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The Making of Gregg Allman’s Final Album ‘Southern Blood’ with Don Was, Scott Sharrard and Michael Lehman
“I knew going in that he wasn’t going to make it,” Don Was, the producer of Southern Blood, the twice Grammy-nominated final album from Gregg Allman, says of the project.
“It was definitely an emotional roller coaster, but the things I thought were going to be almost crippling emotionally turned out to actually be kind of comforting. Listening to his voice now that he’s gone is actually incredibly uplifting. It makes me think of Jim Dickinson, who wrote a book on his deathbed called I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone. That pretty much sums up Gregg Allman and Southern Blood.”
Released last September, four months after Allman’s death at 69 from liver cancer, to universal acclaim, the co-founder of the legendary Allman Brothers Band’s final statement as an artist was a labor of love for all involved. But it was an emotional journey, to be sure.
Allman had been told by a doctor in 2012 that he had no more than eighteen months to live, but he refused to be bowed. He kept up a grueling touring schedule, and began work on Southern Blood. That work continued up until Allman’s final days.
He was also his legendary, mischievous self until the end, announcing that he had tapped Was to produce, without telling the veteran of projects by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and many others, beforehand. It was early 2014 and Allman was in the midst of promoting “All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman,” an all-star tribute show marking the Allman Brothers Band’s 45th anniversary, for which Was served as musical director. Was had seen the Allman Brothers at Detroit’s Eastown Theatre in 1971 as a kid, he’d remained a lifelong fan. He’d crossed paths over the years with Allman, and Was had approached Michael Lehman, Allman’s longtime manager, on several occasions, but until he read Allman’s pronouncement of their impending collaboration on what would become Southern Blood in a trade magazine, Was had assumed that ship had sailed.
It took Allman and Was two years to finally make it into a studio to make Southern Blood, the follow-up to Allman’s T Bone Burnett-produced 2011 studio comeback Low Country Blues, his first solo release since 1997. In the meantime, the Allman Brothers Band had retired and Allman continued to face health problems as a result of complications related to his 2010 liver transplant and a liver cancer diagnosis.
The results, Allman’s manager says, were worth the wait, however.
“When we realized that he wasn’t getting back in the studio, and that all the recording was essentially complete, I reached out to Don and said, ‘I’m going to be out in L.A. Let’s check out the music, because we have to see what we have,’” Lehman tells me of the final days of the making of Southern Blood. “So we spent a few hours together at the Capitol Records in Studio B. We put up all the tracks and, man, it was so emotional. We laughed and we cried and we celebrated, because we realized we had this amazing material and there was very little to do or to fix. And the best part was that I was able to report back to Gregg about what we had, and that we had this really, really incredible record that he was going to be really proud of.”
Lehman returned to Allman’s home in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Ever willful, Allman was full of ideas for everything about his final testament, right down to the marketing of the record.
“As time was running out, and we were finishing up the record, Gregg was still in total control of things,” Lehman says. “He’d lay out the business plan, because he felt it was important given what had gone on in the record industry over recent years, that his record get heard. He knew there were a lot of fans out there and he wanted to make sure that if he wasn’t going to be here — and it was pretty apparent that he wasn’t going to be here – that when the record came out that the story was going to be told. And so he gave me permission to share the personal side of the story, and the journey, which was Gregg’s personal life and his health issues, which he had never shared publicly with anyone before, and he gave Scott (Sharrard) and Don (Was) permission to talk about the studio sessions, and so that’s really what we’re doing.”
“You know, time meant a lot to him,” Sharrard, Allman’s musical director and the guitarist in the Gregg Allman Band for nearly ten years, as well as the writer of “Love Like Kerosene” and the co-writer of the magnificent opening track “My Only True Friend” on Southern Blood, tells me. “The more time you could spend with him, the more he trusted you. Certainly my relationship with him is the ultimate case in point. Over the course of being in his band for about nine years, I went from being his guitar player to his musical director to being a songwriting collaborator and having him actually cover some of my songs and record my songs. Ultimately, in the last couple years of his life, I think we both started to realize that we had actually developed a friendship as well.
“I think he only started to realize that at the very end, and I did, too, because it was always such a scramble of work and emotion, so I don’t think we ever took time to acknowledge it fully. But that’s how it was with him, too. It took him time to warm up to people, and I think rightfully so. He had been famous and in the public eye since he was about 19 years old. He’d been through the whole Cher thing, and that brush with that side of celebrity, which kind of brought in a whole other tabloid aspect to his life, and there were the stadium years of the Allman Brothers, and those years when he was blind drunk or nodding out on heroin and get taken advantage of, and I think as a result of all that he had to build up a hell of a defense mechanism, and rightfully so.”
