ArtsATL > Books > Alan Paul and Scott Freeman on the intricacies of writing a biography of the Allman Brothers

Alan Paul and Scott Freeman on the intricacies of writing a biography of the Allman Brothers

The original Allman Brothers Band from a photo shoot in Macon in 1971.
The original Allman Brothers Band from a photo shoot in Macon in 1971.
The original Allman Brothers Band from a photo shoot in Macon in 1971.

Alan Paul’s new oral history on the Allman Brothers Band, the New York Times best-selling One Way Out (St. Martin’s Press), documents the 45-year history of the band that rose out of Macon to become one of the most popular and praised groups in rock history. The only other book on the Allmans was published in 1994 by ArtsATL deputy editor Scott Freeman, the best-selling Midnight Riders (Little, Brown & Company). 

The two writers recently shared a frank and wide-ranging email exchange that touched on the history of the band, the challenges of writing about the Allmans and the group’s place in the history of rock. Paul will be in Georgia over the next few days for book signing events in Decatur’s Eagle Eye Books on Saturday, Sunday at 2 p.m. in Macon at the Allman Brothers Band museum, and Thursday night at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur.

Scott Freeman: You and I share a very unique experience: We’re the only two people in the world who have written in-depth books about the Allman Brothers Band. I remember our paths first crossed when Guitar World magazine, where you are a senior writer, printed an excerpt from my book about the recording of Layla, an album that was fueled by Duane Allman. That was my favorite chapter in my book, and my book editor wanted to remove everything that I loved about that chapter. The fact that Guitar World published it intact gave me the confidence to keep that chapter as I’d intended. So thank you. I can barely believe that was almost 20 years ago. Your book includes an entirely new era of that band that didn’t even exist when I wrote mine. Derek Trucks had just joined the Allman Brothers when the paperback edition of my book came out.

Alan Paul
Alan Paul

Alan Paul: I was the managing editor of Guitar World at the time and had a huge role in excerpting the book and picking what to run. I’m glad we helped buck up your confidence. I have always been excited to spread the word of Duane’s role in Layla and I’m sure that played a role in our decision. 

I was already thinking about the possibilities of writing an Allman Brothers book at the time though I wasn’t nearly ready to do so and remember feeling a little bittersweet — happy that your book had come out and sad that it might preclude me ever doing one. I never could have imagined that 20 years later there would be so much more to write about. I would say “What a long strange trip it’s been” — but another band claimed that line long ago.

Freeman: I remember when I first moved to Macon in 1983, I was quite disappointed when I went by the library and discovered there wasn’t a book about the Allman Brothers Band. I was a reporter at the Macon Telegraph & News, and wrote a five-part series to mark the band’s 15th anniversary. Even then, I thought about a book but there wasn’t very much interest in the Allman Brothers Band in 1984; that was the disco era. When they got back together in 1989, I realized I was in a great position to write a book because I’d done long interviews with all the surviving original members.

I’m thinking you must have been in a similar position because you’ve done many interviews with them for Guitar World. My memory is Guitar World really pushed the reunited band early on with an attitude of: hey, the Allman Brothers are back together with a hot new guitar player named Warren Haynes and this is a big deal. And it was a big deal. For me, that line-up restored the band’s credibility and legacy. I’m wondering what your perspective was for the enormity of that moment for the Allman Brothers Band, and how it would spur an entirely new narrative of the band’s career.

Paul: I began working as Guitar World managing editor in February 1991. I had already written an in-depth story for Tower Pulse on Seven Turns. That reignited my love for the Allman Brothers, along with two shows I saw, in Tampa, where I was living, and in Chicago. So I started the job as a full-on, engaged Allman Brothers fanatic, with an opportunity and a forum to cover them extensively. 

Warren’s talents were obvious so hailing him was no big leap. He and I related to one another as young guys starting our careers with big breaks and full of passion for what we were doing. I moved to New York for the job and Warren soon began being around town a lot. I would see him everywhere, sitting in with people at the Wetlands and other little clubs and performing with his solo band. We started becoming more and more friendly. 

It was a heady, exciting time for me and for the Allman Brothers, but it was impossible to have the foresight to fully grasp what was going on. It was just so exciting to have them back performing at such a high level but there was no guarantee that it would continue past the next gig. 

