—Dickey Betts in 1976
It wasn't as momentous as if, say, Lennon & McCartney announced their reunion, but the rapprochement in Miami was perhaps even more unlikely. Nearly three years after their acrimonious breakup, Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and the remnants of the original Allman Brothers Band cautiously gathered in a studio to piece together what had once been the premiere act in Southern blues-rock. "We feel like it's the first time together," ventured Gregg, 31. "We're fresh. We've all come through a lot and learned a lot from it."
Not even the Beatles, after all, split with the bad blood that marked the sundering of the Allman Brothers in 1976. Plagued by artistic stagnation, organizational chaos, flagging record sales and super group indulgences like drinking, drugs and Gregg's heroin addiction, the band "couldn't even get to the studio at the same time," recalls drummer Butch Trucks, 31. Then came Allman's damning testimony in the drug trial that resulted in a 75-year sentence for his former personal road manager and dope supplier, Scooter Herring.
Gregg was banished from Macon, Ga., Capricorn Records' Southern rock nexus, and resettled in alien Beverly Hills to live out his deteriorating marriage to his third wife, Cher. Though he cut a fine but obscure studio album, Playin' Up a Storm, Gregg never adjusted to life in L.A.'s fast lane. "Everything out there is so competitive," he complains. "There's no brotherhood of musicians. It's all who's got the biggest house, the fastest, shiniest cars, who plays the best racquetball. I don't plan to go back." As antidote, he roamed the Southern bar circuit, joining pickup groups and enduring catcalls of "narc" and "snitch" from hostile audiences. As recently as last month Gregg discovered a scratch gouged with a key down the length of his black Pontiac Trans Am. "When that happens, it just makes me work harder," he says. "But I think that's all over now."
The other band members spun off individually but lacked the synergistic power of the ABB. Dickey Betts and his group, Great Southern, were reduced to playing 500-seat beer joints. "It was," he winces, "really a blast on my ego." Chuck Leavell, Lamar Williams and drummer Jaimoe (his only name) barely stayed afloat as Sea Level (whose road manager, ironically, is Scooter Herring, now out on bail after his conviction was reversed). Trucks, "learning to think again," switched to lecturing on music at Florida State while writing a paper on the demise of the band.
Eventually, Trucks recalls, "We got positive reports about Gregg, that he'd kicked smack for good, that he was more clear-thinking than before. We all felt it was time to act our age and get something done." The charter four added guitarist Dan Toler and bassist Rook Goldfliese, and together they experimented last summer with an unannounced jam in Manhattan's Central Park. "It had been a while since I'd heard a crowd like that," Gregg admits. "It scared the hell out of me. But that clinched it to go on." Now, Betts insists, "the bad blood has all been talked out." "We hadn't talked to Gregg at all before," Trucks agrees. "I made my decision to split based on headlines. It wasn't fair to Gregg."
The Brothers maintain that their togetherness is uncontaminated by financial considerations. (At one time one of America's biggest rock bands ever, they cut five gold LPs, three of which went platinum, and reaped $15 million on a single tour.) "Money isn't the reason we're trying this," says Betts. "If it were, we wouldn't have gotten this far. I feel inspired again." Jaimoe and Betts, though, have demanded audits from Capricorn. Trucks quit Florida State for lack of funds, and Jaimoe says he needs money for his jazz studies at Georgia's Mercer College. Allman felt so "desperate and disillusioned" at one point during the split that he considered hiring on as first mate on a shrimp boat for $25 a day "until the old captain told me, 'The beard goes and the long hair goes.' "
Florida, for Gregg, means coming home. He grew up there with his older brother Duane, killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. He and Cher still phone each other, though she has filed for divorce and has legally dropped both his name and Sonny Bono's. Last summer Gregg played daddy for their son, Elijah Blue, 2½, and Chastity Bono, 9, for two weeks in Daytona Beach, where Gregg's mother lives, but he has seen the boy only once since leaving Beverly Hills. "He's huge. He wears four-year-old clothes and talks his little ass off," Allman boasts. "And he looks identical to me."
So far, the band's reunion seems to have stabilized Gregg's behavior. He is continuing antidrug therapy and has been through AA. However, his hard drinking contributed to a disorderly conduct arrest after a parking-lot ruckus last October. Allman still rages at reporters who, he feels, "have butchered my private life." After a brief reprise with high school sweetheart Barbara Bradley, he has no regular lady at present.
With their new Enlightened Rogues LP scheduled for later this month, the Allmans are hoping for a rebirth rivaling that of one of their biggest boosters, Jimmy Carter. (Even in exile, Gregg played at Carter's 1977 Inaugural Ball.) "When we get together, it shakes the earth," Betts claims. "No other group can do it this way. It's something special." Yet before signing a new contract, Capricorn czar Phil Walden, whose lineup of acts had produced but one platinum LP since the Allman Band breakup, conducted a market survey to convince himself Southern boogie can still cut it in the disco era. Allman may be the key to it. "In L.A. I only wrote four songs in three years that I could keep," he says. "In just three months down here I've hit 10 keepers. If this thing gets going again, I may build me a place in Sarasota or Miami." But, just in case, he adds, "I've still got all my stuff in storage."
There is no way we can work with Gregg Allman again. Ever.