by Elliot Stephen Cohen
After 14 years since his last solo release, legendary blues singer and keyboardist Gregg Allman is back with perhaps his finest solo work ever, Low Country Blues, which debuted at number 5 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Allman recorded with producer T Bone Burnett, who has revitalized the mojo of artists such as Elton John, Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, and Robert Plant. Allman says he loves the way Burnett gave the album a “spooky, swampy feeling.” Allman sat down with Keyboard to discuss this latest album, his influences, and his Hammond B-3.
Low Country Blues is your first recording without your longtime producer and friend, Tom Dowd, who passed away in 2002. How did you decide to work with T Bone Burnett?
He knew Tommy real well, and that was important to me. After I met T Bone, we talked about a lot of different recording techniques, and I realized that his techniques matched up with mine. What really cinched things was that when I originally met him in Memphis, I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Well, I’m here with two builders, and we’re measuring the old Sun Records studio board-for-board. [Sun Records is the recording birthplace of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis —Ed.] We’re going to build one exactly like it on this land I own.” I thought, “Man, that’s gotta be the hippest thing I’ve ever heard!”
The band that T Bone Burnett put together included your old friend Dr. John. What was it like playing with him again?
He’s playing better now than he ever has. Back when we recorded my album Playin’ Up a Storm in 1976, we were both kind of seeing each other through the fog, but we’ve both been clean and sober for a long time now. It was such a pleasure seeing him again. The communication between members of the whole band was just off the charts. I mean, I’d packed enough clothes for three weeks. I didn’t even stay two. We just knocked [the songs] down.
What was the first exposure you and your brother Duane had to the blues?
We used to listen to this radio station called WLAC, which broadcasted from Gallatin, Tennessee. There was this DJ called “Big John R.” He’d play Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, all of ’em. That was really our first taste of the blues. We listened to that show religiously. Of course, I’d already been exposed to R&B people like Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding. When we started playing clubs–doing the “chitlin’ circuit”– we remembered all of that music.
Was your first keyboard a Hammond B-3?
No. Originally I had one of those old Wurlitzer pianos. I only knew a few songs, so after we started playing clubs, I would get off of the guitar and sit down at the keyboard. People used to come up to me and say, “What’s the matter with your regular keyboard player? Is he out sick or something?” [Laughs.]
What originally attracted you to the sound of the B-3?
Well, on that same radio station, this DJ named Herman Grizzard would take over the late show, which was a jazz show, and that’s where I first heard Jimmy Smith. At the time I didn’t even know what instrument he was playing. All I knew was that it sho’ sounded good.
When you finally saw Jimmy Smith perform live, what did you think?
Oh, his left hand was kickin’ ass. He had some, like, three-note chords that just blew me away, and his foot–whoa! I mean, he could’ve just brought his foot and a drummer. He was smokin’ on those bass pedals. I got to meet him after the show, and he was real nice.
When did you begin playing the B-3?
I had gone out to California, and I had a friend who was with the group Sanford and Townsend, who’d had a hit record called “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” When he’d go out on the road, he’d just play piano because he couldn’t take his Hammond along. So I asked him if I could watch his place while he was away, and the first time I sat behind the Hammond, I was just fascinated by it. I wrote “Dreams” and “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” on it.
When did you get your own B-3?
Just around the time that the Brothers were first starting, [bassist Berry] Oakley had this old Victorian home, and one day I was blindfolded and led into this big room. When they took the blindfold off, I was amazed to see this brand new 1969 B-3 with Leslie 122RV cabinets. There were about eight rolled joints on the keyboard, and they said, “Have fun. We’ll see you in about a week or so.” That day is still one of the happiest days of my life. While they were gone, I wrote “Whipping Post” and most of the songs that wound up on the first Allman Brothers album. I was really on a roll.
At Fillmore East is still considered one of the greatest live rock albums ever. What are your memories of that gig?
It was the closing of the Fillmore East, which was a temple of rock ’n’ roll, run by Uncle Bill [legendary promoter Bill Graham]. I mean, how could you not play good that night? It was a very prestigious gig, and of course at one time we were going back and forth between the East and West coasts, playing both Fillmores.
Robert Johnson sang that there was a hell-hound on his trail that he couldn’t shake. Is your talent for the blues rooted in a similar feeling?
On the contrary, I feel like I’ve had many, many really good guardian angels because, man, I could’ve bought death many times. Thank God I’ve managed to elude it so far.
“Gregg plays the Hammond B-3 at a very clean volume, seeking clarity and emotion of tone rather than overdrive,” explains his longtime keyboard tech Daved Kohls. “He prefers to paint sonic colors through the unique voicings inherent in the B-3.” According to Kohls, Allman always uses an original B-3 console on the road and in the studio– never any other model, and never a modifi ed or cut-down version.
“Gregg has owned many B-3s over the years and currently has at least four that we take on the road: two with the Allman Brothers Band and two with the Gregg Allman and Friends band,” Kohls says. “They’re all well-maintained stock 1960s models, one of each pair being a primary instrument and the other being for backup. We carry a separate Leslie 122 for each.”
With the Allman Brothers Band shows, Gregg plays piano onstage, using a Kurzweil SP2X. He uses only three presets: grand and upright acoustic pianos, and a Wurly. The Kurzweil is run in stereo through Avalon U5 direct boxes.
“Gregg usually has the Leslie at slow speed,” Kohls says, “occasionally switching to fast briefly for effect only, not as a fullblown sound preference.”