Rocker Gregg Allman, who died May 27 in Richmond Hill, collaborated with his manager Michael Lehman and Grammy Award-winning producer Don Was to make his final album exactly what he wanted.
“There’s a lot of excitement about it,” says Lehman. “The genesis of this record started around 2012, when Gregg had finished his album ‘Low Country Blues’ and he toured behind it. His intent was to go into the studio and record the next studio album. I thought he had a few good studio records in him.”
Just enjoying life
“Around the same time, doctors diagnosed a recurrence of liver cancer,” Lehman says. “They gave him 12 to 18 months with treatment. He decided he was not going to take most of the treatment and was going to just enjoy life.”
Allman lived for five more years instead of the 12 to 18 months he’d been told he had.
“He started to think how to approach the next record,” Lehman says. “He decided that maybe he would write a record of all original tunes.
“That changed to doing covers. He gave me two mandates — he wanted to record with the original Allman Brothers Band and he wanted to record at Fame Studios.
“It took two-plus years to lock down Fame Studios and Gregg’s commitments with the Allman Brothers Band,” Lehman says. “What we were finally able to focus on was 2015.”
Allman and Lehman met with producer Was to plan the album.
“We kicked back and decided to include two original compositions, including one Scott Sharrard wrote and the one Gregg and Scott wrote together, ‘My Only True Friend,’ and some covers,” Lehman says. “The stars aligned, and we were able to go into the studio in March 2016 and record the last album.”
Allman’s final album, “Southern Blood,” was released Sept. 8. It features the song, “My Only True Friend,” which premiered on NPR Music.
Planned as a farewell to his fans, the album features a collection of songs written by Jackson Browne, Willie Dixon, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Lowell George, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn. Many of his fans never knew Allman was sick.
“Gregg was a very, very private man,” Lehman says. “Fans and most of the public only became aware of the fact that Gregg was sick when he canceled the remaining dates of 2016 and took all the dates off in 2017.”
Lehman was Allman’s manager for nearly 15 years. “He’d beat his struggles with alcohol and drugs and was in a creative and happy place in life,” Lehman says. “He set up goals and got back into the studio.
“I would describe him as a very intelligent, shy, Southern gentleman,” Lehman says. “He knew so much about everything, he would always surprise me.
“We’d be in a group and people would ask him about anything — cars, which he had a passion for, architecture, music. He always knew so many answers. He was kind, artistic, loved life, loved animals and never wanted to see anyone suffer.”
Before its official release, the new album’s songs were already getting positive reviews.
“What’s interesting for the public and the fans, now knowing where Gregg was in his life’s journey when he recorded this music, there’s a whole different take to the music,” Lehman says. “It’s a retrospective of his life and his journey.
“Each song touches on it in its own way. Gregg seemed to keep going on. I always joked he had 99 lives.
“Each song talks about life, the importance of life, family, his brother, with several songs being incredibly poignant because it was written by artists he liked or lyrics he liked and wanted to interpret in his own way,” Lehman says. “You never knew what you’d get with Gregg, but it was always fascinating.”
At the end of his life, caregiving fell to Allman’s seventh wife, Shannon Williams, who was devastated at his death. “I was just thinking this week it’s so different than it used to be,” she says. “... Nobody told me time basically stops when you lose someone you love.”
It was love at first sight when the two met.
“We met on a Friday the 13th at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, where I was raised,” Shannon says. “The Allman Brothers got together for the first time in Jacksonville. They left for Macon a week later, but the joke is Jacksonville still claims them.”
Seated in the back of the theater, Shannon went to take some photos up close to the stage. When Allman was in the wings of the stage, he and Shannon caught each other’s eye.
“After about 20 minutes, Gregory turns to the room and says, ‘Excuse me, folks, I’d like to get the chance to meet this lady,’” she says. “As soon as he looked me in the eye, it was very obvious that Gregg Allman was an image and a brand, but also a really shy, sweet Southern gentleman.”
“He played his last show Oct. 29,” Shannon says. “Everything started getting harder and more serious. I had become his full-time caregiver about November.”
While Shannon says Allman was “truly the most fascinating person I had ever met,” watching his decline was hard. Allman hated canceling shows.
“The only times he did it, he had already pushed himself,” Shannon says. “In the last couple of years when he had to cancel shows, I understand people were upset. I encourage them to remember him as human. He fought with the greatest vigor, as a champion to play music for them, to play music with his brothers. He fought so hard to go on the road, and this last year, fought so hard to stay alive.
“I really want fans to remember how much he loved them. He was a beautiful man.”
The album includes the new original song, “My Only True Friend,” written by Allman and Sharrard. “As his producer, I was dedicated to helping Gregg crystallize his vision for the record and to help make sure that this vision made it to the tape,” says Was. “He was a musical hero of mine and, in later years, had become a good friend.
“The gravitas of this particular situation was not lost on me,” he says. “Gregg was a sweet, humble man with a good heart and good intentions and it was a great honor to help him put his musical affairs in order and say a proper farewell.”
Allman’s best friend Chank Middleton, who met the musician in Macon in 1969, describes him as “a shy person.”
“He was one of the best people you’d ever want to meet, very talented,” Middleton says. “He liked living his life. He loved every day of his life, he did.” Middleton was in the recording studio when “Southern Blood” was recorded.
“There is a goodbye in that,” he says. “Like he was telling the world goodbye even before his final day came … Out of all the years of friendship and hardships and ups and down he went through, he never complained. Ever.”
Music director/guitarist Sharrard says the album started about three years ago.
“During that time period, Gregg reconnected with Fame Studios where he cut demos when he was a teenager. It was a fitting bookend to Gregg’s career,” Sharrard says. “It seemed like a very poetic thing that bookended all those things.”
Putting the last album together was a good experience, Sharrard says.
“The mojo and energy were very heavy,” he says. “Also, because of the history in that studio of those great records.
“That’s where Duane started his career,’ Sharrard says of Gregg’s brother, who was co-founder and leader of the band before his death in 1971. “Everything was cut live with whole nine-piece bands.”
‘Music will take care of you’
Sharrard remembers the day he met Allman.
“We had a bond because of music,” he says. “Gregg put music first. That may sound obvious.
“He lived by the axiom, ‘If you take care of music, music will take care of you.’ That’s how you come up with a band as pure as the Allman Brothers.
“When you went to their show, you were getting the truth,” Sharrard says. “That’s how Gregg lived. There’s no way to do it that well if you aren’t that person. He was genuinely that person.”
Sharrard last saw Allman about month before he passed away.
“He was struggling,” Sherrard says. “Obviously, it was the end.
“He was a quaint Southern gentleman. He could be very charming but open and was always genuine.
“He was a very consistent human being in terms of passion,” Sharrard says. “That’s the mark of a great musician.”