Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Funeral In Macon

I remember the first time I went to Macon, Georgia.  It was 1997-ish and I was in Warner Robins on Air Force business [some things never change].  There was a long break in the meeting I was attending.  Knowing that Macon was close by, it was finally time for me to make an Allman Brothers pilgrimage.  I had to see two places if nothing else – the Big House on Vineville Avenue, and Rose Hill Cemetery, where original Allman Brothers members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley are buried side by side.  At that time. the Big House was a private residence.  ABB “Tour Mystic” and photographer Kirk West and his wife Kirsten lived there.  If one wanted to see the inside of the house, you had to make an appointment.  The Wests have since moved out and the Big House has become quite a museum for all sorts of ABB artifacts.  I had to settle for just seeing the outside of the place.  I didn’t feel comfortable making an appointment to traipse through someone else’s home, regardless of its social and cultural importance.

Rose Hill Cemetery has been in existence since 1840.  It’s just off downtown Macon, nestled between Riverside Drive and the Ocmulgee River.  A set of railroad tracks runs parallel to the river.  The road that runs around the perimeter of the entire cemetery also runs next to railroad tracks.  On the other side of that narrow road is the final resting place of a lady named Elizabeth Reed Napier.  If that name rings a bell, it’s because that is the place where Dickey Betts wrote his instrumental from the album Idlewild South - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.  There is a large segment of the cemetery reserved for Confederate Civil War dead.  A lot of them are buried there.  The entire cemetery is situated on a long hill, with long gentle slopes in places and steep climbs in others.  There are one-lane roads that run throughout the place, and one needs to be careful while driving through, lest they slip over the roads’ edges and have their day ruined.

I had no idea where Duane and Berry were buried when I first entered the cemetery.  I parked my rental car on one of those very narrow, single-lane, winding roads and began to explore the place on foot.  About five minutes after I set out on my quest to find Duane and Berry, a gentleman [accompanied by his wife] noticed me and asked in his most pronounced Southern accent “are you looking for the Allman Brothers?”  “Yes. sir, I sure am”.  He pointed over the road I was walking on and down the hill.  “They’re down there.”  The written word doesn’t do justice to his elocution, but suffice to say he sounded more “at home” than me, a transplanted Yankee.  The climb down the hill was a little steep, but there they were – two marble-white graves sitting side by side.  The graves gleamed in the Georgia sunlight as if they were two giant sugar cubes.  I got closer and I noticed things.  Some people left stones, others left flowers, and still others left quarters and guitar picks.  Over the years some miscreant visitors defaced the graves, forcing the Oakley family to take the step of enclosing the graves with brick and iron fencing.  I digress, but just a little.  For Peachheads everywhere, this is Mecca.  We don’t face Macon and pray five times a day, but it is the spiritual home of the band we Peachheads love and cherish.

The Allman Brothers Band has always been about family.  The Big House served as a communal home for the band’s extended family.  Berry & Linda Oakley [and their daughter Brittany (who is on the back cover of Brothers and Sisters)] lived there.  Duane Allman lived there for a time, as did Gregg, who had a brief relationship with Berry’s sister Candace.  Dickey Betts wrote Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man there.  Like most families, they fought.  The worst fight came in 2000, when Dickey Betts and the band parted ways.  That was a sad parting for us Peachheads [angry and bitter for the participants].  But while Dickey and the band were estranged, it was good to know the children remained friends.  Devon Allman has a picture of him, Duane Betts and one of Roy Orbison’s sons in a Nashville bar from April 2016.  Devon’s comment was “A Betts, an Allman & an Orbison walk into a bar..........”   I mention this because the extended family was at the funeral.  Jaimoe and his family were there, as was percussionist Marc Quinones.  Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and their daughter were there.  Berry Duane Oakley was there.  I remember from way back in 1989 when I saw the reunion tour in Sacramento, and Berry Duane joined the band onstage to play Southbound, but I digress [just a little].  Cher was there with her son with Gregg, Elijah Blue.  Gregg had told Dan Rather in an interview a couple of years ago that he and Cher were much better friends than they were spouses. 

Mama Louise [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Jaimoe [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Derek Trucks [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Chank Middleton [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

Cher [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

The rest of Gregg’s clan was there [his widow Shannon, sons Michael & Devon, and daughters Delilah & Layla in addition to son Elijah Blue], including Duane’s daughter, Galadrielle.  Dickey Betts was there with his son Duane and his manager David Spero.  Mr. Spero graciously allowed me to use some of the photos in this blog.  Mama Louise from the H&H Restaurant was there.  She used to feed the band during the lean early days in Macon [I met her once – she’s a very sweet lady].  She even got a credit on the Fillmore East album [“Mama Louise:  Vittles”].  Otis Redding’s family was reported to be there as well.  Warren Haynes is in Spain on tour with Gov’t Mule, but his wife Stefani was there, as was Rose Lane Leavell, whose husband Chuck was in England fulfilling a prior obligation.  Gregg’s lifelong friend Chank Middleton and his manager Michael Lehmen delivered eulogies at the service.

Former President Jimmy Carter was there.  I’m sure this was the first time that Secret Service agents were ever present for a rock star’s funeral.  The first time Mr. Carter ran for president in the 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band played fundraisers to raise money for his then-fledgling campaign.   The Carter-Allman connection continued as Mr. Carter was on-hand to present Gregg an honorary doctorate in humanities from Macon’s Mercer College.  Mr. Carter had this to say when he learned of Gregg’s passing:

“Rosalynn and I were deeply saddened when we learned that Gregg Allman had passed. Gregg and the Allman Brothers Band were very helpful to me in my 1976 presidential campaign. Gregg Allman was better known than I was at that time.  Gregg Allman was there when I needed him and Rosalynn and I have always been grateful to him.”

