Gregg Allman passed away three months ago, in his Georgia home. But for the past two years, he'd been returning to Muscle Shoals, Alabama — where his career began — to record his final album.
The album's 10 songs include covers of Allman's favorite artists and influences, and one original track, titled "My Only True Friend." For longtime manager and close friend of Allman's, Michael Lehman, the track speaks to multiple things weighing heavy on Allman toward the end of his life:
"The song really talks about his brother, Duane, and also Gregg's life journey, where he was so close to the end, and the fact that he really did not want to be forgotten."
The singer's career spanned nearly 50 years and included 11 studio albums with The Allman Brothers, seven solo albums, a 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and a best-selling memoir.
Throughout his tenure, according to Allman's youngest daughter, Layla, he kept pushing himself creatively — even at the end of his battle with liver cancer. "Everything he did as a musician was so sincere," she says. "He was truly a man of his craft, completely authentic. Everything that came out of him came out of his soul."
Behind each move Allman made in his career, both Lehman and Layla agree he carried the weight of his brother's sudden death in 1971. "Duane was everything to him," Layla says. "I think that influenced him as a songwriter for as long as he lived, up until this last record."
It was Layla who suggested naming the album "Southern Blood," to represent Allman's career of shedding literal and metaphorical blood on stage and through his music. Visual artist Vincent Castiglia was commissioned by the family to paint a portrait of the singer, using two vials of Allman's blood. The portrait is the focal piece of the album artwork.
We spoke with Michael Lehman and Layla Brooklyn Allman about Gregg's time in The Allman Brothers, his battle with liver cancer, and his post-mortem album.
On Gregg Allman's last studio album "Southern Blood":
LEHMAN: When Gregg sat down and decided that he was going to work on his "Southern Blood," we weren't actually sure it was going to be the last studio album at that time. He and his music director started sitting down and coming up with concepts. And they came up with [“My Only True Friend”], which is incredible. The song has many different meanings to different people, but knowing where Gregg was in his journey, the song really talks about — the way I interpret it — his brother Duane, Gregg's life journey and where he was so close to the end, and the fact that he wanted people to remember him long after he's gone. It's a very deep, personal song and a beautiful piece that we're leading off with on this record.
ALLMAN: Something he repeated to me often was that he called the stage "the place of no pain." And I really believe that this was his signing off and telling the world, This was my purpose, I fulfilled my life purpose. And all of his songs always have a romantic narrative to go along with it. So it's as if he's telling someone he loves what he wanted to leave behind.
On Layla Allman suggesting the title for the album "Southern Blood" to her father:
ALLMAN: He had bought this painting from a man named Vincent Castiglia in New York and he'd fallen in love with the painting before he even knew that this artist exclusively paints in human blood. I thought that would be such an incredible concept for a musician to use on a record ... When I started hearing these new sessions, I sort of had a gut instinct even though he didn't really want to share the severity of his illness with his children. I knew something was coming to an end. I thought the idea of him creating an art piece, leaving his body behind, on his last body of work, would be something kind of magical. So the idea of painting part of his album art in his blood then inspired the title.
And I think it takes on several meanings: the fact that it's literally blood on the page; the fact that he's surrendered his blood metaphorically to his fans for years; and the fact that the idea of being from the South and the music that comes from the South. That's why he always said Southern rock is redundant. "[It] should just be called rock rock," he said, because the forefathers of rock and roll were from the South and he truly is part of that.
On completing the album during his illness:
LEHMAN: Gregg was sick at the time that he recorded this record. His band, producers — no one really knew the extent of Gregg's illness. The songs that he picked reflected his life's journey from happiness to sorrow to illness to the pain and struggling that he had experienced during his life. ... Gregg at this time was really preserving his energy and he was able to put out about four or five hours a day in the studio. After he finished, he'd go back to the hotel, eat something and really not emerge again from his room for another 18 or 19 hours until he was ready to go back in the studio.
ALLMAN: He would focus on playing music, and when he wasn't he was very shy and withdrawn. He would basically go out on the road and max everything out, and then when it was time to come home, he'd be with his significant other and his dogs and he would rest. He pretty much had two speeds.
Why Allman wanted to record "Southern Blood" at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama:
LEHMAN: Hour Glass, which was one of Gregg and Duane's early bands, had recorded some demos there. Duane had also recorded many sessions down there. It's a special studio that so many artists have been through over the years. The equipment there is all vintage, analog. The sound that comes out of that room is very, very warm. When [Gregg] decided to go in and make this record, there were two mandates that he gave me: one, that he wanted to record at Fame Studios and nowhere else; and two, that he was going to record this with [his] band and not studio musicians, as he had done in [his previous album] "Low Country Blues."
On recording the song, "Song for Adam," with Jackson Browne:
LEHMAN: Every time he came up to the end of the song, and I think he took three or four different takes, he just got choked up. The song really reminded him of his brother and and he couldn't get those last lines out. Gregg and Jackson actually spoke a couple days before Gregg passed, and they had two mixes of the song. Gregg listened to them both and picked the version that he wanted to go with.
ALLMAN: It definitely brought tears to my eyes. Even hearing it just now because he was someone who would never really show a whole lot of vulnerability. He always was very strong and always very composed and stoic. It's very special to hear such an authentic record of him, where he's kind of letting his guard down. What I really got from him — watching him record this record, watching him battle this illness — was that he did not want to leave his fans, his music, his career, and his family. And it's really a heavy moment on the record. He was truly a man of his craft ... Everything that came from him came out of his soul and that's why, when I suggested the title "Southern Blood" to him, I felt like it encompassed that it's completely [embedded] in his soul ... completely something that you could never take away from him, why he was put on this planet.
On Duane Allman's passing and how it affected Gregg:
ALLMAN: Duane was everything to him. He never stopped talking about him. And I really believe he carried it around with him for the rest of his life. His younger years were very much defined by tragedy, if you look at the story with his father [who was killed by a hitchhiker], with his brother. It was a lot of loss. A lot of his songs are about running away and I think he was haunted by what he experienced in his younger years.
LEHMAN: Everyday, Gregg would always say to me, "Michael, there's not a day that goes by where I don't think about my brother, [when] I don't talk to him, and I don't feel him." So it was a devastating and huge loss that impacted him significantly. The music that poured out of Gregg's soul certainly reflect on not only Gregg, but also Duane in a very deep way.
To hear the full interview with Michael Lehman and Layla Allman, click on the player above.