Allman Brothers Band: Ramblin' On

By: Nancy Dunham

Allman Brothers Band by Danny Clinch
Craziness may rage outside the Beacon Theatre in New York but life is calm at 'Bert's house.'

That's what the Allman Brothers long-time manager Bert Holman calls the suite where he's living during the weeks the Brothers are in residency at their unofficial home base. As he dines on a breakfast of coffee and a bagel inside his suite the morning after one of the first Beacon shows, he is the calm ringmaster controlling what could easily explode into madness just on the basis of star power alone.

"We've been talking about it for over a year now," said Holman of the plans for this year's 15 show run, which mark the Brothers' 20th year at the Beacon and 40th year as a band. "We just said let's do something special. And it's still evolving. We're calling people we talked to at the beginning [of the planning]. People are calling us. Bruce Willis was there [one] night."

So, how can Holman and the Brothers relax on this day off as appearances by Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Billy Bob Thornton, and other musical luminaries are bandied about? You could say it's the school of hard knocks endured dating back to 1967 when budding guitar master Duane Allman convinced his brother Gregg to leave Los Angeles and bring his vocal and keyboard skills to "fill out" Duane's Jacksonville, Florida-based band.

The Roots of ABB

Duane Allman from
As fans know, Duane and Gregg were members of The Escorts, which became The Allman Joys and then morphed into Hour Glass before becoming the Allman Brothers Band in 1969.

It was during the Allman Joy days that ABB founding drummer Butch Trucks first met the brothers Allman.

"I was playing with a band and in walked The Beatles; well, they were to me," said Trucks. "The Allman Joys – Duane and Gregg – walked in the room and there was such a presence. Duane [exuded] so much strength and grace and Gregg with his long, blonde hair [was captivating], and they really liked our band and we went to their house and were sleeping on the floor."

It wasn't long before Duane called and Trucks became a member of the Allman Brothers Band. Officially born March 26, 1969, the original founding members included Duane, Gregg, Butch, percussionist Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johansen, guitarist-singer Dickey Betts and bassist Berry Oakley.

"Those first couple years we'd go set up at a park on our days off. The first time we did that was Piedmont Park in Atlanta, and we just found some plugs and set up and started playing," Trucks said. "We didn't ask anybody. We just started playing."

And as the saying goes, if you build it they will come. That was certainly true for the ABB. When people heard the music they gathered and the crowd grew throughout the day. When the Brothers returned, the word-of-mouth spread and the crowds multiplied.

"The next Sunday somebody brought a flatbed truck for the stage and two or three other bands wanted to play," said Trucks. "In a few weeks we had 10,000 people [in the audience] and it just became this thing. The police were cool, just trying to keep harmony."

Playing For Time

Early promo pic from
Although the band's albums, starting with the 1969 debut The Allman Brothers Band - which was especially noteworthy due to "Dreams" and "Whipping Post" – received critical and popular acclaim, there were tensions fueled by stress, drugs and alcohol.

"Alcohol was my nemesis. You can get it anywhere, take it anywhere and it's accepted," said Gregg Allman as he rehearsed a few months before the Beacon gigs. "I used to always have a big jug in my bag. Always."

Just as Rolling Stone magazine heaped kudos on the band and their legendary 1971 live album, At Fillmore East, caught fire, Duane was killed when a truck hit his motorcycle on October 29, 1971. The breakdown of the band accelerated, but not right away, of course.

Dickey Betts filled in playing both his own and Duane's parts, and the band completed its in-progress album, Eat a Peach, to critical acclaim. Instead of trying to replace Duane, the group added Chuck Leavell as a second pianist and continued to record and tour. Then, Oakley died in a motorcycle crash in 1972, just a few blocks from where Duane had died.

When Oakley was replaced the group finished Brothers and Sisters, which had the powerhouse hits "Ramblin' Man" and "Jessica," and the band was one of the top concert bands in the country. However, its members were close to breakdowns.

"In 1976 there were a lot of reasons we were the biggest band in the country and we lost all that in a rock & roll fantasy," said Trucks. "Drugs and alcohol were incredibly destructive and I met a woman – we just had our 31st wedding anniversary – and she told me, 'Alcohol is not the best thing to do. You're a complete asshole when you're drunk.'"

As the band began to spiral out of control Gregg held onto alcohol until he was "almost completely dead," said Trucks.

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