Complete 2015 interview with Gregg Allman

Photo – Derek McCabe

In 2015, I interviewed Gregg for the Wall Street Journal as he was promoting the release of his two-CD live album, Back To Macon, GA. The story caused a bit of a stir, because of Gregg saying that he would like to see and pay with Dickey Betts again. That was great, but it also obscured the fact that it was a really good interview!

 I present it here in much fuller form, for the first time. Enjoy.

The band sounds really strong and the arrangements are excellent on the new album.

Thank you! I’m real happy with it. Scott [Sharrard, guitarist and Musical Director] has been doing a great job. And I think its even better now than on the record because there are three people that I have changed and I wish they were on it. The piano player I now have is Pete Levin, who is just, oh man! He’s a little more Leon Russell and Billy Preston He’s a hell of a Hammond player, which he does when I play guitar.

And I lucked into the tenor player and trumpet player from Bobby Bland’s old band. And they can do it, man. Arthur Edmaiston on tenor and Marc Franklin on trumpet… and, man, they can do it. They’re all horn arrangers. All three of my horn players – Jay Collins has been with me a while  – are arrangers, which makes the communication between them and them and me spectacular. You can’t ask for better.

Bobby Bland was one of your real idols.

Oh yeah!

So what does it mean to you have some of his guys in your band?

Everything! [laughs] I’m always bugging them and asking them questions. “How’d Bland take care of this? What did he do about that?” [laughs] I don’t wear it out, but when it comes to Bobby Bland, hell I was one of his biggest fans. I’ve got his whole collection out in my Vette.

What about him blew your whistle so much?

Taking nothing away from Ray, who is the high priest, but Bland’s two mentors or idols were Nat King Cole and Perry Como. Man, he was a crooner. He dug Jerry Butler and people like that, who did slow songs, the male Sade’s. Music to make love by. Bland’s stuff really just touched me. And the Joe Scott Band that backed him; you talk about an orchestra! Joe Scott arranged some of the most incredible songs.

My fiancée is going to be 27. When I met her, she already dug Bland, Muddy, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy and I thought, “Man, how strange for a 23 year-old.” That was a part of the attraction, a big part. Since then, I’ve been able to turn her onto all this stuff, and old movies, and Basel Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes and it’s been so much fun.

But back to the band… what really put the fire into it, and it took me about seven and a half years to find all them guys, was Marc Quinones, when he came over form the Allman Brothers and also my bassist Ronny Johnson, who is of New Orleans. He resides there but is not from there.

What about Marc made such a difference?

Well, he injects some salsa in the band, whatever kind of music you’re playing. And I found Stevie Potts, from Memphis also and he is just a dynamo, He’s got forearms like Popeye. In fact, that’s what I call him and between him and Quinones and Ron Johnson, the Witch Doctor. He’s always got these little gadgets that fix you, these home remedies and I swear they work, but that’s another whole story. Between the three of them, oh Lord, man. We go for stuff that makes you feel like you’ve got to move part of your body or there’s something wrong with you. That’s the way it was with Sly Stone, man I mean, God what a genius that cat was. Sly and the Family Stone that was man… I mean… come on!

And you play a Ray Charles and a Wilson Pickett song on this new album. Do you see yourself in that lineage?

Well, I don’t know. I never was one much to make notches in the ladder. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for every gold record, Grammy and good review I’ve ever gotten. I love it, but I’m so into what I’m doing that the other stuff comes after.

I just got this beautiful BMI award, the first songwriting award that I think I ever got. They had it out in Vegas and there must have been 3,000 people there and that meant they work for BMI somewhere and they had this whole thing for me… You talk about nervous as a whore in church! I’m telling you, man and they gave me this gorgeous award for songwriting, this big hunk of black marble with this beautiful silver design. Wow, it was just so incredible. And that one meant a lot to me, because like I said, I don’t recall getting a lot of awards for songwriting.

As for my legacy, I don’t know if after I’m dead they’ll put me up there with Ray and Bland and Stevie Wonder and Muddy. They are my heroes and if they do, I would certainly be honored. I mean, really honored. But if they didn’t, I’ve had a ball anyway, just being able to try to perfect something – many things. Writing songs is such an adventure. You just got lost in it. It’s like filming a movie but 10 times faster. And so if I never got those kinds of accolades, it wouldn’t matter because I got to play with all these people I mentioned, except for Howlin’ Wolf.

And now B.B. King has passed, which is such a loss.

Oh it really is. I knew him so well. My mother knew him. He ate dinner over at our house once, my mom’s house. We’d see him back in the day and I’d go back to his dressing room to say hi and he’d say, “You ain’t out here acting up now are you, boy? You know how your momma would feel if you’re out here taking a bunch of that stuff. “ And I’d say, “No, no, B. I’m cool.” This is back when I was drinking real heavy and he knew it and he knew how to at least make me think about it.

You were the young guy excited to meet and play with your heroes and now you’re one of the elder statesmen of the blues. Do you feel an obligation to keep carrying on this tradition?

