Gregg Allman passed away today 5/27/17 and it hits hard. We have been losing many of our great musical heroes in recent times, BB King, Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Greg Lake, Prince. There were Butch Trucks, Johnny Winter, Michael Burks, and Leon Russell who played The Funky Biscuit giving me a chance to see them up close and personal as I am the resident Photographer there. Well, the list goes on. Gregg Allman is the one that hits me the hardest. News of his death was not surprising given all his issues but it still hits like a ton of bricks. A part of me is gone. Maybe you have to understand the times and my personal musical journey being expanded thanks to Gregg and his brother, or should I say brothers.
My evolution of musical discovery I have talked about before. But in a visit to my Mom’s one Sunday she reminded me how early I was the musical explorer and always spread the word to my circle of friends as I moved along the path. She reminded me that when we came home from elementary school I would entertain my friends by playing records for them on the home Hi Fi Victrola. The eclectic mix was a little Frank or Dean, Ray Charles, Etta James, The Mickey Mouse Club, Chuck Berry, Pat Boone and the hit of the party ELVIS! I would revel in the looks on their faces as we got to Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes.
As I got older and sports overtook all other thoughts and time after school I still seemed to always find a way to explore what was going on in music. I was so fortunate to have a cousin, Teresa, who had a great record collection. She played me through the early 60’s. As her collection grew, my library and taste started to develop. I liked pop and all the AM radio stuff of course, but the albums she had, gave me a chance to hear the long versions of songs rather than the stripped down for radio versions. Hurdy Gurdy Man, Crimson and Clover, You Keep Me Hangin’ On by Vanilla Fudge, Let’s Spend the Night Together (and many other songs) are examples.
As I grew so did the technology and the ways the music got delivered. We had FM, which is sort of like Sirius is now, which played “album rock,” blues, and all the crazy ways music was getting diversified. The underground scene – many called it – got us the news on FM about what we were interested in. We found out about the culture and where our generation differed with the older one. We questioned everything. We had drugs to expand our awareness or make us feel the music and there was free love, all of which many from my generation have suddenly began paying for with crazy diseases that lay dormant for 30 or 40 years and then attack. We thought we lived through AIDS and escaped.
But I digress as usual.
My musical taste began to get a little more defined as the bands on the scene and the radio delivered music that made you decide who you wanted to go see in concert when they were in town. After the pop and early rock years the music got heavier and more experimental and I started to identify with blues, rocked up blues, but blues nonetheless. My entry point, although I didn’t realize it of course, was the early Elvis and Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. But it was really John Mayall and Long John Baldry and the English bands that got my attention with their take on our homegrown crop. The Yardbirds, Savoy Brown, Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Fleetwood Mac (the Green Years), Jeff Beck and the Stones got me and I began exploring their influences. Thankfully they all gave credit to the greats like Elmore James, BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and all the rest as they continued on their musical journeys. And many of us became fans of the greats who saw a resurgence thanks to the attention they finally started getting. I became a Clapton disciple and loved everything he did, but especially when he just played the blues.
I didn’t stay stuck there as I explored and hit pay dirt with my favorite guitarist, Mike Bloomfield. The Butterfield Blues Band (blues band in the early 60’s – cool with Bloomfield as guitarist and Paul Butterfield vocals and harmonica) became a mainstay in my collection and I got to see them and many, many more thanks to the genius named Bill Graham and the Fillmore East in NY.
Bill’s idea was to present live music in the theatre with great acoustics and two, three, or four bands on the bill from different musical genres. For instance, he would have Jefferson Airplane on the bill with BB King. Doing things like that gave the younger generation a chance to see and hear people they may not have heard of before. Thank You Bill! Santana, Manfred Mann, Mountain, and all the others I never would have seen (until Woodstock of course), I saw there.
By the time I started sneaking out and hanging in the village and going to the Fillmore, I got into bands. I was the Bass player; however, I didn’t know how to play very well and was left handed. We were so uninformed. I think my dad bought me an Epiphone dot to play bass with which I gave away for a Hofner copy Beatle Bass. I played right handed basses upside down. This made it very difficult for the guitar player who had to teach me simple progressions so I could pretend like I was really doing something when we played at parties or dances. I did it mostly because I was a little shy and girls loved the musicians! I did eventually learn just enough to make me jam with friends if they kept it to simple blues I IV V. I hung out with musicians, many of whom were older, and learned a lot and saw great shows during those years. I lived for the next show, or next new record coming out. I loved Bloomfield, Clapton Green, Johnny Winter, Hendrix and all the others as I mentioned.
Here I am digressing again.