Was insists that Allman turned the twists and turns of his life into assets, especially in an artistic sense.
“We never once talked about his history or even his health, because I don’t think he was talking about it with anybody, really, because he was a very private guy,” says Was. “And I don’t think he wanted people to think about him that way. Also, I think the reason he lasted three-and-a-half years longer than doctors expected was because he refused to accept it. He was driven – throughout his life, but especially at the end – and he was just going to stand there and keep playing as long as he could. I think he just had a strong will about him. So no, we didn’t talk about it. But when I played him (Bob Dylan’s) “Going, Going, Gone,” for example, I knew what I was playing him, and he knew it I was playing him, and he got it, so I guess we didn’t have to talk about it.”
More importantly, Was says, with an artist like Allman, with such incredible gifts at his disposal, his job was mostly to get out of the way.
“Making a great album with Gregg Allman shouldn’t be that hard, and it wasn’t,” says Was. “Having an artist who knew what he wanted to say before we did it, that’s 90% of it. I think you have to let the artist make the record he wants to make. But, particularly in this instance, the joy in producing records is helping an artist realize his vision.
The greatest thing that can happen is what Gregg said to me at one point in this thing: He said, ‘This is everything I was hoping for, but better.’
That’s better than winning a Grammy or getting a big check at the end. All that stuff is gravy. I just want an artist to feel fulfilled. That’s my barometer for success. It’s just to serve his vision. So trading songs was really about carving out that vision, and refining it a little bit.”
For his part, Sharrard insists Allman never wasted a minute.
“Traveling on a bus, it was a hell of an incubator,” he says. “I learned more as a musician there than I had in a lifetime of playing up to that point.”
After working with T. Bone Burnett, another A-list producer, to be sure, on Low Country Blues, Allman also had a clear vision of what he wanted Southern Blood to be.
“Low Country Blues was exciting for him, because he really wanted to work with T Bone,” recalls Sharrard. “I think it’s a really beautiful record, especially his singing on it. But he was really pissed about not being able to use our band on the record, and he said, ‘All right, I’m proud of Low Country Blues, but the next time I record I’m bringing my band. I’m bringing you guys.’ And it became a kind of mission for him.”
“I would say there was a whole lot of what you would call pre-production,” Was explains. “Choosing the songs, what could be more important than that? You know, take a giant like Gregg Allman, but if you have ten shitty songs you’re going to have a shitty record. So choosing the right songs is paramount. And in this case it became clear that it was more than just a collection of songs, because Gregg was crafting an eloquent farewell. So none of these songs were there for frivolous reasons, or just because they’re good songs. They’re all part of his final testament, really.”
Sharrard agrees that there was a weight to the genesis of Southern Blood.
“He was very distracted by his mortality, he knew for the last two or three years of his life that he was terminally ill,” explains Sharrard. “I knew, too, and had to keep that to myself. You can imagine, I live on a bus with this guy, I go to his house all the time to write with him, we’re spending so much time together, having so many laughs, and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to lose this guy.’ Plus, there’s the whole mentorship aspect of it, because I was raised as a kid looking up to him, and the fact that he was also an icon. So somewhere in the back of my brain there was that. But I had this job to do, and I think the only way I could get through my way through the mortality and the iconography of this person was to deal with it as a job. That was the only way, because otherwise my emotions would have overtaken my ability to work.”
And as much as Allman clearly thought about what to say, Sharrard says he was as devilish as ever during the process.
“His mind was relatively scattered, and my job was to help focus him in on getting the work done, and making sure the work was as good as possible,” he recalls. “It was a big challenge, because the creation of the record, it’s important to mention, started before Don’s involvement. You know, we were all hoping that Don would be the guy, because Gregg wanted this album to be produced by a producer who would respect what he wanted to do. So Don got involved and he sent CDs to Gregg — like three or four compilation CDs two months before the recording sessions were going to start – and we were in Atlanta, just before Christmas. I went to Gregg’s hotel room, and I’m like, ‘Gregg, you’re going to meet with Don tomorrow. Did you listen to the stuff?’ And he said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And we laughed, and then we went through them and I took really detailed notes. What he liked and didn’t like, and what he wanted to record that wasn’t on any of the discs. We spent the rest of the day listening.
