Laid Back [Gregg Allman]
After the release of Eat a Peach in February 1972, the Allman Brothers Band toured as a five-piece. There was no way they could replace Duane Allman with another guitarist, so they didn’t. The band didn’t have a “leader” as such, but there was no doubt amongst the band who the boss was: Duane Allman. Duane started the band, he was their guiding light. His brother Gregg later said of him “he was always the first one to face the fire.” Berry Oakley was the faithful lieutenant. When Duane Allman died the mantle of leadership fell to B.O. Scott Freeman, author of Midnight Riders, described Berry as so consumed with grief at Duane’s passing that he was in no shape to lead anything. His drug intake increased significantly. His weight dropped to about 100 pounds. Sometimes during shows he could barely stand. He was in pretty bad shape.
Once the band finished their touring commitments in the first half of 1972, Gregg Allman got busy making his first solo album, Laid Back. Among the session players for Laid Back was a 20-year old pianist from Alabama named Chuck Leavell. During the sessions for Laid Back Chuck began jamming with the Allman Brothers Band. The band liked what they heard and invited him to join the band in September 1972. His piano became another lead instrument that could take some of the load off Dickey Betts, now the band’s sole guitarist. Since the Allman Brothers were once again a six-piece, they got to work on their follow-up to Eat a Peach, Brothers and Sisters. It was such a creative period for the band that Laid Back and Brothers and Sisters were recorded one right after another. But with that said, the two albums are very different.
Compared to any Allman Brothers album, Laid Back is a very quiet album. It is more of a rhythm and blues album and has very little to do with what people would call “Southern rock.” It has more to do with R&B, soul, and gospel with a tinge of country thrown in for good measure. There are few if any guitar solos. The emphasis is on Gregg’s soulful voice, the Hammond organ, and the arrangements which could include acoustic guitars, steel guitars, dobros, acoustic and electric pianos, gospel choirs, horns and strings. Those are elements you will never find on any Allman Brothers album. The rhythm section takes a more relaxed approach than that taken by Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Both Butch and Jaimoe play on Laid Back, but they play smaller percussion instruments like the conga or cabasa rather than full drum kits.
Leading off the album is a re-arranged Midnight Rider. Unlike the faster-paced original from Idlewild South, this version is taken at a slower pace, it’s more a mournful, spooky dirge. Gone are Gregg’s harmonies from Idlewild South – this vocal is solo. The strings and horns that replace the guitar solos give the song more of a Southern Gothic-feel. It was released as a single and peaked at #19 on Billboard’s Singles chart. Another ABB song, Please Call Home, is arranged almost like the original except that a gospel choir is added. There are two newer Gregg Allman originals. The first is the album’s centerpiece, Queen of Hearts. It’s one of those rare Gregg Allman songs about a woman [in this case his wife at the time] that doesn’t portray her as an evil, mean wench to be derided and avoided. It is [gasp!] a love song, to wit:
And after all that we've been through
I find that when I think of you
A warm soft wind runs
Through and through
And in my heart
There’s only you
And I will always keep on trying
To gather this strange piece of mind
Without it there’d be
Lonely me and
Oh darlin’ lonely you
I love you Queen of Hearts
Don't tell me when to stop
Tell me when to start
Most of the song is in 3/4 time [a waltz like Dreams], but when it’s time for David “Fathead” Newman’s sax solo, it switches to 11/4 time. The other “new” original is Multi-Colored Lady. Gregg’s on a bus trip from Memphis to Rome, Georgia, where he encounters a very sad lady [“a broken hearted bride”] who didn’t have much to say. He tries to get her to talk but all she asks for is a map for death row. He doesn’t know the way, and all through the trip the rain comes down which doesn’t do much for the lady’s mood. After awhile he gets her to talk. They talk for hours and the “Multi-Colored Lady” [“angry red, passion blue, but mostly shades of gray”] finally begins to smile.
