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Gregg Allman, the gravel-voiced singer who helped lift the Allman Brothers Band to prominence with a hard-churning brand of soulful rock that became part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s and set the coordinates for a musical genre known as Southern...

Gregg Allman dies at 69; Southern rock trailblazer co-founded band marked by tragedy

Gregg Allman, the gravel-voiced singer who helped lift the Allman Brothers Band to prominence with a hard-churning brand of soulful rock that became part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s and set the coordinates for a musical genre known as Southern...

Gregg Allman dies at 69; Southern rock trailblazer co-founded band marked by tragedy

Gregg Allman, the gravel-voiced singer who helped lift the Allman Brothers Band to prominence with a hard-churning brand of soulful rock that became part of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s and set the coordinates for a musical genre known as Southern rock, died Saturday at the age of 69.

According to a statement posted on his official website, Allman, who had canceled concerts and entire tours in recent years as he battled a variety of health issues, “passed away peacefully at his home in Savannah, Ga.“

With Allman as the frontman, his brother Duane on slide guitar and not one but two drummers, the group became a favorite touring band with its extended and often improvised versions of songs like “Midnight Rider,” “Whipping Post” and “Stormy Monday.”

On Allman’s website, his manager, Michael Lehman, said: “I have lost a dear friend and the world has lost a brilliant pioneer in music. He was a kind and gentle soul with the best laugh I ever heard. His love for his family and bandmates was passionate as was the love he had for his extraordinary fans. Gregg was an incredible partner and an even better friend. We will all miss him.”

Considered a “blues everyman,” Allman was the lead singer, organist and primary songwriter of the group, which he formed with his brother Duane in 1969. While there have been several iterations since, the original troupe consisted of the brothers, guitarist Dickey Betts, bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson, who often goes by the stage name of Jaimoe. Together, the original lineup fused elements of rock, blues and country music and opened the doors for other groups and artists that followed.

With a hulking presence and gravelly, blues-drenched voice, Allman was known as much for his personal travails as his brand of music. His life was often shrouded in tragedy and hard times, from the deaths of several band members (his brother and Oakley both died in similar motorcycle accidents and, more recently, Trucks committed suicide), six failed marriages (one to singer Cher), legal disputes and recurring, highly publicized battles with drugs, alcohol and health problems

Allman and his bandmates became such a cautionary tale about the hard-living rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that they served as source material for the band depicted in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 rock film “Almost Famous.”

"Sure, there have been [difficult times], but I've had lots of good times, too, and that's what I think of when I look back. If I just thought about the bad things, I'd probably be in the rubber room,” Allman told The Times in 1987. "There's a great comfort in the music itself. It's a shame that everybody in life doesn't have something like that ... so that if they fail in business or get your heart broken ... you can still play your music. It helps get you through the darkest times. I hope on my death bed that I'm learning a new chord or writing a new song."

From the Archives: How Gregg Allman sobered up, quit smoking and got his groove back »

Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times Gregg Allman in 1976. Gregg Allman in 1976. (Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times)

With several career highs, such as the band’s highly regarded 1971 live album “Allman Brothers at Fillmore East,” Allman was democratic about where he played, both with the band and through his long solo career, be it a biker club or an arena. He averaged more than 150 shows a year late into his career.

"I care more about playing . . . playing well . . . than about being up on the charts somewhere and it doesn't matter the size of the hall,” he told The Times. “When I look back, some of the greatest gigs were at the Fillmore, but some of the best playing was at rehearsals. I've always tried to play every night as if it was my last show . . . as if the Russians were in Key West and headin' our way."

Born Dec. 8, 1947, in Nashville, Gregory LeNoir Allman was the younger son of Willis Turner Allman and his wife, Geraldine Alice Robbins. His father, who stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II, was murdered by a hitchhiker when Allman was 2 and the family moved to Daytona Beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. There, he and his brother were inspired by late-night blues broadcasts from a Nashville radio station.

Musical pursuits enveloped the brothers and in 1960, when Allman and his brother were just teens, they attended a revue-style show at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium that featured Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, B.B. King and Patti LaBelle. More than the headliners, they were inspired by the band from Orlando that backed up most of the acts.

