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The devastating, tragic story of The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band
(Image credit: GAB Archive / Getty Images)

It's all going very wrong circling over New York, the diverted and delayed Virgin Atlantic 747 that I’m on board is shuddering its way through a thunderstorm and getting ready for a second attempt at landing. Meanwhile, somewhere down below, the Allman Brothers are already on stage – and I’m supposed to be there.

Nearly two hours later at the hotel, it scarcely seems worth phoning to apologise. But their manager is cheerfully insistent: “They’ll be on a while yet. Come on over.” 

One cab ride later I’m being ushered through the stage door straight into the auditorium as the band walk on stage for the encores. I’m just taking in the faded grandeur of the ornate Beacon Theatre and breathing in the aroma of a hot, happy crowd when, breaking out of a series of chords and low-key guitar flurries, comes the unmistakable opening riff of Layla

The crowd vibrates with pleasure – that is, those who aren’t crouched protectively over sophisticated recording equipment or clutching 10-foot poles with twin microphones perched on top; there must be a dozen of them dotted around the stalls. 

The Allman Brothers are ripping through Layla with a fluid poise, visibly alert to the song’s shifting patterns. On the left-hand side of the stage the diminutive figure of Gregg Allman sits sandwiched between his Hammond organ and the Leslie cabinet behind his head. He leans into the microphone, with his blond hair swaying around his shoulders. His plaintive, rasping voice still has that compelling edge, unaffected by the ravages of time – and there have been a few ravages. 

Up at the back of the stage are two other original Allman Brothers: drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, drawing on 35 years’ worth of rhythmic telepathy. As if that isn’t enough there’s another percussionist, Marc Quinones – a mere dozen years in the band – adding congas to the rolling beat centre stage. 

Guitarist Warren Haynes, who first joined The Allmans 14 years ago, seems to act as the band’s musical fulcrum, while to his right bass player Oteil Burbage surfs the big beat wave. And tucked in by the percussionists is a tall, thin boy with long blond hair in a pony tail, absorbed in his guitar, emitting the same ‘crying bird’ tone that jousted with Eric Clapton on the original Layla, recorded by the latter in 1970. 

Back then it was another lanky, longhaired boy, Duane Allman; tonight it’s Butch Trucks’s 23-year-old nephew Derek Trucks. To my 6am brain, stewing on sensory overload, it’s positively spooky. 

“That’s only the second time we’ve played it, and it was the best of the two,” Gregg reveals the following afternoon in his hotel suite. “It was Butch’s idea – and a damn good one, I must say. He doesn’t have many, but he certainly came through with that one,” he laughs with his gentle Southern drawl, a hint of the charm that has proved irresistible over the years. 

Butch and Gregg were among those present on the September day in 1970 at Miami’s Criteria studio when Duane suggested speeding up the doleful riff that Clapton had been playing around with, and then came up with the magic seven-note riff. 

“I think most of us were there,” Gregg says, settling back on the sofa. “People were coming and going… It was three decades ago and… I don’t know.” 

But you don’t forget a riff like that in a hurry. 

“No, you really don’t.” He leans forward and rattles the ice in his glass of Coke. “There’s a couple of moments that I remember. It was about the time that Mr Clapton switched over from an SG to a Fender. He strapped that thing on and my brother strapped on a Gibson – of course. And then… whew!"

“But I still reckon he [Clapton] sounds better playing that fat Gibson – all that stuff he did with John Mayall and Cream. It was just that fluid thing, man: the SG, those little humbuckers and what have you. It was just so good for him.” 

When Clapton hooked up with Duane Allman for the momentous sessions that produced the Layla album, the Allman Brothers were busy becoming the hottest live band in America. Duane and brother Gregg, a year younger, had been raised in Nashville by their mother – in an ominous foretaste of the future, their father was killed by a hitch-hiker robbing their house. 

Ironically it was Gregg who first picked up a guitar; Duane was more interested in motorbikes to begin with. But by the time Gregg was converted at a BB King concert, when he first came across a Hammond B3 organ, Duane already had less grease and more string-callouses on the fingers of his left hand. 

