We’ve been losing a lot of prominent musicians from the 1970s, lately–considered by many today as rock’s golden age. Last Saturday, it was Allman Brothers Band frontman, Gregg Allman. A talented songwriter and keyboardist, I think it will be Gregg’s voice that will be remembered best. A soulful southern drawl inspired by early R&B pioneers like Ray Charles. As Gregg himself said “Ray Charles is the one who taught me to just relax and let it ooze out. If it’s in your soul, it’ll come out.”
Despite being the group’s primary vocalist, Gregg’s older brother/lead guitarist Duane was the group’s focal point in the band’s early years. Not only was Duane the leader of the group, he was renowned then and today for his mastery of slide guitar. But even early on, Duane saw potential in his brother. He was the one who pushed for Gregg to be in the band and be their frontman, despite early nerves.
The band recorded three albums between 1969-1971, including the legendary 1971 live album At Fillmore East, before Duane died in a freak motorcycle accident in October 1971. This was only a month into the recording of the band’s fourth album and today’s selection for Classic Album Tuesday. The recording of Eat a Peach (named after a phrase by Duane) was no doubt a dark period for the band. Even before Duane’s passing, Duane and bassist Berry Oakley (who died later that year, also in a motorcycle accident) were battling a nasty heroin habit. It wasn’t an easy process either as much of the album’s early writing was worked out on the road. They would debut songs at shows, take a break to record, and then head back on tour.
After Duane’s death, there was much uncertainty regarding the band’s future. Their name wouldn’t even make sense anymore, but in a way, it would. The way these guys play together, you don’t have to be flesh and blood to be brothers. Moving forward, co-lead guitarist/emerging songsmith Dickey Betts took over as the group’s leader and production continued on an album that features Duane while simultaneously pays tribute to him.
With all this talk about Duane and Dickey, why did I chose this album as a memorial to Gregg? The way I see it, Live at Fillmore East is Duane’s album. Not to diminish the contributions from the rest of the group, but there’s a reason Rolling Stone ranked Duane Allman as the 2nd greatest guitarist of all time. It’s because of Live at Fillmore East. Brothers and Sisters was Dickey Betts’ album. It has two of the group’s most popular songs “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” (both by Betts) and solidified the group has FM radio favorites.
But Eat a Peach feels like Gregg’s album. Not only does it feature Gregg’s Rock eulogy to Duane with “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”, it has the best song Gregg ever wrote. “Melissa”, written long before the group’s founding, was Duane’s favorite Gregg composition. A heartfelt love song, Gregg even played it at his brother’s funeral. Now that’s powerful.
There’s no doubt Gregg’s contributions to Eat a Peach felt most personal, but the rest of the group, particularly on the album’s live sections are just as important. The constant groove between Berry Oakley and drummers Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks stands today as maybe the best rhythm section in rock history. Meanwhile, Dickey Betts further refines himself as a songwriter. The instrumental “Les Brers in A Minor” finds Betts tinkering with the bright solo style that he would later master on one of the band’s most memorable songs “Jessica” and “Blue Sky” feels like a breezy country-rock predecessor to “Ramblin’ Man.”
One might say Eat a Peach is the best of both worlds for the band. One, it showcases their ability to jam for infinity with songs like “Mountain Jam”. Two it shows off their ability to write and record polished southern rock gems for those long drives across the country. It’s my favorite Allman Brothers album and the one I immediately put on after hearing of Gregg’s passing.
Though Gregg battled various illnesses for the last five years of his life, he never stopped playing music. He just loved to play. Which he reflected on in his 2012 autobiography. “Music is my life’s blood. I love music, I love to play good music, and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, ‘Nice work, little brother—you did all right.’ I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast.” Well said Midnight Rider, well said.
Favorite Tracks: “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” “Blue Sky,” “Melissa”