Up until the day he died, Gregg Allman got dressed every morning in tight jeans and an immaculate shirt, big rings adorning his fingers, and necklaces hanging below his blonde beard.
He wanted to remain Gregg Allman until the very end.
In his final months, in fact, he didn’t talk much with anyone about his impending death, even though everyone close to him was well aware it was coming. He had declined treatment for his liver cancer and defiantly sealed his own fate.
“He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him,” legendary producer Don Was told The Daily Beast. “Even when he was very ill, he was dismissive of the illness until the very end.”
And so, in March 2016, a full 14 months before he passed away, Allman spent nine days at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals (where the Allman brothers famously got their start) recording Southern Blood, his farewell album. Was, a long-time friend of Allman’s, was enlisted to produce the effort.
Allman, his manager and friend Michael Lehman, and Was spent pre-production recruiting a band and picking out nine covers (“a meticulous process,” as Was described it) that felt appropriate for the moment.
Songs like Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone”—originally about a breakup—or Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam”—about the death of a friend—would take on new lives and meanings as part of Allman’s graceful exit.
“Gregg went to an uncharacteristically vulnerable place to pick out a really honest farewell,” Was recalled. “He needed to sum up his life, tie up loose ends for himself, but he also wanted to do that for the fans who’d been with him a long time.”
In making the record, “there was an interesting duality,” Was explained. “We understood that there was a very serious, dark overtone to the proceedings, but we had a lot of fun making it.” He continued: “Gregg was ecstatic, really upbeat, despite the fact that I believe everyone in the room quietly knew what was really going on.”
And despite its dark subtext, the album isn’t mournful in the least.
True to its title and cover art (a bridge running through a lush thicket of Spanish moss in Allman’s native Savannah), the immaculately produced Southern Blood bursts with rejoiceful soul, gospel, and blues.
For example, on standout track “Black Muddy River,” originally by the Grateful Dead, horns and mandolin swirl and swell to a bittersweet climax. You can almost imagine it as the score to a celebratory funeral for Allman—he sings as he’s taken to the river, a la Big Fish, surrounded by everyone he’s ever loved in his long, at times tragic life.
“This album is Gregg in the raw,” Lehman explained. “Seeing as Gregg’s a man of 99 lives,” the manager continued, referring to Allman having previously received a liver transplant, and beaten alcohol and drug dependency, “we actually didn’t expect [the March 2016 sessions] to be Gregg’s final recordings.”
Because Allman’s illness took a turn for the worse after the first FAME sessions, he was not able to come back and record his own vocal harmonies—a tradition he valued since his first solo record four decades prior. And so Was and Lehman set out to recruit other Allman friends to help fill in some of the gaps.
Browne, a friend of Allman’s since they were both in their late teens, came in to overdub harmonies on his own “Song for Adam.” Americana staple Buddy Miller, with a voice uncannily similar to Allman’s, was enlisted to fill in the main man’s own overdubbed harmonies.
The album almost never saw release as Allman’s health deteriorated and he became increasingly anxious about the product’s viability.
Lehman recalled flying out to Los Angeles in early 2017 to revisit the recordings with Was at the Capitol Records building. “I shared with Don how sick Gregg really was. There was not going to be a time to fix anything,” he relayed. “We spent about an hour talking and weeping a little, honestly, and we put the songs up and... they were just incredible. It was basically all there.”
He immediately called Allman and told him: “You have nothing to worry about. You have everything you need.”
Shortly thereafter, on the night before he died, Allman approved three final mixes via telephone. “He knew that we had it, and he told me so,” Was remembered. “He was really pleased, not just that his vision was realized but that it exceeded what he had hoped for.”
Lehman, too, recollected of that night: “Gregg was so happy. He gave me his final instructions; he gave me permission to share the story of his illness and what went into this project.”
The manager recalled keeping a phone by his bed that evening, in anticipation of his friend’s overnight loss. “I woke up the next morning and there was no message, so I called and talked to Gregg again. I told him I loved him. A few hours later, I got the call that he shut his eyes.”
“I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul, when I’m gone,” Allman’s repeated refrain from the album’s sole, heartbreaking original, titled “My Only True Friend,” feels like an appropriate thesis statement for Southern Blood.
Whether it’s the original, or the Dylan, Browne, Tim Buckley, or Dead covers—or his takes on songs made famous by Percy Sledge, Muddy Waters, and other icons—Allman sounds downright soulful in his finale. Even in his final recordings, produced in the midst of hellish cancer, he practically radiates through the speakers—and will continue to do so, long after his death.
All told, Southern Blood, released last Friday via Rounder Records, is a dignified farewell, driven both by Allman’s bidding adieu as much as his perennial need to connect with fans via expressive musical performances.
The album instantly earns its place among the canon of elegant farewells from musical legends: Warren Zevon’s The Wind, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, and now Southern Blood.
“It’s just a truly eloquent final statement,” Was said, pausing to reflect on a life well done.