The Allman family had moved down to Daytona Beach, Florida, and the brothers played in local bands until they finished school in ’65. They then formed The Allman Joys and toured the local circuit, playing R&B influenced by British beat groups like The Yardbirds, The Spencer Davis Group and, of course, Cream. They then had a brief, disastrous brush with the hip, groovy Los Angeles music business as The Hour Glass, dressed in off-the-peg psychedelic outfits and trapped inside the record company’s gilded cage when all they wanted to do was play gigs. 

The only good thing about that bad trip came while Duane was laid up with a virulent bout of flu. He spent two solid weeks developing an awesome slide guitar technique using the glass Coriciden medicine bottle. From then on he could scarcely be parted from his guitar or his bottle of Coriciden. Or, as Duane told the legendary John Hammond (the man who signed Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) when he asked him how he got so good: “Man, I took speed every night for three years and practised.”

While Gregg stayed on the West Coast, contractually bound to a solo album, in 1968 Duane headed back to Florida and hooked up again with local bands, including the similarly Cream-obsessed Second Coming, who already had their own shit-hot guitarist Dickey Betts and top-drawer bass player Berry Oakley. 

Duane also got a break when he was hired for a Wilson Pickett session on the strength of his playing on the Hour Glass albums. He suggested Picket cover The Beatles’ Hey Jude, taught the band the arrangements, and laid a sublime solo over the top. 

The single sold a million, and Duane was suddenly in demand as a session player. But he was itching to form a band. And it was the late Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, who gave him the opportunity, telling him to form a trio and come to Macon, Georgia, to record for his newly formed Capricorn label. 

Duane was so excited he turned up with a six-piece band, having recruited Betts and Oakley from The Second Coming, a couple of session drummers he’d played with – Jai ‘Jaimoe’ Johanson and Butch Trucks – and summoned Gregg back from La La land. 

Even now Gregg chuckles at the thought of being the last to join The Allman Brothers: 

“I remember walking into this room, and there were two sets of drums set up and Duane is thrusting a lyric sheet for Muddy WatersTrouble No More in my hand saying: ‘Now, there’s two extra beats at the end of each measure.’ I’d just got out of the car from driving across the country, and I wasn’t ready for this. I said: ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And he started going: ‘You little punk!’ at me in front of all these guys I didn’t even know. So I snatched the lyrics out of his hand and said: ‘Kick this motherfucker off’.”

So now there was a healthy dollop of sibling rivalry to add to the heady musical brew the band were working up in their cramped two-room apartment in Macon. They’d head down the street to a cemetery, where they’d strum away beside a gravestone marked ‘In memory of Elizabeth Reed’, fuelled by a combination of wine, weed and the magic mushrooms that were to become the band’s logo. 

As an initiation into the brotherhood, each band member got a mushroom tattooed on his leg – certainly more romantic than getting crabs together on tour in Texas a few months later.

Their First Album, The Allman Brothers Band, in 1969, laid the foundation for a whole new style of rock music. It blended a bluesy, jazz-tinged soul with a progressive Southern vibe (as opposed to the reactionary redneck vibe that afflicted so many of their inferior imitators), characterised by Gregg’s gruff, heartfelt vocals, the dual guitar lines that varied from gentle cooing to frenzied wrestling, and the remorseless percussive pulse. 

They got in touch with their psychedelic side on the languid, sumptuous Dreams before the final, five-minute, pile-driving Whipping Post. Having made the album they wanted, the Allman Brothers embarked on a marathon tour to promote it. 

Over the next two years they played an astonishing 500 gigs and effectively lived on the road, pausing only to hook up with Eric Clapton for his Derek & The Dominos album Layla and to record their second album, Idlewild South

The Allmans’ second album was even better than the first, thanks to producer Tom Dowd who caught the essence of their road-hardened energy. Dickey Betts also came through with a couple of gems: the opening, stirring Revival and the towering instrumental In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed (their graveyard fave), which quickly assumed more than double its seven-minute length on stage. 

