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Gregg Allman lets it all hang out

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A gifted singer-songwriter, whom country-rock star Charlie Daniels describes as the finest white blues singer hes ever heard, the Nashville native had an early life filled with tragedy that included the murder of his father when he was 2 years old and the death of his brother Duane in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Duane died just as The Allman Brothers Band was hitting its stride.

Besides those topics, Allman explores his six marriages (including his three years with pop star Cher), substance abuse, the cursed band and its many breakups, and his years as a student at Lebanons Castle Heights Military Academy.

While he disses Heights for the most part, it was at here that the brothers formed one of their earliest bands, The Misfits.

We played there at the school at dances after football games. Theyd bring girls in from town, and we would play for those dances, and they let us wear civilian clothes. That was a real treat for us, Allman said during a phone interview Friday.

So what prompted the musician behind such hit song as Midnight Rider, Whipping Post, Melissa and Im No Angel, to spill his guts before the public?

It wasnt something I had planned. It just kinda happened, he said. Back in about 1983 or 84, I thought, Ive had such a great life. Maybe I ought to write some of this down, and when I get to be an old codger maybe I can sit on the porch and read it.

Allman began keeping a journal and later had a friend sit with him and ask questions, thus for a year they recorded his remembrances. Eventually, he had a duffel bag full of cassette tapes.

My manager came over one day and asked what was in there, and I told him, My life. So one thing led to another. He shopped it around, and sure enough someone wanted it for a book. Now theyre talking about a movie, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said.

He described his autobiography as just the life and times of a rock n roll musician.

There are other books out about the (Allman) Brothers, like Skydog. Theyre just about six guys going around the country sowing their wild oats and playing their music. Thats just crap, Allman said.

Were all human. We all have feelings. I thought, What the hell, yeah. Ill set the damn story right. I did get involved in a lot of stuff, but I mean it wouldnt have been a good book without it.

After their shortened days at Heights (neither were graduates), Gregg and Duane, who was a year older, formed The Allman Joys in1965 and cut their eyeteeth playing on the chitlin circuit. These were Southeastern roadhouses where they put chicken wire in front of the stage so beer bottles wouldnt fly around you, Allman recalled.

With the July 1971 release of At Fillmore East on the Capricorn label, the Allman Brothers Band, composed of Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe Johnson and the two siblings, was on its way to fame and fortune. Then Duane, whom Rolling Stone magazine named as the No. 2 guitarist of all time behind Jimi Hendrix, was killed Oct. 17, 1971, in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Ga.

Now, almost 42 years later, Gregg says he still misses Duane every day.

The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner continues to tour with The Allman Brothers Band as well as with his own Gregg Allman Band and said his songwriting is going well. About his biggest solo hit, Im No Angel, and all of his music, he said, If its a hit here: Im pointing to my heart, its a hit.

The bluesman, who plays keyboards and guitar, was nominated for a Grammy two years back for his album Low Country Blues, and said, I am ready to go back in the studio this year.

Regarding The Allman Brothers Bands fan base, who are all ages rather than merely survivors of the '60s, he said, They know theyre gonna get their moneys worth. We always play at least 2-1/2 to 3 hours.

And as for his marriage to Cher, which produced son Elijah Blue, Allman said they are still very good friends.

Among his girlfriends in his earlier days were two daughters of famous men.

My home in Nashville was in Belle Meade, not the wealthy part. I lived near Parmer Elementary School. When I was in second grade, my childhood sweetheart, Merle Atkins, lived on the next hill, and after school Id go up to her house and her daddy, named Chet, would play Davy Crockett, and we would sing and eat cookies, he said of a pleasant memory.

As for a sad one, he was involved with Jenny Arness, the daughter of Gunsmoke star James Arness, who committed suicide after their breakup. A few days after the tragedy, TVs Marshal Matt Dillon called Allman to tell him that it was not his fault.

Suffering from hepatitis C and cirrhosis, Allman, who has been clean and sober since 1996, got a new lease on life three years ago with a liver transplant. The surgery also changed his outlook on life.

I got quite a bit more spiritual. I would be getting sick about now. I probably would have a year left. Just to know they put a new liver in you and it saved your life, that will bring you to your knees, said the father of five children.

Allman lives near Savannah, Ga., with his fianc, Shannon Williams, and two dogs, Otis, a Yorkipoo, and Maggie, a miniature poodle.

The surviving Allman brother relaxes with numerous hobbies, adding, I collect knives, gold coins, motorcycles and muscle cars. I go deep-sea fishing quite a lot. My songwriting to me is really fun and relaxing and still feels quite a bit like a hobby.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

Gregg Allman recounts time at Heights

We actually formed a band at Castle Heights called the Misfits. The great thing about it was that when we played after one of the football games, or the prom -- we played all that s -- we got to wear our civilian clothes. I had this pair of jeans that was skintight, and I loved it.

That was a big deal, because we had to wear uniforms all the time, every day. White shirt and a tie, man. We had drills and inspections every day, and on Sundays we had a pass-and-review, which was when all the folks came out to watch -- unless it rained, and we used to pray for rain. Were talking wool uniforms, heavy-gauge wool. Believe me, you didnt want to run out of drawers, because you didnt want to wear no pair of wool pants without no drawers on. It takes a hell of a dude to do that. In the spring, you got to change the wool pants for white pants, but everything else would stay the same, no matter how hot it was.

They had a great shop class there, and I learned a lot about measuring stuff, building things, woodworking and all that. That was good, because you were moving around and working with your hands, and that took your mind off of stuff. I also joined the school band, playing cornet, and earned a sharpshooters medal, because I got 48 out of 50 bulls-eyes.

In the end, despite the few good things, I was totally lonesome and out of place -- a ship drifting and drifting. I didnt make a lot of friends because I didnt want nothing to do with the place. I didnt want to go there, I didnt want to be there. Everything you did, they told you how to do it.

My Cross To Bear, by Gregg Allman with Alan Light, published by William Morrow

Hobnobbing with rock-star schoolmate

Lebanons Frank Hartley, fleet manager at Wilson County Motors, attended Castle Heights with Gregg and Duane Allman during their two years in the junior school and when they returned as sophomores in 1962.

I knew them as just some of the guys who were there, Hartley said. Had we realized who they were going to end up being, we probably would have been buddying up more.

In senior school they lived in Bullard Hall, where Gene Hale was the faculty officer. I asked him (Hale) one time, Do you remember anything that happened with them? He said, Yeah, I walked down to their room and told them to put their guitars up and get their books out so they would amount to something.

Hartley graduated from Heights in 1964, and 43 years later, in 2007, crossed paths once more with Gregg while on business in Boston. A block from his hotel, he noticed a marquee announcing Gregg Allman and Friends would be playing a concert that night.

I was lucky to find a security guard and told him that I went to school with Gregg and asked him if he would mind giving him my card, Hartley said. I wrote on it: I went to Castle Heights and havent seen you for 43 years and would like to see you to visit.

Later that evening, we got back to the hotel and were getting ready to go to bed when I noticed the message light flashing on the phone. I returned the call to the road manager, and he said, Gregg got your card and would like to see you. Weve got some tickets if you care to go.

So I told my wife, Get up. Were going to a rock concert. We walked down a block to the theater and got tickets on the seventh row and had backstage passes. My wife (Lebanon native Sandra Place Hartley) and I got to see him and talked with him for about 25 or 30 minutes, having a great old time. My wife looked up at me and said, I aint believing I just shook hands with the guy who married Cher.

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