Midnight Riders: The History of the Allman Brothers Band
Though they defined Southern rock in the '70s, the Allman Brothers Band were far more than just a rock band hailing from the South. They melded elements of blues, jazz, R&B, country and rock into their own unique sound, as evidenced by the diversity of classic rock radio staples like ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ ‘Melissa,’ ‘Midnight Rider,’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ and ‘Whipping Post.’
Keyboardist and singer Gregg Allman recently announced that the band’s appearance Oct. 28, 2014 at New York’s Beacon Theater would be the last time the Allman Brothers Band appear in concert, with its members devoting their attention to their side projects. It was hardly the first breakup in a tumultuous career that lasted 45 years.
The group’s first big commercial success was its 1971 two-album LP ‘At Fillmore East,’ hailed as one of the best live concert sets ever recorded. By then, the band members had tightly bonded, living together in a cabin and surviving years on the road playing hundreds of low-paying gigs.
But the band’s story begins in Daytona Beach, FL, where Gregg and his older brother Duane Allman developed a love for music. Influenced by the British Invasion sound of the mid-‘60s, they formed a garage band called the Escorts. The Allman Joys followed, a blues and soul band that evolved into the Hour Glass. Liberty Records signed the group, which moved to L.A. and recorded two LPs that went nowhere.
Listen to 'Crossroads' by the Allman Joys
When Liberty declined a third album, Duane headed back South. He became a star session guitarist at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where he backed R&B greats like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. It was here that Duane developed his idea to create a band with two drummers and two guitarists. Gregg remained in L.A. and recorded a solo album to fulfill the band's contract with Liberty.
Alan Paul conducted hundreds of interviews with the band for the book ‘One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.’ Here, Gregg explained his brother’s vision for the band. “Duane was all about two lead guitars. He loved players like Curtis Mayfield and wanted the bass, keyboards, and second guitar to form patterns behind the solo rather than just comping,”
Encouraged by Redding’s former manager Phil Walden, Duane began to assemble what would become the Allman Brothers Band. He recruited bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson, who would later known as Jaimoe. Dickey Betts, an Oakley bandmate from the group Second Coming, joined as the other guitarist.
Duane traded solos with Betts, which they weaved with Oakley’s bass lines. A steady backbeat was provided by Trucks and Jaimoe, who said, “I asked Duane why he wanted two drummers and he said, ‘Because Otis Redding and James Brown have two,’ and I never asked him again.”
The group was later joined by Gregg, who had returned to Florida, on vocals and keyboards, the final piece in creating what would become their signature sound. They signed with Walden and Frank Fenter's Capricorn Records and moved from Jacksonville, FL to Macon, GA in the spring of 1969.
Their debut, 1969’s ‘The Allman Brothers Band’ was recorded after months of rehearsal and touring. It was well-received by critics and generated a buzz, but hardly made a dent in the charts. Still, songs like Muddy Waters' ‘Trouble No More‘ and 'Whipping Post,' written by Gregg, gave a hint of what was to come.
Listen to 'Whipping Post'
‘Idlewild South,’ the band’s 1970 follow-up, was produced by Tom Dowd and featured two classics: Betts’ ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’ an instrumental inspired by Miles Davis, and Gregg’s ‘Midnight Rider.’ Record sales, however, were only slightly better than their debut.
Duane’s guitar work caught the attention of Eric Clapton, who invited Duane to contribute to Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.’ Duane played slide and acoustic guitar on 11 of the 14 tracks but demurred when Clapton asked him to become a member of the band. Duane returned to the Allman Brothers Band after missing several shows.
Frustrated by the tepid sales of their two studio albums, the band acknowledged that much of their magic happened on stage. “We realized that we got a better sound live and that we were a live band,” said Gregg. “We were not intentionally trying to buck the system, but keeping each song down to 3:14 just didn’t work for us…We realized that the audience was a big part of what we did, which couldn’t be duplicated in a studio. A light bulb finally went off; we needed to make a live album.”