And on stage was where the Allmans shone nightly for two to three hours, a spell-binding show that launched into a different trajectory every night, depending on the chemistry between them and the chemicals inside them. 

“Enlightened rogues” was Duane’s description of the band and road crew, and they lived the life of rock’n’roll outlaws to the hilt – existing on a diet of speed to numb the boredom and exhaustion of travelling, and then varying the mood with a concoction of pharmaceuticals ranging from psychedelics to opiates. 

But it was a high-risk strategy. First to snap was Twiggs, the road manager, who pulled a knife on a club owner in Buffalo who was refusing to pay them after a gig. In the ensuing fight the owner was stabbed and died. Twiggs was charged with first-degree murder. 

Another roadie was shot in the thigh by an off-duty police officer in Macon for ‘resisting arrest after refusing a speeding ticket’. The band were also a drug bust waiting to happen. After a close call in New York when they tossed a package containing heroin out of a car window just as they were being pulled over by a cop (it was still there went they went back for it), their luck ran out in Alabama in March 1971 when police found marijuana, PCP and heroin in their van. 

All six band members and three roadies were facing prison sentences, until some plea-bargaining got them off. More bizarrely, Twiggs was found not guilty of his murder charge by reason of insanity, after a methadone-induced performance in the witness box by bassist Berry Oakley, complete with nausea attacks. It enabled the defence to prove that any reasonable person would have been driven mad working for the Allman Brothers. Six months in a mental health facility later, Twiggs was able to resume his former employment.

But the music just kept getting better. And the album The Allman Brothers recorded just before their Alabama bust, Live At The Fillmore East, remains a strong contender for The Greatest Live Album Ever Made. 

Taken from four lengthy sets, the band are in mesmerising form, tearing through standards like Statesboro Blues, Stormy Monday and a 20-minute You Don’t Love Me before heading into the stratosphere with a couple of heady instrumentals and topping it all off with a 22-minute version of Whipping Post. 

Live At The Fillmore was the breakthrough the band and record company were looking for, selling half a million copies within a couple of months of its release in July 1971. The album cover shows the band, who hated posing for pictures, in front of their equipment, packed and ready to roll. They are all laughing, particularly Gregg, who is pointing at a smug-looking Duane whose hands are clasped in his crotch, concealing a bag of cocaine he has just been handed by a passing ‘friend’. 

When the band came off the road in October 1971 they were completely frazzled. They finished off a couple of songs for the next album, but it was clear that they needed rest, recuperation and detox. The latter did not appeal, so they concentrated on the former. 

On October 29, riding his beloved Harley Davidson in Macon, Duane swerved to avoid an oncoming truck and came off the bike, which landed on top of him. He died three hours later of massive internal injuries. 

To say that the band were emotionally unprepared is an understatement. Berry Oakley, who’d been following Duane, wrecked his car on the way back from the hospital; Gregg’s wife Shelley wrecked hers two days later. The five remaining band members played at the funeral. They dealt with the aftermath by sedating themselves and going back on the road. Their domestic lives, especially Gregg’s, were too volatile to stay home.

Duane was all over the next album, Eat A Peach, some two thirds of which featured more songs from their Fillmore shows, including a 33-minute Mountain Jam based on Donovan’s hippy-dippy First There Is A Mountain, plus three tracks Duane had recorded in the studio. 

Naturally the tragedy had heightened interest in the band, and the album went Top 5 when released early in 1972. But the band was still rudderless, even after they brought in young piano player Chuck Leavell – adding another guitarist was never even considered. 

Fortunately, Dickey Betts rose to the musical challenge and came up with two outstanding songs for the Brothers And Sisters album – the gorgeous country ballad Ramblin’ Man, which was the Allmans’ first and biggest hit, and the instrumental Jessica (used for the theme to TV motoring programme Top Gear). But before they could finish the album Berry Oakley smashed his bike into a bus. 