Scott Freeman
Scott Freeman in Macon at Rose Hill Cemetery. (Photo by Brenda Stepp)

Freeman: Is there anyone Warren hasn’t played with? And you make a great point about there was never a guarantee it would continue past the next gig. I remember a show in Boston around 1990 or ’91 when guitarist Dickey Betts, refused to play a solo the entire second set of the show and then left the building before the encore. For a band whose foundation is guitar solos, that was pretty dramatic. Your book details the fall-out between the band and Betts, a founding member. I was a little surprised at both the candor of those you interviewed, and at the size of the lingering anger. Dickey declined an invitation to participate in the 40th anniversary shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. How difficult was it for you to navigate that terrain? Have you had any reaction from Dickey to the book?

Paul: Dickey refused to play a solo all night? That’s pretty impressive. I’ve seen him and others do some crazy things, but that’s up there. 

Warren deserves a Purple Heart and maybe a Bronze Star as well. His guitar playing speaks for itself, but I think people sometimes overlook his rather amazing ability to hold things together through squalls of madness. And that relates to him playing with so many people. One of his great skills is an ability to pull together anyone thrown on stage into a cohesive whole. 

In terms of the candor about Dickey and that whole situation — you should hear what people told me off the record. The anger has simmered down but it can still be profound, especially with Butch. I guess it’s like the lingering impact after a long tumultuous marriage ends in a bitter divorce. 

Someone really close to Dickey thanked me for being fair to him. I think they were mostly pleased that I didn’t in any way try to minimize his musical contributions and impact, which I would never do. Dickey is my favorite guitarist and I think his incredible and very unique melodic sense and phrasing are at the very core of what we think of as the Allman Brothers sound. As for all the other stuff, as Derek Trucks said, if it happened, it happened. 

Freeman: I was standing on stage that night in Boston, briefly left, and when I came back, it was obvious something had happened. I heard on a Boston radio station the next day that Dickey had an on-stage altercation with a roadie. The second half of the show, he didn’t play a single solo. His time would come, and he’d go right to where the song was supposed to come out of the solo. When he left the building before the encore, the band came back out five-piece and that was the night I really grew to appreciate Warren. He stepped up in a major way and just seized the moment. It was like watching him blossom before my eyes. 

Dickey was a major influence on my own guitar playing because I discovered the band when Brothers and Sisters came out. So I heard him before I heard Duane Allman. And I think his first solo record, Highway Call from 1974, is very much underrated. I wouldn’t say he’s my favorite guitar player, but he does rank very high on my personal list. His sound is certainly ingrained in my psyche. I have mixed feelings that he is no longer in the Allman Brothers Band. On one hand, he is so integral to their history and their sound. On the other, everyone seems much happier without the drama he brought, and I think it allowed Derek Trucks and Warren to bring a new vitality to the band in the past few years. In my mind, with all due respect to the Brothers and Sisters era line-up, I think the current version is the strongest since the original.

The current Allman Brothers Band line-up.
The current Allman Brothers Band line-up.

Paul: I think that it simply reached a point where it wasn’t going to work anymore and the only choices were the Allman Brothers without Dickey or no more Allman Brothers. I couldn’t imagine how they could play without him and I’m not sure it would have worked long term had Warren not returned. I thought it was sad and I still do, but greatly prefer them not vanishing that’s for sure. There has been some tremendous music in the last 14 years. 

I still can’t quite say I consider this the best era after the original. The Chuck Leavell/Lamar Williams band sure was great — listen to the Winterland show on the expanded Brothers and Sisters CD. and they were incredibly strong from 90-93 when they were really right and cohesive, but still really fresh and excited to be playing together. And they were writing a steady stream of solid to great new material. But, yeah, there was always a chance of a real train wreck and the tensions were high and guys were often unhappy — but none of that matters too much to the guy or gal in the audience. There’s no doubt that this lineup has been a lot more consistent.

Freeman: Yes, that re-mixed Winterland concert is very illuminating on the greatness of the second configuration. And I compare Chuck’s influence then to Warren’s influence now. 

I’m admittedly prejudiced, but I think I can build a very solid argument that the original line-up of the Allman Brothers Band was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever assembled. Or in the very least, for me, it’s one and two with The Band. What’s similar about those two groups is that each spun a lot of different, mostly Southern, influences into their sound. A lot of jazz groups around that time were starting to incorporate rock influences, but the Allman Brothers were among the first to take it from the opposite direction: a rock band that had the chops to incorporate jazz influences. How do you view the original line-up?