“But this is the brilliance of Gregg Allman: In that meeting the next day, as he started talking to Don, I noticed he got real focused. I thought, ‘Look out! Step the fuck back and get ready, because you’re about to get the shit!’ And he sat there and started listening to stuff with Don and he was like, ‘No, no, no.’ It was a lot of no. But then he said, ‘Listen, I want to sing ‘Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,’ and ‘Black Muddy River.’ And we were both like, ‘Oh, shit. Okay. We’d never talked about any of that before. And then we started going through the notes Don had brought.”
They settled on eight covers, one original and “Love Like Kerosene,” a Sharrard composition.
Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” is recast to remarkable effect, as is Willie Dixon’s “Love the Life I Live.” With sessions for Southern Blood scheduled for the legendary FAME Studios, the early Muscle Shoals chestnut, “Out of Left Field” was another obvious choice. Allman nods to his brother Duane’s ghost with “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats,” which Johnny Jenkins included on Ton-Ton Macoute!, the record that began as a Duane solo album, before he made the fateful call to his brother and joined forces to found the Allman Brothers Band. Was also convinced Allman to try his hand the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River,” one of the most reflective tunes in the venerable band’s songbook.
But Southern Blood’s most affecting moment is the album-closing cover of “Song for Adam,” the delicate ballad written by Allman’s lifelong friend Jackson Browne, who contributes vocals.
“Gregg got choked up while he was singing it,” was tells me. “We planned to fix that, but we never got around to it.”
In fact, Allman stops singing at one point in the song, and Browne picks up seamlessly.
“He’s the special sauce,” says Was. “When you hear his delivery on it, it’s so powerful, and you don’t want to step on that. that’s what it should be. You know, the thing about that song is it always reminded Gregg of Duane, and when he got to those lines in the last verse, where he stopped singing in the middle of the song, you can here Gregg get choked up. That’s the first time we’d run through it with him, and he just started crying. You can hear him get choked up, and he never finishes the last two lines. He was never able to come back to sing it, because his health deteriorated pretty quickly after these sessions, so I kind of thought, ‘Well, maybe we can have Jackson sing the harmonies and maybe Jackson can sing the last two lines. As Gregg was nearing the end, it became clear how it also pertained to him. And he stopped singing. He literally stopped singing. So we agreed, alright, let’s put this last. This is where he exits. It seemed incredibly poignant.”
Little Feat’s “Willin’” and Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone,” both songs that capture the endless road Allman traveled over the course of his storied life, are two more songs Was brought to the proceedings.
“He had never heard that song by Dylan, and ‘Willin’,’ I just thought would be perfect for him,” explains Was. “He was the truck driver man, that’s all I thought about that. You give him weed, wine and he’d be ready. If you gave him a stage and paid the band he was willing to keep on playing. That’s the key to really understanding what made him tick. It’s the same with the song he wrote with Scott, ‘My Only True Friend.’”
“I think he he was definitely trying to put his life into context for himself and also for his fans, and if you listen to those songs, you get it. He’s a guy who felt whole and complete when he was onstage. He was free performing in front of fans. Everything else in life was waiting for the next show. And if you understand that about his character, then everything he did in his life makes sense. All the trouble he got himself into was all from not really knowing what was coming next; not knowing what to do with himself in between shows. So I thought of ‘Willin’,’ not dealing with mortality but rather dealing with making that your life, and that kind of contrast of being loved by many, many people who don’t even know him, while feeling totally alone, was perfect.”
Southern Blood was recorded during a breakneck, ten-day period. Was says that the tracks, including Allman’s vocals, were cut “live on the floor with the band playing.” And while Allman was ailing, he remained totally present and engaged, contributing his trademark bluesy vocals and singular B-3 work, as well as acoustic guitar and even the instrument it all began on for him: electric guitar.
With nearly fifty years of hard living under his belt, Allman’s final months were uncharacteristically quiet and contemplative, say Lehman, Was and Sharrrard. He married his fianceé, Shannon, and worked on new songs with her at home. He caught up with old friends and bandmates, and made peace with his estranged creative partner Dickey Betts, as Southern Blood inched toward completion.
“He was a very open-minded cat, musically,” Sharrard recalls. “He was real open-minded about trying things, and I think that that helped a lot in the sessions. He still had that garage band mentality, from loving the Beatles as a young guy. He liked that sort of fly by the seat of your pants, let’s try some shit way of working, right up to the end. And I loved him for that because I think that’s what really makes music special, when that spirit is in the room. I’ve got to give Don credit, he allowed that spirit to be in the room everyday.”