At first he got up and walked around in a daze. But back home, dazed turned to delirium, and he died in hospital a couple of hours later of a brain haemorrhage. The autopsy revealed twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. 

Oakley’s death came a year and a week since Duane’s death, and the accidents happened less than a mile apart. Both were 24. Berry had been the most affected by Duane’s death. The pair of them were buried together, not too far from Elizabeth Reed. 

Numb, the band carried on, recruiting Jaimoe’s friend Lamar Williams on bass, and proceeded to have their most successful year ever in 1973 as Brothers And Sisters topped the charts for five weeks and their shows escalated accordingly, culminating in the Watkins Glen Festival in upstate New York in front of 600,000 people. 

There were just three bands on the bill: The Grateful Dead played for five hours, The Band and the Allman Brothers for three hours each, then they all came back and jammed together for another 90 minutes. 

The success could not cover up the cracks. Gregg was either drugged up or remarrying, and Dickey’s frustration at the lack of leadership produced some alarming mood swings. The band that had spent two years on the road in the same van now had separate limos. Solo albums were not a bonding move, either. When a couple of the road crew were fired for being fucked up on drugs, not surprisingly they complained about the pot calling the kettle black.

But a bigger storm cloud was gathering that none of them could have foreseen even if they’d been straight – although if they had been straight they wouldn’t have been under the cloud in the first place. The copious quantities of drugs supplied to the band came largely via the Hawkins Gang, who were already being stalked by the FBI. When the FBI nabbed Gregg’s personal roadie John ‘Scooter’ Herring and his supplier, both of whom had connections to the gang, they had a crucial plank in their case and began putting the squeeze on them. 

As the drugs trail ended at Gregg’s door, he too was soon feeling the squeeze, and facing a prison sentence unless he testified against Scooter – who had twice saved Gregg’s life after he’d OD’d. 

It didn’t help that Gregg had embarked on a whirlwind romance/marriage/separation/reconciliation ad infinitum with Cher that progressed from news to soap opera to farce, and meant that the media were in attendance to watch him ‘stitch up’ Scooter in court. 

For failing to do the same to the Hawkins Gang, in July 1976 Scooter was given a 75-year prison sentence. In truth Gregg had little alternative. And with all mention of the Hawkins Gang scrupulously avoided in court, the real story didn’t emerge until the gang were finally nailed. 

Gregg was branded a traitor by the others, who declared the band dead. Not that the band had shown much sign of life in the previous couple of years, although the Win Lose Or Draw album (which featured the whole band on only three tracks) kept them in the oblivion to which they were now accustomed. 

While Gregg found solace in a baby with Cher and recording the appropriately titled Two The Hard Way album with her (he was so much in love he gave up heroin, but got addicted to methadone instead), Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks were dangerously out of control. Refused entry to a club one night, Butch rammed his Mercedes against the entrance and kept his foot down until the rubber burned off the tyres; Dickey vented his anger in a more personal manner, as friends and wives discovered to their discomfort.

For a while Gregg and Dickey ran their own bands while the others – minus Butch, who had sobered up and got out of Macon – produced a third offshoot, Sea Level. But none of them added up to a third of The Allman Brothers. 

Then suddenly, in 1977, the Allmans royalties dried up. But by the time they’d worked out how they’d been short-changed, Capricorn was broke too. 

Once Scooter was freed on appeal and the rest of the band were sufficiently detoxed to understand the full story, they inched towards a reunion. And now they felt able to add a second guitarist, Dan Toler, who’d been working with Dickey Betts. 

Enlightened Rogues (Duane’s phrase) sold a million when it was released in 1979, and was a return to form. But it was all too late for Capricorn Records, who went comprehensively bankrupt later that year, taking nearly $4 million of the Allmans’ money with it. 

The band’s only income was from the road, but the road was bad for Gregg. He’d swapped methadone for alcohol, but Cher refused to sign up for the next series of their soap opera, leaving Gregg alone with the bottle. Although he had a new bride, a Russian model 12 years his junior, by the time he checked into rehab at the end of the year. 

