How the Allman Brothers released "Brothers & Sisters" after the death of two band members.
The Allman Brothers Band’s ‘Brothers and Sisters’ Turns 50
Released after the deaths of two founding members, the album has a warmer, more wistful sound than the group’s previous efforts and helped establish Southern rock as a major genre.
By Marc Myers, WSJ
Aug. 19, 2023 7:00 am ET
Duane Allman’s rock stardom was over before it began. Flush from the success of “At Fillmore East,” the Allman Brothers Band’s breakthrough LP released in the summer of 1971, and his work on Eric Clapton’s “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” the guitarist cashed his first big royalty check in October at a bank in Macon, Ga. A few hours later, he was dead at age 24 after swerving his motorcycle to avoid a lumber truck.
Wracked by heroin addiction, the band struggled to tour and record their next album, “Eat a Peach.” When it came out in February 1972, the studio/live hybrid reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart. A new tour began, and in October they began to record “Brothers and Sisters.” But a month later, bassist Berry Oakley died, also at 24, in a motorcycle accident in Macon.
Two new musicians were added to the band, pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams, and guitarist Dickey Betts was elevated to the band’s leader. With core members Gregg Allman, Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks, recording resumed and the album was completed in December 1972. Released in August 1973—50 years ago this month—“Brothers and Sisters” sold a half-million copies almost immediately and climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard chart, where it remained for five consecutive weeks.
The LP codified Southern rock as a major national genre and marked a shift in the band’s blues sound, from hard-charging rock to a warmer and more wistful country blend. Hit jam pieces such as “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” would inspire a long list of country-flavored songwriting rock bands, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Black Oak Arkansas, Phish and the Black Crowes.
Sales of “Brothers and Sisters” were helped by FM radio and word of mouth after the band previewed four of the album’s songs at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen. The July 1973 concert in upstate New York attracted a record-setting 600,000 fans.
Album sales were also greatly boosted by the emergence of serious rock journalism and the arrival of literary rock writers and critics. In 1973, Rolling Stone magazine dispatched a 16-year-old Cameron Crowe to travel for 10 days with the touring Allman Brothers for a cover profile, an assignment that would help influence Mr. Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 2000 film “Almost Famous.”
The band’s struggle to survive two deaths, grapple with drug addiction and retain their identity made them a compelling underdog story. The album’s gatefold photo of the group’s extended family and children not only resulted in its title but also humanized their woes, making fans more curious and empathetic.
The opening track, “Wasted Words,” is a swinging blues written and sung by Gregg Allman. Dominating are Mr. Betts’s lead guitar and Mr. Leavell’s honky-tonk piano, which widened the band’s textured sound. Recorded before Oakley’s death, the song included the bassist.
Oakley is also on “Ramblin’ Man,” a song Mr. Betts had written with hopes of selling it in Nashville. The inspirations, Mr. Betts told me during an interview for the Journal in 2014, were the minor-key feel of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” (1951) and something that a friend of his said: “I bet you’re just tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best you can.”
The rollicking road song is notable for Mr. Betts on lead vocal, Mr. Leavell’s tinkling piano, and dueling guitar solos by Mr. Betts and sideman Les Dudek. Mr. Betts’s guitar opens the song emulating a fiddle playing a pentatonic scale, and Mr. Leavell’s piano adds color to the lyrics: “And when it’s time for leavin’ / I hope you’ll understand / That I was born a ramblin’ man.”
“Come and Go Blues” is a smartly constructed minor-key blues written by Allman, followed by “Jelly Jelly,” a slow blues from the 1940s by Billy Eckstine and Earl “Fatha” Hines. It showcases a strong organ solo by Allman and a soulful piano solo by Mr. Leavell.
“Southbound” is a country blues by Mr. Betts, whose solo is one of the album’s long-overlooked highlights. The instrumental jam “Jessica” was composed by Mr. Betts in tribute to Django Reinhardt, a Romani two-fingered jazz guitarist. The 7½-minute track was meant to be played with two fingers and was named for Mr. Betts’s baby daughter, who liked to bounce along to the rhythm. Mr. Dudek plays acoustic and takes a solo on the bridge, and Mr. Leavell’s octave solo adds a raucous quality.
The album closes with Mr. Betts’s “Pony Boy,” a country blues about a faithful pony that carries home the song’s protagonist after a night out drinking. Mr. Betts employs a dobro slide to give the song twang.
“Brothers and Sisters” was an album of grief, determination and success, all of which led to internal friction and legal issues that resulted in the band’s 1976 breakup. They reunited briefly in 1978 and again with new members in 1989, when the Allmans became one of the country’s most popular and enduring touring acts.
In his new book, “Brothers and Sisters,” Alan Paul notes that after the record’s success, Southern club owners became more open to regional bands playing their own music and Southern rock bands realized they could remain in their towns and do well. Today, the LP’s earthiness reminds listeners what country rock sounded like before the Eagles smoothed out the genre in 1975.
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Mr. Myers is the author of “Rock Concert: An Oral History” and “Anatomy of 55 More Songs” (Grove Press).