Duane “was frozen,” Allman wrote in his 2012 memoir, “My Cross to Bear.” “Nothing on his body moved during the whole concert. I had to poke him a couple of times to make sure he was still there with us. That music was in his heart, and it was in mine too.”

Allman said he was the first in the family to start playing music.

"Music is the only thing I've ever done. The only other 'job' I ever had was a paper route and I took that money and bought a guitar,” he said in the 1987 Times interview.

That guitar was a Silvertone that he purchased for $21.95 at Sears. For years, he said, the brothers fought over the guitar.

“Mama had to buy another one for Duane,” he said in a 2013 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “My brother, Duane, could not sing. He said, 'You have to learn to do something.' So I started to sing. I have a reel-to-reel tape recording of my third night attempting to sing. It sounded atrocious."

The brothers debuted onstage as part of a YMCA youth group in Daytona, forming their first band – the Misfits – while attending a military academy in Tennessee. In 1963, the brothers returned to Florida and formed the Shufflers, followed by the Escorts and then the Allman Joys. Allman was so absorbed in music that he skipped his high school graduation for a gig.

Music is the only thing I've ever done. The only other 'job' I ever had was a paper route and I took that money and bought a guitar. — Gregg Allman

As the Vietnam War intensified, Allman decided to find a way to avoid the draft. So he shot himself in the foot — another reason he was better suited to sit at a keyboard than roam the stage with a guitar.

After recording a regional hit song called “Spoonful,” the brothers moved to Los Angeles and recorded two albums for Liberty Records under the band name Hour Glass. Unhappy with their creative output, Duane headed back home while his brother stayed behind with hopes for a solo career.

One day, Duane called up Gregg and asked to come back home to join a new group he was putting together. There was one catch. With Duane and Bettes, there was no room for another guitarist. Duane urged his brother to take up the organ, specifically a Hammond B3. He agreed, and hitchhiked his way home.

“They hoped like hell I could play it,” he said of his conversion from guitar to organ. “I showed them my 22 songs, one was 'Dreams,' the other was 'It's Not My Cross to Bear.' I was in, I belonged, which was great because I'd just spent the last 14 months in California listening to my hair grow. Me and Beverly Hills, it's not my habitat."

The group released its self-titled debut album in 1969 to critical acclaim but abysmal sales. Their second album, “Idlewild South,” which featured his composition “Midnight Rider,” had a much better reception. Increasingly, the group became known for its powerful live shows, often stretching songs into 20-minute jam fests.

Their third album, the monster LP “Allman Brothers at Fillmore East” — recorded at the legendary New York venue — established the group as a national force. The group was midway into recording the eventual follow up, “Eat a Peach,” when Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. His brother’s death took a toll on Allman and the band’s lineup soon began to change.

“We were like Lewis and Clark, man — we were musical adventurers, explorers,” Allman wrote in his memoir. “We were one for all and all for one.”

Duane Allman was regarded as a masterful slide guitarist and before his death had joined forces with Eric Clapton in Derek and the Dominos when the short-lived group recorded “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”. For years, Rolling Stone has listed him as one of the rock’s top 10 guitarists. "He probably was the best slide guitar player who ever lived," Allman said.

Oakley died in a similar motorcycle accident a year later and at the same age as Duane (the two are buried next to each other in Macon, Ga). While the group continued, years of feuding would follow.

The band followed up “Eat a Peach” in 1973 with “Brothers and Sisters,” a commercial success that included the hit “Ramblin’ Man.” While the group endured as one of the most popular rock bands in the U.S., the pressures of success and the excesses of the road took a toll.

“The money really started pouring in, but the money also brought on problems,” Allman said.

Between tours, Allman performed as a solo artist and released several albums before having a surprise hit in 1987 with “I’m No Angel,” a slickly produced album that sold well. The title track was a radio favorite that again lifted Allman’s profile.

But Allman had fallen out of favor with his bandmates after testifying against his personal road manager, John “Scooter” Herring, who was charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Allman had been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony and several members of the band saw it has an act of betrayal. For Betts, Allman’s testimony poisoned the water, and the Allman Brothers Band lineup began to unravel.