“Gregg wanted to create a body of work similar to what Johnny Cash had done towards the latter part of his recording career,” says Lehman. “He was proud of Low Country Blues, but he was really proud of Southern Blood. “He was really proud of what he’d done with the Allman Brothers Band, but he really loved his solo band. It allowed him to play his music the way he wanted to, without having to discuss it and play the music how he wrote it, rather than stretched out or as long jams.”
“Part of it has to do with just the importance of getting this right,” Was says of the weight he felt in completing Southern Blood. “It was super important and I felt a huge responsibility to Gregg, especially as his health worsened and I could see that he wasn’t going to be physically able to participate in the completion of the album very much. I knew he wasn’t going to be there sitting next to me in the studio and I felt a huge sense of responsibility to get it right for him, so I was really relieved to know that he dug it and that he got what he was looking for. A lot of the time, making records, you think, ‘Fuck it, next time we’ll get it right.’”
“There was no next time for him, so that gave it an urgency that I’ve never experienced before. It’s not like flying a jet, where if you fuck it up three hundred people are going to die. At worst you make a shitty record. But that was not an option for me this time. Craft and experience will take you so far, but there’s this X-factor that turns good craftsmanship into a masterpiece that nobody controls. As a producer you can learn to put the odds a little bit more in your favor, but basically you’re waiting for lightning to strike. Even after doing this for forty years, I get butterflies in my stomach before every session. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new artist or Gregg Allman or Bob Dylan. But this time the stakes were higher and I’m glad the record turned out the way it did, because I really liked Gregg. He was a really nice cat. He was a really sweet, good guy, and really humble guy, too.”
“When we would write together it would always be in his living room, with the TV on and the sound on mute,” Sharrard recalls with fondness of his trips to Allman’s home, even toward the end of the legend’s life. “Gregg, he loved reefer, so most of the time he’d be having some reefer, and sometimes I’d join him, though sometimes I wouldn’t, depending on how serious we were about working. But he was just such a such a joy to be around. We would just talk about all kinds of different stuff, and he loved his dog. We’d have the dogs crawling around us all the time. And his cars. Sometimes we’d go out and take a trip in his Corvette around town. He had some friends in law enforcement in Richmond Hills, so he could drive pretty much as fast as he wanted to, so we’d race around and then we’d come back and get barbecue. He had a great cook, so either she’d be making some kind of amazing meal for us or we’d get barbecue from the Rusty Pig near his house. That was his favorite place. It was real chill. The house was a real spiritual place, man. It’s in the Georgia swamps, so it’s got the most amazing vibe. I’ve considered myself a student of him my whole life, so that experience, collaborating with him, was really easy to get swept up in his vibe and ride the waves. That’s how it felt, trying to work with him. And I’ll tell you what, man, I learned a lot from him and it definitely changed my life.”
“For the last several months, once he knew the album was done, he was relieved but didn’t really want to talk about the music, he just wanted to talk about the business plan,” Lehman recalls. “We talked about the rollout, and how we were going to try to replicate the old days in a much worse record environment, and with nowhere to sell records. We went over the Low Country Blues plan that we had implemented and put into place together with our record partner, Rounder Records, and he said,
“‘This is what I want to do. This is how it needs to happen, because I’m not going to be here to talk about it. You guys need to go out there and tell the story, because I want people to know that I was happy and that I loved making this record and that it was an expression of everything that I was feeling in my life at that time, and a sort of finish to what I had started with that laid back thing in the early 70s with my first solo record. This is the bookend.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to be here, Michael, but I want folks to know where I was in my life’s journey when I made this record. I need you to share that.’”
Lehman pauses for a long time at the recollection, then recalls his last encounters with Allman.
“The last time I saw him, he still had that swagger,” Lehman tells me, with a chuckle. “He came out in his tight jeans and his T-shirt, with his hair pulled back, ready to take a walk and go for a golf cart ride. We sat and had a meal together. Not long after that was my last call with him. I told him how much I loved him and how we were going to follow his instructions for the record as well as for preserving and protecting his legacy. I promised him we’d take care of everything, as he had told me to. We finished the conversation and ten minutes later Chank, his best friend, who looked after him right up till the end, called me back and said he’d closed his eyes after our conversation and, with Chank and Shannon in the room, he had found peace.”
“Gregg definitely knew this was going to be his last studio album,” Sharrard says as we wrap up a long afternoon remembering his dear friend, who had also soundtracked his life and inspired everything about the way he lives his life, even today. “It was very hard to get it together, but we did the best we could and I think it turned out great.”