New York City’s Fillmore East was the logical place for the Allmans to record live. The band respected promoter Bill Graham and Big Apple audiences had always given them a warm reception. ‘At Fillmore East’ was recorded over three nights in March 1971, with the best takes released as a double album in July. It was an instant hit, reaching No. 13 and earning a gold record. But the band’s hard-won success was soon met with a tragedy that would haunt them forever.
On Oct. 29, 1971, Duane Allman was riding his motorcycle in Macon towards an intersection when a flatbed lumber truck blocked his path. He maneuvered to try to get out of the way, but he hit the truck and was thrown from the bike, which flipped up in the air and landed on top of him. He was 24.
"We thought about quitting because how could we go on without Duane? But then we realized: how could we stop?" said Trucks. "We talked about taking six months off but we had to get back together after a few weeks because it was too lonely and depressing. We were all just devastated and the only way to deal with it was to play."
The band completed their fourth LP, ‘Eat a Peach,’ with Dickey Betts picking up for Duane on lead and slide guitar and Chuck Leavell joining on piano rather than add a second guitarist. The double album, which featured more cuts from the Fillmore shows and favorites like Gregg’s ‘Melissa’ and Betts’ ‘Blue Sky,’ reached No. 5 on the charts. Its closer, a lovely guitar and dobro duet between Duane and Dickey called 'Little Martha,' was the only Allman Brothers song credited solely to Duane.
Listen to 'Little Martha'
With Betts now the band's unofficial leader the next record, ‘Brothers and Sisters’ signaled a move to country rock from the group’s blues roots. Released in Feb. 1972, the album topped the charts on the strength of the hit single ‘Ramblin’ Man' and the instrumental 'Jessica,' both of which were written by Betts composition.
Tragedy struck again on Nov. 11, 1972 when bassist Berry Oakley died after his motorcycle slammed into the side of bus just a few blocks from the site of Duane’s crash. Bassist Lamar Williams replaced Oakley but the band seemed to run out of steam. Allman and Betts recorded well-received solo albums in 1974 as the band begin to splinter.
By 1975, Allman moved to Hollywood and married pop diva Cher twice, resulting in their 1977 flop 'Two the Hard Way,' which was released under the name "Allman and Woman." Still struggling with drug addiction, Allman sporadically returned to Macon to record vocals for the disappointing ‘Win, Lose or Draw.’ Though the band continued to draw huge crowds across the country, the brotherhood they’d formed years ago was disintegrating.
Listen to 'Win, Lose or Draw'
The breaking point came in 1976 with the trial of road manager Scooter Herring, who had been busted for cocaine distribution. Allman, whose drug use was well-known, had to choose between testifying against Herring or face prosecution himself. Allman received immunity and testified.
Betts, Trucks and Jaimoe resolved to never again play with Allman, whom they considered an informer who'd ratted out their friend. Without them, the band broke up. Herring’s convictions were later overturned on appeal; he pled guilty to a lesser charge and served a reduced sentence. But the damage to the band had been done.
Allman put together the Gregg Allman Band, Betts formed Great Southern and Jaimoe, Leavell and Williams launched Sea Level. Hungry for product, Capricorn Records released the two-record live collection ‘Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas.'
Capricorn’s Walden brokered a truce in 1978 and the band agreed to reunite, though Leavell and Williams elected to remain with Sea Level. Guitarist Dan Toler and bassist David Goldflies were brought in as replacements. The Allmans’ 1979 ‘Enlightened Rogues,’ which reunited the band with producer Tom Dowd, returned them to the Top 10 but could not rescue Capricorn, which filed for bankruptcy.
Listen to 'Just Ain't Easy'
The success of the Allman Brothers Band paved the way for Southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie and the Marshall Tucker Band, but by 1979 Southern rock was on the wane, with disco and New Wave taking over the charts. The Allmans moved to Arista Records for 1980’s ‘Reach for the Sky’ but more turmoil followed when band members battled with Jaimoe’s personal manager Candace Oakley, his then-wife and sister of Berry Oakley. Jaimoe was fired by the band and replaced on drums by Toler’s brother Frankie.