Paul with Gregg Allman.
Paul with Gregg Allman

Paul: I view the original lineup as the greatest rock band ever. And that’s why I could dedicate 25 years to living this and writing the book. That’s the short and simple answer. That group combined so many elements of what I love in music into one package in a seamless and organic manner that no one else has ever accomplished. Duane’s vision in putting this thing together remains remarkable to me. People often ask me what I would ask Duane if I could interview him. Of course, I’d have a million questions, but my overriding curiosity is the extent to which he foresaw what he wanted and went looking for the guys to fulfill the concept, versus a more general, innate understanding that he wanted something different and bigger and grander and had some sense that each guy could provide some unique element. As Thom Doucette says in One Way Out, without any one of the six the whole thing doesn’t happen. Each person brought something essential and completely unique to the group, and the overall chemistry was, of course, incredible.

The Band were similar in that regard. I love The Band and don’t want to say anything negative about them, but for me they don’t quite click every button the way the Allman Brothers do because they lack the jazz improv element and the brilliant lead soloist voices of Dickey and Duane. That is not a criticism of them, by the way, but rather a further indication of how unique the original six were. My own musical love lies closer to jazz and blues – I listen to Horace Silver a lot more than The Who, and Albert King over The Beatles or Stones. That’s where I’m coming from, and Dickey and Duane provided lead improv solo voices of that caliber. 

Freeman: I completely agree. Those pieces came together and it became something magical — every one of them brought different influences into the mix. On top of the guitars, there was an amazing rhythm section and Gregg Allman’s stunning voice. And Phil Walden, their manager and later president of Capricorn Records, had the vision to see it. His leap of faith amazes me. When he became Duane’s manager, he was assigning his future to a guitar player who didn’t sing, didn’t write songs and didn’t even have a band. And yet, he had the vision and faith that something special was going to happen.

One thing your book helped me understand with more clarity was Dickey’s role in the original band, coming up with melodies that Duane would then echo and counter. And Dickey’s emergence as a songwriter, and a singer, gave the band an entirely new layer of depth. Dickey often got over-shadowed by Duane. But you’re right: they were both incredible lead improv solo voices. I’ve always associated listening to them, especially in concert settings, to listening to Miles and Coltrane. Their music was incredibly sophisticated. And when you consider how young they all were, it’s astounding. When did you start to get serious about doing a book on the band?

The Allman Brothers Band in 1969 at Rose Hill Cemetery.
The Allman Brothers Band in 1969 at Rose Hill Cemetery.

Paul: Yeah. I agree with everything you said. Even Dickey says now that he is astounded by how young they all were. He makes an observation in the book that I think is spot on: they hadn’t come up in garage bands but in bar bands. They had all been professionals since they were teens and most of them didn’t finish high school, dropping out to be full time musicians. This wasn’t because they were dumb in any way, but because they were so dedicated to music. It’s also reflective of what a different time it was in so many ways, including the fact that there was an infrastructure that could support bands and people could make a living. 

I thought off and on about doing a book for years. I got serious about it a few years ago after my first book, Big in China, was out. I sold the movie rights to Ivan Reitman and he hired a screenwriter. The guy would call me up for three-hour conversations and I’d get all worked up, then not hear from him for a month. I had no control and had to accept that. I realized I needed a significant project to throw myself into and started going through 25 years of Allman Brothers notes and even digging out cassettes. 

I compiled an oral history, which I self-published as an Ebook. It had no new interviews though it contained plenty of new quotes because of all that digging. It was good, but I knew it had holes. When that did very well online I started itching to expand and fill in those holes, and that started me going in what you see now. About 80 percent is new material. Once I started doing interviews I realized I had to be more ambitious than just filling in the holes I knew were there. I had to let the interviews guide me.

Freeman: A major difference in our books is that you wrote your’s with the blessing of the band. I was fortunate that I’d done extensive interviews with the original band members when I was with the Macon Telegraph. I spent time with them on the road at the start of their comeback, and perhaps my greatest thrill was when Dickey let me play his gold top Les Paul and Duane’s Dobro. But they tried to block me from writing my book and when it came out, they definitely didn’t like it. I felt demonized when my intentions were the same as your’s — to honor and celebrate music that had touched my soul — and that was very difficult for me. 