The funeral service itself was held at Snow’s Memorial Chapel, the same place where Duane Allman’s funeral took place 46 years ago.  It was a private affair.  At Gregg Allman’s request, there was a “no suit” rule.  Suit jackets were allowed.  The only ties that I saw were worn by personnel from Snow’s, as that is part of the professionalism that comes with their jobs.

Snow's Memorial Chapel [Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images]

The procession ran from the front of Snow’s on Cherry Street.  It ran from Cherry Street to First Street, then on to Riverside Drive.  Fans by the hundreds lined both sides of the street all the way to Rose Hill Cemetery.  Gregg’s final resting place is near those of his brother Duane and Berry Oakley.  According to Michael Lehman, that was in keeping with Gregg’s wishes.  He said that a “Good Samaritan” in Macon had owned 10 plots adjacent to Duane and Berry, and would sell them at to Gregg at the cost she paid.  Gregg and his manager bought all 10 plots.

[Courtesy of Woody Marshall/]

Macon TV station WMAZ ran a live video feed, as did radio station Q106.  Oldest son Michael Allman also ran his own live Facebook feed from inside his limo on the way to Rose Hill.  He captured the crowds as they lined the funeral procession from Snow’s Memorial Chapel until he reached Rose Hill.  There was a twenty-minute film clip of the graveside service posted on-line.  It was from this clip that I could identify those who attended.  The clip starts with Gregg’s casket sitting in the shade of a tent.  The cemetery was filled with fans who payed their respects while keeping a respectful distance from the mourners.  The only sound you can hear is the sound of bagpipes.  Then the photographer panned to the left, and you can see the mourner’s getting out of their cars [after having passed by Elizabeth Reed Napier] to make the long, slow trek up the hill to Gregg’s final resting place.  And there he was, wearing an orange t-shirt, blue jeans and a straw cowboy hat – Dickey Betts.  For this Peachhead [and I’m sure all the others] this was a most-welcome sight.  Duane Betts and David Spero were walking beside him.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in Macon.  It looks like it was quite hot.  Dickey, Duane Betts, and David Spero seated themselves in the shade of a nearby tree, but they still felt the need to fan themselves to fight the heat.  The mourners inside the tent fanned themselves as well.

Delilah Allman

Shannon Allman

The Allman Clan & Cher

Duane Betts, Dickey Betts, David Spero [With permission of David Spero]

[R-L] David Spero, Berry Duane Oakley, Dickey Betts, Duane Betts, Susan Tedeschi
[Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]

[Courtesy of Associated Press]

I was struck by one final sight. After the brief gravesite service the mourner’s filed out of the tent.  There was Gregg’s casket – alone.  But he wasn’t alone – there were scores of quiet, respectful fans to watch over him until he was lowered into the ground.

After the funeral, there was a private party at the Big House.  Berry Duane Oakley and Duane Betts played.  According to someone who posted on the Allman Brothers Band website, Dickey played In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, but I can’t confirm that.  The front gates to the Big House parking lot, which bears the band’s mushroom logo and a phrase from Midnight Rider [“the road goes on forever…”] were closed.  But fans gathered in front of the gates and around the Big House to hear the music.

The Big House [Courtesy of Woody Marshall/]

Some final thoughts – As tense as things were between Dickey and Gregg over the last several years, there was a look of sadness on Dickey’s face.  Berry Duane Oakley and Duane Betts are almost carbon copies of their respective fathers’ younger selves.  Devon Allman looks a lot like his uncle Duane.  Within the last year Devon Allman has lost both his mother and father.  I’ve been there – I know it’s tough.  What was Berry Duane thinking about when he saw the grave of the father he never knew?  Derek Trucks lost both his uncle Butch Trucks and Gregg within four months.  It's been a tough year, and it's not even halfway over.

Duane & Dickey Betts, David Spero, Berry Duane Oakley [top]
[Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]

Duane and Dickey Betts [Courtesy of Rj Howson, with permission from David Spero]

I’ll give Gregg the last word.  From Gregg's memoir, My Cross to Bear:
"When it's all said and done, I'll go to my grave and my brother will greet me saying, 'Nice work, little brother – you did all right.  I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I've had me a blast. I wouldn't trade [my life] for nobody's, but I don't know if I'd do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I'd have to pass on it."


Carey said...

Very well written - thank you.

Miki said...

What a beautiful tribute! I was there, watching from the hillside, but you gave me more insight than I knew from merely watching. Thanks for putting names to faces and for sharing your sentiments.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Cyndi Otwell said...

Beautiful just beautiful

Thomas Grams said...

Great.........Thank You Man! and Eat a Peach for Peace!

Jan Marks said...

I have known Duane-Gregg and their Mom since 1967. They were quite a trio. I am so saddened that they have all gone now. But then we all have to travel down that road. Jan Marks St Louis MO

Sherryll said...

An amazing tribute! Thank you for those beautiful words! As I said on one of the Allman Brothers' FB pages...On a calm Macon night, listen...listen close and hear the faint chords as the brothers rock together again. Midnight Rider is home at last.

Margaret Nolan Rios Phila., PA said...

What a wonderful tribute, well written, almost feel as though I was there. Gregg will be missed by many, as he joins brother Duane and bandmate, Berry Oakley. I have had the honor of meeting Berry's son, Berry Duane Oakley back in 2011, he is the image of his dad, a very kind and gracious young man, I'm sure his dad would be proud. God bless the dearly departed and those family, friends and fans left with their music and memories to comfort them. God's speed.

Anonymous said...

Only thing you left out where the birds singing in the grave yard all around gregg grave it was very beautiful thanks for your story rip Gregg allman

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