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ROBERT HILBURN

Allman--blues Everyman

May 09, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Lately more than ever now

My mind keeps drifting back in time . . .

And again I find myself dreaming

About the way things might've been.

--Gregg Allman and Dan Toler

Gregg Allman has most certainly earned the right to sing the blues.

Co-founder in the late '60s of the enormously popular and influential Allman Brothers Band, Allman is a man whose life has been shadowed by tragedy and hard times.

The trials have ranged from the motorcycle deaths of two band members (including his brother, guitarist Duane) to four failed marriages (one to Cher) and recurring, highly publicized battles against chemical abuse (including heroin).

When the singer dedicated a song Thursday night at the Palace to bluesman Paul Butterfield --whose death this week in North Hollywood was accompanied by reports of a lengthy struggle against drug abuse--it didn't take a lot of imagination to picture the roles being reversed.

It's a sobering thought, but there weren't many people in rock a decade ago who would have been willing to put much money on the proposition that Allman would make it into the '80s.

Except for the reunion of the Allman Brothers Band in 1979, Allman has faded so far from sight in recent years that many in the Palace audience didn't even know he was still active until he returned to the Top 30 recently with an album titled "I'm No Angel."

When Allman sat at the organ Thursday and started singing in his gravelly, blues-accented voice, you got the feeling that the crowd wasn't just cheering for the music, but also acknowledging his personal struggle.

"I feel good for him," said Zachary Martin, 30, of Wilmington, before the show. "I knew he had a lot of problems, and it it's great to see that he has pulled through."

Allman is delighted to be back in the pop spotlight, but the last thing he wants is sympathy. In an interview earlier this week, he refused to play the part of a victim and to complain about spending the last five years touring in semi-obscurity.

He may sing with half-closed eyes that suggest a man who has known a lot of heartache, but he was clear-eyed, alert and mostly upbeat as he sat in a hotel room.

"Sure, there have been (difficult times), but I've had lots of good times, too, and that's what I think of when I look back. If I just thought about the bad things, I'd probably be in the rubber room. . . .

"There's a great comfort in the music itself. It's a shame that everybody in life doesn't have something like that . . . so that if they fail in business or get your heart broken . . . you can still play your music. It helps get you through the darkest times. I hope on my death bed that I'm learning a new chord or writing a new song."

There was a time after the "Brothers and Sisters" album in 1973 that the Allman Brothers was the most popular and acclaimed rock band in America, but the band didn't react well to the pressures. For a group whose no-nonsense blues-rock approach had opened the door for other Southern bands in the early '70s, the Allmans got so lost in the excesses of rock that its story stands as a textbook warning to other groups.

About that time, Allman has said, "The money really started pouring in, but the money also brought on problems. You lay a bunch of bread on a man who has never had money and he won't know what to do with it. Ninety-nine times out of 100, he'll blow it foolishly on a whim. We started hiring too many people. We had something like 34 roadies on (the 1975) tour."

Sitting in a modest chain hotel before an appearance Wednesday night at the De Anza Theater in Riverside, Allman--who'll be 40 this December--shook his head when those days were mentioned. He had switched to his manager's room for the interview because the air conditioner in his room wasn't working. Even in this room, the air conditioner was working so poorly that he sat as close as he could to it.

But Allman, who still favors a beard and straight, shoulder-length hair, chose this life style. He was making big bucks again with the reunited Allmans in the early '80s, but he became frustrated over the band's business arrangements.

"That may have been the worst time for me," he said of the final days of the second stint with the Allmans. "The money was still there . . . and the fans, but that didn't impress me. I could tell that none of us were really enjoying it anymore. That's when I decided to form my own band again. It was a big financial sacrifice at the time. I came close to bankruptcy, but it didn't matter. I had to get my music back and my health back."

For the last five years, Allman has played everything from "biker clubs to dinner clubs," averaging about 150 shows a year.

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