Remembering the Midnight Rider, Gregg Allman

Dave DiMartino
Executive Editor

Gregg Allman’s tragic but not wholly unexpected departure from this world on Saturday marked the end of a career that was, in its way, singularly extraordinary. In both his music and his personal life, he reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows — and the legacy he leaves behind, in a very real sense, will be unlike any other artist’s in popular music.

Gallery: Gregg Allman’s Life in Photos

And that’s not just because of the music he made — and of course much of it was remarkable — but because of the life he led. From the mid-’60s onward, he did just about everything a young, talented, good-looking, music-loving rock ’n’ roller could ever do. And he did it a lot. For a long time.

So what exactly were his achievements — big and small — and why did they matter?

He got a typical start, then upped his game

With guitarist brother Duane, Allman’s early bands the Allman Joys and Hour Glass were almost letter-perfectly the way things were done in the late ’60s. The latter group recorded two albums for the Liberty label that flopped and they hated, and the label dropped them. But a few years later, when the Allman Brothers were hitting it big, those albums and even earlier recordings by the Allman Joys were issued, reissued, and repeatedly shipped out for hopeful purchase by indiscriminate Allman fans. They were actually pretty good, but that wasn’t the point. That the Allman Brothers Band then formed was.

He was part of a killer musical crew

Few would deny that the Allmans were one of the finest rock ’n’ roll bands in history. Much of that came from the individual skill of players like Duane and second guitarist Dickey Betts, from Allman’s own bluesy vocal growl and keyboard skills, and the band’s use of dual drummers, reminiscent of both the Grateful Dead and the Mothers of Invention and a similar nod to sophisticated musicality. Additionally, the band’s unique melding of the blues, R&B, and the sort of Allman-penned originals like “Whipping Post” — not to mention Betts’s unforgettable jazz-tinged instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” — was really unlike anything most rock fans had ever heard before. At their best, they were peerless.

His band was a live phenomenon

Sometime between the ’60s and today, the Record Business became the Music Business and the Music Business largely became the Concert Business, and that is where Gregg Allman and company excelled. The band’s historic live set At Fillmore East was what set it all up: Emerging in July 1971, the double-album was the band’s most successful to date and rapidly went gold. With its lengthy jams, the superb interplay between guitarists Allman and Betts, and the notable lack of excess — no small thing — to be heard throughout it all, the album was soon deemed by critics to be one of the best live albums of all time. And while we’re talking live music: Though guitarist Duane Allman was gone by then, the band’s later performance at Watkins Glen on July 28, 1973 — alongside the Grateful Dead and the Band — was witnessed by a reputed 600,000 audience members, deemed by some historians to be “the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States.” Not exactly a club gig.

His band launched an entire music genre

The early Allman Brothers albums featured all the components of rock ’n’ roll — blues, R&B, roots country, flashy instrumental showcasing, and power soloing — yet offered up to many what seemed like a distinctively unique blend that deserved its own label. And so it was that between the Allmans, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Charlie Daniels Band, and nearly the entire Capricorn Records roster (Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, etc.), “Southern Rock” was born — and even now remains an inescapable (if puzzling) bit of needless metadata categorization. Gregg Allman once commented that term was essentially redundant — sort of like saying “rock rock,” said he.

Despite conspicuous tragedy, he always rose to the occasion thereafter

With the Allmans, the deaths of both his brother Duane and later bassist Berry Oakley might have permanently derailed the band. But they carried on. Brothers and Sisters came in 1973 and was a huge success — the Allmans’ highest charting album to date — and with an increasing number of live gigs booked, signaled that demand for the band had never been higher. Though it was rough going, Allman kept at it.

Laid Back was one hell of a solo album

Though its creation in 1973 during the making of Brothers and Sisters wasn’t enthusiastically received by everyone in the Allmans — particularly Dickey Betts — Gregg Allman’s first solo album, Laid Back, is a comparatively unsung classic these days. Mildly ironic, as the album went gold back then. It features a redone “Midnight Rider,” the lush and highly memorable “Queen of Hearts,” and a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” that may be that song’s best-known version. A musical collaboration between Allman and co-producer Johnny Sandlin, Laid Back is a jewel of an album that continues to impress all these years later. The tour Allman promoted this album with was recorded and resulted in the next year’s memorable The Greg Allman Tour set, equally worth hearing.

He was a pioneer in the pains of celebrity marriage

Perhaps unexpectedly, at least for longtime fans of the band, Allman would marry Cher in June 1975 — and the results were one son (Elijah Blue Allman), one relatively odd album (Two the Hard Way by the duo Allman/Cher, now dubbed Allman and Woman), and more paparazzi photos than any normal human could bear. This sort of thing didn’t happen much back then, and when it did … it was odd. 

Breaking up: It wasn’t always permanent

While there were breakups galore in Allman Brothers Band history, there were likewise many reunions. The band first broke up in 1976, but they reunited two years later to tour and record Enlightened Rogues (1979), Reach for the Sky (1980), and Brothers of the Road (1981). They’d split again, but by the end of the ’80s they were reunited to celebrate their 20th anniversary. There were new players in — most notably guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody, who’d later form Gov’t Mule — but significant momentum thanks to their headlining appearances on that era’s H.O.R.D.E. Festival carried them through several tours to come. With additional new players, the band would continue to tour successfully on and off through 2014. 

He will have the last word

Variety has confirmed that Allman was able to listen to final mixes of his upcoming album, Southern Blood, the night before he died. Produced by Don Was, the much-anticipated set is due for release later this year and will likely be memorable.

His music will last

There is a reason that the Allman Brothers’ albums have never gone out of print, and that have been issued in deluxe, super-deluxe, and ultra-deluxe versions. It is because they represent the very best of their genre, that they are timeless, and that sound as fresh and innovative today as they did the moment they were recorded. For that, we can thank Gregg Allman and his many bandmates and be grateful that, at least this time, history got it right.