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Gregg Allman, Southern Rock Pioneer, Dead at 69

Gregg Allman, a singer, musician and songwriter who played an essential role in the invention of Southern rock, has died at the age of 69. Allman’s rep confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.

Allman “passed away peacefully at his home in Savannah, Georgia,” a statement on the singer’s website read Saturday. “Gregg struggled with many health issues over the past several years. During that time, Gregg considered being on the road playing music with his brothers and solo band for his beloved fans, essential medicine for his soul. Playing music lifted him up and kept him going during the toughest of times.”

Although he claimed the term was redundant, singer-keyboardist Gregg Allman helped create the first great “Southern-rock” group as co-founder of the legendary Allman Brothers Band alongside his older brother, famed guitarist Duane Allman. The Allmans fused country blues with San Francisco-style extended improvisation, and their sound created a template for countless jam bands to come. Gregg Allman was blessed with one of blues-rock’s great growling voices and, along with his Hammond B-3 organ playing, beholden to Booker T. Jones, had a deep emotional power. Writing in Rolling Stone, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons said that Allman’s singing and keyboard playing displayed “a dark richness, a soulfulness that added one more color to the Allmans’ rainbow.”

As he recounted in his 2012 memoir My Cross to Bear, Allman also experienced a quintessential, and essentially tragic, rock-star trajectory that included too-sudden fame, admittedly excessive drug use, a high-profile celebrity romance, multiple marriages and a late-life liver transplant.

Gregory LeNoir Allman was born December 8th, 1947, in Nashville, Tennessee, a little more than a year after brother Duane. The boys’ father, U.S. Army Captain Willis Turner Allman, was shot to death by a drinking acquaintance shortly after the family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1949. As a child, Gregg saved up money from a paper route and bought a guitar that was soon appropriated by his older brother. The siblings attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee, before moving to Daytona Beach, Florida. 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,” Gregg 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.”

After playing in bands like the Untils, the Shufflers, the Escorts and the Y-Teens, the brothers took their band Allman Joys on the road in the summer of 1965 following Gregg’s graduation from Seabreeze High School. They often played six sets a night, seven nights a week, and eventually moved to Los Angeles – Gregg having shot himself in the foot to avoid the draft – where they recorded two forgettable albums for Liberty Records as the Hour Glass. While working as a session man in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Gregg was summoned to Jacksonville, Florida, in March 1969. There he joined Duane and the other musicians – Dickey Betts (guitar), Berry Oakley (bass), Butch Trucks (drums) and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson (drums) – comprising the Allman Brothers Band’s earliest incarnation.

“It was nice, round, kind of dull-ended instead of sharp,” Allman wrote of the Hammond B-3 sound, “and I thought it blended with guitar just perfect.” In addition to being the band’s main vocalist and composer of signature tunes “Whipping Post” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin,'” Gregg and his long blond hair also served as its visual focus. The band enjoyed meteoric success with their albums Live at the Fillmore East (1971) and Eat a Peach (1972). Between those albums, tragically, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, followed a year later by Berry Oakley’s eerily similar demise.

Shortly thereafter, Gregg recorded his solo debut, 1973’s Laid Back, which offered an economical à la carte selection of blues, R&B and soul songs in contrast with the Allman’s epic all-you-can-eat live shows. Its critical success, combined with Gregg’s marriage to pop superstar Cher in 1975 and the group’s collective appetites for narcotics, led to the Allman Brothers breakup after the recording of their disappointing 1975 release Win, Lose or Draw. Additionally, Allman was shunned by his bandmates for testifying to a grand jury, in exchange for immunity, regarding his “valet” and drug provider John C. “Scooter” Herring. Audience shouts of “Narc!” plagued him for years afterward.

Allman continued to release solo albums throughout the Seventies and Eighties. These included the live Gregg Allman Tour (1974) and Playin’ Up a Storm (1977). Two the Hard Way (1977), a duo album with Cher credited to “Allman and Woman” resembled an Ashford & Simpson-style effort. An admitted hardcore alcoholic throughout the Eighties and most of the Nineties, Allman enjoyed something of a comeback with I’m No Angel (1986) and, three years later, a reformed Allman Brothers Band. His only non-anthology solo release the following decade was Searching For Simplicity (1997).

In 2007, Allman was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which he attributed to a dirty tattoo needle, and he received a liver transplant. He also suffered from an atrial fibrillation and eventually switched to a gluten-free vegan diet.

T-Bone Burnett produced Low Country Blues (2011), a solid set of blues covers. Allman continued touring with the Allman Brothers until the group played its official final show at New York’s Beacon Theater on October 28th, 2014. He released Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon GA in 2015, and Don Was produced Southern Blood, scheduled for a 2017 release.  

“I don’t know if I’d do it again,” confessed the bluesman in My Cross to Bear‘s painfully honest final lines. “If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it.”

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