Gregg Allman: The Other Side of this Life
Photo by Danny Clinch
Most of the songs on Low Country Blues deal with courting and losing women, experiences Gregg is well versed in after being married and divorced so many times in his life.
“I guess I just wasn’t meant to be with one woman,” he says with a shrug. “But I’ll always keep trying.”
During the course of the conversation, Gregg recalls his early inspirations— many sang about broken hearts, fractured relationships and missed opportunities. These were artists such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker that he heard as a kid on WLAC, the radio station out of Tennessee that came on at night and played blues. When he started out playing music, he says that singing was the last thing he wanted to do—he played guitar—but that the choice between a job doing manual labor or music forced him into it. Soon after, he discovered singing’s pure emotional quality.
“To change the tone of an instrument, you have to do something physically,” Gregg says. “A whole lot of emotion goes into playing but singing, it’s actually part of your body. It comes to you right off the brain; it doesn’t have to go through an instrument to come out.”
He does, however, remember the impact of hearing one particular instrumentalist early on—the jazz organist Jimmy Smith. “For years, I fantasized playing a Hammond like he did,” he says. “I didn’t actually see Jimmy Smith until right before he died. He was 76 years old. I went to see him one night in New York City and it was something else, man. His hands were a little slow, but his feet hadn’t slowed a bit. All he needed was a drummer and his feet. He played more shit on them pedals than anybody. I couldn’t believe it. And he had this Hammond organ with two Leslie cabinets that rotated at different speeds. And he had this I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. Somebody called out for ‘Back at the Chicken Shack’— one of those burners—and he said, ‘Goddamn! Ease up on that. I’m 76 years old,’” Gregg laughs.
As he’s gotten older, Gregg has gotten a chance to build relationships with his children. A couple of them have even followed him into the world of music making.
“My daughter Layla has a new record out with her band Picture Me Broken,” he says with a smile. “My son Devon’s band, Honeytribe, is killer. He’s a great kid. As a matter of fact, he’s gonna be on my next tour. We’re in the kind of business where we’re always at opposite ends of the world. That’s a drag but lately we’ve been spending Christmas at my house. I try to get all [the kids] there, you know? It’s a very special time for me.”
During Christmas 2009, Gregg’s battles with hepatitis C grew increasingly taxing. “I had what you call a chemoembolization,” he says of one particular treatment. “They put a rubber band around a portion of your liver—the portion that had three cancerous tumors in it—and that cuts off the blood supply and it kills it. Believe it or not, [the liver] grows back. Then they give you chemotherapy. It makes you kind of sore all over. I was a pretty sick boy by the time Christmas rolled around. But they all came over, everybody—and my mother was there, too.”
While Gregg began treatment for hepatitis in 2007, the chronic damage to his liver led doctors to recommend a transplant. Completed in June 2010, the operation has been a complete success. “The doctor told me, ‘That liver loves you,’” he chuckles.
With all he’s been through, Gregg has not lost his thirst for life. While he endured the painful recovery from the liver transplant, he was heartened by his growing relationship with his children and the knowledge that he had a great record in the can—a project he could look forward to bringing to the world after he got healthy again. The transplant has also given the iconic musician a newfound spirituality to draw strength from.
“After I got out of the hospital, I had to stay in the Jacksonville Beach area for five weeks in case something went seriously wrong,” he says. “I stayed at this place—it’s like a resort—and my room was right on the beach. You could walk out of your room and walk to the water. On quite a few mornings, I watched the sun rise. It was beautiful. It puts you at peace.”
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