Gregg Allman, who passed away Saturday due to complications from liver cancer, was a cofounder of the legendary Allman Brothers band and a peerless pioneer of Southern rock — and by extension the entire jam-band movement.
Yet when he joined forces with his longtime manager Michael Lehman in 2004, his contributions and legacy were under-recognized and his business affairs were not in optimal shape. Lehman got to work on changing that, and over the past dozen-odd years the singer not only toured regularly, both solo and with the Allmans, he released four solo albums — including 2011’s Grammy-nominated “Low Country Blues” and the forthcoming “Southern Blood,” due in September — established the Laid Back music festival in partnership with Live Nation, held the “All My Friends” career-retrospective concert in 2015, and established music scholarships at both the University of Georgia and through Syracuse University’s Bandier Program. In the process the two became not just close business partners but also close friends, and on Sunday Lehman shared memories from those years with Variety.
What were the last few months with Gregg like?
I last saw him a couple of weeks ago, and we’d spent a lot of time together over the past couple of years in Northern Florida as well as his home in Savannah [Georgia]. We talked about music, friendship, the arts, his relationship with his kids [Allman had four children, all but one of whom are musicians]. A couple of weeks ago we Facetimed with each of them. And as things started to slow down and we knew that his life was coming to a close, we started talking about preserving his legacy, and especially the new record, “Southern Blood” — that made him light up. It was my goal to make sure it would be a big, special album, even though that it became clear that Gregg wasn’t necessarily going to be able to promote it, even if he was here, and that was something we were going to be prepared for.
How long was he working on the album?
He started recording probably a year to two years ago with [producer] Don Was and his solo band, he spent about 12 days at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals [Alabama, where classic songs by Aretha Frankin, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others were recorded; Allman’s bandmate and brother Duane, who died in 1971, played on several sessions there]. His health at the time was okay, he was already struggling a little with the recurrence of his liver cancer. He would have good days and bad days and we worked around it as best we could. Some days were better than others but there were enough takes to make something really special. We documented a lot of the recording sessions, so we have a tremendous amount of video footage and still photography from the sessions. Gregg was so happy to be at such an iconic studio, where his brother had recorded and so much incredible music had been made over the years.
Gregg’s longtime friend Jackson Browne duets with him on “Song for Adam,” can you say which other guests are on the album and which songs are on it?
It’s comprised of a bunch of really cool covers and a couple of original tunes, but I really can’t say much more beyond that. Gregg really wanted to keep [information about the album] tight and I have to respect his wishes — he wanted to surprise his friends and his fans. But I think it’s a record that everyone’s really going to be excited to hear — his vocals are so compelling, and hearing them and knowing where he was in his life’s journey, it’s just chilling, honestly.
How did you come to work with Gregg?
I’m an attorney by training, I was doing work for [The Who singer] Roger Daltrey and around 2004 I was referred to Gregg by The Who’s business management, who were also representing the Allman Brothers at the time. Gregg was looking for someone new to take on his business. He was coming to New York for some shows and we met within a few days of the opportunity being presented, we hit it off immediately, I was asked to come to that night’s show and he told me I was hired if I wanted it. I worked with him ever since.
What was he like to work with?
He was a very warm person. He wanted to be involved in his business and he wanted to be respected. For many years he had neglected a lot of his business affairs; he probably didn’t pay attention because of his various struggles with drugs and alcohol over the years. By the time I met him he was clean, and and really wanted someone fresh that would talk about business with him, share ideas partner with him and give him a real sense of having control. He was a great client to have — super easy to work with because he really wanted to be involved. He’d already had an incredible career but unfortunately from time to time had been neglected.
What are some of the accomplishments you and he are most proud of?
I loved to be able to help him shine: He was so warm and so vulnerable and he had never really been given his due. I just wanted to polish what was already so special.
I got Gregg back into the studio — we made four records, two live ones, “Back to Macon” and the “All My Friends” concert [a 2014 career retrospective concert featuring Allman with most of his bandmates and guest appearances from Eric Church, Dr. John, Jackson Browne, Sam Moore, Zac Brown, Taj Mahal and many others], and the studio albums “Low Country Blues” and the new one. I’m very proud that we were able to clean up and organize his music publishing and tastefully market his songs from commercials: we did commercials for Bank of America, Geico and AT&T and we had placements in a lot of films, so he was really happy his that music was getting out there in a tasteful yet commercial way. Obviously there was a financial reward for doing that, but also giving a lot of songs their proper due that people hadn’t heard for years.
