Gregg Allman, who died yesterday (May 27) at the age of 69, was one of the greatest blues-rock singers of his generation, and maybe the greatest white blues singer of all time. And throughout The Allman Brothers Band’s four-decade-plus reign, the group never strayed far from their bluesy roots, and some of their best-known songs weren’t ones they wrote — but classics by those blues artists who inspired and paved the way for bands like The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.
But The Allman Brothers, maybe more than any other artist — with the possible exceptions of Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan — also made sure to pay tribute to those artists who crafted and recorded some of the songs the Allmans later made famous, shouting out the likes of Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters as often as they possibly could.
After Gregg Allman’s passing this weekend, Billboard looks at seven classic blues songs that the Allman Brothers incorporated into decades of set lists and, ultimately, made their own over the years.
If there was one song that defined the Allman Brothers’ rip-roaring live sets, it was the pulsing and energetic Blind Willie McTell cut “Statesboro Blues” that served to introduce the world to what a slide guitar — specifically, Duane Allman’s slide guitar — could do. The blistering first notes, which propel the song’s backbone throughout, are iconic in the lineage of slide adaptations through their sheer clarity and purposefulness, and Gregg Allman’s vocals on the Fillmore version — heartfelt and forceful, with a bit of a sly wink tossed in here and there — including brother Duane’s flourishes behind them, made this one of the songs most associated with the band over the decades.
“One Way Out”
The simplicity of the guitar lines that propel “One Way Out” may be the song’s most resonant aspect, but this is one where the dual rhythm section of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe really shone in setting the tone. Gregg Allman’s interpretation of Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James’ lyrics, always tinged with a humorous irony in telling the tale, made it a fan favorite over the years, while as always the guitar work and the tightness of the band made their version more than the sum of its parts. And the Gregg-led outro, with his voice taking center stage and leading the band, is one of the reasons he’s among the best to ever have done it.
“Trouble No More”
This song, lifted from Muddy Waters and dusted with a swinging slide hook, was a rollicking-yet-concise addition to a set list that, particularly in the band’s early days, would extend reflexively. Sometimes it’s the simplicity of a great blues song that makes it stand out the most, but Gregg Allman in particular never met a lyric that he couldn’t grind some extra grit out of, and his treatment has always been a testament to the authenticity of the blues — if you don’t feel it deep inside and communicate that while performing it, what’s the point? They always found it.
“Done Somebody Wrong”
“We got an old Elmore James song to play for you…” is how Duane Allman introduced “Done Somebody Wrong” during the band’s iconic At Fillmore East performance, and for those who listened closely to the recording, this song is famous for the dog barking in the background. But the tripwire-tight siren of Allman’s slide is what sticks out to most others, and, as with “Statesboro,” this one became a staple in the band’s repertoire for years — more associated with the Allmans than with James in the end.
“You Don’t Love Me”
The Allman Brothers’ version of this old Willie Cobbs song, based on a rendition by Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, was always a bouncy, upbeat one, incongruous against the heartbreak-heavy lyrics, but sometimes that’s what makes for the best result. In keeping with their tradition of both paying tribute but making a song completely their own, “You Don’t Love Me” was at times a blazing-quick showcase, at others an extended, 20-plus minute vehicle to work through other material (the Fillmore version famously included a both a bluegrass section and a drawn-out interpolation of “Joy To the World”). But it was always effective.
The T-Bone Walker classic — Duane Allman referenced the Bobby “Blue” Bland version on the Fillmore album — has been covered by everyone from Clapton to B.B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but the Allmans’ version was always so understated and melancholic, based more on Gregg Allman’s organ swells than the guitar pyrotechnics the band is most known for, that it stood out in their repertoire. The vocal is so delicate at times as to be almost fragile, but with a conviction that makes it devastating at the same time. Its simplicity also allowed for some extended virtuosity, which the band rarely lacked.
“Hoochie Coochie Man”
As close as you could get to a blues standard this side of “Like a Rolling Stone,” this Willie Dixon song first made famous by Muddy Waters is the foundation of countless bands and songs over the years. But the way The Allman Brothers put it together was so different that it set it apart from any others. Driven by original bassist Berry Oakley’s vocals, the Allmans’ version, first recorded on their 1970 sophomore album Idlewild South, is a hell-raiser that combines explosive guitar lines with near-silent dynamics, giving a trusty favorite a fresh coat of paint and showcasing a young band firing on all cylinders.