The Allman Brothers leader opens up on his loves (Cher!), his vices (you name ’em), and life in the blues
You’ve played with the Allman Brothers for over 40 years, made seven solo albums, and survived six marriages and one liver transplant. What are you proudest of?
Quitting liquor, heroin, cigarettes, and cocaine all in one day. I had been to 14 rehabs, but this one was my rehab: I hired a male nurse and did it at my house. I had this guy remove
all the cigarettes and all the cane. He got into it—he said, “Have you got anything else stashed around here?” I said, “Oh, yeah, if you look behind that picture frame, you’ll
find an eightball.” The next two weeks, I know it was hell, but I don’t really remember it.
What made you decide it was time?
In 1995 the Allman Brothers went to New York to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I didn’t want to be openly drunk; nor did I want to feel like hell. So I planned it out: one shot an hour, with all these shot glasses lined up. Then I went downstairs and saw everybody I hadn’t seen in 25 years: “Let’s go to the bar, man. I’ll buy you one!” The time rolled around, and I was teetering. I took a cold shower, a hot shower, a normal shower. I was waterlogged. We walked onstage, and Willie Nelson was standing there with all the awards. Willie said, “Damn, Gregory, you all right?” I said, “Willie, I am not all right.” He said, “Do you want to sit down?” I said, “Willie, haven’t you noticed? There aren’t any chairs up here.” I made up my mind to quit,
and that was it.
Your new solo album, Low Country Blues, is full of obscure classics. How is your life like a blues song?
Well, I got married all those times, right? After six wives I started thinking—it must be me. But two or three of them, I came home at the wrong time and they were in the process of entertaining another man. So that pretty well wasn’t my fault. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not supposed to be married.
Ten years ago you said that all the good blues songs had already been covered.
I was stone wrong, man. For this album T Bone Burnett sent me 20 or 25 blues songs and said, “I want you to pick 15.” Some of them you might recognize, but some of them were ancient, and where the writer’s name goes, it just said “public domain.” We did lots of reworking, and T Bone said on the public domain ones, either you claim the royalties or the money goes to the government. When you get up in the top bracket, they take more than 50 percent. If you and I were to rob a bank and we got $4 million—well, $2 million would be yours. But if you take $2 million and 10 cents, I’d have to put a bullet in you, right?
Are you a better singer or organist?
I would think singer. I didn’t play the organ until I got in the Allman Brothers in 1969. But I started playing guitar before my brother, when I was 10 and Duane was 11. I got a guitar and he got one of those little Harley-Davidsons, and he just ran the wheels off that thing. He came home with a big burlap bag over his shoulder, carrying the engine. A few days passed, and he said, “What you got there, bro?” I said, “That is capital M, capital Y guitar. Accent on MY.” And as soon as I put it down, he latched onto that thing: “Come on, man, just teach me which end of this thing to hold.”
You must have been a pretty good teacher.
My father was murdered when I was two. Duane, even though he was only a year and 18 days my elder, he became a father figure to me. I would have done anything for my brother—I loved him so much. And so I showed him the three-chord turnaround that makes up most of blues and rock’n’roll, and he caught right on. He was a sophomore in high school—bang, he quit school, and then he really got good. We’d eat, sleep, shit, and breathe music.
When you got your first big record company check, what did you spend it on?
I paid off my mother’s house and bought me a pair of rattlesnake boots. The next one, I bought a Corvette, and I’ve been driving one ever since. I’m on my ninth now. I crashed just one—an ’81, the worst Corvette ever made. It had an electronic clutch, the tach bounced all over the place, and it didn’t look that good. But the ’80s were kind of strange anyway.
What’s the craziest outfit you ever bought?
In ’74, the first year we were swimming in dough, I had a tailor-made leather jumpsuit. It was atrocious. There was no collar. It was in different shades of brown leather, and it looked like camo.
What were you thinking?
Some woman made it for me, and she was hot.
Somewhat surprisingly, you’re a major-league Star Trek fan. What’s your favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
When they meet the Borg, and they make Captain Picard into one of the collective. [burps] 'Scuse me if I belch. I just drank a Diet Coke. I had to go down today and get my motorcycle license.
No, I never had one. And I’ve been riding since I was 14. [laughs] Isn’t that terrible?
When’s the last time you saw a movie with your ex-wife Cher in it?
The Witches of Eastwick. That was a good flick. We talk every now and then. She’s a good ol’ gal. I wish I could have done her better.
What’s better, songs about love or songs about pain?
Songs about love. Love brings hope, y’know? If I was a younger man, I would answer the other way.