What if the Allman Brothers had been named Beelzebub? It almost happened, and it’s one of the many surprises in Alan Paul’s comprehensive oral history of the fabled Georgia band, “One Way Out.” A senior writer at Guitar World magazine, Paul has lifted excerpts from decades of his interviews to create an extended conversation. Considering the band’s operatic dimension — unspeakable tragedy, personal division, drug addiction, perseverance — it is a wise decision by the author to let its many members and sidekick crew have the floor to themselves.
The Ur-story of the Allman Brothers is well known, but it receives full attention in “One Way Out.” After their famous Jacksonville, Fla., summit in March 1969, convened by slide guitarist Duane Allman, the six original players established a ramshackle home base in Macon. They launched a knee-buckling two-year campaign of national conquest, hurling themselves, bold as Trojans, through a wall of women and dope. (The principals in “One Way Out” never sugarcoat their recollections, which can often be quite harsh.) Two seminal albums, “dartboard tours,” serious brushes with law enforcement, they surfaced as a psychedelic small orchestra of immense power, ushering a new generation of young Southerners from button-down virtue to whatever came next.
“One Way Out” explores the origins of the songs that form the legendary early canon, many developed from Greg Allman’s initial sketches. Dickey Betts reveals that the intro to “Dreams” emerged from a jam on “2001 Space Odyssey”; Jaimoe pinched his drum part from Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Bassist Berry Oakley came up with the dramatic opening to “Whipping Post,” so unforgettable that successor Allen Woody “couldn’t change the beginning … or they’d tie me to a whipping log.”
But, by October 1971, just as the last piece slipped into place — the blockbuster double-album “At Fillmore East” — the whole cockeyed tower collapsed when Duane, their undisputed leader, was killed in a motorcycle crash in Macon. Disconsolate, Berry Oakley perished in a similar bike crash the following year. The Allman’s fraternal order wasn’t strong enough to save Oakley, and neither could his wife Linda. There is no more crushing testimony in “One Way Out” than the moment she confides, “It was like I reminded him of Duane and how things used to be, and would never be again.”
For the late fiercely loyal roadie Joseph “Red Dog” Campbell, “It was if two kings had died.” The ABB confronted a dilemma: walk away, or cowboy-up? Of course, the Brothers chose the latter option, quite literally, and guitarist Dickey Betts’ downhome jamboree “Ramblin’ Man” in 1973 became the biggest hit of the Allman Brothers career.
No Allman has been a greater enigma than Betts, the shadow Brother now in exile. His country-boy aspect has always been at odds with the Renaissance Man who composed the exotic processional, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Often goaded to fury by drink, he was fired in 2000 for playing too loud, though in “One Way Out” he likens it to more of an execution. For the guitarists who come after, Betts is held in awe, the kind normally reserved for Titans of myth.
In the aftermath of the cataclysmic deaths, Gregg, shy and passionate, jousted with Dickey for the group’s leadership, all documented here. Like Betts, he has pursued a solo career, at times successful. He faced his demons in public in the riveting 2011 memoir “My Cross to Bear,” currently in production as a film in Savannah. Greg tells Alan Paul of his lifelong struggle to improve as a vocalist, and that he once considered becoming a dental surgeon. “It was my brother who made me sing,” he says, and he can still feel the presence of Duane nightly on stage.
Alan Paul brings some much-needed clarity to the stalwart band’s often confusing later incarnations.
(Several musicians, like Woody, are now deceased.) It must be said that pianist Chuck Leavell, who joins the commentary, brought distinction and stability to the ’70s ABB lineup. Notable among newer members: Warren Haynes (also of Gov’t Mule), the dedicated acolyte who stepped into a more commanding role after Dickey’s exit; Derek Trucks, the wunderkind and natural heir to Duane’s bottleneck legacy; Derek may have joined at age 19, but bassist Oteil Burbridge describes him as “one of the most mature of all of us.”
“One Way Out” is appointed with psilocybic endpaper illustrations by W. David Powell, co-designer of the “Eat a Peach” album package from 1972. The generous spread of pictures includes composite arrest photos of the Allman Brothers looking remarkably cheerful following a 1971 Alabama drug bust. The Foreword is by Butch Trucks, the Afterword by Jaimoe, and, throughout this volume, it is gratifying to see acknowledgment for this stellar drumming team, credited by producer Tom Dowd for the band’s “perpetual swinging sensation.”
At this moment, the status of the Allman Brothers Band is uncertain. As “One Way Out” was readied for release, Haynes and Trucks announced their resignations. (Derek believes the band cannot stand any more “major personnel changes.”) Greg says it’s the end of the road, but the group is still on the good side of 50, and one would hope for reconciliation with Betts, bringing symmetry, or the Allmans version of it, to one of popular music’s more confounding American epics, the last chapter of which simply refuses to be written.