The false dawn of 1979 turned into the long dark night of the 80s. First of all The Allman Brothers signed to famed record company mogul Clive Davis’s Arista label. He was having great success reviving the fortunes of Aretha Franklin, but The Allman Brothers were made of more toxic stuff. 

“I don’t even like to think about those Arista records now,” Gregg muses. “We had other people in the band and in the studio. And it was just… it was just really bad. I don’t know why Clive Davis went for it; I got out-voted myself.” 

Gregg acknowledges Clive’s track record, “but it’s all got be done his way. And the trouble with that game is that you have to keep playing it. Then you’re only as good as your last hit.” 

That wasn’t a problem for The Allman Brothers – they didn’t have any hits. What was a problem was that they could no longer guarantee a live audience. They were going through the motions, and their audience noticed it before they did. They couldn’t cope with record company deadlines, either. 

Towards the end of 1981 they drifted into apathy and then out of sight, except when former bassist Lamar Williams died of cancer, and road manager, reprieved killer and parachuting enthusiast Twiggs died when his chute failed to open (some suspected suicide – he’d taken off from Duanesburg Airport), or when Gregg got into some alcohol or drug-related scrape.

The legend was disinterred in 1989 with Dreams, a comprehensive four-CD box set laced with unreleased tracks dating back to Daytona days, as well as yet another “new” track from the Fillmore shows. The sales of Dreams prompted lucrative offers from promoters – and it wasn’t as if the band didn’t need to play live again – but nobody wanted to repeat the last debacle. The omens were certainly better – Gregg and Dickey were almost sober. 

Enter Warren Haynes, a country/blues guitarist who’d been playing in Dickey’s band. “I’d always been a huge Allman Brothers fan and had met them ten years earlier,” he says. “I was just planning a solo album when I got a call saying: ‘We’re putting The Allman Brothers back together. Would you like to join?’ The positives all outweighed the negatives so I kinda jumped in with both feet.” 

There was also an Allmans contract on offer from Epic Records: “Well, I had a record deal with Epic at that time,” Gregg explains, “and then they got Dickey too. It probably looked like a conspiracy – ‘Hey, what have we here?’” he chuckles. 

Epic were alarmed when the band insisted on touring before recording – they didn’t think the band would survive the tour. But the resulting album, Seven Turns, was better than anyone dared hope; the Allmans were back on form. 

This time nobody was taking anything for granted, and rightly so. Even though Dickey, Jaimoe and Gregg were sufficiently revitalised to each remarry (Gregg for the fifth time), there were underlying tensions caused by Gregg’s lapses and Dickey’s erratic behaviour.

For a while this didn’t seem to matter. Shades Of Two Worlds, in 1991, maintained the momentum, but An Evening With The Allman Brothers invited unflattering comparisons with the Fillmore album. 

It was the band’s fault for repeating too many songs instead of going with the new stuff. And Dickey’s demons were closing in. Some nights he’d stop playing for no apparent reason. 

When he was arrested after a fight with his wife in a hotel room in June 1993 and went into rehab, the band continued the tour with stand-in guitarists. 

The night Zakk Wylde joined probably ranks as the most bizarre line-up in their history. It lasted one show, and proved that while you can get away with many things in The Allman Brothers, heavy metal posing is not one of them. 

When Dickey rejoined it was back to business as usual. Gregg tended to hole up in rehab in California between tours, only to fall off the wagon every time they went on the road. Dickey became an increasingly unpredictable loner. 

By 1997 Warren Haynes and bassist Woody Allen could stand no more and decamped to set up Government Mule, a loose conglomerate of jam band members who had an almost fundamentalist regard for the Allmans’ original musical principles. 

“We knew that people would think we were crazy for leaving an institution like The Allman Brothers,” Warren admits. “We felt that it was a statement, coupled with the fact that there was a lot of dissension in the band at the time. There was not a lot of creating; there was no writing, no rehearsing, no sound checking, no talk of a new record. Meanwhile, Government Mule was doing all of these things, so I was much happier doing that.” 

