For those of us who came to the Allman Brothers Band late—not contemporaneously during their brief, indisputable reign as the hottest and coolest rock ’n’ roll band in the 1970s, but rather as the children of Boomers listening to classic-rock radio in the car—their "Ramblin’ Man" is the ultimate ABB song. It name-checks Southern geography, chugs along with a bouncing beat and a singalong chorus, and closes with an infectiously twangy guitar solo from writer and lead singer Dickey Betts.
But at the time Brothers and Sisters was released in 1973, the track was considered so different, even radically so, from the blues-based jam-band rock the Allman Brothers had at that point recorded that there was a question about releasing it as the lead single from the group’s new album. "‘Ramblin’ Man’ was a departure not only in its country composition but also in its polished commercial sheen," writes Alan Paul in Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s.
According to Paul, the band’s label Capricorn pushed both "Ramblin’ Man" and "Wasted Words" to radio stations in Boston and Atlanta to test the waters. The latter was a more familiar ABB tune, written and sung by Gregg Allman, with a bluesy groove and Betts playing the slide guitar in a way that recalled the band’s late leader, Duane Allman. "Wasted Words" is a jam and a perfect opener for Brothers and Sisters, but the public reaction to "Ramblin’ Man" made it an easy call for the next single.
"The phones rang nonstop every time the stations played it," Paul writes. The song peaked at number 2 in October 1973, the first top-40 hit for a band that had already established themselves as one of the most popular live bands but had never achieved AM radio penetration. "Asked why the band finally broke through," Paul continues, "Gregg gave a very honest answer in 1974: maybe it was because Betts finally started writing and singing some songs."
The Allman Brothers Band were so loaded with musical talent that the group contained a hit songwriter lying in wait, emerging as a leading force within the band only after the untimely death of two of its founding members—Duane in 1971 in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia, then bassist Berry Oakley nearly a year later, also in a motorcycle accident just blocks from Duane’s fatal crash. Lesser bands might have crumbled under the weight of those tragedies, but the Allmans soldiered on.
The rest of the band deserve plenty of credit for keying into a moment of change for the group and upping their game. The dual drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, supplemented by new bassist Lamar Williams, formed a symbiotic rhythm section, with Williams playing much steadier and "in the pocket" than the experimental Oakley, allowing Trucks and Jaimoe more room for exploration. And the addition of pianist Chuck Leavell to fill a "lead" musical role formerly occupied by Duane on guitar not only put Betts’s lone guitar front-and-center, but it added a jauntiness to the band’s sound that complemented Gregg’s organ playing. Gregg may have been the only Allman brother left, but the Allman Brothers were still an intact musical unit, ready to forge ahead in spite of all the heartbreak.
Paul’s claim that the result, Brothers and Sisters, is the defining album of the decade is debatable. But thanks to a newly discovered cache of recorded interviews with band members from the 1980s and various threads left unexplored for his 2014 book on the band, One Way Out, he seems to have uncovered a more intimate story about the function and dysfunction of a rock ’n’ roll family.
"Family" is a theme for the band in this period, reflected both in the title of the LP and the photos on the outside of its gatefold cover, with Trucks’s son on the front and Oakley’s daughter on the back. Inside the sleeve is another photo taken from the same session at "the Farm," the band’s hangout spot outside Macon. It features the members, their wives, children, and the crew and entourage who had supported the band through the years. Paul calls it a "simple image of southern family togetherness" and writes that it was "unknowingly tapping into a national mood." Rocked by the societal upheaval of the 1960s, the United States was turning to television shows such as The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie for "tranquility" and "togetherness."
"These programs focused on the American ideals of family and simpler times, the same thing the gatefold image in Brothers and Sisters conveyed to audiences," Paul writes.
The truth was more complicated. In the Allman Brothers Band, drugs, womanizing, and all the other vices of rock stardom caused plenty of trouble in paradise. Paul notes that missing from the album gatefold photos are Betts’s wife Sandy "Bluesky" Wabegijig and their daughter Jessica, whose namesake song became another classic. Dickey and Bluesky had been fighting, and when she arrived for the shoot, he forced her to leave.
In another incident recounted by Paul, Gregg Allman offered band house photographer Sidney Smith $100 to hide in the bushes outside of his house during a tour to take photos of anyone coming through the front door. "‘My wife’s fucking somebody and I need to know who it is,’" Smith recalled Allman saying.
But the band did seem to cultivate family-like relationships that in turn sustained them through this period of change. Along with Capricorn Records cofounder Phil Walden, the Allman Brothers Band helped build up a previously nonexistent music scene in Macon, attracting to the central Georgia city musicians and music-business hangers-on, that developed into what became known as "Southern rock"—a term the band itself never really embraced.
Paul also dives extensively into the Allmans’ deep but competitive friendship with the Grateful Dead, charting the initial relationship between Duane Allman and the Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The Allman Brothers Band were on the Dead’s radar early, and the San Francisco group recognized kindred spirits in these Southern hippies who, like them, could jam onstage for hours. In the years after Duane’s death, that connection continued to blossom, with Garcia’s playing style influencing Betts and their shared love of traditional acoustic music redirecting the Dead back to their roots in the early 1970s.
Paul’s winding narrative of this period of transition for the Allman Brothers Band comes most alive during his reporting on the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen—a musical festival in upstate New York that for years held the record for the largest pop music gathering, with an estimated 600,000 people attending. Borne out of a series of joint concerts put on by the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, both groups organized the festival, inviting The Band to join them as well. Taking place just days before the release of Brothers and Sisters, the stories from behind the scenes as well as the massive interest from a generation of young rock fans who were too young to experience Woodstock demonstrate how the Allman Brothers were at the height of their performative power in the summer of 1973.
But the tensions between ABB and the Dead—including a backstage scuffle among crew members during a two-day concert stand at RFK Stadium in Washington six weeks before the Summer Jam—meant that after Watkins Glen, the two legendary live acts went their separate ways. That tension also portended the beginning of the end for this iteration of the Allman Brothers Band. Gregg Allman’s own reluctant leadership and Betts’s distinctive musical interests put the two in conflict and placed stress on the other band members. Allman’s stormy marriage to Cher and move to Los Angeles exacerbated these tensions, as did drug problems, financial strains, and declining concert ticket sales.
While Brothers and Sisters had at first seemed to be a recovery from calamity, it soon looked more like a final high-water mark for the Allmans, whose follow-up album Win, Lose or Draw in 1975 was a disappointment. Leavell and Williams left the band soon after while the others pursued solo projects, and while the Allman Brothers Band would regroup and continue to play for the next several decades with new members, they would never recover their moment on top of the world of rock.
Still, as Paul writes, even the members of that classic lineup have been reminded in recent years just how good the family had it back in the day. He relays a recent moment when a young drumming student presented his teacher, Jaimoe, with a copy of 1976’s Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas, a live album compiled of tracks recorded during the Brothers and Sisters era. Paul says Jaimoe reluctantly listened and was "stunned" and "shocked" by hearing his old group’s cohesion and skill, and later called the author up with an assessment:
"God damn we were good!"
Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ’70s
by Alan Paul
St. Martin’s Press, 352 pp., $32
Michael Warren is a senior editor at the Dispatch.