- By Jon Pareles, www.nytimes.com
All of the mythic South was in Gregg Allman’s music: soul, blues, country, gospel, rock ’n’ roll, jazz. The roadhouse, the back porch, the juke joint, the church, the farm, the highway.It was in the weary, determined drawl of his voice, rising to a sustained, honeyed ache or rasping with stubborn gumption. It was in the way his keyboard playing took turns steering the Allman Brothers Band and creating its backdrop: the Hammond organ that could be greasy or celestial, the piano that summoned hymns, honky-tonk, boogie-woogie and jazz. (He played serviceable guitar, too.) And it was in the songs Mr. Allman, who died Saturday at 69, wrote, putting terse, bluesy riffs behind lyrics that spoke of endless troubles, domestic and universal, and the will to survive them. “Bearing sorrow, having fun,” as he put it in “Melissa.”It all sounded natural and rooted, straight from the Georgia soil, when the Allman Brothers Band unveiled its musical hybrid on its self-titled 1969 debut album. It was music that would become a foundation for both the sturdy structures of southern rock and the far-flung extrapolations of jam bands.There was radical effort behind the band’s seeming ease. The Allman Brothers Band had thoroughly figured out the segues among all of the styles they merged: where rhythms could coincide and metamorphose, where simple harmonies could support jazzy elaboration, how a soul revue’s horn lines or a country band’s fiddle could be translated onto the band’s guitars and keyboards. Outside the Allman Brothers Band, Mr. Allman led his own jam bands, although at times his studio albums attempted something crisper and more radio-friendly.The birthright the Allmans’ music claimed was geographical — American and particularly Southern — and with it came a willingness to move past genre lines and all their connotations of race and class. It was all at their fingertips, inviting listeners to follow.His songs also drew on his own history, particularly in later years when he looked back on his own past excesses and drug problems. His voice was more weathered by then, but it stayed strong all the way into the 2010s, past the Allman Brothers Band’s retirement in 2014. Steeped in the blues, he had always sung like someone experienced beyond his years.Here are 10 definitive Gregg Allman songs. Unless otherwise noted, they were recorded by the Allman Brothers Band.
“Whipping Post” (1969)“Whipping Post” carried the Allman Brothers to improvisational peaks through decades of concerts. It’s a lover’s lament carried by a whirlwind through blues, jazz and rock. Its riff first appears in a tricky 11/8 meter, then straightens out to 12/8; its chorus heaves into a bluesy half time for a desperate a cappella plaint — “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’!” — but then revs up again, lingering over an unchanging harmonic foundation that foments open-ended improvisation. The band could push “Whipping Post” in any direction — and did.
“Midnight Rider” (1970)The narrator of “Midnight Rider” is a fugitive in motion: broke and tired, chased by unnamed pursuers. Mr. Allman’s music makes his journey a one-chord meditation interrupted by a few bars of tension when he sings, “I’m not gonna let ‘em catch me”; the rhythm keeps him moving.
“Dreams” (1969)A jazzy waltz with a circular, three-note bass riff and pattering percussion cross-rhythms introduced the Allmans’ most psychedelic side on their 1969 debut album. It’s a declaration of ambition to realize “dreams I’ll never see”; it also stretched a long way in concert.
“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” (1972)Mr. Allman’s rolling piano riff is part gospel, part Mardi Gras mambo, and his lyrics fight their way out of mourning toward gratitude for being alive as Dickey Betts’s slide guitar pushes ahead. The song was on “Eat a Peach,” the album completed after the death of Duane Allman, Gregg’s brother and the band’s founding guitarist; it insists, “You can’t let one precious day slip by.”
“Melissa” (1972)“Melissa” is a ballad about a constant traveler “knowing many, loving none” while thinking about a woman back home. A hobo? An itinerant musician? The song doesn’t decide whether to stay footloose or settle down; it lingers between restlessness and longing.
“Rockin’ Horse” (2003)“Never could use just a little/Never could leave it alone.” Warren Haynes, a latter-day member of the Allman Brothers, sang this song with both the Allman Brothers and his own band, Gov’t Mule. But Mr. Allman helped write it and his story was in it, facing down a lifelong self-destructive streak he had survived. Even in this studio recording, the song’s choppy, minor-key New Orleans groove spurs bluesy guitar solos heading toward Hendrix territory.
“Wasted Words” (1973)A two-fisted piano boogie with a pugnacious slide guitar, “Wasted Words” is a surly lover’s quarrel escalated to theological ground. The singer compares his “baby” to God and Satan, and while he points out, “I ain’t no saint,” he’s not confessing to any specific sin.
“It’s Not My Cross to Bear” (1969)The form is a by-the-book slow blues, with plenty of room for Mr. Allman to let the vocal drama build, from bemoaning “our bad, bad misfortune” to full-throated shouts and roars at the end. But it’s a crescendo of anger, not sorrow; as he leaves the relationship wreckage behind, he snarls, “Don’t reach out for me, babe.”
“Sailin’ ’Cross the Devil’s Sea” (1994)A low, bruising guitar riff and seething organ chords carry a tale of temptation, blind lust and infidelity: “the beginning of the end of my happy home.” Repentance arrives far too late.
“Floating Bridge” (2011)Written by the bluesman Sleepy John Estes, “Floating Bridge” is about a brush with death: getting rescued from drowning. It’s from Mr. Allman’s most recent solo album, “Low Country Blues,” and there’s relief and remembered terror in his voice.Correction: June 1, 2017
An earlier version of this story misstated the singer of “Rockin’ Horse.” It was Warren Haynes, not Gregg Allman.