Maybe more than any of their peers, The Allman Brothers Band were a group defined by eras, personalities and tragedies. Between the outfit’s 1969 self-titled debut and their last official studio album, 2003’s Hittin’ The Note, they released 12 studio albums and six officially-released live albums, including the career-defining live set At Fillmore East in 1971, and countless bootlegged and band-sanctioned collections of their legendary shows, which even until the end, routinely lasted more than three hours.
But tragedies and personality clashes defined the band’s output over the years, beginning with founding member and lead guitarist Duane Allman’s sudden death in a motorcycle accident in 1971 and the subsequent death of original bassist Berry Oakley in an eerily-similar situation a year later. Following Duane’s death, guitarist Dickey Betts took on a larger role in the band’s direction, producing a notable shift away from their bluesier beginnings and towards a more major-keyed, southern rock aesthetic that produced songs like “Ramblin’ Man,” the group’s only top 5 hit on the Hot 100, while Warren Haynes’ introduction in the 1980s added another strong songwriter to the mix.
Over the years, Gregg Allman, the gritty, soulful heart of the band that bore his name, remained its principal figure, and its most influential songwriter. With Gregg Allman’s death today (May 27) at the age of 69, Billboard looks back at the 20 greatest Allman Brothers songs in roughly chronological order.
“Whipping Post” (1969)
The band’s showstopper until the end, “Whipping Post” was arguably the Allman Brothers’ greatest achievement, with an idiosyncratic 11/4 key signature in the intro, a gut-wrenchingly heartrending vocal from Gregg Allman and extended, high-flying solo sections that allowed both of the band’s guitarists to stretch out and build to a blindingly tense crescendo, brought all the way back home by Allman’s formidable voice. No matter which of the hundreds of versions is your favorite, “Whipping Post” represents all that the Allmans could achieve when firing on all cylinders.
One of Gregg Allman’s most somber vocal performances, “Dreams” is a simple song that allowed the band to stretch out and show off what it could do, in a way that managed to be both forlorn and sad, and also freed from restriction. It remained a staple in their set lists for decades.
“Black Hearted Woman” (1969)
An early rip-roaring blues, “Black Hearted Woman” was a sign of what the band would eventually prove so skillful at pulling off: complex, emotional yet badass guitar work supplemented by a once-in-a-generation voice, delivered with stunning exactitude.
“It’s Not My Cross to Bear” (1969)
The one-two punch of “Don’t Want You No More” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” — the opening songs on their debut album, always played in tandem — are among the band’s best show-openers, and “Cross to Bear,” a classic apocalyptic blues cut, is relentlessly raw and one of Gregg Allman’s greatest vocal performances. As he aged, the song got more mournful in its delivery, but never lost its resonance.
“Midnight Rider” (1970)
If “Whipping Post” is the Allmans’ greatest achievement, then “Midnight Rider” might be their most iconic song, particularly for Gregg Allman himself. It’s relatively simple, compared to the majority of the band’s catalog, but it’s the spirit of the song — “The road goes on forever,” Allman sings wistfully — that makes it such a key part of their musical identity. The open road that fueled Gregg’s lifelong love of motorcycles, and contributed to the demise of Duane and Oakley, has always been a driving force for the group, and “Midnight Rider” is its ultimate theme.
The Allman Brothers may have emerged from the end of the hippie era, and certainly engaged in plenty of the mind-expanding drugs and the spirit that came along with it. But the group’s grounding in the blues tradition meant that the peace-love-happiness themes that ran through the songs of many of their peers rarely reared its head in their own music. A rare exception to that is Idlewild South album opener “Revival,” with its “Love is everywhere” singalong chorus — making the song both an outlier, and a welcome dose of levity.
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (1970)
Another extended instrumental from their catalog, “Reed” is one of Betts’ first show-stopping songs, and it’s one of the few that gives Allman a chance to show off what he could do on the Hammond B-3 organ, admittedly not his strongest suit — that would be his voice, of course — but one in which he was more than competent. This Allman Brothers song’s title also nods to one of the band’s most enduring myths; that they would rehearse in an old cemetery in Georgia, and lifted song titles from headstones.
“Mountain Jam” (1970)
The Allman Brothers often get lumped in with The Grateful Dead as one of the pillars of the jam band scene, but they remained markedly distinct from the Dead’s often-meandering explorations that would just as often peter out into nothingness as produce moments of transcendent magic. “Mountain Jam” was the closest they really ever got to the Dead in that respect, but the jam, which would often extend 30 minutes or more — the 1970 live album version recorded at Ludlow Garage is famously 44 minutes long — also was an example of what always set the Allmans apart: no matter where the song would go, it would always come right back to where it started, with its main theme based on Donovan’s 1967 hit “There Is a Mountain.”