It was then that one show at the Fillmore included an opening act from Macon, Georgia (actually from Daytona), The Allman Brothers Band. I hadn’t heard them before or maybe heard them on the radio but didn’t really get it yet. They were the openers, if I remember correctly, and Bill Graham gave them a soft introduction. The show was short but I can’t even remember who else was on the bill and that should say it all. Then I saw them at that infamous show where they opened for Love and the Grateful Dead. It has been written that this was the first time they met The Dead. That began a long musical friendship, most famously exemplified by Watkins Glen in 73, where the Dead, The Band, and the Allmans were the only three bands to play for the 650,000 gathered for the whole three day event.
Though I had no idea at the time what it meant at that epic Filmore show, Duane and Peter Green came out and jammed with the Dead at the end. While I liked the Dead, I was not a Dead Head, and in my opinion the Allman Brothers blew everyone away. They immediately became my favorites. They blended all the elements I loved, the blues with rock jams. The twin guitar leads harmonizing by Duane and Dicky, the awesome slide work by Duane, the two drummers idea (Jaimoe and Butch—one of the first interracial percussion collaborations), booming bass by Berry, and of course the B3 player with the voice meant to sing the blues in this style: one Gregg Allman. His voice grabbed you and his songwriting was awesome. Oh yeah, and he could play. Rolling Stone magazine describes the historical significance to the band’s beginnings as well:
“Duane talked his brother into joining a racially integrated band, the House Rockers, shocking their mother. ‘We had to turn my mother on to the blacks,’ Greg told 16-year-old Cameron Crowe in the 1973 Rolling Stone cover story that would inspire Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous. He added that it ‘[t]ook a while, but now she’s totally liberated.’ Following Allman’s death, Crowe tweeted, ‘Thank you Gregg Allman… for the inspiration, and for those many holy nights on stage.’” (Gehr)
I saw them every chance I got and was at the “Live at” show as well. Rolling Stone magazine ranks this Live recording of a Band one of the best (#2) ever put to vinyl (Rolling Stone).
I told everyone who would listen: this is the band!
Then of course there was the collaboration between Clapton and Duane which produced one of my top 5 albums, but hey, that’s another story.
As the years went by, tragedy struck the band as leader Duane died in a motorcycle accident not far for their communal house known simply as “The Big House.” Berry died exactly one year later in almost the same spot. They say he was never the same after Duane passed. We all persevered through our own tragedies as well over the years since. We felt the band’s pain and Gregg’s pain. I saw them at Watkins Glenn after the deaths and it was great, even therapeutic, but not the same. I moved to Florida and for several years I was a concert photographer, but in a weird twist, I never shot the Allman Brothers’ post Duane shows, nor Gregg’s solo shows. I don’t know why; maybe I wanted them etched in my memory at the Fillmore. I don’t think I saw them again until recent years. They suffered many ups and downs over the years since, carrying the pain, dealing with demons and the fickleness of new generations flocking to new musical heroes.. Somehow though they lasted long enough to be discovered again and the fans new and old came in droves. Their multi year residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York is the stuff of legends, and included Rock Stars sitting in, and Allman Band members’ offspring growing up and into their own spots joining in as well. “The Road Goes on Forever”.
I left the scene for many years and came back around 9 or 10 years ago. Always a listener, I started going back out to live shows as the South Florida scene became so great you just couldn’t ignore it. Then my good friend, Al Poliak, opened The Funky Biscuit and asked for my help with some old photos for atmosphere and to help with lining up talent and promoting. I quickly found my niche to be the photographer and took on that role. As my reputation and The Funky Biscuit audience grew I got to shoot for Rock Legends Photographers, South Florida Music Magazine, and my closest association in the business, as the photographer for Blues Radio International. Jesse Finkelstein and I have interviewed hundreds of artists now and we get private concerts and make great friendships with the artists as well. This has made my reemergence in the scene so much more rewarding.
The only time I saw Gregg and the Brothers since the old days was in the early 2000’s. I went up to the Beacon theatre during the Allman Brothers run with the Band that consisted of Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, Jaimoe, Butch, and of course Gregg. Out of curiosity I went, and the guests that night were Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie—one of my favorites, and Kid Rock—not one of my favorites, but he was actually awesome that night. More important was that they brought “the kids” out to jam: Devon Allman, Berry Duane Oakley, and Duane Trucks. I couldn’t help but think how the Allman Brothers were a giant family touched with musical greatness simply by the association of the two brothers, Duane and Gregg, and the others, Berry, Butch, Jaimoe and Dicky. They came together at a great moment in time and did something new and fresh, inspiring a generation, including all the siblings from all the members of the band. And there are more , Melody Trucks, Vaylor Trucks and Duane Betts. They all had the gift as if they were all genetically predisposed for it, even though they were not related. I couldn’t believe how good they all were. It was an uplifting first revisit for me.
