MIDNIGHT RIDER: Remembering Gregg Allman

By | May 27, 2017

To say that Gregg Allman was an influence on me in younger days would be stating the obvious to those friends and family who know me well. Not just a musical influence, but a writing influence, a traveling influence, a ‘storytelling’ influence. My father, at one point, said a ‘bad influence,’ but that’s another story…

I started playing music because of Gregg; chose the organ and vocals as my storytelling base. I saw Gregg and the Bros. perform live at the New Haven Coliseum in the mid-70’s when I was 14 or 15 (my friend Joe Mitchell can probably cite the date). I will never forget when the spotlight fell on the organ and there was the man from Macon, singing ‘Midnight Rider.’ My sister will probably never forget how when the lights came up after the opening act, I thought it was a police raid, so I hurled a lit joint into the air to get rid of it — I mean I threw it like a dart — and the seeds began popping as it caught air under it. Like a burning paper airplane the thing soared over the crowd in the lower seats and they started screaming, batting it away. All heads turned around with stoned and stunned expressions. All eyes searched for the perpetrator. My sister stared at me in utter disbelief as I turned around and pretended to look farther up the bleachers for the pyro. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a dismayed glare; like he couldn’t quite believe what he just witnessed. I just kept looking northward…

But that was just a surreal moment (that has become family legend) in an otherwise life changing experience. That soulful voice, as authentically tortured as any old Delta bluesman called me to the music, the history, the roots. From that night on, I became obsessed with the music and narrative of Gregg Allman. And that was what led me to the music that inspired he and his late brother Duane — Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, Blind Willie McTell. Tons more. Layers deep.

After pretending that my family’s little Christmas chord organ was a Hammond B3, my Dad would buy me a Hammond T-2 with built-in Leslie speakers and there was no turning back. Although I had promised my dad I’d become a wedding organist, I devoured everything by Gregg Allman. His more obscure stuff became what I loved most: early Hour Glass, his live album with full orchestra and jams with the obscure band Cowboy; anything he ever played and sang I wanted to learn. And feel.

Gregg’s influence would arguably lead to me leaving home at an early age and riding buses, trains, and the highways of the American South. My goal was to seek out the authentic blues roots at the source of the Allman Brothers sound. From this experience, my first movie “Crossroads” would later be born. Yes –‘Crossroads,’ as in the opening line of Gregg’s classic “Melissa.” It all starts with Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, of course, but Gregg turned me on to all of that.

When I was 18 and back from the road, I convinced my cousin Domenic to drive us in his Volkswagen bug down to Daytona Beach just so we could see the Wreck Bar where the Allman Brothers began. And this is where something happened that has made me believe in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Gods ever since:

After driving non-stop from Connecticut to Daytona, listening to the Allmans all the way, we made our way to the Wreck Bar at 900 Main Street (formerly The Martinique) like pilgrims seeking Mecca. Sure enough there were black and white Allman Bros. photos on the walls commemorating the dive’s claim to fame. Saw dust on the floor, pitchers of beer, wild-eyed southern boys and dangerous, tattooed southern girls. Dominic and I were sitting at a table with the latter, drinking beer and watching a band called MAMA’S PRIDE perform some great southern rock. I remember sitting at that table, looking around the place, and saying to my cousin, “they were here. Can you feel it? Gregg and Duane were here, finding their sound.” At some point during the night, a motorcycle — so loud it actually cut like a chainsaw through the music — was heard revving outside. For a long time. Like the arrival of the Hell’s Angels or something. A moment later there was a commotion near the entrance.

Now, as the bartender would tell me as I went up for another pitcher, this NEVER happened. Well, it did, but only on a very rare occasions. “Son, it’s ya’lls lucky night,” he graveled. Because Gregg Allman had walked in. He had a body guard (his name was Tiny and he was massive) and a small entourage. Gregory seemed taller than most in the crowd. One couldn’t miss that silken blonde hair falling past his elbows. The iconic soul patch under his bottom lip. He wore sunglasses at night, but removed them after a few minutes.

When Gregg made his way to a back wall to stand and observe the band, I made my way over. When a gap opened, I approached him and told him that I had traveled from way up north to come see the bar where the Allman’s started. He smiled and said something like, “All right. That’s all right, Man.” Which, for me at that young moment, confirmed my journey as something more than crazy. My Dad said it was lunacy; Gregg Allman said it was all right. And then the Music Gods truly smiled on us. Gregg got up and sat at the B3 and played a gutsy, grits-and-gravy set with Mama’s Pride (that band was smiling, too).

The Wreck Bar aka Martinique. It’s gone now, I hear.

(UPDATE: I have also heard, only recently while reading Gregg’s autobiography ‘My Cross to Bear,’, that he actually had been frequenting the Wreck and other Daytona bars more than on rare occasions at that low point in his life. Apparently, this had been a difficult time and he was ‘flat broke’, staying with his mother and sitting in with local bands for a small fee. This knowledge has only added more poignancy to that memorable night).

I would go on to play in some bands myself, the most important one to me, was the Travis McComb Band. These guys were exceptional young musicians who completely shared my passion for this kind of music. One of them, the guitar phenom and my songwriting partner Donnie DeFala (who passed too young but joins the ‘Heaven Must be Proud’ band with Gregg), would also make a hitchhiking pilgrimage to the deep south with me, like Indiana Jones searching for lost musical treasures and the swamp shack where Lynyrd Skynyrd started. We were all brothers brought together by this kind of music. A music that Gregg pioneered.

My own music would segue into writing movies (which was my very first love) but that Gregg Allman ‘story world’ and influence — and the narrative traditions that inspired him — would be a key part of it all. Still is.

These days I’ve been woodshedding on the organ again, revisiting that passion. If you look at my cover list, it’s heavily weighted to a lot of Gregg Allman material. So hearing of his passing at 69 years old, hurts in a profound way. I’ve been sitting at the keys, playing it all — even ‘Old Man River’ — while remembering what a treasure Gregg Allman was to the music world, what a groundbreaking pioneer and authentic American heir to the American roots music that so influenced the British rockers like the Rolling Stones. And I find myself thinking deeply about what Gregg has meant to me on my own personal journey.

Recently, during the Superbowl, when Atlanta was winning big against the Patriots, I sent a tweet to Gregg. I simply said ‘Hot ‘Lanta’ in reference to one of his songs and as a comment about the surprising Falcons who appeared poised to upset New England. But when the Pats roared back and it was tie, Gregg tweeted back to my verified account and said ‘TOO hot, John. TOO hot.’ Little did he know that I was the same kid who shook his hand in the Wreck Bar some 40 years ago, having traveled all that way to find the roots.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Rest in peace, Gregg, and thank you for the music.