Los Angeles Times Dickey Betts, left and Gregg Allman at Central Park concert hall in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1989. Dickey Betts, left and Gregg Allman at Central Park concert hall in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1989. (Los Angeles Times)

A man of excesses, Allman was apparently little different with women. In his memoir, he said that the band’s early road manager charted the legal age of consent in every state and gave a copy to each band member.

“I would have women in four or five different rooms,” Allman boasted in his book. “Mind you, I wouldn’t lie to anybody; I’d just say, ‘I’ll be right back.’”

After having his first child, Michael Sean, with ex-girlfriend Mary Lynn Sutton, he married Shelley Kay Winters in 1971 and had a second son, Devon, the lead singer for the blues group Honeytribe. In 1973, he married Janice Mulkey and then Cher two years later. The two had a son, Elijah Blue, now a singer and guitarist.

Allman and Cher divorced in 1979 and he married Julie Bindas, with whom he had daughter, Delilah Island, before they divorced in 1984. He then married Danille Galliano and, after a 1994 divorce, married Stacey Fountain in 2001. He also had a daughter, Layla Brookln, with Shelby Blackburn, a former girlfriend, He announced his engagement to Shannon Williams in 2012 on “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

The Allman Brothers Band got back together in the early 1980s but Allman said it was a hollow experience.

"The money was still there . . . and the fans, but that didn't impress me,” he told The Times. “I could tell that none of us were really enjoying it anymore.”

The remaining founding members reunited again following the 1989 release of the boxed set “Dreams” and recorded an album, “Seven Turns.”

“It's that way with any band," Allman said of the falling outs and reunions. "You live, eat, sleep, drink, sweat and play in each other's face for a long time. In 1970, we worked 306 nights. We were on tour all year."

Though Allman said the group went through a staggering amount of cocaine and he went to rehab for heroin addiction, he said his personal demon, ultimately, was alcohol.

"People don't realize how insidious a disease alcohol can be. The stuff is legal…. You can't watch a ballgame without someone shoving something in your hand. I've fallen off the wagon a few times, but finally I got to a point where I said, 'Man, what do you want to do with the rest of your life? Keep going into rehab centers or play your music?' "

Allman said he got sober in 1995, the same year the Allman Brothers Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the late 1990s, he tried his hand at acting and appeared in 1991’s “Rush” and HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt.” The big-screen adaptation of “Rush” featured Allman as the sullen Will Gaines, a reputed drug kingpin. Aware of his personal substance abuse history, working on a drug movie that was set in the 1970s didn’t bother him, he said in 1991, because his “problems like that ended a long time ago.”

“I guess if you went through the ’70s and went through the ’60s -- well, I remember bits and pieces of it. It's like Graham Nash told me: 'Anybody who says they remember the ’60s wasn't there.'"

He released another solo album, “Searching for Simplicity,” in 1997 that featured an unplugged version of 1969’s “Whipping Post.” In 2011, he recorded “Low Country Blues,” his 11th studio album.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times Gregg Allman performs at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio in 2015. Gregg Allman performs at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio in 2015. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

His later years were marked with health problems and disappointments, such as the uncompleted biopic “Midnight Rider.” During filming on a set of active train tracks in Georgia, a crew member was struck and killed by an oncoming train. The film’s director eventually pleaded guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter. The film was never completed.

In 2010, Allman had a liver transplant after contracting hepatitis C, which he blamed on a dirty needle that was used during a tattoo session. Then, citing health issues, Allman began canceling concerts with regularity. He canceled a tour in 2011 because of a respiratory infection, dumped shows in 2016 because of unspecified "serious health issues" and called off another tour in 2016. In early 2017, Allman’s spokesman denied rumors that the musician was under hospice care.

But the Allman Brothers Band, and its newest iterations, continued despite the absence of the band’s namesakes. When asked by Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2012 if the band might actually outlive both Allman brothers, he said, "I'd like to think so…I'd really like to think so.”

Allman is survived by five children and several grandchildren.

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