Songs of a Different South: The Allman Brothers’ Blues-Rock Legacy

by Kerry Candaele

In March 1971, the Allman Brothers Band—Duane Allman (guitar), Gregg Allman (vocals, organ), Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johnson (drums), Butch Trucks (drums), Dickey Betts (guitar), and Berry Oakley (bass)—took the stage at the Fillmore East on Manhattan’s The Allman Brothers Band, ca. 1960-1970 (From East Side to make the historic live recordings that would propel them into rock-’n’-roll’s upper echelon. By that time, rock had shifted its geographic epicenter from the Deep South to large metropolitan areas. Early rock pioneers such as Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis had all hailed from the South. But during the 1960s, in the wake of the “British Invasion” led by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and others, rock’s center of gravity had migrated to large cities on the coasts and throughout the North, while widening the audience to a massive number of young men and women born in the fifteen years after World War II.

After playing around Daytona Beach, Florida, in bands such as the Untils, the Shufflers, the Escorts, and the Y-Teens, the Allman brothers launched their eponymous band in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1969. They were by no means pioneers in the electric blues. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and others were blues men from the Delta South who had traded their acoustic sound for the amplified requirements of Northern urban dance clubs, where the link between Delta blues and rock-’n’-roll was secured. If you wanted to be heard in the raucous music environment of Chicago, you had to go electric.

Duane Allman (Courtesy of the Allman Brothers Band Museum)Duane and Gregg, the brothers after whom the band was named, knew this transplanted Southern blues tradition well, and participated in the same ritual that white teenage blues fanatics did everywhere: Like John Mayall, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton in England, they frantically collected records by James Brown, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and a host of others.

Having lost their father to murder at a young age, and often living hand-to-mouth with their mother, perhaps the young brothers felt drawn to the sadness and betrayal, the misfortune and defeat that was in the blues DNA. At the same time, the joy and exhilaration of rock-’n’-roll appealed to the generation of young men and women brought up during the Vietnam War and amidst the profound cultural transformation of the 1960s. For this generation, hope for a better life was often best expressed in music. As the cultural critic Albert Murray pointed out with acuity, the blues are “synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not.”

In their social circle, the Allman brothers crossed over the strict boundaries of racial exclusion. In an interview, quoted by Alan Paul in One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band, Gregg recalled that in his teens in Daytona, Florida, he journeyed “over across the other side of the tracks—literally. Blacks lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, and it wasn’t cool for me to be hanging out . . . in that neighborhood. I caught hell from my friends and family, but I didn’t care.”

The racially integrated Allman Brothers embraced the African American art form that is the blues. While proudly Southern, the band never trafficked in the mythology of the lost cause of the Confederacy. Dickey Betts (Courtesy of the Allman Brothers Band Museum)There were no stars and bars for this crew. As quoted by Mikal Gilmore in a 1990 Rolling Stone article, Dickey Betts put it, “We had nothing to do with that whole ideal, ‘the South will rise again.’ That was somebody else’s idea. The thing is, we did appreciate our culture, and a lot of people in the South were proud of the Allman Brothers, because we were typically and obviously Southern. That was part of our aura. But beyond that, I don’t think we were part of what was changing the South. It was people like Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy who helped affect Southern attitudes.”

In the early days, when everyone in the band lived together in small apartments, the record player seemed to never stop, as each member brought his own favorites to the brotherhood. Jaimoe turned the others on to jazz greats like Miles Davis and especially John Coltrane, from whose rendition of “My Favorite Things” Jaimoe admitted to borrowing: “I did a lot of copying, but only from the best,” he said in an interview quoted by Alan Paul in One Way Out. Guitarist Dickey Betts’s early song “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” also worked the genre of jazz-infused jamming and improvisation, synthesizing and summarizing a big slice of the blues, rock, and jazz traditions. “It wasn’t that we consciously copied that music,” Betts told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore in 1990. “It was just that later we realized that people like Coltrane and Adderley, or Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, had been pursuing the same idea many years before. Jaimoe [Jai Johanny Johanson] (Courtesy of the Allman Brothers Band Museum)For a rock-’n’-roll band, though, it was a pretty new adventure. I mean, one of the good things about the Allman Brothers was, we listened to jazz and were influenced by it without ever pretending we were jazz players.” Betts also knew well the deep blues tradition, and brought a country sensibility to the Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters albums that found a wide audience in hits such as “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky.”

The blues was the lodestone of the Allman Brothers’ appeal. On the band’s first two records, The Allman Brothers Band (1969) and Idlewild South (1970), they gave credit where credit was due, covering Muddy Waters (“Trouble No More”), Gregg Allman (Courtesy of the Allman Brothers Band Museum)Willie Dixon (“Hoochie Coochie Man”), Statesboro Blues (“Blind Willie McTell”), and in general borrowing and reworking the black musical form that was the blues. These sophisticated progressive blues-rock records didn’t sell well enough to allow the Allman Brothers to leave their rugged and parsimonious road life behind. It was their live shows, more than 200 a year, that won the band legendary status, their fame spreading by word of mouth.

It was the Allman Brothers’ live, loud, and visceral sound, finally recorded to a critically and commercially successful album, At Fillmore East (1971), that showed the world just what the fuss was all about. And what the fuss was about was immediately apparent on the opening song, “Statesboro Blues.” In the opening bars, Duane Allman plays a scorching, fluid, and expressive bottleneck slide. But the real revelation comes when Gregg Allman’s deeply soulful, urgent singing enters the mix. A twenty-four-year-old with long blond hair, Gregg Allman brought a growling vocal subtlety and bold approach to the proceedings, as if blues were his birthright. On “Whipping Post,” his voice, and the band’s arrangement, is not just delivering on the promise of raw emotion, but instead combines the skill and taste that make up a classic sound, free of imitation. Six months after the release of At Fillmore East, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident.

The Allman Brothers went on to record other successful albums such as Eat a Peach (1972) and Brothers and Sisters (1973), and traveled an all-too-familiar road of rock-star excess and dissipation. But the excitement of the early years was never matched. The band broke up, got back together, added new members while getting rid of some old ones, and continued to play to large audiences throughout the world. With Gregg Allman’s death in May 2017, the Allman Brothers cannot be revived.

The Allman Brothers’ musical legacy is wide and deep. Although both Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts never liked the classification “Southern Rock”—Betts called it “limiting,” and Gregg Allman said the two words linked are “redundant”—the band staked out an unmatched place in the music of the South. The Allman Brothers Band, 1970 (Reprinted from Southern bands have tried to replicate the Brothers’ success and musical mastery, sometimes with outlaw defiance and reactionary postures, but their music does not reach the high bar the Allman Brothers set. None could get anywhere close to the majestic and melancholy defeat in “Trouble No More,” or capture the sweet winds blowing across the South in a song like “Blue Sky.”

Jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott tells us that “the blues has lasted because the blues is about reality. Life is blue. Life ends. Sorrow is certain. Pain can’t be avoided. The blues lays it out. But as you sing the blues, and as you listen to the blues, something happens to you. In the middle of songs that have some of the saddest stories ever told, you feel more alive than ever. That’s the strength of the blues. That’s the miracle—watching the blues chase the blues away.” The Allman Brothers played the blues and chased the blues away with an emotional power and musical sophistication rarely matched in the past half-century of rock music.

Kerry Candaele is a writer and filmmaker. He collaborated with his brother Kelly on the documentary A League of Their Own, about his mother’s experience in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was later turned into a blockbuster movie. He is co-author of Bound for Glory: From the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance, 1910–1930 (1996) and Journeys with Beethoven: Following the Ninth, and Beyond (2012).

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