The band’s second Arista album, 1981’s ‘Brothers of the Road,’ yielded the single ‘Straight from the Heart,’ which failed to crack to Top 20. Battles with Arista head Clive Davis over who would produce the next album spelled the end. The Allmans again disbanded after a performance on NBC's ‘Saturday Night Live’ in Jan. 1982.
Throughout the ‘80s band members scattered among a variety of groups. But in 1986, a joint tour with the Gregg Allman Band and the Dickey Betts Band clicked. Band members forgave Allman for testifying against Herring and a truce was brokered. To mark their 20th anniversary in 1989, the band reunited for a summer tour. Jaimoe returned and guitarist Warren Haynes, pianist Johnny Neel and bassist Allen Woody joined the band.
Listen to 'Seven Turns'
With a new contract from Epic Records and classic rock radio’s renewed interest in their music, the Allman Brothers were back. Producer Tom Dowd returned for their comeback album, 1990’s ‘Seven Turns,’ which brought the group closer to their blues roots. Neel left in 1990 and percussionist Marc Quinones joined for 1991’s ‘Shades of Two Worlds.’
‘An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: First Set,’ a live album recorded at the Beacon Theater, came out in 1992; 'Second Set,' with tracks recorded in '92 and '94, was released in 1995. The Beacon would host the band almost every spring since their first appearances in 1989.
Dowd returned to produce 1994’s ‘Where It All Begins,’ which was recorded live in the studio. Personnel changes continued with Woody and Haynes leaving in 1997 to concentrate on their side project, Gov’t Mule. Haynes would return in 2000 after Woody's death at age 44. The band added bassist Oteil Burbridge in 1997 and Butch Trucks’ nephew Derek, whose slide guitar work echoed Duane’s, in 1999. New blood definitely helped but old demons soon reappeared.
The LP ‘Peakin’ at the Beacon’ was recorded live in March 2000 as tempers flared within the group. Betts’ reported drinking problems continued and band members tired of his erratic behavior, which included fistfights and a disappearance in mid-tour. The original members told Betts in a letter that he would not be part of their immediate future plans.
Listen to 'Dreams'
“We did not fire Dickey,” said Allman. “We laid him off for the summer tour. We made this decision for a simple reason: the music was suffering. It had ceased to be a band – everything had to be based around what Dickey was playing."
“Dickey’s volume was so high that no one on stage could hear anything else,” added Butch Trucks. “There was nothing to do but react to Dickey’s playing, or have a train wreck.”
“I knew that there was tension that had to snap but I had no idea that it was all on me,” said Betts. “I had no idea that I would be snapped out of the picture. I thought it was cruel and impersonal.” Betts sued the band and later received an undisclosed cash settlement.
Guitarist Jimmy Herring replaced Betts but left soon after the summer tour. Derek Trucks stepped to the forefront on the band’s final studio LP, 2003’s ‘Hittin’ the Note.’ Critics raved about songs that recalled the band’s golden era, but radio stations ignored it. The next year’s ‘One Way Out,' another live effort, would be the final release by the band. Despite disappointing record sales, the Allman Brothers Band remained a top live draw.
It came as a surprise in January 2014 when Haynes, a 25-year veteran, and Trucks, who’d logged 15 years with the band, said that they would leave at the end of 2014 to work with their own groups, Gov't Mule and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Allman soon after announced that the Allman Brothers Band would pull the plug at the end of the year.
It seemed fitting that the band chose the Beacon Theater to close out their incredible run. They’d become a tradition there, selling out 232 straight shows since their first appearances in 1989.
“It’s been 45 years and that’s about enough,” Allman told the Wall Street Journal before their final rehearsal. “I think it’s a good thing.”