SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – Gregg Allman, a survivor of tragedy, knew the blues musically and in a painfully personal way.
Raised by a single mother after his father was shot to death, he idolized his guitar-slinging older brother, Duane, and became his musical partner. They formed the nucleus of The Allman Brothers Band, which helped define the Southern rock sound of the 1970s.
Their songs such as “Whipping Post,” ”Ramblin’ Man” and “Midnight Rider” laid the foundation for the genre and opened the doors for groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band.
Gregg Allman, whose bluesy vocals and soulful touch on the Hammond B-3 organ helped propel the Allman Brothers Band to superstardom, died Saturday. He was 69.
Allman died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home near Savannah, his manager, Michael Lehman, told The Associated Press. He blamed cancer for Allman’s death.
“It’s a result of his reoccurrence of liver cancer that had come back five years ago,” Lehman said in an interview. “He kept it very private because he wanted to continue to play music until he couldn’t.”
Allman played his last concert in October as health problems forced him to cancel other 2016 shows. He announced Aug. 5 that he was “under his doctor’s care at the Mayo Clinic” due to “serious health issues.” Later that year, he canceled more dates, citing a throat injury. In March, he canceled performances for the rest of 2017.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, the rock star known for his long blond hair was raised in Florida.
In his 2012 memoir, “My Cross to Bear,” Allman described how his older brother was a central figure in his life in the years after their father was murdered by a man he met in a bar. The two boys endured a spell in a military school before being swept up in rock music in their teens. Although Gregg was the first to pick up a guitar, it was Duane who excelled at it. So Gregg later switched to the organ.
They spent years in bands together, but failed to crack success until they formed The Allman Brothers Band in 1969. It featured extended jams, tight guitar harmonies by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, rhythms from a pair of drummers and the smoky blues inflected voice of Gregg Allman.
Based in Macon, Georgia, the group also had drummers Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks and bassist Berry Oakley. They reached the pinnacle of the burgeoning music scene, partying to excess while defining a sound that still excites millions.
Their self-titled debut album came out in 1969, but it was their seminal live album “At Fillmore East” in 1971 that catapulted the band to stardom. Considered one of the greatest live albums ever made, the two LP record opened with their version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” with Duane Allman on slide guitar. The album introduced fans to their fusion of blues, rock and jazz.
Duane Allman had quickly ascended to the pantheon of guitar heroes, not just from his contributions to the Allman band, but from his session work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and with Eric Clapton on the classic “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” album. But he was killed in a motorcycle accident in October 1971, just months after recording the Fillmore shows. Another motorcycle accident the following year claimed Oakley’s life.
Keyboard player Chuck Leavell joined the band following Duane Allman’s death and the band continued to soar. Their follow-up to the Fillmore album, “Eat a Peach,” became their first top 10 album and featured some of their most popular recordings, including “Melissa” and “Blue Sky.”
Gregg Allman said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press that he and Betts mourned his brother’s death in music.
“We used to write songs in a graveyard in Macon,” Allman said. “One thing everybody thought was Duane would come back to haunt us if we did not keep going. He had the most passion for music of any man I’ve ever seen.”
In a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, he said Duane remained on his mind every day. Once in a while, he could even feel his presence.
“I can tell when he’s there, man,” Allman said. “I’m not going to get all cosmic on you. But listen, he’s there.”
The 1970s brought more highly publicized turmoil: Allman was compelled to testify in a drug case against a former road manager for the band and his marriage to the actress and singer Cher was short-lived even by show business standards.
In 1975, Cher and Allman married three days after she divorced her husband and singing partner, Sonny Bono. Their marriage was tumultuous from the start; Cher requested a divorce just nine days after their Las Vegas wedding, although she dismissed the suit a month later.
Together they released a widely panned duets album under the name “Allman and Woman.” They had one child together, Elijah Blue, and Cher filed for legal separation in 1977. Allman said in an interview with Viva magazine in 1977 that he regretted marrying Cher and said that they probably could have fallen in love if it hadn’t been for his drug abuse.
The Allman Brothers Band likewise split up in the 1980s and then re-formed several times over the years. A changing cast of players has included Derek Trucks, nephew of original drummer Butch Trucks, as well as guitarist Warren Haynes.
Starting in 1990, more than 20 years after its founding, the reunited band began releasing new music and found a new audience. In 1995 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they won a Grammy Award for best rock instrumental performance for “Jessica” the following year.
In 2000, Betts was ousted from the band via fax for alleged substance abuse and poor performance and he hasn’t played with the band since.
Butch Trucks died in January 2017. Authorities said he shot himself in front of his wife at their Florida home.
In his memoir, Allman said he spent years overindulging in women, drugs and alcohol before getting sober in the mid-1990s. He said that after getting sober, he felt “brand new” at the age of 50.
“I never believed in God until this,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1998. “I asked him to bring me out of this or let me die before all the innings have been played. Now I have started taking on some spiritualism.”
However, after all the years of unhealthy living he ended up with hepatitis C which severely damaged his liver. He underwent a liver transplant in 2010.
After the surgery, he turned music to help him recover and released his first solo album in 14 years “Low Country Blues” in 2011.
“I think it’s because you’re doing something you love,” Allman said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. “I think it just creates a diversion from the pain itself. You’ve been swallowed up by something you love, you know, and you’re just totally engulfed.”
The band was honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2012.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press Writer Hillel Italie in New York City contributed to this report.