Gregg Allman, 1947-2017

I can’t tell you when I first noticed Gregg Allman’s voice, but I know where I was.

That first moment might have been during the autumn of 1973, but it more likely was early the next year. Either way, it happened in the lounge of the Pro Pace youth hostel in Fredericia, Denmark. Among the small collection of cassette tapes we St. Cloud State students had pooled in the lounge were the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat A Peach and Brothers & Sisters, as well as the first Duane Allman anthology, which had on its fourth side a few other tracks from the band.

The lounge was the epicenter of life for those of us living at the hostel – a group I joined in late January 1974 after living for about five months with a Danish family – and music from the tape player was one of the constants of time in the lounge. And although I no doubt heard one of the tracks by the Allman Brothers during my brief visits to the hostel in the months before I moved there, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t until I took up residence there that I sat still in the lounge long enough to truly listen to Gregg Allman’s voice in front of the band he and his late brother had assembled.

This matters of course, because Gregg Allman died last Saturday in Savannah, Georgia, from liver cancer. To music fans, his tale is familiar: The Florida childhood, the early recordings with his brother, Duane, as record companies tried to shoehorn the brothers’ talents into boxes, the formation of the Allman Brothers Band and the world success that followed, then addiction, pain, missteps both personal and professional, the resurrection of the ABB (albeit without his late brother and the also deceased original bassist Berry Oakley, and later, original guitarist Dickey Betts), illness and so much more, right to the end.

If anyone wants to write a Southern gothic rock opera, the story is there for the taking.

As interesting as the story is, I’ll leave it to others; here’s Rolling Stone’s piece on Allman’s death and life. To me, what mattered was the music, especially those albums I heard in Denmark and acquired soon after I came home, those and the other early works I soon collected as well. The music I’d heard in the lounge, I knew – and still know – note for note, having been immersed in it nearly every evening for something more than two months. The stuff that was new to me – most of the group’s self-titled 1969 debut, 1970’s Idlewild South and the 1971 Fillmore East album – took longer to work its way into me but it did so eventually. And I have some of Allman’s work – both with the ABB and as a solo artist – from the later years into the 1990s, as well, although I don’t know that music as well.

So, like much of the music I listened during the years from, oh, 1969 into 1975, the Allman Brothers Band’s early work, with Allman’s voice, gruff, bluesy and tender by turns, leading the way, is part of my foundation.

Still, I try not to let the music I love get trapped in time, to let it belong only to one year, one decade, one moment. That’s hard for any music lover, I think, but it seems especially hard for me, given my fascination with how music and memory entwine. I don’t think that Gregg Allman’s work – as the voice of the ABB and on his own – is frozen like that for me, locked in the Pro Pace lounge. “Dreams,” from The Allman Brothers Band, popped up on a CD in the car the other day, and as I drove, I was listening to a song that mattered right then, not just to a memory. I thought about that as I drove and listened, and I was pleased.

And “Dreams,” from 1969, seems to be a good place to close this awkward appreciation of Gregg Allman.

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