Another great joy was being able to turn his words into a best-selling book [“My Cross to Bear,” a 2013 autobiography written with Alan Light], we did a book tour and Gregg loved meeting thousands of fans up close. Another was the Laid Back festival, a partnership between Gregg, myself and Live Nation. The goal was to create a one-day festival of music for the more mature consumer — mature in age, anyway! — and have an elevated food and beverage experience, with diff VIP experiences for the fans. We did the first one at [New York’s] Jones Beach back in 2015, we had five last year, we have six this year and we’ll continue to grow the model in Gregg’s spirit going forward.
But maybe most of all, as a result of the “All My Friends” concert [and subsequent DVD and television broadcasts], we had raised a decent amount of money and with some of the proceeds we set up two scholarships, one at the University of Georgia’s Hodgson School of Music and the other through the Bandier Program at Syracuse University. Gregg took a real interest in them and we followed the careers of the students in those programs.
It was his wish that if anyone wants to make a donation, that they make it to the Gregg Allman Music Scholarship Endowment at the University of Georgia or the Allman/Lehman Endowed Scholarship at Syracuse.
Apart from the new album, how much material is in the vault and do you plan to release it?
We have a lot of old concerts that we’ll put out over a period of time. We did a five-night run at [New York small venue] City Winery in 2015 and we plan on releasing that — it was an incredibly intimate experience playing for just 400 people each of those nights.
Is there material from earlier in his career?
Yes. There are earlier recordings of the Allmans, I can’t really speak about those, but more specifically there are early recordings from Gregg’s solo career that we’ve been working on, some of them from the early ‘70s. Obviously our first focus will be “Southern Blood” this fall, but there’s a huge trove of incredibly special concerts — Gregg recorded every single show, so we have hundreds on tape.
Who were some of his closest musician friends?
Gregg was a very private person and he would not necessarily see them often but of the other artists he considered to be close friends, I think at the top is Jackson Browne — they go back to their late teens, when they were both starting to make it in L.A. Keith Urban held a special place for Gregg, Tim McGraw, he and Taj Mahal were very good friends, Keb Mo, Dr., John, Elton John, he had a unique group of friends. And very close to the end, he and Jackson were in communication a lot because they were working on “A Song for Adam,” and Jackson wanted to be there for Gregg.
Did he talk much about Duane?
He would think or talk about Duane almost every day. Duane’s presence was very much felt in the house, with pictures and letters and through Duane’s daughter Galadrielle, who Gregg really treated like another of his children. He loved her — she was an ever-present reminder of Duane. I remember, I guess it was during the Allmans’ 40th anniversary concerts, Eric Clapton guested [Duane famously played on Clapton’s 1970 “Layla” album] and I brought Galadrielle into Clapton’s dressing room to introduce them and the they both just started weeping. It was an incredible moment.
But he talked about the early days a lot. I remember once we were in Nashville, where Gregg was born, and I had always asked him to show me his childhood home, and for one reason or another we’d never had time, but one day six or seven years ago we did. So me and Gregg and his closest friend Huell “Chank” Middleton and a driver found his childhood home, he hadn’t been there since he was 6 or 7 years old, but he remembered how to get there. We rang the doorbell and a mother answered, with a couple of kids getting ready for soccer practice, and we just blew her away, she had no idea he had lived there. Gregg spent about 45 minutes there taking pictures and reminiscing, funny stories — “I can’t believe how small Duane’s and my bedroom was,” “This is the tree where Duane tied me up once,” funny, funny stories. We were there for a concert and we invited the whole family down.
You’ve said he was at peace. Can you talk about that a bit more?
I would say he knew for the last six months that he was getting toward the end of his life, and he became resolved and peaceful. We cancelled [tour] dates when we had to, but we ended up playing through the end of October — we’d hoped to get through the end of the year but he’d had another bout of pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. But for good or bad, he got to be home and relax, even though his true passion was being on the road. He’d listen to music, read books, see his kids, he got married to Shannon in February so he was able to take advantage of that time with her and being at his house, sitting by the pool, playing with his dogs. And thank goodness he did not suffer at the end, he died peacefully at home.