Please Call Home: A Conversation Between an Allman Brothers Superfan and His Son on the Band's Impact
The Allman Brothers Band have been present in this music journalist’s life for as long as I’ve known about music, thanks to growing up in a suburban New Jersey household where they were viewed as the best-case scenario of rock ’n’ roll. This was chiefly due to my dad, Albert Weiss, 63, who was a childhood blues fan lovestruck in his teens by “Les Brers in A Minor” from 1972’s landmark Eat a Peach, and went on to see them live over a hundred times since, and met several of the band members.
The Allmans are almost the quintessential Dad Band for many people currently in their 20s or 30s, but they have defined and framed my family’s trajectory to unusual lengths. From this conditioning, I can almost directly credit many things about my taste, particularly my bias towards harmonies, to growing up steeped in this band’s dual guitar playing. But for my dad, the impact of singer/keyboardist Gregg Allman’s death at age 69 on Saturday was an end to more than the band era. So for Billboard I spoke to him at length about how the Allman Brothers have intersected with his entire life; in love with my mother, Naomi, in friendships -- even in medical procedures.
When did you first discover The Allman Brothers Band?
I was originally listening to blues musicians like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, probably when I was around 11, 12, and some traditional folk music before then -- Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs. Blues music was something that I really enjoyed, but it was limited, kind of repetitive.
When The Allman Brothers came along and I first heard them, it was much more interesting to me: blues with jazz layered on it and other things going on. It grabbed me right away, and from the first album I was a fan. I bought the LPs, but unfortunately I didn’t see them until after both Duane and Berry had died, so the first time I saw them was at Madison Square Garden in 1973, and I was blown away.
How many times did you see them?
In the early days, probably a few times a year. I would see them in Philadelphia, New York, Long Island… I didn’t really travel any further than that, but I would see them locally. In later years, in 1989 when they started playing [their annual residency] at the Beacon, I would see them five or six, even eight times. I probably saw The Allman Brothers Band themselves 150 times, and I saw the other guys -- Gregg’s band, Dickey’s band, Warren Haynes in Gov’t Mule -- maybe another 50 times.
What was the moment you knew they were your favorite band?
That first show I went to, at Madison Square Garden, they did an instrumental song called “Les Brers in A Minor,” which I knew from listening to [1972’s] Eat a Peach, but it was my first time seeing it live, and I got goosebumps, and that just grabbed me.
When you’d go to the shows, they’d have the lighting and the videos projecting on the back of the stage, they were at the forefront of that. And when you watch that stuff, it would be 90% black images up there — John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, more contemporary artists. You couldn’t go to the shows and see the images of Sonny Boy Williamson flashed up there and really ignore the multicultural element; it was in their rider that they refused to play segregated shows, which was a big statement coming from a band living in the south. Maybe if Led Zeppelin toured here they weren’t aware of that sort of thing. And the Allmans always credited the songs, the way they performed and honored [the black music tradition] they were always respectful -- no one ever sued them.
And I was always a big fan of Gregg’s voice. I generally favor female vocalists most of the time, but he was one of my first favorite male singers. Just a terrific voice, real natural, and I think he got better over the years.
A lot of bands from their day simply did not get better, and while there are many bands where fans insist they’ve still got it, it’s a generally acknowledged thing that the Allmans were as good as ever in their later days, or even better than before. Considering that they weren’t particularly in step with the times or anything, why do you think they got better?
I’ve discussed this many times with people, and some people will never knowledge it -- there will always be people who think they’re just not as good as they used to be. And most bands, it’s probably true. But the Allmans got better for two reasons: Duane was a great guitar player from the beginning, but he only played for a few years. Duane died at such a young age, and musicians get better with time, they learn more things. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks are just so good, they’ve been playing for so long and they’ve gotten better.
And the other reason is Gregg was a natural singer at the beginning, but he’s singing these blues songs by all these older, black artists, and he’s this young kid who’s 20 years old; he hadn’t really lived and hadn’t done much. After some drug problems and a lot of wives and a couple of livers, being on the road as long as he was, his songs started to feel more lived-in.
Gregg never really carried himself like the leader or a frontman, which was interesting.
Gregg was the singer and the name guy, the only Allman left. But he was almost like a sideman. The leader onstage was Warren in the later days, Duane early on. Gregg would [stay] kind of to himself, walking his dog. He never came over to where the fans were. He wasn’t standoffish or unfriendly -- people are always talking about how warm he was -- but he was probably a little shy. Butch was very in charge of the multimedia, the video screens at the performances, and Warren and Derek probably controlled the set lists, but Gregg would just go out and play. I think I’ve met and spoken to everyone in the band except Gregg.
Were you too intimidated to approach him?
