Remembering Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman performing in Watkins Glen, New York, 1974. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN LYNSKEY
By Sarah Taylor Asquith. 

“Find me the exact opposite of Times Square.”

That’s what Gregg Allman told his realtor in 2000, when he returned to Georgia after many years in California, and what felt like a lifetime on the road. He chose Savannah because it was equal distance between his mother, Mama A, in Daytona Beach and his best friend, Chank Middleton, in Macon. “I’m not close to either of you, but not far,” Allman told Chank.

The realtor delivered big, and Allman soon found himself living in a respite only accessible by twisting, turning country roads. A few years later, he had a new place built three doors down with more space, more privacy and a state-of-the-art music studio. By rock-star standards, the two-story, Tudor-inspired house feels normal. What’s most remarkable is its seclusion—hidden from street view, hidden from river view. Other than the odd knock of a woodpecker, it’s utterly quiet. If Times Square has an opposite, this must be the spot.

 Gregg and Duane Allman through the years: the trio of photos hangs inside Gregg’s home.

After every tour, Allman caught his breath and some well-earned rest here, and as his big life began to wind down, this home on the Belfast River was a refuge for him and his wife, Shannon.

It’s here, she says, where her husband could “just be a good ol’ Southern boy.” He was a fisherman and a gardener, a painter and an antiquer. He collected motorcycles, knives and wood carvings of mushrooms and elephants. He took his dogs Otis and Maggie for golf-cart rides through the neighborhood, occasionally stopping to chat with his neighbor, a dentist. Sometimes he and Shannon drove his Corvette into Richmond Hill, where they’d eat pulled pork and Brunswick stew at Smokin’ Pig, or have a scoop of Allman Joy at the Ice Cream Stop. On Sundays, the couple liked to go to Savannah. First stop was often the Unitarian Universalist Church, followed by a visit to the Telfair or brunch at Clary’s Café. (For him: bacon, egg and cheese on an English muffin, plus coffee with one raw sugar, one Stevia and a heavy splash of cream.) “People were wonderful to him here,” says Shannon. “He always said he appreciated when his fans would pass by and simply say, ‘Hey Gregg, thanks for the music.’”

Still, as any devoted fan will tell you, Allman’s true home was on the road—and he hit it with a dogged determination to the end. According to his longtime manager and close friend Michael Lehman, doctors worked closely with Allman on his diet and exercise, specifically so he could continue to do what he loved most. “He kept pushing himself so hard,” Michael says. “We sporadically had to cancel shows because he wasn’t feeling well, but he drove the operation and if he wanted to be on the road, he’d call me: ‘Hey Mikey, please get me some dates.’ Time and time again, that would happen.”

Shannon Allman in her husband’s home studio.

No one knew the ramblin’ man better than Chank, who met him in Macon in 1969. As the story goes, Chank was shining shoes in a barber shop and the Allman Brothers Band was rehearsing next door. “I looked out the window and saw these guys with a lot of long hair pull up in a Ford Galaxie,” says Chank. “We’d never seen a hippie in Macon before then.”

Chank first became friends with drummer Jaimoe Johanson, then Allman’s older brother and lead guitarist Duane. Eventually, Gregg came in for a boot shine. “He had on these really nice, wide-framed sunglasses and I kept looking at them,” recalls Chank. “He said, ‘You like these shades? Here, they’re your tip,’ and he handed them to me.”

The band kept inviting Chank to the studio, but as a big jazz fan, he assumed he wouldn’t like the music they were making. Finally, he walked over. “Based on their look, I was expecting something like the Beach Boys,” says Chank. “When I first heard them, I didn’t believe it. They were doing ‘Whipping Post’ and I thought, damn, these white boys can play.”

A poster from a concert at Johnny Mercer Theatre, 2000.

Duane’s untimely death in 1971 bonded the men further, and in 1974 Gregg hired Chank to tour with the band. He was sort of a roadie, sort of Allman’s assistant, but mostly his confidant. When the Allman Brothers Band broke up in 1976, the two friends parted ways, but never lost touch. After many failed attempts, Allman finally lured Chank back to the road in 2005 when he was performing with his solo band. They were “connected at the hip” until Allman’s last show, in October 2016. “We couldn’t function without each other,” says Chank. “We didn’t have to say a lot because we read each other’s minds.”

Earlier in 2016, Allman recorded his final album with his band at the renowned FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, under the direction of Grammy winning producer Don Was. Southern Blood (a title conceived by Allman’s youngest daughter, Layla) was released on September 8th by Rounder Records, and it’s something of a full-circle moment: FAME Studios is the same spot where, in 1968, Gregg and Duane recorded the now-famous “B.B. King Medley” song with their then-band, Hour Glass.

As Allman’s lead guitarist and music director, Scott Sharrard was a driving force behind Southern Blood and the two worked closely together over the past nine years. Scott describes the 2016 Muscle Shoals sessions as magical. “There was nostalgia and reverence in the air for all of us,” says Scott. “FAME is like a church and a family restaurant rolled into one. We were all feeling it.”

Allman in California, 1987.

Scott recalls the moment when Rick Hall, the 85-year-old founder of FAME Studios, walked in to listen to playbacks. “Gregg’s energy shifted right away like I had never seen,” Scott says. “It was like a headmaster had shown up to pass out grades.”

Before heading to Muscle Shoals, the band frequently rehearsed in Allman’s home studio, a room seeped in history. A vintage Hammond B-3 organ stands in a corner, not far from a lineup of guitars (Taylor, Gibson, Fender) and a road case marked by Sharpie-scribbled duct tape and a bumper sticker that reads “Support Your Local Musician.” One framed photo shows Allman with B.B. King, another with Eric Clapton, another with Willie Nelson. There he is in 1974, standing on the runway in front of his jet, The Gregg Allman Tour emblazoned on the tail. And again in 1987, leaning against a sports car and dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and narrow jeans.

“He was just so freaking cool, man,” Shannon says with a sigh. “He really did things because he wanted to do them.”

Michael Lehman, Gregg Allman and Chank Middleton, 2016. “The three of us called ourselves the ‘bad boys of rock and roll,” says Michael. “Gregg made it up—he’d sign off on his text messages with BBRR.”

Those who knew Allman well say he was also wicked smart (a voracious reader and curious about everything), not to mention a real softy, always interpreting the world through music. “He could tell you the key that a bird was chirping in, or the key of a person’s voice,” says Shannon. He liked to read Mitch Albom books aloud and watch videos of Maya Angelou reciting poetry. He encouraged Shannon to turn her poems into songs they wrote together, and he was teaching her how to play piano. His dock was a favorite spot, where he sat studying the tidal changes and the fiddler crabs. This past spring, a red fox began visiting the property, moving closer and closer to the house with each stop. Shannon takes heart in this—a friend recently told her that some cultures believe foxes to be spirit guides, leading the way to the next place. “He did feel like he was going somewhere,” she says.

The evening before Allman passed away, Chank drove down from Macon to join the couple inside their home. They stayed up late together on the couch, playing one particular track on Southern Blood. Called “Song for Adam,” it was written and released in 1972 by Allman’s old friend Jackson Browne, and it’s a song that Allman often played privately. He covers it on this last album, with Browne featured on vocals. Late that Friday night and early into the next morning, Allman sat with Chank and Shannon, talking, laughing, listening. He was happy, they say, with how it turned out.

 

Photography by Teresa Earnest
Archival photos courtesy of the Gregg Allman Estate
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