[EDITOR'S NOTE - Legendary singer, songwriter and keyboardist Gregg Allman passed away on May 27, 2017 at his home in Savannah, Georgia at the age of 69. In tribute, today we are reposting this interview with him from June of 2011]
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 Galletin, 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 112RV 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 from 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.
***Extended interview begins here.
What criteria was used for choosing the 11 blues covers on the album?
I’ve always loved country blues. Someone had given T Bone a drive with literally thousands of old blues songs. He told me, “I’m going to pick out 25 songs, send them to you, and you can make the final selection. Then we’ll go into the studio and work on the arrangements.”
Your first instrument was actually the guitar, and you taught Duane how to play it. Were you amazed by how quickly he surpassed you talent-wise?
I really was. Duane quit school in the 10th grade, and he’d stay home all day practicing. Originally Duane would sing and play rhythm guitar, and I’d play lead, but he wasn’t that good of a singer, and I wasn’t that good of a guitar player, so we switched places.
Before the Allman Brothers Band became famous, were you personally harassed because of your very long hair when you first started touring the Southern states?
Oh, definitely, especially whenever we went to Alabama. You know, I hate to pick on that state because we have some great fans down there, but this one time, we were in this little ditty town, and I happened to be the only one of us in the car who was awake. This cop says, “Give me your driver’s license and come with me.” So he puts me in the back of this police car, and he pulls out this damn syringe. He’s flippin’ it up and down with this big old needle and says, “You know the judge here would just flip if he knewed [sic] what you boys was a-doin’ here in our fine state.” I said, “How much?” He said, “Just slip three hundred-dollar bills over to the front seat, take your driver’s license, and get your hippy ass out of here.” So I did. [Huge laugh.]
Did you also see a lot of racism, especially with having African-American drummer Jaimoe in the band?
Absolutely. Sometimes in the Deep South, we’d stop in restaurants, and the waitress would say, “You boys can all come in here, but we ain’t servin’ the n...” Boy, did that piss me off. I would say, “That ain’t no n... That’s Jaimoe.” [Laughs.]
Before you began your long association with Tommy Dowd, what was it like working with Adrian Barber on those early albums?
Adrian was from England, where the recording engineers used to wear suits and ties, and that’s how he dressed when he started with us. After a few months, he started smoking pot and got arrested for driving down the street naked. We really changed that boy’s life, big time.
He was obviously the perfect guy for the Allman Brothers.
Was it shortly after the unexpected passing of both Duane and Berry that you started relying on drugs and alcohol to ease the emotional pain? Were you feeling suicidal at the time?
I could have had a death wish after losing both of them. It all came together in just one year. It seemed like . . . I got kind of down about all of those things, but I grew out of it. Thank goodness for that.
It’s a shame that Duane didn’t live to see the great commercial success that the band achieved shortly afterward with the Eat a Peach album. Were you surprised by the sudden success?
Yes, I really was. At first, when we started getting these really huge royalty checks, I thought, “Man, my brother really got shortchanged on this deal,” but I guess that was fated. Duane had a ball while he was around. In a very, very short life, he made a hell of a footprint. I mean, 40 years after his death, Rolling Stone has him ranked the second-best guitarist ever, right after Jimi Hendrix. That is really satisfying to me now because at the time, his death really hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles, and I tried to remove myself from thinking about it. Now I love to think back on those days.
The Allman Brothers Band hasn’t released an album of new material since 2003’s Hittin’ the Note. Are you planning on getting the band back in the studio sometime in the near future?
Yes. We are certainly overdue to make a new record. I would really love to hook the guys up with T Bone.