“Little Martha” (1972)
Simple yet complex, short but powerful, “Little Martha” closed out Eat a Peach and served as Duane Allman’s swan song, a finger-picked farewell that, quite frankly, could not have been written by any other guitarist. Allman certainly had more high-flying and overtly impressive moments, but there’s something about “Little Martha” that was the perfect sendoff for such a singular talent.
“Blue Sky” (1972)
One of the last songs recorded by Duane Allman before his death, the Betts-delivered vocals are saccharine-sweet without being overly-sappy, while the twin guitar solos by Allman and Betts showcase just how effortlessly in tune and precise the two could be. There may not have ever been a better pairing of two lead guitarists in their prime in rock history than Allman and Betts, and “Blue Sky” is among their greatest showpieces. That Duane died before their Eat a Peach album was released is still one of rock’s saddest tales.
A Gregg Allman showcase, written well before the group was founded, “Melissa” was included on Eat a Peach due to it being one of Duane’s favorite songs that his brother had written. Over the years, Gregg would occasionally perform it solo on an acoustic guitar, and its forlorn lyrics and simple structure made it a favorite among fans, and one of Gregg’s best.
“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” (1972)
Eat a Peach may have been the band’s greatest studio moment, but it was largely an album split down the middle, between songs recorded both before and after Duane’s death. This Allman Brothers song was written and recorded during the latter period, and epitomized their attempts to move forward, trying to take Duane’s death as a lesson to seize what was in front of them rather than wallow in self-pity. The result is one of the greatest songs in their catalog, and one of Gregg’s best in particular.
A seven-minute instrumental in its original studio version, “Jessica” is the brainchild of Betts and served as a showstopper for both his regimented guitar work and piano player Chuck Leavell’s silky keys. Its arpeggiated opening phrase is instantly-recognizable, and its structure shows off all of Betts’ melodic and songwriting genius. Few could make seemingly endless instrumentals compelling throughout, while totally avoiding repetition and aimlessness.
“Ramblin Man” (1973)
Ironically, the band’s biggest hit was also one of the songs that feels most out of character for them in retrospect. Written and sung by Betts, it is one of the few songs in their early repertoire that was completely removed from the blues tradition, and though its lyrics maintained the spirit of songs like “Midnight Rider,” it’s an outlier for the most part.
A piano-based, pulsing blues that Betts wrote while taking advantage of Leavell’s dexterity, “Southbound” is one of the best original blues tracks. It fell out of favor with the band over the years, as Betts was in and out of the group due to personality clashes with Gregg Allman and drummer Butch Trucks. But the original recording is still masterful in its execution.
“Just Ain’t Easy” (1979)
Gregg Allman has earned his rightful respect as one of the most soulful white blues-soul singers of his generation. But “Just Ain’t Easy” goes above and beyond, and is even more of a gem given its relative lack of notoriety; it’s buried towards the end of 1979’s Enlightened Rogues, and stands next to early track “Please Call Home” as among Gregg’s best vocal performances.
“No One to Run With” (1994)
A late-period track from 1994’s Where It All Begins, “No One to Run With” is nonetheless one of the band’s best for both its composition, written by Betts, and its lyrical themes, delivered by Allman. The theme of death has often run through much of the Allmans’ music — both in the classic blues preoccupation with damnation, and because it seemed to follow the band no matter where it went anyway — and “No One to Run With” is an ode to fallen comrades that still manages to be a celebration in its own way.
Warren Haynes’ introduction to the band in the 1980s reinvigorated The Allman Brothers, after a period of various different guitar players who played second fiddle to Betts throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. Perhaps more importantly, Haynes proved himself to be a formidable songwriter in his own right, with “Soulshine” among his best contributions to the group’s history over the years.
“High Cost of Low Living” (2003)
From the band’s final album, Hittin’ The Note, the song is a great example of what Gregg Allman was able to do throughout his extensive career, with gritty vocals about the underside of life that managed to both inspire and lament simultaneously, accompanied by guitar work that was unmatched, this time by Haynes and a young Derek Trucks. It may not have the long history of some of the band’s greatest songs, but it matched the greats in its quality and delivery.
“Old Before My Time” (2003)
Haynes and Gregg Allman co-wrote this one for that 2003 album, and it may endure as Allman’s last iconic composition, and one that wearily summed up a life full of body blows and tragedies — but one that continued to soldier on through sheer resilience. Its lyrics are some of the most poetic that Allman ever penned, and heartbreaking to both read and hear: “Now all the things that used to mean so much to me/ Have made me old before my time.” But it may be the song’s final line that, alongside “Midnight Rider” all those years before, ties his whole career together: “There is a long, hard road/ That lies so far behind me…”