Absolutely, and just perfect it more and more and more. And the more my band and I are together, with each time we are together with our instruments, it gets a little more refined and a little more sophisticated and a little more kick ass and at the same time being relaxed and jammable at any moment.

How different does it feel to have the Gregg Allman Band be your only band versus “the other band”?

I try to put all of myself into whatever I’m doing. There’s one large difference between my band and the Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers after my brother never had a leader or focal point. One who says “Go. Stop.” One who says, “Alright guys, get on your instruments, we’re rehearsing now.” And everyone moves.

I don’t let myself do anything more than 5 hours, because I don’t trust my brain once its tired. Within 5 hours, my band learned 8 songs, easy, and the Brothers god bless them but we sat around, shoot the shit, have a little food, smoke a doobie, ”How’s the family?” It’s like, “Hey guys, let’s play.”

My love of playing is still the same as if I was 24 years old. I love to play just as much and I appreciate it and understand it so much better. I picked guys that I can learn from.

That’s very interesting.

Yes, yes. The audience are going to get off. There’s one choice and that’s it.

But you’re looking to please yourself first.

I’m looking to outdo last night, or perfect it, to make it better than the last time we played. And yeah if I can impress those guys, cool, because they’re also impressing me, especially the horns and Quinones. That guy’s just something else.

You obviously love the horn section very much. And the Allman Brothers almost added one in 1970.

Yes, that’s what Duane and I started out with. I don’t know who how you familiar you are with Daytona Beach, man, but at the end of the main street there’s a pier going out in the ocean and there’s a house at the end, a small one-story building. It’s a big dance hall and that’s where me and Duane learned to play right there. We learned to play in a band called the Houserockers and the Untils.

The Houserockers were the rhythm section: piano, bass, drums, and we had two horn players. They only needed one guitar player so me and Duane switched every other night. I was 14 or 15, probably the most incredible summers of my life. To lay on the beach all day and play all night. And to get paid $7 a night… Hey, hey, I was a professional! I mean, don’t even try to talk to me. [laughs] I was so proud of getting paid to play every day.

And your mother was very supportive of you guys.

Yes. I just came from there. I guess two Wednesdays ago was her 98th birthday.

Wow. God bless her.

Yeah, she’s kind of going down slow, bro. It’s rough, but she’s lived since 1917. She went to school on a mule. On a mule! She’s seen some stuff in her day, and was an Allman Brother to boot.

You’re playing a lot more Allman Brothers songs in your solo band since the Brothers don’t exist anymore. Did you feel like you wanted to keep those songs alive?

Well, I do maybe two more than before. I do the ones I wrote for the Brothers and I do “Southbound” that Betts wrote and “Soulshine” which Warren Haynes wrote and I announce that they wrote them.

Photo – Kirk West

Yes, and I thought it was very touching for you to credit Dickey.

Because it’s a good song and he should be credited, you know. I haven’t seen him in a long time and you know what they say: Time heals.

So you would be open to seeing him now?

Yes, I certainly would. On tour anyway. I would love to play with him again.

So are you saying that…

..just to jam! I’m pretty well set for guitar players, but I’d love to see him.

He was a very big part of your life and it would probably feel good to close that circle.

It is and it would! We had our ups and down and we had all our demons. We had our problems, our ins and outs and our public embarrassments and what have you. But that’s all way behind us now. Forgive and forget; there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

“These Days” has been a special song for you. How was playing it with Jackson at the tribute concert? I was guessing that his presence was a real highlight for you?

Oh man! I tell you. You nailed that one, man. We did it at rehearsal the first time and I just kept tearing up. Then we went back to the dressing rooms and we just talked and talked for 3 or 4 hours. Then I went back to the hotel and got cleaned up and had a little something to eat and came back and I think we did “These Days” first and the second song was “Melissa” and about the third verse I looked back and he had a tear in his eye and I thought, “Don’t start Jackson. You’re gonna get me crying.” It was sooo good to see him again. Wow. Your old friends are just so special. If you haven’t seen them for 8 years and then you get back together, it’s like yesterday.

The other guy who really blew me away there was Sam Moore doing “Please Call Home.”

I’m telling you, he did. They came and got me at rehearsal and said, “You’ve got to see this.” Don Was said, “You’ve got to come check out Sam Moore and I did.”
To hear someone like Sam reinterpret you song validates the writing so much.

Oh man. Not to mention he’s 81 years old and I’ve always wondered, “God, when you get to be like 70, do you lose it Do your chops go away?” Well, you might get arthritis in your hands and not be able to play as well or as fast, but man he sings just as good or better than he ever did. Aw, man!

Actually after that I got the idea to teach my band “When Something is wrong with my baby” which is the one Sam sings by himself and I think we are going to learn that. It’s not the easiest one to sing. You have to really shut your eyes and get into it and really bleed it out. It’s one of those…

Hey, have you heard this new guy Sam Smith? He’s something else. I really like him and would love to cut something with him.

