See more of Smith’s rare, vintage photos of the Allman Brothers Band here.
You are Sidney Smith. It’s the fall of 1970. You are a 16-year-old Fortier High School student and you’ve wanted to be a rock star photographer for ever since you can remember.
Your old man, an amateur photographer, died, leaving you with a stash of cameras, and you sure in the hell had no intention of using them to take pictures of birds or trees or flowers or sunsets. You were going to photograph rock stars for a living. You knew intuitively that those cameras would one day be your ticket into the inner sanctum of rock royalty. You and your best friend at Fortier, Grant Cooper, go to see the Allman Brothers play at Tulane University’s homecoming dance. That is literally where they were playing—the Kendall Cram room at Tulane University in front of a bunch of frat boys.
A far cry from Fillmore East and Fillmore West.
You couldn’t help but laugh when you realized they had no idea who they had in their presence: The Allman Brothers. The group Rolling Stone would call the best damned band in the country less than two years later. They were screaming, “Play ‘Wipeout’!” “Play ‘Gloria’!”
The Brothers were little more than one year old as a band that night at Tulane. All these years later, you still can’t believe how stupid those frat boys were but you admired that the Brothers were accommodating them. They were just having fun onstage. That was their way and always would be.
It’s 40 years later and you still remember that night like it was yesterday. You had your camera in hand and you were just taking pictures. It was the very first band you would ever take pictures of in concert. You remember Berry Oakley offering you what you thought were illegal drugs. It was actually just snuff and you said, “No Berry, I never touch the stuff” and Berry said. “It’s just snuff, kid.”
You were only 16. Not yet versed in the ways of the world yet. What the hell did you know about drugs?
You met their road manager at the time, met all the roadies. That would serve you well in the not-too-distant future. After that performance at Tulane, you wouldn’t see the Allman Brothers Band again for a year but when you saw them again you were ready. You showed them all the pictures you had taken of them a year prior. They all loved those damned pictures and they invited you into their inner circle.
“The band was very easy to talk to at the time. They were outgoing and they were having fun just like everybody else was. There were no superstar attitudes. Duane was extremely affable. Butch Trucks was extremely affable. They all were affable guys.”
Even that crazy little bastard Dickey Betts was affable as you recall.
As you would later learn, Betts was bipolar. He could be the nicest person in the world one second, then turn on you the next. You remember how Dickey could fight as well as he could play the guitar. Yeah, Dickey knew how to fight for a wiry little son of a bitch. He was an expert in kung fu and karate and all that stuff. You had seen Dickey fight on more than one occasion and you felt sorry for any poor bastard unfortunate enough to cross paths with him.
“In 1972, the band got arrested at City Park Stadium, and at the time they were doing a lot of drugs. I remember that they bashed in Dickey’s door at the Marie Antoinette Hotel and Dickey didn’t recognize them as being cops so he just started fighting with them. They cracked him in the face with a billy club and he went down. But the whole band ended up staying in jail all night long. The next day Dickey and Gregg went out and played for free in City Park. Dickey had a crack over his eye at the time.
“They were addicted to playing. They would come out. They would play at the concert. They would go back to the hotel and play at the bar. They would come and play the next day for free.”
You and Dickey became close friends. Same thing with you and Butch Trucks.
Those are the two you became closest to. You knew when it came to that crazy little bastard Betts it was best to keep a respectful distance, though. Watch what you say. Watch the way you approached him. Yeah he was bipolar all right, but you still idolized him because he was such a driving force.
Dickey came up with “Ramblin’ Man,” a country tune but a really cool country tune. A sharp departure from anything the Brothers had ever done previously. Dickey even thought it might be too country to put on the Brothers and Sisters album. Today, it’s hard to imagine the band ever debated releasing “Ramblin’ Man.” It became the most successful commercial hit in the band’s history, rising all the way to number two on Billboard’s singles chart. Cher’s “Half- Breed” is the only song that topped it on the charts.
“You had to understand the Allman Brothers Band was six individuals that all came from different backgrounds. Butch (Trucks) was classically trained. Jaimoe (Johanson) was African congas, more of an African type of influence. Duane and Gregg were classically trained. Berry Oakley had a jazz background. And you had all these different influences coming together to create what became southern rock.”
You remember that time down in Mississippi when the band got busted and they had to put Jaimoe in a special jail and the five white members of the group in one jail. Jaimoe was Black and a Black man in a southern rock band was rare in those days. It pissed off the cops who didn’t much like these longhaired hippie freaks anyway.
