In 2014, Alan Paul published the definitive biography of one of America’s greatest rock bands, The Allman Brothers Band. Now, he is following that up by taking an in-depth look at a unique period in their history. The book is called Brothers & Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band And The Inside Story Of The Album That Defined The 70s, and Alan took some time to talk all about it.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Alan Paul –
On why he went back to this era after writing his first book – Well, I just thought there was so much left to be said. There were a lot of things that I scratched the surface of in One Way Out. By definition, because it was as definitive as it is, or I set out for it to be. I couldn’t go super in-depth into anything in the same way. So, this is almost as many words about this era, and I just learned more and more, and I was able to put it in perspective, and it came to seem a little strange to me that the Brothers and Sisters era was a little bit overlooked. It was by far the most successful era. But when they reformed in 1989 and then going forward they went back to the original Duane era lineup, basically, they did briefly have another piano player, but they became a guitar band again. So they never had a lineup again of one guitar, Dickey Betts, and piano, which was Chuck Leavell in this era. I think partly because of that, the era ended up being a little bit overlooked and It just seems strange to me because it was their most successful era. Thank you for calling me a scholar of The Allman Brothers I also am an amateur scholar of American history and culture In this era, there was so much to cover because they were, as a result of their success, in the middle of so much. They directly got President Carter elected, they hosted along with the Grateful Dead, the largest rock festival ever in America, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen 600 to 650 000 people Their relationship with the Grateful Dead, that exemplifies it, but it came, it was at a high point. That was a whole relationship that I felt was underexplored. Even Gregg’s marriage to Cher, which most real Allman Brothers fans sort of rolled their eyes at even talking about, but it was important. Gregg and Cher were the Kim and Kanye of 1974, 75 they were on the cover of People Magazine. They were on one of the first covers of People Magazine. There was just so much there that I felt I, and I’m not even talking about the Southern Rock explosion that came in the aftermath of Brothers and Sisters. None of that would have happened without the success of the Allman Brothers.
So it was just such a rich vein to explore. Once I got the idea, I started poking around and I felt better and better about it. Each of those things that I knew I would explore, I explored more than I anticipated, if that makes sense. So, the relationship with the Grateful Dead I knew I would go into it became 2 chapters instead of 1 Watkins Glen became two chapters instead of one. The relationship with Jimmy Carter becomes a sort of a thread that runs through the whole last second half or last third maybe of the book. So there was just so much to explore. So even though I had scratched the surface of all of it in One Way Out, I wanted to go deeper.
On how the remaining members carried on after losing two founding members in a year – So I’ve thought about that a lot. Of course, there is no one answer. There’s no simple way to tidy that up. But I think there’s a few things that if you put into perspective, it all makes sense together.
So 1st, how did they get through Duane? Let’s just put Barry aside for a second. They did it by pulling together. It was the only thing they knew how to do. They very briefly thought they might break up, became really quickly apparent to them all they couldn’t do that. Then they thought even they would take six months off and figure out what they were going to do, they were back at hanging out at the rehearsal space in days because that’s what they did. As Butch Trucks said, “We’re musicians, we play music. We grieve through music. We have solidarity”. The brotherhood thing was a real thing. It was tested. There’s a lot of ways you could point and say, “That’s, that’s ridiculous, they fought over this, that, and the other”, but people fight with their brothers and sisters and parents all the time, and they still love each other, and they’re still a family. I would say it’s more like that. So they needed that brotherhood and sisterhood because the wives and, and girlfriends were a big part of the story as well. They needed that to survive the loss of Duane. So in a weird way, it pulled them closer together. They soldiered on for a year as a five-piece band, which is to say the same exact band, but without Duane which I think is incredible. That’s another one of the reasons that this story resonates, and the Allman Brothers story in general, I think I emphasized this in One Way Out and maybe even more so here, there is a resiliency there. that I think cuts across. Not all of us are going to be rock stars, certainly generational rock stars, but we’re all going to face loss. We’re all going to lose loved ones. We’re all going to lose people in our lives that you can’t imagine living without. The way they responded to it is incredible.
