Gregg Allman talks about his new album, Low Country Blues, and recalls the battle with addiction that cost him his liver.
'Believe me, it still hurts.' Gregg Allman on his transplant
Gregg Allman's first solo project in 14 years, a collection of covers called Low Country Blues, was born out of true pain.
The project finds the 63-year-old leader of The Allman Brothers Band working with T-Bone Burnette, the celebrated American producer behind the Oscar-winning soundtracks to O Brother Where Art Thou and Crazy Heart. But if Burnette provided Allman with a renewed musical focus, it was a liver transplant that prompted the singer to turn to the blues.
"The transplant hurts something awful," said the soft-spoken Allman earlier this month in London, where he was preparing for his first UK tour. "I needed to have the operation or I would have died, but recovery's not been easy. I mean, I thought they would do the operation and stitch me up and I'd get better and that would be it. But, believe me, it still hurts."
Besides the solo album, Allman has a forthcoming autobiography, which Harper Collins is to publish next year. And tomorrow night he will perform with The Allman Brothers in a special benefit concert for the American Liver Foundation at New York's Beacon Theatre. The concert marks the eve of World Hepatitis Day and the first anniversary of Allman's liver transplant.
Allman admitted that decades of drug and alcohol abuse destroyed his liver and now eloquently warns his fans against being tempted.
"Music's all I've ever wanted to do, but in the late-1970s and 1980s I really lost touch with reality," he said. "Now when I speak to young musicians I tell them that they might think drugs and alcohol take them somewhere nice, but they charge a really high price. Too high. "
Allman confirmed that he had had to confront his addictions after his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
"I wanted to be sober for the ceremony… But I kept meeting people I knew during the day who would say 'let me buy you a beer' and I thought 'well, one won't hurt', and by the time of the ceremony I could hardly stand up. The next day I watched the ceremony on video and I felt so ashamed I knew I needed to quit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes all at once. And I did. I've never looked back."
The Beacon Theatre has special meaning for Allman, who has played an annual concert there since 1991, with the exception of 2007, when the band had to cancel its performance due to hepatitis disabling the singer.
"I'm doing this to help spread the word about hepatitis," said Allman, "because there are many people who have been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, but aren't taking action. I want to tell them, don't wait. Doing nothing is not an option; they need to talk with their doctor."
In concert at London's Barbican theatre, leading a large band that combined young musicians and grizzled veterans - "Floyd, the percussionist, has been a friend of mine since I was 14" - Allman looked in good shape, considering all he has been through. His hair remains blonde and his humble manner that of a gentleman of the southern US.
Allman rose to fame singing in the band he formed with his older, guitar-playing brother Duane in 1969. The Georgia-based group's fluid mix of jazzy blues, pumping soul, country boogie and improvised electric guitar duelling established them at the forefront of American music. Duane Allman's virtuoso guitar-playing - his lyrical touch had already graced hit records by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Boz Scaggs - won huge acclaim, and Eric Clapton called on Duane to help him create his masterpiece, Layla (as Derek and the Dominoes).
Tragedy dogged the band in the early 1970s, with both Duane and the bassist Berry Oakley dying in motorcycle accidents. Gregg kept The Allman Brothers Band going after Duane's death in October 1971, struggling with a huge sense of loss.
"I think about my brother every day," said Allman. "I miss him immensely but I feel like he is still here, watching over me. And the fans love to talk to me about him, to post videos on YouTube of him playing guitar, to tell me how he continues to inspire them."
The Allman Brothers' hits from this era remain staples on classic rock radio stations, and the instrumental Jessica is used as the theme to the BBC television motoring series Top Gear.
On Low Country Blues, Gregg Allman's voice beautifully conveys the sense of loss and desperation that the songs' authors intended.
"When we were kids my older brother Duane and I went to this rhythm and blues revue on the pier in Daytona, Florida," he recalled with a smile. "I was only 10, Duane 11, and we saw BB King, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson - it was just phenomenal. At the end of the show, Duane looked at me and said, 'Baby brother, we got to get us some of that.' From then on we knew we were going to be playing music."