It’s the Summer of ’69 and the Allman Brothers are opening for Dr. John at the Boston Tea Party. They’re just 18 months away from the first of three consecutive legendary concerts at The Warehouse in New Orleans. And, although Gregg Allman and Dr. John would go on to develop an enduring bond over the years, their friendship hardly got off to a rousing start.
”I thought he was a dork,” said Gregg in his 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear. “The way he talked, I thought he was jive, because I figured he was just putting it on. I mean, ‘They call me Doctor—Dr. John.’” When Allman walked back to the New Orleans witch doctor/musician’s dressing room and witnessed three women tying scarves around Dr. John’s arms, popping his biceps and giving him what he called his “conniption drops,” he realized that Dr. John was putting on no act.
Things didn’t get any better between the two when Dr. John started tossing gris-gris all over the place and a handful of it landed in Allman’s brand-new B3 organ. “Basically, they were these bags he had hanging around each shoulder which were leather or goatskin and smelled kinda funky,” Gregg told author Alan Light. “He threw that gris-gris shit all in my Hammond. Gris-gris my ass. It was gold glitter and it went down through the keys, down into the stops, gumming the oil up.”
It cost Gregg just south of two hundred dollars to fix it—a small fortune in those days—rendering him without cold beer money for the foreseeable future. According to Allman in My Cross to Bear, things took a fast turn for the better after one of those Boston gigs when Dr. John approached the band after the show. “You all are pretty good. You all from Alabama? I’m from Nawlins. You know, you got off to kind of a slow start tonight, and I was getting a little paranoid there, but after a while you all got it cookin’ Jack. Them folks out there, boogying in the house and they wasn’t leaving.”
After that encounter, Gregg realized that this witch doctor from New Orleans named Dr. John was his kind of people.
It’s November 1970 and the Allman Brothers are seven weeks away from that first New Year’s Eve concert at The Warehouse. They’re playing Tulane’s homecoming dance at the Kendall Cram room. Some hardcore Allman Brothers approach the band and ask if they can get in and the band agrees, allowing those fans to walk in alongside them. Sidney Smith was there that night taking in the Allman Brothers for the first time. Smith was a 16-year-old Fortier High School student dreaming of being a rock star photographer. Smith’s father, an amateur photographer, died, leaving him with a stash of cameras, and he had no intention of using them to take pictures of birds or trees or flowers or sunsets. He was going to photograph rock stars for a living. He knew intuitively that those cameras would one day be his ticket into the inner sanctum of rock royalty.
Smith couldn’t help but laugh when he realized those Tulane frat boys had no idea who they had in their presence. These were the Allman Brothers—the group Rolling Stone would call the best 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 he still can’t believe how clueless those frat boys were but he admired that the Brothers were accommodating them. They were just having fun onstage. That was their way and always would be.
“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. They were all affable guys. I had my camera in hand and I was just taking pictures. It was the very first band I would ever take pictures of in concert,” remembers Smith. “I remember Berry Oakley offering me what I thought were illegal drugs. It was actually just snuff and I said, ‘No Berry, I never touch the stuff,’ and Berry said, ‘It’s just snuff, kid.’”
Sidney met their road manager at the time, met all the roadies. That would serve him well in the not-too-distant future. After that performance at Tulane he wouldn’t see the Allman Brothers Band again for a year but when he saw them again he was ready. He showed them all the pictures he had taken of them a year prior. They all loved those pictures. Gregg loved them so much he paid Sidney one hundred dollars to send them to his grandmother in Florida. By the tender age of 18, Sidney Smith had landed in the Allman Brothers’ inner circle.
Smith said the band was addicted to playing in the days before restrictive contracts.
“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.”
Smith saw them every time they came to New Orleans, and followed them to a few other cities. So, he had this large collection of Allman Brothers photographs. He would take pictures of the road crew and show them pictures of themselves and they got off on it. He realized all that schmoozing stopped him from getting thrown off stages. This was a biker road crew, after all. They were rough and tumble guys, and Sidney saw more than one photographer go flying. But the road crew was good to him and he still knows them all to this day.
Duane’s death had taken a severe toll on Gregg and he battled addiction for years. Yet Sidney said Allman had cleaned up his act in the last twenty years and played at an exceptionally high level in the final years of his life. Gregg told him those New Year’s Eve concerts at The Warehouse—1970, ’71 and ’72, that lasted until sunrise and are the stuff of legend—occupied a special place in his heart.
“I grew up with the Beatles—until the Allman Brothers,” says Smith. “The Allman Brothers became the soundtrack of my life the rest of the way.”
Former WDSU-TV Sports Director Rich Lenz sits back in a comfortable sofa at the studios of KOTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the hometown of the late Leon Russell, and reminisces about coming of age listening to Gregg Allman. Lenz, an accomplished guitarist when he’s not delivering the news, speaks of Allman with a reverence he reserves for no other musician.
“He was soooooo underrated. That’s the word to describe him,” says Lenz. “Some of the vocal performances—go listen to ‘My Cross to Bear.’ It’s like you’re 21 years old singing something as good as that! They hated the term Southern Rock but they created the genre. The Allman Brothers were an amalgamation of something that had never really been put together before but it had a lot of New Orleans origins in it. Jazz, blues, the whole Fats Domino rock ’n’ roll and improvisation—dare I say like a Louis Armstrong would improvise. They soaked up New Orleans music. The band that meant the most to my life, put the biggest changes in my life… I cried when Gregg died.”
Gregg Allman remembered those early days in New Orleans fondly in his 2012 heartfelt biography My Cross to Bear. The man who once aspired to be a dentist and was once accepted to college in Louisiana said, “The Warehouse was always a good gig for us, because it wasn’t that far, it paid pretty well and we knew that we would have plenty of fun. There wasn’t a whole lot of work to playing New Orleans. Anytime you’d mention New Orleans, everybody’s eyes would light up—even the roadies, because they knew that after they were done hauling them amps, they could go pick up some good-looking filly, eat some red beans and rice, and have a good time.”