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Gregg Allman’s farewell gift

The hard-won pleasures of the late Gregg Allman's swansong

Gregg Allman.
Gregg Allman.

There is one guitar solo by the late Duane Allman that may have led to the formation of American southern rock’s most celebrated and all-time greatest exponents, The Allman Brothers Band. The solo is on an album recorded in 1968 by R&B, soul and rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Wilson Pickett. But the song on which Allman, then a sessions man, played his solo is not one that Pickett wrote. It is The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which he covered in his inimitable explosive style. Allman’s solo comes in the second half of the 4-minute-plus song just after Pickett bursts into a passionate scream that puts his imprimatur on the John Lennon-Paul McCartney tune.

There’s a little anecdote about this. It was the late 1960s and Allman, always in search of a recording session where he could play his guitar, had camped in the parking lot of the storied FAME Studios in Alabama’s Muscle Shoals in order to get access to musicians who recorded there. He met Pickett there and is believed to have taught him Hey Jude, which the latter recorded for Atlantic Records, with Allman playing the lead. Impressed by the solo, people at the record label asked FAME’s owner Rick Hall who had played the guitar solos on the track. Hall is said to have scribbled a note to say it was some “hippie cat" who was living in the studio’s parking lot. Soon, the “hippie cat" had a recording deal, and eventually put together The Allman Brothers Band, which auditioned at FAME Studios.

Duane Allman died at 24 in a motorcycle crash barely two years after the band was formed, so he was not part of most of its tumultuous 45-year history, including two break-ups and two reunions. And, this May, his brother Gregg Allman, the driving force behind the band, died at 69. On Friday, however, Gregg’s final solo album, Southern Blood, was released posthumously. Fittingly, Gregg had chosen FAME Studios to record it, working with the musician-producer Don Was. By the time Allman began recording Southern Blood, he knew he didn’t have too much time left—even after a transplant, his liver cancer had returned—and the songs on the album reflect a sense of poignancy. Indeed, the first song on the album, My Only True Friend, is prescient, and as Gregg sings I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul when I’m gone, it’s goosebump inducing.

It’s the only song on the album that’s written by Gregg; the nine others are originally other musicians’ songs, carefully selected and covered by him. What results is an album that makes a beeline to a rock fan’s heart, albeit sombrely. There’s Bob Dylan’s Going, Going, Gone (from Planet Waves, 1974), which, under the circumstances, sounds as if it is about death: I’ve been walkin’ the road/ I been livin’ on the edge/ Now I’ve just got to go/ Before I get to the ledge/ So I’m going/ I’m just going/ I’m gone. Gregg puts so much of his heart into that song that just to check, I pulled out and heard the original from Planet Waves (The Band was backing Dylan then), but then went back to Gregg’s cover version. You can shoot me for this, but Gregg’s version is better!

On Southern Blood, Gregg covers Out Of Left Field, a song about love, originally sung by soul and R&B singer Percy Sledge, and recorded in 1967 at FAME; and Black Muddy River, a song by the Grateful Dead, which could be about a man’s solitary final journey (I will walk alone, by the black muddy river/ And sing me a song of my own, sing me a song of my own). His cover of Little Feat’s Willin’ (And if you give me weed, whites, and wine/ And if you show me a sign/ I’ll be willin’, to be movin’) could be a reference to his own wild drug and alcohol fuelled past: Gregg’s personal life was as eventful as the Allman Brothers band’s history (drug and alcohol abuse; and seven rocky marriages, including one famously with singer Cher).

But of all the songs on Southern Blood, it is the last one, Song For Adam, a Jackson Browne original, which stands out. Browne wrote the song after a friend of his, Adam Saylor, died in 1968, falling (or jumping) off a Mumbai hotel. In Gregg’s version, it becomes a dedication to the memory of his elder brother Duane, a tragedy whose impact he bore through his life. I read in an account by producer Don Was that during the recording, Gregg was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t bring himself to sing two lines in one of the verses. I also read in Rolling Stone that on 26 May, the day before he died, Gregg got to hear the four completed versions of the new songs. “He was fully lucid and he was excited," his manager was quoted as saying.


Weekend Beat

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Song For Adam’ by Gregg Allman from ‘Southern Blood’

2. ‘Hey Jude’ by Wilson Pickett from ‘Hey Jude’

3. ‘B B King Medley: Sweet Little Angel/ It’s My Own Fault/How Blue Can You Get?’ by Hour Glass (featuring Duane Allman) from ‘An Anthology’

4.‘Black Muddy River’ by Gregg Allman from ‘Southern Blood’

5. ‘Going, Going, Gone’ by Gregg Allman from ‘Southern Blood’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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