MACON, Ga. -- They moved to Macon 40 years ago. No one here had seen the likes of people like them before.
They were hippies. Long-hairs. Rebels.
A band that had a black member playing with five white guys? A band that performed with two drummers?
They played a style of music that defied a definition. It wasn’t just rock ‘n’ roll. It was blues, jazz, country, folk. It was eventually christened Southern Rock.
Duane Allman, a guitar prodigy, put the band together. His brother, Gregg, sang and played organ. Dickey Betts played guitar. Berry Oakley was on bass. Butch Trucks and Jai “Jaimoe” Johanny Johanson both played drums.
They were called the Allman Brothers Band. This is their story, in the words of those who knew them best.
Gregg Allman: We picked a good place. The town was really good to us. At first, it was “Who are these weirdos?” They kept their daughters locked at home when they saw us. It had been different times going to L.A. (as part of the band The Hourglass), where bands just get lost in the shuffle. But we had incredible times (in Macon). It was a great place to put a band together. We grew there. We had room to grow there.
Paul Hornsby, keyboardist for The Hourglass and later a producer at Capricorn Records: Duane got to Muscle Shoals (Alabama), where he had attracted some attention with his studio work there. (Capricorn founder) Phil Walden came aboard. ... I didn’t even know where Macon was on a map. But he kept sweetening the deal. Duane fleshed out the band and put together the Allman Brothers Band.
Roadie Twiggs Lyndon set up the band in a two-bedroom apartment at 309 College St. Members of the band and their crew crammed into the spartan place. Money was tight in those days, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do other than jam and play stickball. When the band did eat well, it was because they were fed by “Mama” Louise Hudson at her H&H Restaurant. The band members spent much of their time hanging out in Rose Hill Cemetery, which would inspire songs such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”
Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell, ABB roadie: There were 10 of us, and the only thing we had were mattresses. We had them on the floor lined up wall to wall. We had a Coke machine. We put Cokes in one slot and beer in the other. It cost 25 cents, which was supposed to go to buying more beer. That didn’t work. Duane was always having Twiggs open the machine up for him. ... We were real tight. Nobody would hang with us, so we would hang out at Rose Hill Cemetery and go do our thing. ... We had all our meals together. There were some lean times at that apartment, some rough days, man. We’d have beans three times a day. It was a big deal if we had cream of wheat and eggs. That was like Thanksgiving for us. But we were tight. There was a lot of love.
Oakley helped organize free concerts in Central City Park, and later on, Walden had the band perform free shows at Piedmont Park, allowing the band to build a following. The band would perform at Grant’s Lounge, which became known as a haven for musicians looking to be discovered. On a given night, a music fan could go to Grant’s Lounge and watch members of the Allman Brothers perform with rising bands from all over the South.
Alan Walden, a Georgia Music Hall of Fame member, music promoter and brother to the late Phil Walden: Macon started clicking when the Allman Brothers got to town. It had been clicking with the R&B acts, but this was the first venture into rock ’n’ roll. It progressed really damn fast. They would do the free gigs at Central City Park. It did our city a world of good. There was no telling who would show up to see the Allman Brothers. ... They would play anywhere, anytime. They got better and better and better. They attracted a lot of other artists. ... At Grant’s Lounge, every band in the South would come and play there. They did a lot of things that would attract attention back in those days. Musicians would hang out, and they would do these tremendous jams. One night, I paid $1 and got to see members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels for $1! Look at the amount of people I got to see. ... Phil himself was so determined to make this band happen. His whole life, his whole reputation rested on that band.
The band released “The Allman Brothers Band” in 1969, followed by “Idlewild South” in 1970, which yielded such classics as “Whippin’ Post,” “Midnight Rider” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” They spent more than 300 days on the road in 1970 before releasing the double album, “Live At Fillmore East” in 1971. That album put the band on everyone’s radar and is generally considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. Rolling Stone magazine ranks the album 49th among its Top 500 Albums list.
Times were good for everyone. A teenage Rolling Stone reporter named Cameron Crowe spent three weeks on the road with the band for a story. His time with them would inspire his Oscar-winning original screenplay for the movie “Almost Famous” in 2000. The band headlined the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970, held in Byron, which drew more than 300,000 people and featured the likes of Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Bob Seger. Oakley leased a Tudor-style home dubbed The Big House at 2321 Vineville Ave., where both his and Duane’s families lived and members of the band would hang out.
