Before his January 2014 tribute concert at the Fox Theatre, Gregg Allman was diagnosed with liver cancer.
He was expected to live 12-18 months, but the hearty Allman stretched that prognosis an additional two years, succumbing to the disease May 27 this year.
In the interim, he remained musically vital and productive, performing hundreds of concerts every year and being refueled by the love of his fans and the stage.
In March 2016, Allman and
producer Don Was – who was musical director for the star-packed Fox concert – headed to Alabama with Allman’s longtime band to record what would become his swan song, the aptly titled “Southern Blood.”
Released on Sept. 8, the album is a stirring collection of songs curated by Allman (Bob Dylan, Lowell George and Jackson Browne are among his musical choices) and the stark, heart-wrenching new track, “My Only True Friend,” which Allman co-wrote with longtime band leader Scott Sharrard.
In recent interviews, Was, Allman’s manager and friend Michael Lehman and Galadrielle Allman, daughter of Gregg’s brother Duane, discussed the making of “Southern Blood” and Allman’s final hours – which were spent, naturally, listening to music.
Allman was adamant the album be recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where auditions for the Allman Brothers Band were once held.
Was: I think it was a way of getting Duane’s vibe on the record. There are a number of subjects he wanted to touch on and a lot of loose ends he wanted to tie up for his fans and for himself as well. Duane’s spirit is kind of ubiquitous. You can feel him in there. There’s a little room where they used to hold rehearsals for the Allmans. (The band was) kinda born back there. The music that gets made in that studio, it becomes part of the patina and you could feel Duane in that.
Allman: One of my big regrets was that I didn’t get to the studio to see (the album recorded). I went down a few times to interview musicians who had worked with Duane (for her 2014 book “Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman”). It felt like a homecoming for me and I think Gregg wanted to tap into that feeling of being in an authentic room that tapped into that history of being with my father. This record has this really intimate, warm, sound where you can really hear (Gregg’s) voice in a clean, clear way.
The album was recorded in 12 days. Already in a weakened state, Allman was unable to record more than a few hours each day.
Lehman: Gregg had been diagnosed with the recurrence of liver cancer in 2012, and he kept it a complete secret for four and a half years until he had to go off the road after the Laid Back festival in Atlanta (in October 2016). He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him, and he felt promoters might not be willing to take the risk (to book him). Right before the recording session, he was having a little bit of a tough time; he had a bit of a cold going into it. He’d spend four or five hours working, and the rest of the time he was resting up, trying to eat healthy foods, drinking protein shakes, trying to preserve his health. What you have in the studio is really the best of Gregg. His voice is really strong and rich.
Was: We knew we were there for a heavy reason, but the sessions were fun. We probably spent a year choosing the songs and had done rehearsals with the band in Atlanta, so the heavy lifting had been done and the band was super tight. We didn’t hit a lot of brick walls, and more importantly, there was a sound that Gregg was hearing in his head all his life, and we captured it in that room. Despite the heavy overtones, we actually had a great time; there was a lot of fun and lot of laughing. The whole thing about it is bittersweet. It’s sweet that he got to complete this farewell statement to his satisfaction. He told me he felt we had exceeded his expectations.
Listen to Galadrielle Allman and Michael Lehman talk with Melissa Ruggieri and Kaedy Kiely of The River 97.1-FM about Gregg Allman’s final album.
One of the songs on the album, Jackson Browne’s “A Song for Adam” (featuring Browne) was especially meaningful to Allman.
Galadrielle Allman: It was a surprise to me, that one in particular, and having Jackson singing with him. It’s such a testament to their friendship and invokes my dad lyrically. A lot of those choices on songs have nods to him. The Tim Buckley song (“Once I Was), that was a song that my dad sang to my mother when they first met at a club in St. Louis. There’s a Johnny Jenkins song (“Blind Bats and Swamp Rats”) and my dad recorded a whole album of Johnny Jenkins songs.It’s touching that was on (Gregg’s) mind when he recorded it.
Lehman: Gregg knew most likely this was going to be his last studio effort, so when these songs were curated, it was very much on his mind that he wanted to think about family, think about his brother and his life’s journey. Gregg and Jackson reconnected at the Atlanta show in 2014 and from that point on the bond was renewed. Gregg saw (“A Song for Adam”) as a way of bringing them full circle.
Was: There’s some world-weariness in his vocal on (that song). He chose it because it reminded him of Duane. It’s really about a guy who dies too soon. You can hear it in the very last verse when (Gregg) gets really choked up. He stopped singing in the middle of the song; he couldn’t sing the next two lines. The plan would have been to fix it and get the last couple of lines in. But what was unintentional is that the song also referred to Gregg. Not only was his life cut short, but he literally stopped singing in the middle of the song. It was a fitting exit.
As Allman lived his final hours, he still wanted to talk about — and listen to — his last recording.
Galadrielle Allman: He was listening to songs even on his last day and feeling really proud of it, and feeling really moved by it. He was really aware that it was going to come out without him being there. We made clear to him how special it was. It was a pretty powerful thing for him.
Lehman: The night before he passed I forwarded him three new tracks that had been mixed. I spoke to him for an hour on the phone. Honestly, at that point he was ready to let go and he gave me final instructions of how he wanted the record to be presented to the world. He was incredibly proud of the music. The day that he passed, I talked to him twice that morning and 10 minutes before he passed, I told him how much he was loved by everyone and that he had nothing to worry about as far as the record and his legacy.
Was: When I accepted the gig, I knew I was getting into something that was gonna be very emotional and at least for me, unprecedented. And to be honest, I had some trepidation. But I’m really glad I did it. I can’t tell you with any honesty that I’ve come to terms with the myriad feelings that came with making the record. Toward the end of the mixes we knew Gregg wasn’t going to be around very long. He was working literally up to his last day. There were a couple of songs we mixed after he passed, and what I didn’t expect was listening to his voice — it was the same as three weeks earlier. He was still alive on the tape and it was incredibly comforting.