABB celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1999 in grand style, leaving their fans blissed out after every show.
Jack Pearson departed the Allman Brothers before the summer tour of 1999, but was capably replaced by Derek Trucks, Butch’s guitar-genius nephew. A year later, the Allman Brothers and Dickey Betts parted company, but Jimmy Herring was up to task of replacing Betts’ formidable sound. In 2001, Jimmy stepped out of the line-up, Warren Haynes stepped back in, and since then, the band has been on a creative high, releasing the stellar studio album, Hittin’ the Note, as well as a platinum-selling DVD, Live at the Beacon Theatre. Four decades after it all began in Macon, the Allman Brothers Band is alive, well and playing music that would make Duane and Berry very proud. Known as one of rock’s best live acts, they continue to tour regularly to packed houses and massive festivals.
The group celebrated it’s 40th anniversary in 2009 with an epic 15 show-stand at the Beacon Theatre in New York City; this run was dedicated to Duane, and from the moment the band hit the stage, there clearly was a sense of purpose and focus in the air. Adding fuel to the musical fire were 62 special guests; some of them were old friends, others were younger players who had been influenced by Duane, but all of them were there to pay homage to the man known as Skydog. Amongst those in attendance were John Hammond, Boz Scaggs, Taj Mahal, Levon Helm, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Sheryl Crow, Chuck Leavell, Jimmy Herring, Johnny Winter, Stanley Clarke, and Jimmy Hall. Also appearing with the band for two nights was the inimitable Eric Clapton; this marked the first time Clapton had played with the group in a public setting, and the same magic that ignited Layla in 1970 came alive again on the stage of the Beacon.
The Allman Brothers Band finished its 40th anniversary in grand style with a tremendous summer tour, and then brought things full circle in April, 2010, with a return to Macon, GA. The night after they officially open The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, the group kicked out the jams at the Macon Auditorium. The road is still winding out in front of them, but it always will circle back to 2321 Vineville Avenue.