Even before this era, I would start it with the second half of the Eat A Peach sessions, which they went back and finished after Duane died. The first thing Gregg did, who’s completely bereft because he loses not only his bandmate, but his brother and essentially his father figure, even though they’re only a year apart, he writes “Ain’t Wasting Time No More”. Gregg didn’t always live up to these high standards of how to live, to be sure. But you know, neither did Thomas Jefferson, and his words ring in our ears for hundreds of years. So I think that’s okay. People sometimes focus on the hypocrisy. I don’t view it that way. It’s an ideal and it’s setting out something to strive for. “Ain’t Wasting Time No More”, incredible for Gregg to write that in the aftermath. Dickey, at the same time, steps up and that’s his first recorded slide guitar part in the absence of this slide guitar genius. So that’s, there’s the template.
Okay, they get through that year, What are they going to do? They don’t know. They made it through that year. But there’s an emptiness there. They can’t quite imagine how they’re going to record in this lineup and they can’t still imagine breaking up and they stumble onto the prodigy genius of Chuck Leavell, who’s a generational piano player. They didn’t sit out looking, “Hey, let’s go find a great piano player”. They just found Chuck. He was around Macon, where I am right now, and he was working on Gregg’s solo album initially. So how did they do it? All of that stuff. Then ultimately finding Chuck, then as they’re getting it back together, they’re moving ahead and they’re just starting to record, they’ve recorded two songs of Brothers and Sisters, which are the first two on the album, “Wasted Words”, and “Ramblin Man” and Barry Oakley dies.
They’re thrown right back into this same morass that they had just come through a year earlier. But this time, they don’t even hesitate. They know what they’re going to do. They started auditioning bass players and Jaimoe says, “Hey, what about my old buddy Lamar?” Who was his best friend growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Lamar comes in, boom, it’s immediately clear. He’s the guy. So that’s how they did it. They shifted just subtly. It’s not drastically different, but it’s clearly a different band. They didn’t try to make new guys play like Barry and Duane, which would have been horrible. They find great new guys and they establish a bit of a new identity. Dicky steps forward as the chief frontman, basically. You have this whole new band and a whole new era.
On whether the differences in Laid Back and Brothers and Sisters are a function of Dickey taking band control – There’s not a direct answer to that, but yes, it’s partly yes, for sure. So Gregg, it’s an amazing thing also, because Gregg is a mess by all accounts. I mean, he’s using heroin. He’s drinking a lot. He doesn’t show up sometime for days at a time and everyone’s worried about him. At the same time, he’s in the middle of recording two fantastic albums that 50 years later sound great.
Laid Back is really the template for his whole solo career. So Gregg always had that side of him. People don’t associate him with like singer-songwriter stuff or California folk. Because you tend to focus on the “One Way Out”, a growly side of Gregg, but if you just stop and think for a minute, think about “Midnight Rider”, think about “Melissa”, think about “Come and Go Blues”, all of those songs. If they had come out initially as a solo recording made in California with Waddy Wachtell and Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar, they would have sounded great and you’d be like, “Oh, Gregg Allman, that great California singer-songwriter” he always had that in him and he may have pursued that, that was sort of where his heart and soul was. I once described it to Gregg and he loved this, as writing songs like Jackson Browne and singing them like Little Milton or Ray Charles, Gregg said, “That’s it, man, that’s my deal”. When I realized that 25 years ago, and I started writing about Gregg in that way, it helped me understand him better. In all honesty, it ingratiated me to Gregg because he was so delighted that somebody had seen that. This is all kind of a long answer to it, but that was always there.
With Laid Back, he had a chance to exercise that part of him. That left a little bit of a hole in the Allman Brothers. He’s still singing great, listen to “Southbound”, Dickey wrote it, Gregg sings it, and it sounds like Gregg wrote it because of the way he invests himself in it. Dickey stepped forward. Dickey was taking more control. In later years, Gregg would sometimes express resentment about that and stuff, but clearly, it was what had to happen. I don’t think it was a point of conflict at the time at all. Gregg has two original songs on the album, “Wasted Words” and “Come and Go Blues”. Not everyone will agree with me, I think “Wasted Words” is not that great of a song. I’ll call it a third-tier Gregg Allman song to me, but “Come and Go Blues” is a first-tier all the way. Everyone’s opinion can differ, but “Come and Go Blues” is the one song that could have been on Laid Back, would have sounded a little different. In fact, he did record it on his second solo album, Playing Up a Storm. So that fit into the Gregg solo oeuvre as well as in the Allman Brothers. But you can start to hear a divergence there. But it’s still not like Dickey had a distinct sound. I mean, he didn’t have just one sound.