You told me years ago that you were done playing electric guitars on stage. Why did you change your mind?

The way I play is, you’re playing along good and funky. Take “One Way Out” for instance. There are many solos in that. You’ve got a horn solo, a piano solo, a guitar solo. So my thing is, you’ve got 8 instruments backing up one soloist, so those 8 what we do, what those people do is what I concentrate on and all the parts fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. That’s where you get the groove. Also it means the tempo of the song. Some songs you slow them down just a hair and the pocket will appear and all of a sudden you’re shaking your body and man you are there.

Some people who do Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf songs rush them and play them too hard. You’re supposed to relax when you play that stuff. You know they were relaxed. They probably had a half a pint of whiskey in them. [laughs]

It’s that art of sounding urgent but relaxed.

Right! That’s why this click track thing dives me nuts and I don’t understand why it doesn’t drive everyone nuts. Because a song breathes, man. It might technically, by a stop watch, slow down and speed up – not so much you can tell, though. When you go to a bridge of a song, wham, you’re going to hit it hard and it might come up a couple of bpms. It just breathes and man this drummer I’ve got now… man, I can count off too fast or slow and we’ll adjust it and get it right back into the pocket.

That’s what he does; he’s interested in getting the band going at the right speed.

You changed the words to “Ain’t Wastin Time” from “leave your mind alone and just get high” to “leave your mind alone and just get by.” Is it hard to sing those original words after all you’ve been through?

Yes. I outgrew them, thank God. You should leave your mind alone and everything will be all right. You don’t have to get high and I don’t really want to urge anyone to do so.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding of you? What would you tell the world with one big opportunity?

Well, I think, you know…Well, I don’t know if I want to get into this, but I think when they did the final printout of my book they leaned a little heavy on the… well, it kind of made me look like a total womanizer. I think they leaned on it a little too hard. People already have the idea that musicians are sex, drugs and rock and roll. Like the old joke, “What’s the difference between a pig and a musician? A pig won’t just screw anything.”

I’m very picky really and it’s taken my whole life until right now to meet Melissa, who was a pipe dream when I was 17 in 1967. I’m engaged to be married. Most people get the idea that Melissa is about my brother – that he’s the gypsy – but no it’s about me.

You’ve used the gypsy a lot in your lyrics.

Yeah. You have to have a lot of gypsy in your soul before you can do 306 nights like we did in 1970. You’ve got to want to travel.

And you’ve never minded the travel, right?

That’s my favorite part, the traveling. No, the music is my favorite part, actually, but I love the travel.

And you’ve seen the world from behind your organ.

No I have not really but they just opened a BB King restaurant and bar in Moscow and I’m dying to go. And I get a lot of fan mail from Brazil and Argentina. Cold weather just… I don’t think I’ve ever played a Beacon where I didn’t get some sort of bronchitis and I’d love to go down to South America and meet those people writing me letters.

I would like to go to every place that the Allman Brothers missed. They only went to Europe 3 times in 45 years. It wasn’t their fault. The booking agent knew we could make a certain amount if we played anywhere between Atlanta and New York and even if we went to the West Coast we’d only get half of that. I don’t know. Maybe they thought we were going to be a flash in the pan.

After the Brothers were finished, I went with CJ Strock, who was the booking agent that worked with Jonny Podell. He left for William Morris and I went with him and so did Jaimoe. Man, life’s been so much better. CJ is a good man. He is salt of the earth, man.

You’ve had a lot of health problems since your liver transplant in 2010. It’s great to see you looking and sounding strong.

Well, I went gluten free and I vegetable juice every day and you’d be amazed at what it does for you. Bill Evans the horn player came and stayed at our house and he’s doing a record with his band – imagine a jazz band and he’s got a banjo player – he is just bad!

We went over to my studio, which is really for rehearsal. We went over to SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] and used one of their studios. First time I ever walked into a studio and there wasn’t a machine in there. I said, “Wait a minute we’re in the wrong place.” And the guy said, “no, you’re not” and they had a big Mac set up on the board. We did it all Pro Tools. He had it all cut. That was wild.

But Bill kept telling me, “You’ve got to juice, you’ve got to juice.” So I thought he’s told me this 100 times. He leaves and about two days later, Fed Ex drops this big box off at my front door and it’s a big 23 HP juicer, a thank you from him. Do you juice? You ought to try it, man. I mean, you really ought to try it. Seven days from now, you won’t believe the energy.

My digestions better since I went gluten free. Now I never eat a meal and then think “oh God, I’ve got to take a nap.”

Do you have any plans to record again?

I’m supposed to do a record with Don Was in Muscle Shoals with my band this winter. We’re sussing out tunes. I’ve always wanted to do a record with the title, “All Compositions By…” But I don’t think I’m quite ready and I’m anxious to record with this band.

I’ve always wanted to record in Muscle Shoals. There’s nothing else to do there, so everyone focuses on making great music. I haven’t been there since 1968 when I was 18 and we cut that BB King medley.

We plan on going in December. Stay tuned!