Call it the big bang of Southern rock: the convergence of forces that led two brothers, Duane and Gregg Allman, to convene in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 26, 1969, for a jam session that would beget the Allman Brothers Band.
Even further, call it a defining moment of the jam band era, because what happened that day helped set the foundation for a uniquely American, and enduring, musical movement.
Gregg Allman, who died Saturday at age 69, served as a primary voice and face of that movement, and he helped carry the Allmans’ music to the masses through songs including the epic “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider” and “Melissa.” He became a gossip column staple through his relationship with Cher, wrestled with various addictions and lived much of his life on the road playing music.
“It was real tense in there. You could have cut it with a knife,” Gregg wrote of that first rehearsal in his 2012 autobiography (with Alan Light), “My Cross to Bear.”
“Thank God they had a real good sound system set up, so when I started singing, they could hear me, and everything came together at that moment.”
What converged mixed rock, blues, country and jazz. It was twangy but not folky like the Grateful Dead. The Allmans’ music was tightly wound and urgent where the Dead’s was laid back, with extended solo and improvised moments that reveled in structural freedom.
How much freedom? The Allmans’ Fillmore East version of “Whipping Post” earned heavy rotation on FM radio — despite it being longer than 22 minutes.
Through it all, Allman’s cigarette-strained voice, raspy and soulful, delivered originals and blues standards, a stew of influences transforming songs such as Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” and T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” into rollicking rockers featuring the dueling guitar action of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. The double-drumming of Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson added rhythmic heft.
Gregg played organ and sang, uniting the competing textures under the guidance of spare keyboard chords, wicked solos and his husky voice.
Hailed as classics now, the band’s first few albums — with Gregg responsible for most of the songwriting -- pleased the critics but barely made a dent on the charts. Although the band was incendiary live, its studio albums didn’t pack as much punch.
The Allman Brothers (L-R) Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Jai Johanny Johanson, Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks sit on some rairoad tracks on May 5, 1969 outside of Macon, Georgia.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Gregg, left, and Duane Allman at Muscle Shoals, Alabama October 16, 1970.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Gregg Allman appears at Peaches Records in Atlanta in 1975.(Tom Hill / WireImage)
Gregg Allman in September 1976.(Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times)
Cher and Gregg Allman pose with their ten-week-old son Elijah Blue Allman in Los Angeles in September 1976.(AP)
Gregg Allman and Cher pose for a portrait in a hammock at their home on October 30, 1977 in Beverly Hills, California.(Michael Ochs Archives / )
Gregg Allman and Cher in 1977.(David Redfern / Redferns)
President Jimmy Carter kisses singer Cher as her husband Gregg Allman stands by, second from right, during a reception at the White House, Jan. 21, 1977 in Washington held by the Carters for the Georgia Peanut Brigade, a group of campaign workers.(Peter Bregg / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Gregg Allman plays during a 1979 Allman Brothers Band concert at the Fox Theater in Atlanta.(Tom Hill / WireImage)
Left to right: Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks. Date unknown.(Richard E. Aaron / Redferns)
Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band performs at the Forum in Inglewood in 1979.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Dickey Betts, left, and Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band at Central Park concert hall in Milwaukee, Wis., on July 28, 1989.(Los Angeles Times)
Gregg Allman, right, sings with his son Devon Allman during the NASCAR Rocks on the Road With The Allman Brothers 30th Anniversary Tour in Los Angeles on July 31, 1999.(Neil Jacobs / Associated Press)
Gregg Allman speaks during All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman at The Fox Theatre on January 10, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Andrew H. Walker)
Gregg Allman performs at The Allman Brothers Band’s farewell concert at Beacon Theatre on October 28, 2014 in New York City.(Taylor Hill / FilmMagic)
Those who want punch, though, should blast the group’s breakout album, “At Fillmore East.” Recorded across a number of nights at the New York outpost of Bill Graham’s club, the four sides of the double album featured a mere seven songs.
Within those few songs, however, were mountainous improvised moments made possible by a well-practiced band that had been touring for nearly two years straight.
To say they jammed is an understatement. Songs such as “You Don’t Love Me” and “Hot ’Lanta” seemed to spring from the gate at full sprint and carried momentum without any noodling and little self-indulgence.
As a lyricist, Allman was hardly a genius, and may have relied too much on blues tropes about being short on money and time, about hard love and messy rejection. In “Whipping Post,” which he wrote, the singer bemoans losing a lover who “took all my money, wrecks my new car/ Now she’s with one of my good time buddies/ They’re drinkin’ in some cross-town bar.”
Despite the whipping post’s symbolism in the antebellum South, the song makes no reference to its use as a tool of slavery.
A sin of omission, perhaps, but by its very nature the mostly white Southern rock movement could be a minefield, with some acts and their fans celebrating regional heritage by embracing the Confederate flag.
Yet Gregg Allman, who recorded six solo albums during his career, strongly rejected symbols of Southern pride that called for a return of the Confederacy, doing so as he celebrated the blues and soul music that inspired him.
“I was taught how to play music by these very, very kind older black men,” he said in a 2015 interview with Radio.com. “My best friend in the world is a black man. If people are gonna look at that flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say burn every one of them.”