How do you connect “Jessica” and “Pony Boy”? They’re really different. They’re different, but they don’t seem that different now because if you’ve listened to the Allman Brothers enough, you know that they both sound like Dickey Betts. But that’s because you know that they sound like Dickey Betts. If you just take them on the surface of the songs, those two songs and “Southbound”, are pretty different, and “Ramblin Man” is completely different. So Dickey still was really diverse. But taken all together, it’s the Dickey Betts sound and it did dominate the record, that’s absolutely fair to say.
On the relationship between the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers – The musicians definitely had a relationship initially, especially Duane and Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. After Duane was gone, Dickey Betts had not ever sat in with the Grateful Dead in the early days, but he heard in Garcia the minute he ever heard the Grateful Dead, a kinship and a similar approach to music and you start to see that come to the fore. So there was a real musical relationship there, but there also was a business relationship.
So Sam Cutler, who was the co-manager of the Grateful Dead at the time, and Bunky Odom, who was in essence, the day-to-day manager of the Allman Brothers. He worked for Phil Walden, who was the manager, but Bunky was the guy who did things day to day. Sam and Bunky had a really good relationship, and so that’s what allowed them to plan out RFK Stadium and Watkins Glen. If those two guys hadn’t gotten along so well the whole thing, those things never would have happened. But it’s not like the bands just showed up and played and didn’t talk to each other. I mean, they had a real kinship Jaimoe and Bill Kreutzman love each other, Jerry and Dickey loved each other. Chuck, unfortunately, Chuck never sat in with the Grateful Dead, which would have been phenomenal to hear. That’s my own personal regret. Come on, Chuck. But of course, they had Keith Godchaux then who was a great piano player on their own, but there was a really real relationship there and it was growing.
It seemed to be something that could go on forever, but in a weird point of fact, they never played together again after Watkins Glen, which has always been a bit of a mystery that I explore and try to answer in this book. I don’t want to give away everything because it would take too long, but there is no simple answer, but I do break it down a bit, but I think the relationship was really real and it’s, it’s truly a shame that it ended at this point because there was more room to run there for sure.
On if Gregg was surprised about the media scrutiny of his marriage to Cher – That’s absolutely true. We haven’t talked about this yet, but I need to say this and put it in a little context. So Kirk West, who was the sort of ultimate Allman Brothers insider, and he’s the guy who I became close with and brought me in or helped me transition from being just a regular journalist writing about the Allman Brothers to an insider.
In the mid-80s, he was working on a book. He did tons of interviews with everyone involved, all of the members of the band except Lamar Williams, who had already passed away, sadly. As well as Phil Walden and Bill Graham, and a lot of people, spouses, crew, etc. When I started writing this book, Kirk said to me, “Would you like my tapes?” Well, of course, I would like your tapes, Kirk. That’s just an incredible thing for a biographer. Go back, why did I write a second book? Well, I had already started it before the tapes, so I can’t say that’s why I wrote it. That would be not exactly accurate. But it played a huge role and it certainly played a huge role in allowing the book to be really, really special and unique.
One of the things in there is that Gregg spoke really, really openly about his relationship with Cher with Kirk in these 1986 and 87 interviews. In later years as I mentioned, I did a lot of great interviews with Gregg. I had these great musical conversations with him. I explored everything from Ray Charles to Jackson Brown and the history of the band. But Cher and his marriage, all of his marriages really were a bit off-limits. It was just made clear, leave that stuff alone. Which of course I respected. But he spoke really, really openly about his relationship with Cher with Kirk and that allowed me to really write about it in a way that made sense and put it in the context of Gregg and of the Allman Brothers and not just of celebrity relationships, so to speak. I think that when people read this, it will all make more sense. That’s the most I can say. It’s not for me to say if it does or doesn’t, but I do think it does. I was excited when I heard that not because of any titillation, but because it’s, it’s interesting and it’s human.