The rest of the album’s eight songs were written by someone else. Two songs with the tinge of country are Scott Boyer’s All My Friends [which begins almost like Wild Horses] and Jackson Browne’s These Days. Gregg Allman actually recorded the song before Jackson Browne did. When Browne got around to releasing it, he credited "Arrangement inspired by Gregg Allman." A sad song, Gregg double-tracks his vocal over an equally sad steel guitar. At the end he adds own line - "Please don't confront me with my failures/I'm aware of them." Why all the sadness? Remember, he and his big brother were very close and Gregg was still wallowing in grief. There is one “up” tune on Laid Back, Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing. The album ends with the traditional gospel song Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Duane used to quote this song often in his solos during the Allman Brothers’ extended jams.
Laid Back isn’t what one expects from Gregg Allman. Despite the presence of three Allman Brothers members and two Allman Brothers songs, this album sounds very little like the Allman Brothers. It shows another side of Gregg Allman and proves he can do more than just rock and blues.
Brothers and Sisters
Dedicated to a brother, Berry Oakley. As the recording sessions for Laid Back were coming to their conclusion, the Allman Brothers began recording their follow-up to Eat a Peach, Brothers and Sisters. The songs appear on the album in the order in which they were recorded. The first two songs, Gregg’s Wasted Words and Dickey’s Ramblin’ Man, were the last to feature bassist Berry Oakley. Wasted Words was about a relationship that was beyond repair. Gregg played electric rhythm guitar, and like Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More from Eat a Peach, Wasted Words features Dickey Betts playing electric slide guitar. It’s a better song now than it was when it was recorded in 1972. It’s taken at a slower, more funky pace, and it’s a more powerful song for it, what with two guitars and a Hammond organ instead of what you hear on the original recording. Ramblin’ Man takes the Allman Brothers further in the country direction that was hinted at on Blue Sky. A demo of this song from 1971 exists. The song Dickey played for Duane, then known as Ramblin’ Country Man, was demoed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee prior to the recording of Eat a Peach. It got up to #2 on Billboard’s Singles chart. The song that kept it from hitting #1 was Half Breed by Cher [how ironic…]. What can I say about Ramblin’ Man? It’s a good song that has been played to death. As good as it is, I can go the rest of my life without hearing it again. Although, if I am stuck someplace where all I hear is European techo music or worse [think rap…ugh!], Ramblin’ Man would be a welcome listen.
After the Allman Brothers recorded these two songs, the band journeyed to New York to play a concert at Hofstra University. The concert took place on Nov 2, 1972 and was filmed for ABC’s In Concert series. As it turned out, this was to be the only concert to have both Berry Oakley and Chuck Leavell in the band. Nine days after the show, Berry was killed in a motorcycle accident just like Duane 13 months prior. Berry’s accident happened only a couple of blocks from where Duane had his accident. Duane’s accident happened in Macon at the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Bartlett Street. One street over and two block east at the intersection of Napier Avenue and Inverness Street, where Napier has a 90 degree bend in the road, Berry plowed headfirst into a Macon city bus. He got up and walked away from the accident and was taken to the “Big House” on Vineville Avenue. But shortly thereafter, Berry began having hallucinations and a very bad headache and was taken to the hospital. Three hours later he died of hemorrhaging resulting from a fractured skull. Duane Allman and Berry Oakley are now buried side-by-side in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery.
Jaimoe’s friend Lamar Williams came in and replaced Berry Oakley and recording resumed. Gregg’s best song on the album, Come and Go Blues, was Lamar Williams’ first with the band. The Brothers still play it in concert to this day, but arranged for two guitars [Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks] instead of guitar and piano. Gregg’s Jelly, Jelly is a slow blues that plods along until Dickey fires up a very inspired solo to save the song from mediocrity, but if you listen to it and Gregg’s Queen of Hearts back-to-back [as I often do] it somehow sounds a lot better. Jelly, Jelly finishes Side 1 of Brothers and Sisters.
