Alan Paul’s comprehensive oral history of The Allman Brothers Band’s 45-year career arrives at a time when it is suddenly fair to wonder whether there will be a 46th.
Longtime guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced in early January that they are leaving the group at year’s end, and while lineup changes are hardly new to the Allman Brothers, the circumstances regarding the many personnel shuffles have at varying times been tragic, awkward, strained, violent and, in the case of Haynes rejoining the band at the turn of the century, even uplifting. They’ve never been dull and often have been emotionally draining.
So given how One Way Out: The Inside History of The Allman Brothers Band (St. Martin’s Press) lays out the ways in which the band — anchored by keyboardist/singer Gregg Allman and drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, after their acrimonious parting with fellow co-founder Dickey Betts — has survived more than its share of should-have-been lethal blows over the years, you’d think one of them has to prove fatal eventually.
That logic would seem to apply to most bands, but not necessarily this one. One Way Out includes Paul’s interviews with the principals on the ABB scene through the years — managers, promoters, road-crew members, widows and, best of all, nearly every past and present member, right down to temporary guitarists and even one-shot fill-in Zakk Wylde (yes, the heavy metal stalwart stepped in for Betts for an ill-fated cameo steeped in buffoonery). Along the way, one recurring theme seems to explain why the group has endured through the deaths of two founding members early on (virtuoso guitarist and the band’s musical and spiritual leader, Duane Allman, and beloved bassist Berry Oakley, both in motorcycle crashes barely a year apart), breakups, commercial flops (there was a brief, regrettable keytar phase), trips to rehab and downright frosty relationships.
And that theme is, even more than a shared passion for delivering a brand of Southern-tinged, jazz-influenced blues-rock, a very real spirit of brotherhood was forged in the group’s formative days, and more often than not it has carried the Allman Brothers Band through periods of adversity and acclaim.
That underlying kinship extended beyond the band’s two actual brothers, Gregg and Duane, to include a road crew who shared in the group’s substances, groupies and rap sheets, and was so highly valued that in the early years it sometimes got paid when the musicians did not. As told in One Way Out, the loyalty among the band and the roadies was never more evident, or misguided, than when road manager Twiggs Lyndon stabbed a club owner to death in 1970 for withholding payment for the previous night’s gig.
Thirty years later, with tensions high and Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks pushing to sack Betts, time-honored loyalties entered the equation again when Jaimoe insisted that Betts only be furloughed instead so he could perhaps sober up and return; Jaimoe tells Paul his credo was, “the only way to leave the Allman Brothers Band is to die or quit; you can’t get fired.” (Betts has never performed with the band since.)
Derek Trucks (left) and Warren Haynes performing with The Allman Brothers Band in 2010.
(Photo by Chris M. Junior)
Elsewhere, other well-documented touchstone moments in the band’s career are covered in great depth: the jarring losses of Duane Allman and Oakley, which seem to haunt the original members to this day; the band’s breakthrough with the 1971 live album At Fillmore East and drug-addled rise to stardom; and the celebrated runs of concerts many years in March at New York’s Beacon Theatre beginning in the 1990s.
But perhaps the most worthwhile moments are the lesser-known tales that emerge from the various recollections, such as:
• After struggling through many takes, Duane finally nailed the guitar solo on “Dreams,” sitting on the studio floor in total darkness.
• Fired roadie Kim Payne stole Gregg’s custom motorcycle as collateral for royalties owed him for songwriting contributions to “Midnight Rider.”
• Crew members unknowingly beat up a record company executive backstage during a wild, LSD-laced double bill with the Grateful Dead at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
• At one point, recording sessions had to be scheduled around airings of the ’70s TV show Kung Fu so Betts could watch it.
• During the recording of At Fillmore East, famed producer Tom Dowd only learned the ABB had enlisted horn players for the shows when the horns were already onstage.
Such quirky and often humorous details make One Way Out a thoroughly compelling read, thanks to the staggering number of sources quoted (60 people are listed), even if their remembrances don’t always match up. (Gregg Allman’s story about hitchhiking from California to Jacksonville, Fla., to join what would become The Allman Brothers Band is flatly disputed by Payne, who says he drove Allman to the airport instead.) Paul’s dogged approach to the project, “with the eyes and ears of a journalist and the heart and soul of a fan,” is also beneficial.
And as a fan, perhaps Paul tries a tad hard to wrap up the book in a tidy fashion unbecoming of the band’s career, with a final chapter that lets the current members go on at length about what seems to be one of the Allman Brothers’ more unspectacular periods, given their relative inactivity onstage and off. (They haven’t released a studio album since 2003’s Hittin’ the Note.)
But the author can be forgiven for not knowing quite how to end it. It’s something his subjects have never really been able to do, either.
“It’s more than a band,” says Johnny Neel, keyboardist from 1989-91. “It’s like an institution and a big ol’ animal, an organism that can regenerate itself.”
— By George Henn