Linda Oakley Miller, widow of Berry Oakley: It was a very special time. We were so innocent, so full of hope. We were full of love. It just seemed like a natural occurrence. The ‘old ladies,’ as they would call us wives, filtered up after the band initially moved up to Macon. They played, got high together, got their chops. ... (We) were cruising around town with our newspaper, looking around for a place to live. It was $225 a month, which was a lot of money for us back then, but we fell in love with it. It had enough room for everyone. ... The Big House became our family home. The band didn’t live there, as some people think, but they did crash there all the time. ... It was a really, really happy time. They were young Turks. They were going to go out and be heroes, go out and pillage and conquer. They’re a great band now, but back then they were so hot. They were on fire.
Gregg Allman: In 1970, we worked 306 nights. That year, we didn’t get back to Macon a whole lot. ... We did a lot of learning, a lot of growing, a lot of laughing, crying, A lot of playing, a fair amount of writing. ... I was always so glad to come home to Macon. It has a lot of nostalgia for me. God knows, we terrorized that place, riding our motorcycles at 4 a.m. But we did all right.
Then, tragedy struck. On the afternoon of Oct. 29, 1971, Duane was leaving The Big House after a birthday party for Linda Oakley when he swerved to avoid a flatbed truck and lost control of the bike. The 24-year-old died a few hours later. Band members were devastated, but they vowed to continue on because it’s what their leader would have wanted. They finished the album “Eat A Peach” in 1972, with Betts doing the remaining guitar work by himself. Oakley was hit the hardest by Duane’s death, but he tried to step up as the group’s de facto leader. However, drugs, alcohol and depression hit him hard. On Nov. 11, 1972, just a year and 13 days after Duane’s death and a few blocks away from where that accident happened, Oakley sideswiped a city bus while he was on his motorcycle. Initially, he went home to The Big House rather than the hospital. Later, he went to the hospital, where he died from his injuries. Like Duane, he was 24 when he died, and he was buried next to Duane at Rose Hill Cemetery. Eventually, the band brought in keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the late bassist Lamar Williams as new members.
Alan Walden: Berry had given up on living when Duane got killed. He drank too much, and he didn’t have the same spirit. Duane, it was almost impossible to replace him. That’s when Phil added Chuck Leavell. He wouldn’t accept anything less than the band being a big success. ... They were forced to deal with a lot of tragedies. But a lot of things kept the band going. It made them tighter. They did it as much for (Duane) as they did for themselves.
Linda Oakley Miller: All of us were in shock from Duane’s death, but Berry could never fill that space. They loved each other. The thing between Duane and Berry was special. Berry could not fill that space in his life. He did a little too much of everything. He had a feeling he would not be around too long.
Judi Petty, widow of ABB guitar tech Joe Dan Petty: In some ways, (Duane’s) death brought us a lot closer together. The band used to have this farm in Juliette, where we had these barbecues. The kids would all run around. Some of the men would run around as well.
Chuck Leavell, ABB keyboardist, 1972-1976: When Duane died, there was a lot of talk about who was going to replace him. There were rumors like (guitarists) Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. But the band did a gutsy thing and went out without a replacement. They went as a five-piece band. It was a very emotional thing. Dickey stepped up to the plate at that time and filled in very respectably. I was called in to do a solo record for Gregg and did some casual jam sessions with the band. We’d play for fun — the guys needed that. There was no pressure. They just did it for the love of music. ... One day, I got a call from Phil Walden to see him in his office. I was barely 20 at the time. I was wondering “What did I do wrong?” Phil said, “We’re interested in you being on our team.” I finished my work on Gregg’s album and then we went to work on (the ABB album) “Brothers and Sisters.” I did two or three live performances when Berry was alive. It was a devastating blow to me when Berry died, because Berry was the guy who went out of his way to make me feel at ease. Now, all of a sudden, he’s gone. ... We looked at a few bassists, but it was obvious that with Lamar Williams, we were much more comfortable. We looked at several outstanding bassists, but Lamar stood out. It was a combination of him respecting Berry’s style and having his own style.
“Brothers and Sisters,” released in 1973, became the band’s biggest commercial success, climbing to No. 1 on the charts. Betts’ song “Ramblin’ Man” off that album became the group’s first top 10 hit. The band continued to tour and had become a major success, both critically and commercially. In 1973, Rolling Stone crowned the group “Band of the Year,” one of several such honors the Allman Brothers Band earned. That year, they performed at Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, N.Y., in front of an estimated crowd of 600,000. The band, encouraged by Phil Walden, also became major supporters of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the White House in 1976.
However, cracks were starting to form in the band’s foundation. Solo projects from Betts and Gregg Allman got lukewarm receptions, and while the 1975 album “Win, Lose or Draw” reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts, it drew mostly mediocre reviews from fans and critics. The excesses often associated with rock stars — drugs, groupies, money issues — started to affect the band in a major way. At rehearsals, the only members consistently showing up were Jaimoe, Williams and Leavell, who eventually decided to form the band Sea Level. Gregg Allman was in the midst of his well-publicized, roller-coaster marriage with Cher. The couple had an on-again, off-again relationship between 1975 and 1979.
