Chuck Reece: Gregg Allman A Rare, Precious Southern Soul
Gregg Allman died over the weekend at the age of 69. He and his brother Duane revolutionized rock and roll in the South. Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner, shares a remembrance of a musician who helped shape his worldview.
Today, the concrete building at 688 Spring Street in Atlanta is an anonymous-looking urgent-care center. Many Southerners remember it as 688, the landmark punk-rock club. But pre-punk, it was called Rose's Cantina. And the best night of my teenage life happened right there.
Rose’s was one of our frequent destinations. One night my buddy and I went to see a band from Bethesda, Maryland, called the Nighthawks.
A couple songs into the ’Hawks first set, my buddy Dan nudged me and said, “Gregg Allman’s over there.” Sure enough, there he was, sitting with a man in a black cowboy hat at a four-top table, smoking cigarettes and listening to the blues.
It did not take Dan and me very long to muster the gumption to walk over there. One of us said something like, “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Allman, but we both just love your music and we wanted to tell you.”
He said, “No, man. Have a seat.” He motioned to the two empty seats across the table from him and the man in the hat, whom I would later learn was Twiggs Lyndon. Flip over your old copy of “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East,” and you’ll see him, front and center among the road crew.
Gregg had lost his brother Duane seven years earlier. Twiggs lost his life skydiving the very next year, 1979. And now, Gregg is gone, too.
Allman was one of those rare, precious Southern souls whose work was big enough to embody all that is inside our region’s music. The gospel. The soul. The blues. The boogie. The black. The white.
My friend and I were just kids, teenagers, but still, Gregg Allman offered us a seat at his table, introduced us to his buddy Twiggs, and kindly answered our questions.
Between sets, I noticed a guitar case between Twiggs Lyndon’s feet. I asked him if that was Gregg’s guitar. He shook his head.
“No," he said. “It’s Duane’s.” Duane bought the dark burst Gibson Les Paul in June of 1971, and it served as his main instrument until his death four months later. After his death, the Les Paul went to Gregg, and Twiggs was its caretaker. He told us he never went anywhere without the guitar.
“You wanna hold it?” he asked us. Uh, yessir, we do. And we did, for a few seconds each. Of course we wanted to hold it. Both of us knew — although we probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time — that the instrument was a touchstone, a connection to an entire world of the South’s music, to the culture that binds us no matter our backgrounds. The spirit of a black man, Blind Willie McTell, had entered a couple of pasty-looking Tennessee white boys, Duane and Gregg, and then Duane gave it all back when he played with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin in Muscle Shoals.
When the Nighthawks came back up for the second set, Gregg stepped up to the stage with them. It felt like heaven. The Allman Brothers were the first band I ever fell in love with, but I was too young to have seen them before their first breakup, in 1975. Still, by some miracle, there I was, three years later, watching Gregg Allman, still just a young man on the cusp of 30, lead the Nighthawks through a history of Southern music.
I got home not long before sunrise. I crawled into my bed, and felt something bigger than just the thrill of a successful teenage adventure.
It felt more like enlightenment.
Southerners have so many things to thank Gregg Allman for before his body is laid to rest — with Duane’s and Allmans bassist Berry Oakley’s — in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery. The next time I go to Rose Hill, I will thank him, too — for the music, of course, but also for being a man of sufficient grace to let a couple of kids touch his brother’s holy guitar. A man of enough humanity to know that the music it contained might define us as much as it did him.