While reading One Way Out a really strong, engaging oral history of The Allman Brothers Band, I began thinking about all the great music I grew up with, and how so much of it is now being relegated to fading memory. I believe it deserves more, so I am going to revisit these albums, and write my impressions, share the memories they conjure, and I hope they spark renewed interest in the music and stir up your memories of when and where you were when you heard this great art. Please feel free to share those memories and your impressions of the music here. Let’s keep our love for the work of these great artists.
From the very first full band blast of “Don’t Want You No More” off The Allman Brothers Band’s first album, I am back In the Bronx, walking the brick maze that was Parkchester particularly, the North quadrant specifically. That mix of church organ and jazz drumming and driving rock beat brings me right to my roots. Behind the ballfield on those itchy green benches of the playground, someone had a radio/cassette player (okay, the older guys had portable 8-tracks), and odds were someone was blasting The Brothers. In The Bronx, not the South, those guitars were wailing.
That mix of swampy, church, jazz flourishes and soaring rock arrangements taught us so much. This song announces that we are in new territory, and invites us in.
And then during the opening riffs of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” Gregg Allman roars his entrance. A rough, weary, hurt yet defiant voice, Gregg’s instrument was unlike any other in rock during that era. And no other singer of that time could front that sound, not Jon Anderson or Robert Plant or Ian Anderson or Ozzie. Gregg had much more in common with Chicago blues man like Muddy Waters and BB King or R&B singers like James Brown or Otis Redding. Gregg’s strength of voice unlocks the soul of the band, paying off the precise soaring note-to-note work of Dickie Betts and the mournful slide of Duane Allman, giving words to the power of that triple rhythm section: the jazzy fills of Jaimoe, the hard driving beat of Butch Trucks, and the interweaving of Berry Oakley. The edge in Gregg’s voice, countered with the deep soul of his organ playing, demands acknowledgement that this is something else entirely coming out of speakers, this is hard truths and heartbreak spoken by men still standing after it all went down.
I remember being shocked at the lyrics, too. The epiphany came during “Black Hearted Woman” when I realized Gregg was talking about being cheated on, betrayed, cuckholded, which should have reduced his masculinity, but was doing so with a defiance that lent power rather than stripped it. Gregg wasn’t having any of this, and the woman would realize her loss soon enough. Damn, Gregg, turn those tables, brother. The playing on those songs is also masculine, powerful, defiant, celebratory, and religious. The chant unifies this band as the brothers they are, the laughter at the end of it testifies to the joy embodied in the music, no matter the lyrics. Such is life, brothers and sisters, embrace it as the music does.
“Trouble No More” revisits familiar heartbreak themes, but the playing is what shines here. The bouncing beat and the biting slide answering each line of singing is the real lyric here. This music lives to heal, to rise above the cheating women, the heartbreak, the blues. Dickie and Duane’s trading guitar break celebrates that, and the bopping groove prevents those lyrics from bringing us down. Gregg has triumphed over some woman again. When Berry, Dickie, Duane take turns riffing it seals that deal, and Gregg has the power to dismiss the woman after that. Music saves him, and us.
“Every Hungry Woman” delves into different lyrical terrirtory; desperate women left to fend for themselves, and the biting, dirty guitar, the stiniging aspect of Duane’s playing, the repeated build, all create that sense of being on the hunt and running out of time. Gregg here is the observer, not unsympathetic, but detached, letting the desperate woman know she’s isn’t the first or only woman to have so much dumped upon her. The guitar break builds power, Gregg feeds on it when he comes back. The power of sharing the blues, defying the odds, rising up despite the weight of everything on her shoulders give that woman, and us, hope and strength
“Dreams” shows us another side, voiced by Gregg’s organ to begin with, a slower, more mournful, early a.m. blues we’ve all had. Now we have a soundtrack to help us through it. And the band shares the Dreams and the Blues, rising up at the chorus. The guitar break shows us another gift from The Brothers, as the guitars dance around each other, then join to soar to new heights that have become staples of the best Allman Brothers shows. Dickie’s precise, melodic symphony takes flight, and we fly with him, then Duane slides in and we become impossibly more fluid, soaring gracefully now. Glistening and building, Duane takes us up further and further. Gregg sounds like he’s singing from the top of the hill so far below, grounding us again. But what a flight, and the coda takes us back down that hill, ready to face the day, ready to chase those dreams again.
“Whipping Post” ahhhh, this song. I remember sitting in class in St. Raymond’s Elementary School, an eighth grader new to the feast of rock music, listening to Sr. Margaret Marion, bored and defeated by a clock that refused to move. Then Berry Oakley’s bass announced The Brothers were nearby. Local guitar legends, Dougie Jaffa and his brother Mousy, lived one building over, and one of them was about to wail with The Brothers. Duane, Dickie, and a Jaffa? Sister Margaret Marion didn’t stand a chance. The Jaffas playing with this record saved me that day, proved there was a God, and a Savior, and neither played by the rules the sisters were spouting.
I prefer to pray with The Brothers any day.