Gregg Allman obituary

Gregg Allman on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s.
Gregg Allman on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s. Photograph: Alan Messer/Rex/Shutterstock

As the distinctively raw and soulful voice of the Allman Brothers Band, as well as one its main songwriters and keyboard player, Gregg Allman was a major contributor to the movement that became known as southern rock, which included the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band. Allman, who has died aged 69 after treatment for liver cancer, also enjoyed a long though intermittent career as a solo artist, as well as experiencing a period of high-profile showbiz glitziness through his marriage to the pop superstar Cher in the mid-1970s.

The best work by the Allman Brothers Band is now regarded as some of the most influential of the 1970s, and the group’s 90s reformation, after splitting up for most of the 80s, brought their intricate fusion of blues, rock, soul and a hint of jazz to a new generation of listeners.

Gregg and his guitar-playing older brother, Duane, had worked together from the early 60s as the Escorts, the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass before forming the Allman Brothers in 1969. Their third album, At Fillmore East (1971), launched them into the mainstream, reaching 13 on the US album chart and showcasing the extraordinary power and musical scope of the band’s live performances. Statesboro Blues, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and Gregg’s angstful composition Whipping Post became definitive pieces in the band’s repertoire. However, this triumph was soured by Duane’s death in a motorcycle accident later that year.

The band vowed to carry on, a decision vindicated by the success of Eat a Peach (1972), which sold a million copies in the US and reached No 4. The following year they topped the US chart with Brothers and Sisters, which gave them their biggest hit single with the country-flavoured Ramblin’ Man (it fell one short of the No 1 spot), and another durable calling-card with the instrumental Jessica, which became a radio favourite and later the theme tune to the television motoring show Top Gear.

Gregg Allman playing the organ at a concert in Macon, Georgia, in 1978.
Gregg Allman playing the organ at a concert in Macon, Georgia, in 1978. Photograph: Jerome McClendon/AP

The band were playing arenas and stadiums, earning $100,000 per show and flying in a chartered Boeing 720. Win, Lose or Draw (1975) reached No 5 on the US album chart, but heavy drug use and internal frictions (not least over Allman’s LA lifestyle with Cher and his pursuit of a solo career) threatened the band’s stability. The group were not happy with the record despite its success, and in 1976 tensions reached breaking point when Allman testified at the trial of the band’s security man, Scooter Herring, who was subsequently jailed for distributing cocaine. The band were disgusted by what Allman had done, and the group disintegrated.

Son of Willis Allman, a US army captain, and his wife, Geraldine (nee Robins), Gregg was born in Nashville, Tennessee, about a year after Duane. In 1949, Geraldine found herself responsible for raising her sons when Willis was shot and killed during a robbery by a hitchhiker he had picked up. She trained as an accountant and sent the brothers to Castle Heights military academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. In 1959 she moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida.

In 1960 Gregg bought himself a cheap acoustic guitar from Sears, though it was Duane who proved the virtuoso of the family, with Gregg gravitating to keyboards (the Hammond B3 organ became his signature instrument). The pair played with a racially mixed band, the House Rockers, and worked their way through various combos before forming the Allman Joys, going on tour in 1965 after Gregg graduated from Seabreeze high school. By 1967 they had formed the Hour Glass and moved to Los Angeles, where they made a couple of unsuccessful psychedelic-flavoured pop albums for Liberty Records.

Gregg Allman with his wife, Cher, in 1977.
Gregg Allman with his wife, Cher, in 1977. Photograph: Press Agency/Rex/Shutterstock

While Gregg stayed in LA, the other band members returned to Florida, where Duane joined a band in Jacksonville, the 31st of February, led by the drummer Butch Trucks. Duane persuaded Gregg to join as lead vocalist. Along with the guitarist Richard Betts, percussionist Jai Johanny Johanson (alias Jaimoe) and bass player Berry Oakley, Trucks and the brothers formed the Allman Brothers Band. Their self-titled debut album was released on the Capricorn label in 1969, and a follow-up, Idlewild South, the following year.

Gregg’s solo career began in 1973 with the album Laid Back, which won considerable critical acclaim and reached 13 on the Billboard album chart, as well as spinning off the moody Top 20 hit Midnight Rider (previously recorded by the Allman Brothers on Idlewild South). It was his highest-charting solo release until Low Country Blues (2011), which went to No 5, though he made the Top 50 with The Gregg Allman Tour (1974) and Playin’ Up a Storm (1977), and reached No 30 with I’m No Angel (1987). The album he made with Cher, Two the Hard Way (1977), flopped disastrously. The couple divorced after three years of marriage, in 1978.

Also in 1978 the Allman Brothers Band reunited for the album Enlightened Rogues, which gave them a Top 30 hit with Crazy Love. With the Capricorn label falling into bankruptcy they signed a deal with Arista, for whom they made Reach for the Sky (1980) and Brothers of the Road (1981), but split up again in 1982.

The band’s 20th anniversary in 1989 prompted not only the excellent box set compilation Dreams (named after one of Gregg’s early songs for the band), but also another comeback. This delivered a satisfying album in Seven Turns (1990), the title track and Good Clean Fun becoming hits. The group re-established itself as a popular touring act, making further albums including Shades of Two Worlds (1992), An Evening With the Allman Brothers: First Set (recorded during their 1992 residency at the Beacon theatre, New York, which would become a recurring engagement for the band), and Where It All Begins (1994). Their last studio album was Hittin’ the Note (2003).

In 2007, Allman was diagnosed with hepatitis C, which he blamed on a dirty tattoo needle. In 2010 he had a liver transplant, and went into rehab in 2012 in an attempt to beat alcohol and drug addictions. In 2014, another run of shows at the Beacon theatre was curtailed when he contracted bronchitis.

The live album All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman (2015) featured Gregg alongside Dr John, Eric Church, Jackson Browne, John Hiatt and others, and in the same year he released Gregg Allman Live: Back to Macon GA. Health problems forced him to cancel his 2016 summer tour, and his last concert was at his own Laid Back festival in Atlanta in 2016.

In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Allman Brothers Band. In 2012 he published the memoir My Cross to Bear, a warts-and-all record of his arduous rocker’s life, written with Alan Light.

He is survived by his seventh wife, Shannon, and five children, Michael, Devon, Elijah Blue, Island and Layla.

• Gregory LeNoir “Gregg” Allman, singer, musician and songwriter, born 8 December 1947; died 27 May 2017