Gregg Allman is giving directions. "You ever been to Daytona Beach? You know the Main Street, where all the tourists go?" asks the singer who recently resumed his solo career after splitting up the Allman Brothers Band. "At the end of that street, you get to the end of the beach. There's a big, long pier that goes into the ocean. On this pier, there's a dance hall called the Ocean Pier Casino. That's where me and my brother learned to play."
Allman, 67 -- who hosts and headlines the Laid Back Festival on Aug. 29 at Jones Beach -- is in a reflective mood. He's just returned from a lengthy trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, his childhood home, where he put his mother's affairs in order after her recent death at age 98. In a friendly, rambling half-hour phone interview, he remembers Geraldine, or "Mama A," as an advocate who bought him his first guitar, then a 1965 Chevrolet station wagon, so he and his brother Duane could drive to gigs. "She said if her kid was going to be a well-digger, be the best well-digger out there. A dancer -- be the best dancer. Sell hot dogs -- sell the best hot dogs," he says. "Musicians -- she could see how much we were into it."
From covers to careers
At the Ocean Pier, performing in a band called the House Rockers and the Untils, Gregg and Duane earned $6 a night during the summer in the late '60s. It was a crucial woodshedding period before they formed their namesake band in 1969.
"I wanted so much to go inside and take a peek," Allman says of the casino today. "It looks like the same place from the outside. I just didn't feel up to it this time."
Early on, Gregg and Duane were cover-song specialists, lining up gigs based on how many Beatles and Top 40 songs they knew. "We had a damn song list that was just endless. And we'd try anything," Allman recalls. Heavily in debt and hauling expensive amplifiers all over the South, a frustrated Gregg gave Duane an ultimatum: They had two years to make "some nice headway," as he recalls, or he'd return to dental school. Of course, the band went on to define Southern rock for decades with songs like "Whipping Post" and
"Midnight Rider"; Duane didn't get to enjoy the success, dying in a motorcycle accident at age 24 in 1971, not long after the band's classic "At Fillmore East" came out.
"Soldiering on" is far too mild a phrase for what Gregg has done since then. He opens his 2012 memoir, "My Cross to Bear," with a vivid recollection of experiencing the Allman Brothers Band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while drunk and staggering. The five-day bender in 1995 put him on the road to treatment and recovery, and he has been sober for 20 years. He also contracted hepatitis C and had to go through a liver transplant five years ago.
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Allman toured regularly with the band after it reunited in 1990, adding hotshot guitarists such as Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Late last year, they agreed to split up after a series of Beacon Theatre shows. "Every organization, I guess, needs a leader, a focal point -- somebody [to] say, 'Go; stop,' " he says. "That's something Allman Brothers, after my brother, never had. It was just a bunch of head chefs together."
'A beautiful experience'
"Listen, now, don't get me wrong," he adds. "I'm not saying anything down about the Allman Brothers. It was a beautiful experience. It might have lasted a little bit long."
Today, his favorite subject, in addition to Daytona Beach memories, is his solo band, which backed him on the recent CD-DVD "Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon, GA," a mixture of familiar Allman Brothers hits and solo material. The best song is the sentimental "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," a 1972 single that's a perfect showcase for Allman's beautifully weathered voice.
"These guys pumped new life into me, man -- all of a sudden I was 25 years old again," he says. "Every time I go onstage, I say a little prayer: 'God, if this is my last one, may you make it my best one.' "
Laid Back Festival
WHAT Gregg Allman, Doobie Brothers, Bruce Hornsby
WHEN Aug. 29