As part of the talent scouting for the Biscuit, I remembered how great the Devon Allman show I saw was, and, at a subsequent show, I met and convinced Devon and Mike Zito that The Funky Biscuit was the place to play. Al Poliak reached out and a beautiful friendship has emerged over the years.
My friendship with Devon led to his getting me approval to shoot the Kravis show in 2014 when Devon opened for his father Gregg. I got all access and finally got up close and personal with my hero. Devon was on fire that night and I got great shots with a lot of déjà vu moments watching Gregg. He still had the magic and then sharing the stage with his son made it all the more special. His band was tight; the Kravis people treated me great. It was special.
Awesome moments for Gregg and Devon, and of course, me.
I also shot the Wanee festival that year and caught the Allman Brothers set as well as the book signing set with Duane’s daughter, Galadrielle, sharing the stage with Gregg and Butch Trucks. The two legends shared stories about the Big House in Macon and the Brothers’ life there where Galadrielle spent her early childhood. I vowed to make the pilgrimage.
Later that year my wife and I, on a whim, decided to drive up to Macon and visit all the sites including the Big House. I met John Griffin who showed us around, told us stories, and accepted my gift of a framed photo of Butch, Gregg and Galadrielle from the Wanee show. Life seems to come full circle, doesn’t it?
Jesse and I got to know Butch Trucks, who played The Funky Biscuit multiple times with his touring bands, prior to his death.
The Allman Brothers were back in my life.
We shot Gregg at a private party on South Beach as well, thanks to Scott Sharrard who stopped in to Blues Radio for a quick interview with Jesse and me before the show.
Also in 2016, I managed to catch the last official Allman Brothers show at the Beacon in New York and it was also a full circle feeling.
Back at the Biscuit, other legends have graced the stage, and, have even called Al up to jam with them. Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi popped in, Matt Schofield, British guitar sensation, even relocated here after experiencing the vibe at the Biscuit.
Al and I joked as we often do about who is rumored to pop in or not but we always believed that maybe Gregg Allman one day would come in to see Devon or check out the club. I would often say, well we had Johnny Winter, Leon Russell, and Butch Trucks; one day Gregg Allman will come in, or one day Eric Clapton or Keith Richards will show up.
And then one night the stars aligned. Devon was playing, but Gregg’s band was in town and asked for a spot on the bill so they wouldn’t be bored waiting for the music cruise they were shipping out on the next day. There was a festival in Boca that day (the Tedeschi Trucks Sunshine Blues Fest) and many artists from the event came over after the show to jam.
Al and I were at the show and he got a phone call from Devon saying that Gregg probably wouldn’t make the Biscuit because he was getting in late. We were disappointed but that didn’t stop rumors from flying.
When we walked in to the Biscuit, the place was absolutely packed with opening act Albert Castigilia killing it. Al and I hugged, commiserating in our disappointment that Gregg may not make it. And then, all of a sudden, Devon walked in with Gregg and wife in tow. They were promptly escorted to a table with security to keep Gregg from being bothered. Al and I were giddy beyond belief. Gregg came to see Devon play and support his band, led by Scott Sharrard who by this time was beginning their set. It’s a little bit of a blur but I believe Gregg asked Al what year the Hammond B3 was and when Al said it was his and it was a 63 Gregg got up and came to the stage. Al and I were in shock. I froze as they came towards me (I was standing just to the side of the stage). I couldn’t even lift my camera as they went by. Al helped him up to the stage. I took position as if by rote memory and started shooting.
I am pretty sure Al and I were both so overcome we were like two little school girls crying from happiness. The band with Gregg did rousing unforgettable versions of Statesboro Blues and Stormy Monday with a full horn section that just accentuated the soulful voice that was instantly identifiable as Gregg Allman. He could still kill it and I remembered that first time I saw them at the Fillmore, memories flooding my brain.
It couldn’t have been written any better. The crowd loved it, the son loved it, it was a magical moment and was the way I will always remember one of my musical heroes: in his element, in a small club, singing and playing his heart out for fans that were so in touch with the moment they were witnessing.
Thank You Devon Allman, Thank You Scott Sharrard, Thank You Al Poliak, and most of all, Thank You Gregg Allman!!
Gehr, Richard. “Gregg Allman, Southern Rock Pioneer, Dead at 69.” Rolling Stone magazine, 2017.
“50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.” Rolling Stone magazine, April 29, 2015.