Freeman with Dickey Betts in 1984. (Photo by William Berry)
Freeman with Dickey Betts in 1984. (Photo by William Berry)

But the past few years have been healing. I was talking recently to one of the newer members and he said that when he joined the band, he was specifically told not to read Midnight Riders — which made him promptly go out and get a copy, and it was something we could both laugh about. I was invited to the Allman Brothers Band museum in Macon, where I’d never been welcomed before, a couple of years ago. I was especially delighted to find a plaque hanging on a wall there with a quote from Dickey that came from one of my articles. Someone in that circle told me recently they thought my book helped spark the band’s resurgence in the ’90s, a thought that had never occurred to me. And I was honored to be a primary voice in Song of the South, the recent British documentary on Duane, a film that Butch actually praised on Facebook. I’ve learned that I no longer have to feel estranged from the band’s legacy. I can own that.

So given all that, I’m very curious about your experience in writing One Way Out with the cooperation of the band. 

Paul: Timing is everything and when your book came out, I guess they just weren’t ready for a book. It’s amazing that there had not been a serious effort made until that point, or another one between Midnight Riders and One Way Out. The band has made such an amazing, indelible musical contribution and their story is so gripping even beyond that. It needs to be told and understood.

I don’t know what the specific objections they had to your book were, or even if there were any — or if they just didn’t like not having control over the story. And I don’t know if it helped spark the revival, but it sure didn’t hurt. As I said, it just seemed right for such a great and important band to have a biography about them. I thought your section on the drug trials and subsequent breakup was well done and very complete, and it remains pretty touchy.

I was very fortunate to have the cooperation of most members of the band but you have to remember that the Allman Brothers Band is really a collection of individuals at this point. I felt really lucky that I was able to call several important players often with questions or clarifications. It was, of course, in all of our interest to be as factual and correct as possible.

1962881_674216162620187_1529209072_nI asked Butch and Jaimoe both to write a foreword or afterword and was pleasantly surprised that they both agreed. I think that added a lot of credibility, and I think their writing stands up and adds a lot editorially as well. I hope people take the time to read both.

Freeman: One thing I’ve come to understand is that I have no control over others. All I can do is be responsible for my side of the street. Butch throws a little jab at me in the foreword of your book, and now I’m able to laugh about it. 

I’ve got to confess, I started reading your book where mine left off. One reason was I already knew the early history and was more curious about the last 15 years. But I was also a little wary about reading the chapters that covered the same periods I’d written about; I didn’t know how I was going to react.

Now that I’m reading it, I’m finding my reaction is that I’m thoroughly enjoying it. At the core, I’m a fan of the Allman Brothers Band and for a fan, it’s simply a great read. There’s obviously a lot of overlap, and I’ve been grateful that we’re still essentially telling the same story, only in different ways. There’s things I covered that you don’t, and things you cover that I didn’t. And I’ve learned some stuff I didn’t know.

Paul: I totally understand that. I got an advance copy of Galadrielle Allman’s Please Be With Me and nervously read it hoping there were no contradictions or major discrepancies. Once I realized there were not, I could settle down and read it as a fan. It’s also a great book. The Allman Brothers library has grown a lot richer. 

Freeman: Yeah, like all of a sudden, I’m not the only person in the room any more. And I need to pick up a copy of Galadrielle’s book; I’ve heard good things about it and I was out of town when she did her signing here. 

You’re in Georgia for some book signings. What’s on tap? I hear there’s going to be a cool evening at Eddie’s Attic with music and at the Allman Brothers Band Museum on Sunday.

Paul: I’m at Eagle Eye Books in Decatur on Saturday at 1 p.m. I will be giving a talk, answering questions and, of course, signing books. Sunday at the Big House is shaping up as a very special day. I will be joined by Jaimoe and will interview him and just have a discussion. Several other members of the extended ABB Family will be there. That’s from 2-4 p.m., and Jaimoe’s Jassz Band is playing down the street at Washington Park at six. Then I’m back in Atlanta on Thursday, May 15 at Eddie’s Attic for “One Way Out: The Allman Brothers and Atlanta,” sponsored by AM 1690. 

Part of the Allmans’ story involved its fabled 1969 performances at Piedmont Park. We will be reuniting many of the musicians who rocked that scene, along with other Atlanta musical luminaries who followed. We are expecting key members of The Hampton Grease Band, along with Bill Sheffield, Barry Richman, The Swimming Pool Qs, Lamar Williams Jr. (son of the late Allman Brothers Band bassist) Geoff Achison and many others. I’ll be jumping up for a song or two as well.

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