Fifty years ago this month — March 30, 1969 — the Allman Brothers Band (ABB) first performed live. Their 1989 “Dreams” Box Set epitomizes and chronicles the lasting influence the band would leave on the world of music half a century later.
Born one year apart in Nashville, Tennessee, Duane and Gregg Allman later moved with their mother to Daytona Beach, Florida, this after their Army father was killed in a 1949 robbery while home on Christmas leave from the Korean War. Yet they would return to Nashville often for visits with their grandmother, becoming fascinated by a neighbor playing acoustic guitar and attending their first concert in 1959. The show, headlined by Jackie Wilson and B.B. King, was a defining moment in their quest for success.
Back in Daytona Beach, the brothers were consumed by music. After Gregg bought an acoustic guitar with paper route money he’d saved, Duane’s interest was stoked as well. Soon thereafter, the boys both purchased electric guitars and began checking out R&B & blues artists in black areas of town, while listening to records by Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf among others. In 1961, they became guitarists with the Y Teens, the first of many local rock bands they would perform with before creating their own group, the Allman Joys, in 1965. Then, following Gregg’s graduation from high school, the boys took to the road.
Traveling in a broken-down station wagon, they added their own distinctive sound to popular blues recordings, playing six sets nightly, seven days a week at roadhouse clubs. The brothers also met future ABB drummer Butch Trucks, who sometimes sat in with them before they returned home in 1967.
Shortly thereafter, the brothers met Nitty Gritty Dirt Band manager Bill McEuen at a St. Louis club, where he suggested they move to California and sign with a major record label. The brothers agreed, renaming themselves the Hour Glass, before recording two unsuccessful albums with Liberty Records. Still, Duane achieved a major milestone; learning to play slide guitar which would become crucial to the ABB sound.
Leaving L.A. in 1968 to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Allmans once again met up with Trucks and his band, 31st of February, before heading on to Jacksonville, Florida for further session work. With Gregg reluctantly returning to L.A. to fulfill the remaining contract with Liberty, Duane hung out with the Second Coming, a band which included future ABB bassist Berry Oakley and guitarist Dickey Betts. That November, Duane went back to Muscle Shoals for a Wilson Pickett session. The resulting cover of “Hey Jude” sold a million copies for Pickett.
But by early 1969, Duane wanted his own band. After his contract was sold to Phil Walden (Otis Redding’s former manager) at Capricorn Records, he recruited future ABB drummer Jaimoe Johanson to play in a trio. Duane and Johanson then returned to Jacksonville, where the trio grew to include Oakley, Betts, and Trucks; the group’s second drummer. Finally, Gregg agreed to play keyboards and sing lead vocals on March 26, 1969. Four days later the ABB debuted at the Jacksonville Armory.
The group quickly became known for its endless rehearsing, covering classic blues and songs penned by Gregg. In November, 1969, the group’s self-titled first album, “The Allman Brothers Band,” was released. Yet despite including classics “Whipping Post” and “Trouble No More,” it sold less than 350,000 copies. The critics weren’t impressed.
Undaunted, the band launched an extended U.S. tour and recorded its second album, “Idlewood South.” Soon, fans were raving about the group’s high-energy live shows. In 1970 alone, the ABB put on 300 performances, and by 1971 its average earnings had doubled. After the release of “At Fillmore East” in July, 1971, the LP hit #13 on Billboard. It went on to be certified both gold and platinum and remains perhaps the greatest live album in history. The band and venue were further linked on June 27, 1971 when it became the final act to perform there.
Then ironically, just as the ABB reached the pinnacle, its fortunes turned. Duane and Oakley struggled with heroin addiction and would die in separate motorcycle accidents within a year of one another; both at age 24. Personnel changes and substance abuse hampered the group. Finally, Gregg’s trial testimony sent his tour manager to prison and led to a nasty band break-up in 1976 before it re-grouped.
From 1978-2000 the ABB continued to confront both legal and personal issues. Eventually, Gregg became sober and tours became common before the band’s final appearance at New York City’s Beacon Theatre on October 28, 2014. By then, years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll on Allman, and though he would continue to perform, complications from liver cancer ultimately claimed his life on May 27, 2017. Today, only Betts and Johanson survive among the original ABB players.
With a combined 11 studio and 16 live albums, 21 hit singles, and membership in the Rock & Roll HOF, the ABB’s unique blend of musical artistry has influenced artists from Eric Clapton to ZZ Top. Seeing the band perform on four separate occasions, I always came away amazed by its stage mastery and intensity. And fifty years later, the ABB’s legacy still remains strong.
Mark Figley is a political activist and guest columnist from Elida. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Reach him a firstname.lastname@example.org.