Correction to This Article
The article said that the Grateful Dead played as part of a 40th-anniversary celebration of the Allman Brothers in New York in March. The Grateful Dead name was retired after the 1995 death of founding member Jerry Garcia; it was two of the other founding members, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, who played in March. The article also said that singer Gregg Allman played a Hammond 3B organ. It is a Hammond B-3 organ.

MusicMaker: The Allman Brothers Band

Gregg Allman is still making music with the Allman Brothers more than 40 years after the band debuted.
Gregg Allman is still making music with the Allman Brothers more than 40 years after the band debuted. (By Jason Decrow -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ernest Suarez
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 2, 2009

In the appendix to his masterpiece "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner succinctly summarized the plight of his heroine, Dilsey, and her family: "They endured."

The same could be said of Gregg Allman, whose life saga resembles a Southern gothic novel. He lost his father, who was robbed and killed when Allman was 2 years old. He survived the deaths of his brother Duane and bass players Berry Oakley and Lamar Williams. He has weathered several marriages, including a widely publicized, tumultuous relationship with Cher. He has battled drug addiction and recently underwent a life-threatening bout with hepatitis C.

Yet he has endured life's affronts and convulsions to create some of the 20th century's most remarkable music and discover genuine happiness. In 1995 Allman and the Allman Brothers Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, cited for having achieved "a level of technical virtuosity and musical literacy that was relatively new to rock & roll." The Allman Brothers Band performs Tuesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Allman, who has been drug-free for 14 years, chuckles and explains why he left a Los Angeles-based studio in 1968 and hitchhiked across the country to join Duane in Macon, Ga. "The music they wanted me to make in L.A., it was too white," he recalls.

Duane Allman wanted to play the blues and had assembled four other crack musicians, but the group needed original material and a lead singer. Nineteen-year-old Gregg Allman arrived with two songs that remain Allman Brothers staples, "Dreams" and "It's Not My Cross to Bear," and within a week had penned "Whipping Post" and "Black Hearted Woman." Allman also brought a voice that even back then, as Sheryl Crow once observed in Rolling Stone magazine, "sounded like he'd already lived a thousand lifetimes."

Drummer Butch Trucks shakes his head during an interview and remembers battling record companies over Allman's role and the band's direction. "They'd say, 'What? Are you kidding? A bunch of white guys from the South just standing there playing blues music?' They'd tell us, 'Get that blond-haired kid out from behind the organ, put some velvet pants on him, stick a salami down his pants, and let him jump around the stage. Then you've got a chance.' "

But Allman and his textured, soulful growl remained behind his trademark Hammond 3B.

"We were listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane," Trucks explains. "We started going into a really complex jazz direction. We thought it was too complicated for the average kid to really comprehend. When the 'Fillmore East' album went gold, you could have knocked us over with a feather."

Allman cites Marvin Gaye, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ray Charles as early influences. "When I heard Ray Charles," he says, "I thought, 'That's my goal in life.' He taught me to relax and let it flow. If it's in your soul, it'll come out."

Allman, 61, who lives outside Savannah, Ga., keeps micro-recorders "all around the house" and insists that he still can't walk by his baby grand piano without wanting to sit and compose. New songs are in the pipeline constantly.

"There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs," he reflects. "Floating around on one side of my brain are all these situations that people I've known have gone through, that I've been through myself, that I've read about or heard about, and they become lines, phrases.

"In the other half of my brain are musical licks, hooks; the parts of a song that keep coming around. Every now and then, often at the damndest of times, when I'm so tired I'm going to be asleep before my head hits the pillow, words and music will fuse, and I can hear the seeds of a finished product. It wakes me up, gets my butt out of bed and on the piano."

Allman is thrilled that the Brothers are still going strong, coming off a sold-out 15-show 40th anniversary celebration at New York's Beacon Theatre in March that featured such guests as Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and the Grateful Dead and members of Phish and Widespread Panic.

Allman touts the band's current lineup as the finest since the band's original formation. Rolling Stone magazine lists members Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks as among rock's top-20 living guitar players, and the percussion section's work remains as intricate and explosive as ever.

In 2008 Billboard presented the Brothers with its Legend of Live award, noting that the band "has rocked the house for four decades, hitting the note for veteran fans and converting new generations year after year."

"This has gone on much longer than I ever thought it would," Allman says with delight. "I'm having so much fun. Our fans blow my mind. Half of them weren't even alive when I wrote 'Midnight Rider.' "

Allman Brothers Band Appearing Tuesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion. 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. With Widespread Panic. Tickets: $40-$75; 410-715-5550 or The Download: For a sampling of Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band over the years, check out: From "Idlewild South": -- "Midnight Rider" From "At Fillmore East": -- "Whipping Post" From "Brothers and Sisters": -- "Southbound" From "I'm No Angel": -- "I'm No Angel" From "Seven Turns": -- "Good Clean Fun" From "Hittin' the Note": -- "Old Before My Time" -- "Firing Line"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company