Gregg Allman, Southern rock legend, dies at 69
Gregg Allman, frontman for the Allman Brothers Band, the improvisational Southern rockers who overcame early tragedy to become a best-selling concert fixture for more than 45 years, died at his home in Savannah, Georgia on Saturday. He was 69.
Allman’s longtime manager Michael Lehman, speaking to EW, confirmed the news, revealing the singer had a recurrence of liver cancer approximately five years ago, something he kept “very private,” and died from complications from the disease after taking a “sudden turn” in the past few days.
“Gregg lived a long, beautiful life,” Lehman tells EW. “He loved his music, and we all loved him.”
Lehman previously announced the news on the singer’s official website. “I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a brilliant pioneer in music,” he said in a statement. “He was a kind and gentle soul with the best laugh I ever heard. His love for his family and bandmates was passionate as was the love he had for his extraordinary fans. Gregg was an incredible partner and an even better friend. We will all miss him.”
Allman suffered from various health issues over recent years. He canceled all his concert tour dates for 2017 back in March, while last year he cited “serious health issues” in nixing a series of summer tour dates. In April, Allman denied rumors that he had entered hospice care.
Allman, whose long, blonde hair and gravely voice made him a sort of hippie celebrity throughout the ’70s and ’80s, had a tumultuous personal life, marrying and divorcing Cher and descending into substance addiction. He opened his 2013 biography, “My Cross to Bear,” with a recollection of experiencing the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while drunk and staggering.
Like contemporaries such as the Grateful Dead, the Allmans became famous for stretching out their songs into blues jams, sometimes for 40 minutes at a time. Their albums documenting this style became emblematic of the Southern rock and roll tradition, and signatures such as “Whipping Post,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Ramblin’ Man” and “Midnight Rider,” many written or co-written by Allman, remain rock-radio fixtures today.
The Allman Brothers ascendancy in the ‘70s would be marred by tragedy. On Oct. 29, 1971, after leaving guitarist Berry Oakley’s house, Gregg’s brother, Duane, flipped his motorcycle in the band’s hometown of Macon, Georgia, skidded 50 feet and died at age 24. The band had just released its commercial breakthrough, 1971’s live “At Fillmore East,” and just about everything Gregg Allman did after that included a touch of melancholy. A year later, Oakley died of a motorcycle accident, also in Macon, also at 24. “It was so hard to get into anything after that second loss,” the singer told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in a 1973 cover story. “I even caught myself thinking that it’s narrowing down, that maybe I’m next.”
Born in Nashville, Gregory Allman’s life was also subsumed in tragedy. While his father was home from serving as an Army first lieutenant in the Korean War, he was murdered by a hitchhiker. Gregg and Duane’s mother, Geraldine “Mama A” Allman, became an accountant and, rather than allowing her boys to wind up in an orphanage, sent them to military school. They landed in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Gregg bought his first guitar for $21.95 at a Sears and Roebuck. Duane received a guitar, too, and practiced incessantly. Soon they were playing in cover bands such as the Escorts and the Y-Teens.
The brothers formed their own bands, first Hour Glass (“Terrible name,” Allman, who switched from guitar to organ, recalled in June of 2016) and the Allman Joys (“Just as bad”). “The Beatles had just come out and everybody had a band, so there was a lot of good competition out there. I wanted to finish school and become a dentist,” Allman told Alan Paul in 2014’s “One Way Out.” “I graduated high school and thought, ‘I’ll give it a year. I’ll go out and play these clubs and then I’ll go on to college.’”
After the deaths of Oakley and Allman, the band made an early decision to soldier on, performing massive concerts, such as the 1973 Summer Jam, in Watkins Glen, New York, which drew 600,000 fans. “I’ve had guys come up to me and say, ‘Man, it just doesn’t seem like losing those two fine cats affected you people at all,’” Allman told Crowe. “We’d all have turned into fucking vegetables if we hadn’t been able to get out there and play. That’s where the success was, Jack.”
The brothers broke up and reunited several times over the years, but went on a long, consistent run beginning in the early ’90s, eventually enlisting stars such as guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks (nephew of Butch). Meanwhile, Allman maintained a solo career, occasionally scoring hits such as 1986’s “I’m No Angel.” (He’d also starred in 1991’s “Rush.”) After the band played its final shows in 2014, a long run at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the singer formed his own solo band, put out a live album and planned to release another one. Allman also sponsored a rock festival, Laid Back, named for his 1973 solo debut, and played several shows on it in June and July before falling ill.
“It’s hard road out there. It is,” Allman, sober for 20 years, told Newsday. “But we met it with dignity. And we finished everything we started. And one thing people can say is that, when it came to our concerts, they got their money’s worth.”