The group’s low point came in 1976, when federal authorities busted Allman on drug charges. He had to testify against his former personal assistant, Scooter Herring, to avoid facing criminal charges himself. Allman was ostracized by the rest of the band, who viewed his actions as betrayal. Herring was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 75 years in prison, but the charges were later overturned. He ended up serving three years.
Willie Perkins, ABB road manager, 1970-76 and 1983-89: One thing is that artistic types are on the edge of everything, which includes experimenting with drugs. ... It’s not exclusive to rock ‘n’ rollers. They were experimenting with music and experimenting with temptations. They had made a lot of money real fast, and now they had the means to deal with everything they wanted. Excess, excess — every band has that within them. Somewhere, the music had lost its spark. They had gone from playing for hours and hours and hours and hours (to) not even doing sound checks. Once Duane was gone, they were wanting that leader. ... At that moment, nobody was focused on getting back together. After a while, things chilled out, but when the feds put pressure on you, I don’t know many people who can resist.
Chuck Leavell: It’s pretty well documented, the incident with Scooter Herring. Gregg had been busted and was forced to testify against Scooter. It caused hard feelings within the band. It resulted with the first breakup. Some of us wished fences could be mended, but it was not meant to be (at that point).
Red Dog Campbell: The trial was a major factor. There were people around us who increased the size of the organization. But when you bring in people who don’t see things the way you see things, you get away from your roots. I think that Gregg got bad-mouthed unjustifiably. I always felt it was a political move because we had been supportive of (Jimmy) Carter. ... Things happen sometimes. When the trial went down, everybody was mad at Gregg.
The band eventually reformed in 1978, with guitarist Dan Toler and David “Rook” Goldflies on bass as replacements for Leavell and Williams. The Allman Brothers released “Enlightened Rogues,” “Reach for the Sky” and “Brothers on the Road” from 1979-81, but the albums didn’t find great success since musical tastes across the country had shifted to disco. Capricorn Records went bankrupt in 1979.
Gregg Allman continued to battle both drug-related and financial issues throughout the 1980s, and other members tried different projects, without much success. The band had a brief reunion in 1986 for a couple of benefit concerts, but it didn’t get back together formally until 1989 for its 20th anniversary, with an overhauled lineup: the four original living members, plus guitarist Warren Haynes, keyboardist Johnny Neel and bassist Allen Woody. The band had success with its 1990 album “Seven Turns.”
The group’s lineup continued to evolve, and the band eventually added guitarist Derek Trucks (Butch’s nephew), percussionist Marc Quinones and bassist Oteil Burbridge.
In 1995, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with such acts as Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Al Green, Martha & The Vandellas, Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa. The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1998, and Gregg Allman was inducted as a solo artist in 2006.
Still, it wasn’t an end to the drama associated with the band. In 2000, Betts was forced out for “creative reasons,” according to Entertainment Weekly magazine. Betts told the magazine he was informed via a faxed message and that it implied the reason was because of alcohol and substance abuse issues, which Betts vehemently denied. Betts has since formed his own band, Great Southern.
Despite it all, the band’s current lineup continues to find great success in its 40th year. In March, the band played its annual series at the Beacon Theatre in New York, playing to sold-out shows with guests such as Clapton and Bonnie Bramlett. The Big House Foundation, which owns the band’s old haunt on Vineville Avenue, is converting the house into a museum that is scheduled to open by December.
Most importantly, the band’s legacy in music history remains secure.
Red Dog Campbell: It was the best time of my life. ... When no one accepted me, they changed everything and gave me direction.
Chuck Leavell: They invented a style of music. They were solely responsible for Southern Rock. It’s still a very viable term. A lot of it has morphed into modern country music. It was a unique band that incorporated rock music, jazz, country. ... The legacy is living on, and it’s amazing to see the young people understanding it and knowing they are there. ... For a young person coming in, it was a large step in my career. I took a giant step playing with the Allmans, and it was an opportunity to play great music.
Willie Perkins: They did what nobody else had done. They brought jazz and blues and rock and country together. The fact that they have 40 years together and the music is still on the radio says quite a bit there. The best time was that early time. We knew we had the best band in the world, just that the rest of the world didn’t know it yet.
Linda Oakley Miller: My regret is that Duane and Berry didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor. (The band) changed the way people listened to music.
Gregg Allman: Actually, the way things are, the band is at an all-time high. Just because it’s the 40th year doesn’t mean we are fixing to slow down or stop. The last thing we did (at the Beacon) was so damn fun. It was a great experience, and I’m proud to be a member.