The Allmans soldiered on, playing around 60 shows a year and releasing live albums to keep the fans happy. But by summer 2000 Dickey’s behaviour was again threatening the band’s well-being, and reluctantly they had to suspend him from their summer tour. 

“Ain’t no way we can fire Dickey,” fellow founding member Butch Trucks explained at the time. 

Dickey complained bitterly at his suspension, with its insinuations about his playing and drug and/or alcohol problems. His wife spoke up for him, too, but less than a month later she was calling police to their Florida home after another rampage. And again four months later. And again nearly a year later. 

“He was just crazy as a bat, y’know,” Gregg says. “I mean, I have a certain amount of crazy too. Used to, maybe still do,” he continues, with the realism of a recovering addict. 

“But the main thing is that it wasn’t working musically. And that was the crowning blow. My writing went into the…” he points a finger into the empty glass in his hand. “He was just taking over the whole thing.” 

And he can’t say if or when Dickey will return. 

“At this point I don’t know whether he wants to come back or not, I really don’t,” Gregg says, shaking his head.

Meanwhile, The Allman Brothers have, typically, triumphed out of adversity. Warren gladly returned at Gregg’s request and forged a new guitar partnership with the 21-year-old Derek Trucks, who has already played with a host of notable bluesmen, sat in with Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker, and first played with The Allman Brothers when he was aged 11! 

“That was eerie, really eerie,” Gregg recalls. “I mean, his major influence was my brother and, my God, what more could you ask for. I remember after he got through playing with us that first time, he put on his baseball cap – he was too young to stay in the club – and went out the back played ball with his little brother.” 

“I remember Gregg kept coming over to me while we were playing and saying: ‘What is it with this kid?’” Warren adds. “Our jaws were just dropping open. But it was impossible to tell people about him, really, because every person you told would say: ‘Well, I’m sure he’s good for his age’, because you really don’t expect somebody of that age to sound like they’re 30.” 

Derek and Warren bring a contemporary jam-band sensibility to the Allmans’ pioneering style, broadening it and giving them a fresh impetus. “This band’s always been about improvisation, now more than ever,” Warren says. “The set list is different every night. We’re trying to inject more new material, more ‘new’ old material and a few strange covers so we can have fun and shake it up all the time. It’s always been about not playing songs the same way every night.” 

“That’s the only way,” Gregg agrees. “If any of us had to do that then this band wouldn’t have gotten passed a hobby. And now that a certain dark cloud with its bad weather has passed, it’s really a new day for The Allman Brothers,” he concludes pointedly. 

That explains the inclusion of songs like Layla in their shows, and the vitality of Hittin’ The Note, the band’s first studio album in a decade and arguably their most rewarding since the 70s. 

It lives up to its title for 75 minutes and features a soulful, slowed-down version of the Rolling Stones’ Heart Of Stone

“I thought if we did it that way it would be perfect for Gregg’s voice,” Warren explains. “They wrote it fairly early on, and I think if they’d written it later, on Beggars Banquet for instance, they’d probably have slowed it down too.” 

“Yeah,” Gregg chuckles, “it would have been really, really slow by then!” 

And between knowing guffaws the pair of them slip into a slurred, ‘Stoned’ version of the song. 

“Come to think of it,” Gregg says as the laughter subsides, “there’s three guys in the band who never grew up on that song. They probably never even knew the original.” 

“That’s right,” Warren says. “Derek asked to hear the original after he’d already cut it. He wasn’t born when it came out.” 

Gregg is amused by the thought. 

“I mean, I was only three,” Warren adds. 

Gregg looks momentarily nonplussed. “Aw, shit!” he says, getting to his feet and breaking into more laughter.

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 57, in October 2003. 

Dan Toler died in 2011, Butch Trucks died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January 2017, and Gregg Allman passed away in June of the same year. The Allman Brothers Band played their last show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theatre.