To go back to what your question was, yes, he says very directly in that interview that early in their relationship once Gregg was going to go out and move out into her place in Beverly Hills, which was very early, she said to him, “You don’t know what you’re getting into with me. The media is going to drive you crazy.” He sort of laughed at her, “You know”, he said,” I don’t care about that”. He says in this interview I’m trying to think of his exact word, but it was basically fame didn’t turn me on to her. Fame was a pain in the ass, but Gregg had been, this is after Watkins Glen, this is after a multi-platinum album with Brothers and Sisters, he had been a serious rock star, pretty much his whole adult life. But he didn’t understand what this meant. This was a whole different thing. He wasn’t followed around by paparazzi, especially down here in Macon. They were treated like stars but also left to live their lives a bit. He was now into a completely different level of fame and he struggled with it. I think it would be a real oversimplification to say that caused the dissolution of their marriage, but it didn’t help. It was a challenge and I think it’s pretty well documented with Gregg and Cher more so when you read this book, but more broadly, I think people understand how that’s a hard way to live and to have a relationship.
On the relationship with Jimmy Carter and if that could happen today – I have to think about that. I mean, on the one hand, yeah. Trump had Ted Nugent and Kid Rock in the White House, I think in his first months. Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce were playing benefits for Hillary Clinton. The level of the relationship and the intimacy of it, I think you’re right. On the other side, these kinds of musicians being really involved in campaigns on both sides now is more common. It was really kind of wild. Remember that the President was Gerald Ford, who took over for Richard Nixon, who took over from Lyndon Johnson. Who did Richard Nixon hang out with? Lawrence Welk? I don’t know. It wasn’t just a Republican-Democrat thing. Lyndon Johnson, I don’t know what kind of music he liked, but it wasn’t the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead. There’s a quote in the book from Peter Conlon, who was really involved in the Carter campaign, liaisoning if that’s a word, with musicians. He said, “Jimmy Carter wasn’t an opportunist, but he saw an opportunity”. I think that sums it up pretty well. I mean he needed help. He needed money, which these bands could raise and he needed attention. He was a one-term governor of Georgia.
No one really knew who he was and the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, Willie Nelson, and lots of other musicians could provide all of that. But also, he really liked them. He genuinely liked the music. He had Muddy Waters at the White House. He had Dizzy Gillespie. This is stuff we take a little bit for granted now that jazz and blues and rock and roll are the great American art forms. I would argue they are the great American art forms. They’re our great export. I’ve lived in China. I’ve played this music across China. I know it’s power. We have a soft power with this that we give away foolishly in my opinion, but this is all sort of a new concept for a President to be inviting Muddy Waters to play on the White House lawn.
Phil Walden, who was their manager. Conflicting figure. I think I bring out a lot of the contradictions in the book. But he was the one who really saw this power. He was the one who just said to Jimmy Carter,” I got this, we’re gonna do this”. But just as Jimmy Carter genuinely liked the music, the guys in the Allman Brothers genuinely liked Jimmy Carter as a person and as a politician, and a big part of that, and also for Phil Walden and for Alex Cooley, the great Atlanta concert promoter who put on the Atlanta Pop Festival and was one of the early pioneering rock promoters, sort of like the Bill Graham of the Southeast, you could say. These guys like Phil Walden, Alex Cooley, and the members of the Allman Brothers, they hated that their region of the country was so associated with racists. Carter’s predecessor as the governor of Georgia was Lester Maddox, who was just a virulent racist. He owned a restaurant and when they tried to integrate it, he beat black college students with an axe handle rather than serve them a grilled cheese sandwich or whatever.
They were embarrassed by that. There was an Associated Press picture of Lester Maddox beating people with an axe handle. They hated that they would go around the country and be associated with stuff like that. So, they really liked Jimmy Carter, and I think the racial politics of it were key to that. I know for sure they were with Phil Walden.
