Trying to Make a Living and Doing the Best They Could       

When I was a freshman at Fordham University in 1973, one of the records played most often in the dorms was the newly released Allman Brothers record Brothers and Sisters.  Other top choices in the stack were Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood, Earth, Wind and Fire’s Keep Your Head to the Sky, and Eddie Palmieri’s Sentido and the Allman Brothers’ album that preceded Brothers and Sisters, titled Eat a Peach.  I had missed the giant festival featuring the Allmans, The Band, and the Dead at Watkins Glen earlier that year because I was still in Europe.  In fact, I would not see the Allman Brothers in concert until after their 1989 reunion.  The version of the band I saw a couple times featured different guitarists in different combinations, including Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring.  I did see bands headlined by different members in the years after the 1975 breakup and the aforementioned reunion.  Concerts by keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s Sea Level and Dickey Betts’ Great Southern are the ones that I remember the best.

The song “Ramblin’ Man” was ubiquitous in the first year after its release.  It spoke to a spirit at the time, before my contemporaries began settling down into careers and family.  As for me, it was one more reminder that the road was where I wanted to be. So, I hit it. And mostly stayed on it for the next few years.  The song remained popular and is often the only song some people know by the Allman Brothers.  The band, meanwhile, seemed to have reached its peak during that year, creatively and as a unit.  As author Alan Paul explains in his new book on the band, titled Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s, the combination of years on the road, the deaths of two original members and the pressures of stardom took their toll on the Allman Brothers. Besides being the only period when the Allmans featured just one guitarist, the years 1973-1974 would end up being both their biggest years as a band and the beginning of a rather quick slide into dysfunction that made it impossible for the band to continue.

Paul begins his deep look into the album and the band by discussing their origins and their rise to stardom.  Crucial to his story are guitarist Duane Allman, bass guitarist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts and the band’s percussion section of Jaimoe and Butch Trucks.  Duane’s brother Gregg, while not on board with the group at first, became as important as the other founders as soon as he sat in on his first rehearsal.  Equally important to the band’s rise was the man who would be their manager, record company owner, and champion, businessman Phil Walden—a long time producer of R&B musicians, including Otis Redding.

Like so many bands then and now, the Allman brothers were screwed by their manager, a businessman who knew a talented cash cow.  It wasn’t as bad as the apocryphal tale of a Delta blues musician trading a song for a bottle of wine or a room in a questionable motel, but it did involve song publishing rights and percentages, among other things. In fact, Walden owned so much of the business side of the band, he had them coming and going.  Naturally, it’s not like the band members weren’t happy with the money they were making.  However, when they stopped making as much as they did at their peak, some of them, beginning with Betts, began to look into the contracts they had signed.  That’s when they discovered how much they had actually been deceived by Walden and his company.

Unfortunately, not only did these investigations by the musicians and their lawyers take place when the band was having artistic issues combined with personal conflicts; some members were also being investigated by the federal government for drug law violations.  Most of the members had an on again-off again flirtation with heroin and cocaine, not to mention alcohol.  Gregg, however, was a serious heroin addict and counted on his friend Scooter Herring to keep him supplied.  Unfortunately, some of Herring’s connections were part of what some called the Dixie mafia—a group of gangsters involved in numerous illegal activities, of which drugs were just one.  The feds had been circling their wagons for a while and were trying to convince someone to turn against the gangsters.  Given that the Dixie mafia was known to have killed informers in the past, the feds were not having any luck.  So, they indicted Herring and threatened Gregg Allman with charges unless he turned state’s evidence and implicated his friend.  Allman did exactly that, albeit with much trepidation, even though Herring had volunteered to take the fall.  In the counterculture politics of the time, Allman was a snitch, plain and simple.  After the judge sentenced Herring to seventy-five years (mostly because he refused to inform on the gangsters), the band essentially abandoned him.  So did much of the counterculture.  In terms of the band continuing, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Many of the charges were later reduced and Herring got out in three years, but the damage to the band would always be there even after they reformed.

Meanwhile, the governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter was running for president.  In a masterstroke for the time, Carter reached out to the counterculture, enlisting the Allman Brothers and Phil Walden in his campaign.  His speeches quoted Bob Dylan and he received the endorsement of Rolling Stone magazine and its gonzo political journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  This was despite the ongoing criminal investigations surrounding the band and Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records.  No political campaign by a Democrat would ignore the rock vote again.

The period explored by the author in Brothers and Sisters was a time remembered in snapshots in popular memory.  The supposed innocence of the early counterculture was considered a thing swept away by the ugliness at the December 1969 Altamont concert featuring the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Flying Burrito Brothers and the Grateful Dead.  That ugliness involved money battles, turf battles between promoters, numerous rejections of permits by officials; it culminated in a murder of a Black man by Hell’s Angels hired as security.  The Manson murders were only a few months old and—rightly or wrongly—the accused killers were portrayed as hippies gone wild and mad.  The Allman Brothers represented an ideal of hippie/freak brotherhood.  Just as important, their brand of blues kicked ass and appealed to the youthful masses.  Their concerts became events and, when they teamed up with their partners in freakdom the Grateful Dead for a set of massive shows in the summer of 1973, the concerts were the destination to reach.  The largest of these shows took pace at the Watkins Glen Formula 1 race track in New York State.  The Band was added to the lineup and over 600, 000 people attended.  Paul does an excellent job capturing the mayhem, the fun, and the sheer craziness of these kinds of festivals, from the audience perspective and from the performers, as well.  Reading his chapter on Watkins Glen made me long for the psychedelic fun in the mud any festival worth the time seems to have.

  Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s is an important chronicle of the 1970s in US popular culture.  An enjoyable and lively read, the book describes a band whose peaks and valleys reflected the nature of the times in certain quarters; the out of hand drug use and the dying echoes of a belief that anything was possible.  Alan Paul’s use of numerous interviews and impeccable research helped him create an intimate portrait of a group of young musicians wrestling with death, fame, and the nature of art in a capitalist economy.  Brothers and Sisters is a masterful rock and roll tale that presents the Allmans in the crucible of change, reflecting and influencing the world their music was an essential part of.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com