No. When you were at gatherings, he would generally be sitting off on his own. When the family went to see them in Atlanta, Gregg was sitting two tables over, but because he was a private guy, we didn’t want to bother him.
What’s the most memorable conversation you’ve had with anyone from the band?
In Atlanta, I got to hang out with Oteil Burbridge, the bass player, and he was leading some kind of Christian prayer service on the roof of where we were staying, talking about Jesus and overcoming his demons and addictions… it was an interesting way to celebrate Yom Kippur.
I think my favorite discussions were with Warren Haynes and Allen Woody, before watching them play at a place called Liz Reed’s in Macon. Just talking to them and Gov’t Mule’s drummer Matt Abts about music on the sidewalk in front of the hotel for an hour. One of my memorable conversations was with Jaimoe, the drummer, who was staying at a hotel in Cherry Hill literally around the corner from me, and my friend Terri knew he was at the bar. She was talking to him and called me to come over, and it was a very weird experience. He was drinking champagne mixed with beer, which I’ve never before or since seen anybody drinking.
What’s the story behind the mural of the Allman Brothers’ logo on the wall of your old bedroom in my grandparents’ house?
I was still living in my parents’ house and I may have been 17, and I started dating the woman I’ve been married to for 39 years now, who’s a very talented artist that painted the Allman Brothers’ mushroom logo in bright orange on the wall of my bedroom in great detail. My parents were very permissive, and kept it up until they sold the house. I’m sure the people who bought the house thought the giant mushroom was part of a Satanic ritual or something.
After I turned 61, I got a tattoo of the band’s “eat a peach” logo — the first tattoo I’ve ever gotten. I wasn’t about to get a tattoo when I was 17, partly because it was less acceptable in those days if you weren’t in the navy or a motorcycle gang, and partly because I had a deathly fear of needles and didn’t even want to get a vaccination or anything.
Did you introduce Mom to The Allman Brothers?
There’s a good story there. We used to listen to them in the car and I’m sure she somewhat enjoyed them, especially some of the more melodic songs, “Blue Sky,” “Melissa”… and I think she enjoyed some of the blues stuff. But I had never brought her to the shows, and at one point I finally took her to a show at the Mann Music Center outside Philadelphia, and Dickey had apparently gotten into a fight with his girlfriend, was put in jail for a night or two, and couldn’t play.
It had to be 1979 or possibly 1980 -- not the best lineup of the band -- and they picked up a guitar player from some other band, who was probably a competent guitar player but they basically rushed through the songs, no jamming; it was a very unusual show. And my wife looked at me and said, “This is what you’ve been making such a big deal about?” [Laughs.] Of all of the shows I’ve seen it was probably the only one I would say was a bad show.
What was the best show you’ve seen?
They did a 40th anniversary run at the Beacon, and they always have guests at the Beacon, including one amazing show with Eric Clapton sitting in, but I was there for the actual 40th anniversary show in the middle of the run. They didn’t have any guests that night, whom you’d usually look forward to, but that night was special, and they did only the original music and none of the later stuff.
Another memorable experience was when my wife and my daughter and I went to Atlanta to see them do three shows at the Fox, another historic theater. We stayed in the same hotel as the band; we ended up on the elevator with Derek Trucks and his family. I used to tell people the best shows with the Allmans were when they would settle in, at the Fox for three nights or the Beacon a few nights in, really clicking and enjoying themselves and not between traveling.
What about in the ‘70s?
Probably that Madison Square Garden show, touring Brothers and Sisters in 1973. It was ridiculously long, probably close to four hours. I had catch the train back to Jersey and I didn’t want to leave. There was a New Jersey State Fair show where they arrived by helicopter and that was fun. I never saw Duane or Berry when they were alive, so the later shows were probably the best shows.
How did you get involved with the band’s fan community?
I used to go to concerts mostly by myself or with one friend, but around 1995 I heard about GABBA, the band’s fan association, and I decided to fly down to Macon, Georgia for this fan gathering and met all kinds of people. I went to this place, The Big House, a building the Allmans used to stay in which has since turned into a museum for the band and a bed-and-breakfast. This guy Kirk West owns it, who’s like this old hippie mystic, interacting with fans and playing us tracks from the Gregg Allman anthology that hadn’t been released yet. He started talking to some fans and asking them where they’re from and they said New Jersey, and my ears perked up, and it turned out the woman, Terri, lived right around the corner from me. We became good friends and have probably gone to about 100 Allman-related shows together alone.
Last thing I wanted to ask about was that I remember you telling me that you used to put on “Mountain Jam” in your earbuds during surgery.
I had forgotten about that… I started with a dentist who would give you nitrous and let you choose your music. If I had a root canal I gravitated to stuff that was long, so yeah, 33 minutes of “Mountain Jam.” Didn’t want to have the song end and then start hearing the drill or something.