Side 2 is all Dickey Betts territory. Since most of Gregg’s songwriting efforts were directed toward Laid Back, Dickey Betts, being the band’s other songwriter, rose to the challenge and more than picked up the slack. Southbound kicks off Side 2. Although Dickey wrote it, Gregg sang it. There aren’t many words to the song – this is a jam vehicle. On record there’s two guitar solos with a piano solo from Chuck Leavell in between. He last time I saw the Allman Brothers in 1995, Dickey sang it and they played it in a radically different arrangement. There was Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, and Chris Anderson [who opened the show] in a three-guitar jam that lasted about 17-minutes and blew the roof off the Nissan Pavilion. It was definitely one of those “we’re not worthy” moments. All you could do at the end was say “wow!” After Southbound comes Jessica. This instrumental is Dickey Betts’ finest hour. Inspired by his one-year-old daughter Jessica, Dickey wanted to write a happy, upbeat instrumental. Django Reinhardt is one of Dickey’s biggest influences as a player, so thus inspired he wanted to write not only a happy instrumental, but one that is something Django would be able to play with only two fingers on the fretting hand [if he was still alive, of course]. It’s a very exciting piece of music, complete with a memorable piano solo from Chuck Leavell that reminds one of a Charlie Brown cartoon. I’ve heard this one go on for 30 minutes at a time. Brothers and Sisters closes with Pony Boy, an acoustic country blues. As a sign of things to come, Gregg is nowhere near this song.
Overall, this one is a fine effort from the Allman Brothers. It doesn’t scale the heights of At Fillmore East or Eat a Peach, but considering they lost two key members to tragedy in a little more than a year, it’s more than one would expect. These guys were resilient enough and talented enough to persevere and put out something that’s pretty damn good. The way the songs are played live now [especially Wasted Words and Come and Go Blues] prove that there was a good foundation to start with. Good songs are eternal. Jessica is timeless. Play it back-to-back with Blue Sky and I defy anyone not to smile.
Highway Call [Richard Betts]
After Brothers and Sisters, Dickey Betts [who went by the name ‘Richard’ at this time] made a country record. That record is Highway Call. On songs like Blue Sky, Ramblin’ Man and Jessica, Dickey stuck his toe in the water to see how his listening public would react to the Allman Brothers getting away from the blues and toward a more countrified sound. On Highway Call he jumped in the deep end with both feet. I owned this album when I was in my early twenties because at that time I wanted to get my hands on anything I could that was Allman Brothers-related. Imagine my surprise when this turned out to be a country record. This was NOT what I wanted to hear. I remember two songs – Long Time Gone, which sounds a lot like Ramblin’ Man, and Hand Picked, an instrumental tour-de-force with Vassar Clements. Now that I can somewhat tolerate country music [not what passes for it today, but what it was back when I was a kid], I may seek this album out again and I see if I like it. I probably will. Critics describe Highway Call as Dickey Betts’ masterpiece. I may just have to check it out for myself, again.
Win Lose or Draw
It was with this album that things began to slip. Actually, things went downhill in a hurry and picked up speed. This is the first Allman Brothers album that bores me. It has two good songs on it. The first one, which kicks off the album, is Muddy Waters’ Can’t Lose What You Never Had. You can’t go wrong with Muddy Waters, and the Brothers do well with this song. There’s a better version of it on Gregg’s One More Try anthology. It’s the Allman Brothers Band without Dickey Betts doing a run-through of the song. This song still pops up in Allman Brothers set lists from time to time. The other good tune is High Falls, a 14 1/2 minute instrumental from Dickey Betts. High Falls is similar to Les Brers in A Minor from Eat a Peach. It starts off with what sounds like musicians warming up for a few minutes. When that dies down, Jaimoe starts playing the beat, with Lamar Williams joining in, laying down a fat Berry Oakley-like bass line that he maintains throughout the song. The rest of the band joins in to play the main theme. Dickey takes the first solo, then once he’s done he hands off to Chuck Leavell who takes the next solo on electric piano. Like Elizabeth Reed, High Falls is a lengthy excursion into jazz fusion territory. It works very well. There’s lots of interplay between Dickey and Chuck.
As for the rest of the album, don’t bother.
A big part of the reason Win Lose or Draw sounds so lifeless is because Gregg wasn’t there most of the time. He started living in Southern California with Cher and recorded his parts separately. That’s not the best way to record an album. Shortly thereafter, Gregg Allman got caught up in a drug bust in which he had to testify against one of his roadies. The rest of the band saw this as an act of betrayal, and they swore they would never work with Gregg again. As a result, the Allman Brothers Band broke up in 1976. Duane Allman’s legacy was done, over, kaput, or so people thought.