On whether Gregg’s testimony against Scooter Herring was used as an excuse to end the band and the relationship with the Dead – Yes and no. Ultimately, yes, but not exactly in the calculated way you said because I think it happened in real-time. But yeah, the band was in bad shape and they were petering out. I would say to put on my sort of armchair psychologist hat. That they were collapsing under the emotional weight of the losses that they had sort of just pushed away and barreled on. It’s not like Gregg or Dickey or any of these guys went to therapy when Duane or Barry died and talked it out and were coming to grips with it or even talked about it with each other.
One of the ways they dealt with Duane’s death was they didn’t deal with Duane’s death. They dealt with it by being together. They talked about him in the present tense. They almost talked about him as if he had just taken a hiatus from the band and so that that was That’s a pretty deep level of repression and pushing down stuff.
As Dick Wooley, who was the director of promotions for Capricorn Records said to me, “If success won’t change you, nothing will”. They got a lot of money and the usual rock and roll excesses. Drugs, and separate limousines so they didn’t have to talk to each other. This is a group of guys who had shared a house and had driven across the country, sitting foot to head, head to foot in an Econoline van. Then extreme separation set in. It was a combination of all those things. The trial was what pushed it over the edge.
I do think you mentioned also the Grateful Dead. I do think that more directly and for real led to a break with the Grateful Dead. Garcia called Gregg a “rat” and never really softened. I mean, everybody eventually sort of forgave Gregg for the most part except Garcia. I mentioned earlier Sam Cutler and Bunky Odom. The Grateful Dead took a hiatus in 1974 and 75. When they came back, Cutler didn’t work for The Grateful Dead anymore. The Allman Brothers broke up in 76. When they came back in 78, Bunky Odom was gone. I think if those guys had been around and they could make a phone call, they would have been able to overcome this other stuff, but in their absence that stuff lingered. So I do think it ultimately was the straw that broke that relationship.
On if Duane would have stayed with the band and if they would have existed for 40 + years – Well, there’s no way to know. But I don’t think he would have left them. I do think he would have left them in a sense. I think he would have kept doing other projects, but I don’t think the band would have broken up. I think it may have evolved in such a way where Duane did whatever more collaborations along the line of Layla, maybe with whomever. Anybody could have benefited from that guy, walking into a studio with them. Gregg probably eventually would have done a solo record more or less like Laid Back regardless. Maybe Dickey would have maybe done a solo record more or less like Highway Call, which I cover here as well. It’s one of the forgotten gems, but I think they would have continued to do stuff like that.
I don’t feel that they would have broken up because I think that they had something really special together. I don’t think Greg and Duane would have just decided not to work together anymore. I think they were too close. I think that there had been a lot of tension just before Duane died. A lot of that was fueled by growing drug use. Duane had banned needles, which was a source of tension. Duane was snorting heroin all the time. He had a heroin problem. He didn’t like needles. He didn’t use needles. So he, which was not uncommon at the time, believed that he was better because of that. He demanded to see Dickey’s arms one time and Dickey said, “You know I love you, Duane, but you’re pushing this too far. I’m not showing you my arms”. Things weren’t Shangri La when Duane died, but they had come through that. Duane had just come out of rehab. Whether he was really clean or would have stayed so, who knows? It wouldn’t have been a straight line. Brothers and Sisters would not have happened as it happened because they probably never would have added Chuck. But I think they would have continued and done great things. One of the last songs Duane recorded was “Blue Sky” really, really different style of guitar playing for Duane. That was already Dickey stepping to the fore. I think there was room for Dickey to continue to grow. Dickey thought “Ramblin Man” was too country for the Allman Brothers, and Gregg and everyone else loved it when they heard it. I think Duane would have too. He didn’t hesitate at “Blue Sky”, which was already quite different.
So I think they would have found a way to make it work. It would have been really different. It’s like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I also wrote a book about. Stevie and Duane are incandescent talents, and we’ll never know what they would have done, but they would have done a lot. There’s a lot of music we never heard because of their untimely passings.