Allman Brothers Regroup for Another Try : Seminal '70s Southern rock band hits the concert reunion trail

The rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the Allman Brothers band is one of the tawdriest in rock-music history--real tabloid stuff.

Among the seamy elements: drugs and alcohol excesses, deaths by motorcycle crashes, a turbulent breakup, a stormy Hollywood marriage and divorce, not one but two descents into obscurity, drug trials, a financial scandal, courtroom battles and constantly feuding members.

People tend to remember some of the gossipy details and forget that this pioneering Southern rock band was one of the best in the business in the early '70s.

But the band self-destructed in the mid-'70s and has since spent more time apart than together. The last comeback ended in failure in 1982.

A few months ago they decided to try again.

The Allmans' summer reunion is a 32-date affair that includes a concert tomorrow at the Greek Theatre.

The tour celebrates the band's 20th anniversary and coincides with the release of "Dreams," a six-album retrospective spanning a period from the mid-'60s (when brothers Duane and Gregg Allman worked as the Allman Joys) to the present (including highlights from comeback albums and the recent solo efforts by Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman).

Most of the original members are in the reunion band--Gregg Allman (vocals and organ), Betts (guitar) and drummers Jaimoe Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks. The other originals, guitarist Duane Allman (Gregg's older brother) and bassist Berry Oakley were killed in motorcycle crashes in the early '70s.

The latest edition of the band also features newcomers Warren Haynes (guitar), Johnny Neel (keyboards) and Allen Woody (bass).

Before this year, the last time these guys all worked together were two isolated shows in 1986. Why did they decide to do their first full-scale tour in eight years?

Danny Goldberg, the manager of Betts, Johanson and Trucks as well as co-manager of the tour, said: "The anniversary is the perfect time for a tour like this. Also, with the retrospective set on the market, there will be new interest in this band.'

Co-leaders Allman and Betts said the reunion is mainly for fun, pride and for the musical challenge.

"People might think we're a bunch of old guys on tour like the other old guys on tour this summer," said Betts, 45, referring to the glut of reunion tours this summer. "But people who see us live know there's still some of the old fire left in this band--that us old guys can still have fun playing."

Added the gravel-voiced Gregg Allman, 41: "We can still play. When we started rehearsing together, it was clear we could still play. We wanted people to see that we could still play."

The band recorded its first album, "The Allman Brothers Band," in 1969. Phil Walden, then its manager and head of Macon, Ga.-based Capricorn Records, helped organize the group, which grew out of the distinctive twin lead-guitar jam sessions Betts and Duane Allman did with a Georgia group called the Second Coming.

What made the Allman Brothers Band great--particularly during its peak in 1971--was its remarkable skill at melding country, blues, English rock and jazz in a way no one ever did. This is the original Southern boogie band, noted for long, free-form jazzy jams, and they inspired a generation of bands, including the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band.

The band had not one but two guitar heroes--Duane Allman and Betts. Betts was excellent, but Allman was on another level. Knowledgeable musicians mentioned him in the same breath with genius guitarists like Hendrix and Clapton. He died in a motorcycle crash in the fall of 1971. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley died the same way.

Said tour co-manager Alex Hodges, who served as the band's booking agent in its heyday and now also manages Allman: "The band had highs after that, but it was different because it was a different band without them. I wouldn't say the band wasn't as good."

But others were saying it. The tailspin started in 1973. The albums "Brothers and Sisters" and "Win, Lose or Draw" were inferior to the pre-1972 material. Betts and Allman started doing solo work. By 1976, the band had split.

Recalling the turbulent mid-'70s, Betts said: "We were frustrated. The music had grown stale. We were confused. Drugs were a problem and some of us had to overcome that. It wasn't just Gregg, but his problem was more obvious and newsworthy."

He was referring to Allman's heroin habit. "The chemical intake was heavy back then," said Allman, who has said he's drug-free now.

Allman alienated the other band members by testifying in a drug trial against tour director Scootercq Herring, who served a few years of a 75-year term for supplying drugs to Allman.

Betts said, "Gregg had to do what he did or he was going to jail. He was in a bad situation." But back then Betts, like the other band members, were angry at Allman, who was labeled a stool pigeon and became an outcast.

Allman left the South and came to Hollywood to live with Cher, whom he married in 1975. He spent a few years recording in Hollywood--a duet album with her as well as a solo album--while raising their son, Elijah Blue, who was born in 1976.

That same year, Allman and Betts patched up their differences, paving the way for the first reunion in 1978. Said Allman, whose marriage to Cher collapsed at the close of the decade: "We worked best together. What we did when we worked on other things wasn't as good was what the Allman Brothers did."

The band ended its association with manager Walden and Capricorn Records with a 1979 album, "Enlightened Rogues," and an ugly financial dispute.

"We made $40 million in 10 years and somehow it was all gone," recalled Betts, who says he's no longer bitter about that. The band blamed Walden for mismanagement of funds.

Betts was the first to sue. "I was awarded a million dollars, but Capricorn went bankrupt so I could collect hardly anything," he said.

The band was touring regularly and recording for Arista Records, but it wasn't the same. The nation was dancing to disco. Fans were less enthusiastic about Southern

rock.

Both Arista albums, "Reach for the Sky," and "Brothers of the Road," were mistakes. Mention of "Brothers"--the group's last album and easily its worst--still makes Betts fume.

"We recorded it one way and the producers mixed it another way," he said. "It turned into this awful pop album." That album was the last straw. The group split up in January of 1982 and didn't reunite until March of this year.

In the last few years, Allman and Betts finally got their solo careers in gear, both on Epic Records. But neither has been a great success, though Allman's album, "I'm No Angel"--an early '87 release--has sold nearly 500,000 copies.

Tour co-manager Hodges noted: "This was a good time for a reunion. It would rejuvenate both their careers."

The Allman and Betts bands had toured together in 1986, with the two stars playing some sets together. But it wasn't until early this year that the reunion machinery got into gear.

Allman wasn't enthused about the reunion at first: "It didn't feel right. I wasn't sure about the reasons for the whole thing. But I changed my mind after a while."

Added Goldberg: "It was awkward between Gregg and Dickey at first. Getting them to spend time together wasn't that easy. They're proud people who've been through some intense things in the past. They were tentative at first, but finally the music took over and things were OK."

So far, Goldberg said, the tour, in halls ranging from 4,000 to 24,000 seats, has done better than expected.

"It did great in the Northeast, which has always been the band's best market, better than the South, surprisingly," he said. "The West is a big market too. It's not selling out everywhere. There have been some soft markets."

The tour ends Aug. 12 in Sacramento, but if there's enough interest, some dates may be added in October.

Then what?

Both Allman and Betts are hoping the band will get a record deal. The key to any deal is new material. On tour, the band is playing mainly old Allman material but includes some songs from the recent solo works of Allman and Betts.

One key question is whether the two can write good material for the band. An even more important question: Can Allman stay away from drugs and alcohol?

Allman insists he's off drugs and that he's stuck to a New Year's resolution to stay away from alcohol.

"When I'm drinking, I don't care if I play or not. On New Year's Eve, I was so drunk I thought I was going to die. My drinking had gotten way out of hand," he said.

One doubt about this tour was whether he could work without drinking. "I didn't know if I could go out and play without a shot of courage," Allman said. "But come to find out, I could."

Allman knows that for the band to get beyond the reunion tour stage, he has to stay sober. "I'd like the Allman Brothers to record again," he said. "I'll do whatever it takes."

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