“I’ve got copies of the mug shots. You could see Duane was smiling this hideous smile on his face, and everybody else took it pretty seriously.”
But you knew from hanging out with the band that that was Duane’s way. He loved life. He loved living life. Couldn’t haven’t been more different than his younger brother. By contrast, Gregg was a morose soul. To this day, you are surprised that Duane was the one who died and Gregg is the one still alive. You marvel that three rock gods that should be dead today—Gregg, Keith Richards and David Crosby—have defied the odds and live on.
You saw them every time they came to New Orleans, and you followed them to a few other cities. You started amassing this collection of Allman Brothers photos. After Duane died, you started shooting a lot of pictures of Berry Oakley. You didn’t know why, but you felt like something was going to happen to Berry Oakley and you just started shooting tons of pictures of Oakley— onstage, offstage—and sure enough he was killed a year later in the exact same way Duane died.
So, you had this large collection of Allman Brothers photographs. You would take pictures of the road crew and show them pictures of themselves and they got off on it. You realized all that schmoozing stopped your ass from getting thrown off stages. This was a biker road crew, after all. They were rough and tumble guys, and you saw more than one photographer go flying. But, the road crew was good to you, and you still know them all to this very day.
“In 1973, I had gone to Macon, Georgia. I had parlayed or lobbied myself into being the Capricorn Records photographer by going to Macon on several occasions to see Butch or Dickey. [Capricorn] offered me a job as their photographer. The Capricorn thing wasn’t a guarantee of income either, but as an 18-year-old kid at the time, I was thrilled at the prospect of going to work for the record company and hanging out with the Allman Brothers.”
By this point, Duane’s death had taken a severe toll on Gregg. You remember him approaching you in a cocaine-induced state and asking you to come to his house tomorrow. He said he needed to talk to you about something. You went, but he forgot he invited you in the first place. Still, he asked you in that whiskey voice of his to come on in the house.
“So, I sat there across from him on his couch and he says, ‘Now what I want you to do is—I’m going out of town, and I need you to photograph my wife going in and out of the house. I want you to stay up in the tree outside.’”
You’re thinking to yourself, “This crazy fuck must be joking” as you nodded your head. You’re 18 years old and Gregg Allman is telling you he wants you to hide out in the tree in front of his house and photograph his wife as she goes in and out of her house because he’s confident she is having an affair.
Dickey, Butch and Gregg told you they have a special place in their hearts for New Orleans. Those New Year’s Eve concerts—1970, ’71 and ’72—at the Warehouse lasted until sunrise and are stuff of rock legend. By the time the Allman Brothers opened the Superdome with Marshall Tucker and Wet Willie at the Grand Opening Rock Concert in August of 1975, the road crew had changed. They were fired for beating up a Capricorn executive, and you didn’t know any of the new guys. Your formal association with the band had ended, but what a midnight ride.
You’re Sidney Smith and your life has come full circle. You take your teenage son to see the Allman Brothers in Tampa. After the show, Jaimoe gives the kid a T-shirt. The whole damned band autographs it except for Gregg. The kid is freaking out. He wants Gregg’s autograph on that shirt. You tell the kid to chill. You say he’s probably in the hotel bar. Sure enough, Gregg is at the hotel bar alone. You approach Gregg with the kid and Gregg says in his whiskey voice, “How far along are you, kid?” You tell your son that’s Gregg’s way of asking your age, and Gregg launches into a rambling story about how when he was that age, his mom sent him and Duane to boarding school in Tennessee, and how much he hated that fuckin’ military school.
“I hated that headmaster so damned much, and then when it came time for Vietnam you know my brother Duane shot me in the foot,” Allman says. “We had a foot shooting party and he shot me in the foot to stop me from going to Vietnam. Man, that hurt! But we had to get all liquored up first.”
You politely ask Gregg to sign the shirt and he says, “Shirt? What shirt?”
And Gregg looks up at the TV screen in the bar at Whitney Houston and says, “So fuckin’ predictable.”
You see two groupies approach from the hotel elevator and Gregg finally signs the shirts and you lose him to the two groupies.
It’s 40 years later. You will be at Jazz Fest 2010 when the Allman Brothers perform, and all the while those early days in Macon, Georgia and The Warehouse and The Cow Palace will be running through your head, and you will be thinking the whole time that time hasn’t changed a thing.