By WADE TATANGELO
Special to The Herald
The Allman Brothers Band kicked off its 40th anniversary tour in March with a string of 15 sold-out shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. Eric Clapton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Kid Rock, The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Buddy Guy were among the long list of special guests who sat in with the Brotherhood. The tour concludes Oct. 21 with a performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
It has been a year of celebration for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group that has endured more severe setbacks than most. Formed in Jacksonville in 1969, The Allman Brothers Band relocated to Macon, Ga., in 1970. Headquarters were established at an expansive Tudor-style home rented by bassist/vocalist Berry Oakley’s wife, Linda. Everybody called it the Big House.
While staying there, Gregg Allman wrote “Midnight Rider,” his solo gem “Queen of Hearts” and the title track to this documentary, “Please Call Home,” among others. Dickey Betts reportedly penned “Blue Sky” at the same address. During the three years the Allman Brothers Band were based at the Big House they soared from virtual penniless unknowns to the biggest American rock band in the world.
“It was an enchanted place,” Gregg Allman says early in the documentary “Please Call Home,” making it’s Florida debut Friday at Burns Court Cinemas in Sarasota. “There were so many good vibes in that house.”
Alas, the Big House also evokes memories of two tragic deaths. ABB bandleader and guitar virtuoso Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident about a mile from the Big House on Oct. 29, 1971. He had been like a dad to younger sibling Gregg. A hitchhiker had shot their father when they were small children. “Duane was a rock to me,” Gregg Allman says. “I really looked up to him.”
Berry Oakley died of severe head injuries after crashing his motorcycle on Nov. 11, 1972, only three blocks away from where Duane’s accident occurred. Soon after Oakley’s death, the Big House would not be owned or occupied by anyone associated with the Allman Brothers Band for two decades.
A fascinating film for ABB diehards and neophytes alike, director Kirk West does an excellent job of balancing the joy and pathos associated with the Big House. Compelling interviews with the founding band members, original roadies (featured prominently on the back cover of ABB’s breakthrough 1971 album “At Fillmore East”) and friends are interwoven with the often-poignant memories of Big House matriarch Linda Oakley.
“Barry was righteous in every sense of the word . . . People gravitated to him,” she says. “He wanted to endure and survive to get this higher thing. That was the very essence of his being — to be something larger than himself.”
It was a special, relatively innocent era for the Allman Brothers Band — a period when they relied on wives, lovers and friends for support — and sustenance. Mama Louise Hudson fed “her babies” for free at the world-famous H&H Restaurant that she still runs in Macon. Her generosity has never been forgotten. When Gregg Allman was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2006, Hudson was one of only two non-family members seated at his table.
“Gregg was my favorite,” she admits with a smile.
Everyone appears comfortable on screen thanks to West’s long relationship with ABB. Originally a Chicago-based photographer, West saw ABB perform about a dozen times during the Duane-era alone. By 1990, he had become the band’s tour manager, a title he has held ever since.
Kirk and his wife, Kirsten, purchased the Big House in 1993. An estimated 20,000 ABB enthusiasts visited the house before the Wests decided to turn the historic home over to the non-profit Big House Foundation in 2007. This moved paved the way for The Allman Brothers Band Museum scheduled to open in December.
“We had an informal relationship with the world,” West recalled during a recent phone interview. “If we weren’t busy or watching NASCAR we’d let people in — we had lots of welcome interruptions.”
West shot a 10-minute video to introduce the museum. This morphed into the feature-length documentary “Please Call Home.” It captures a rock group during its magical, mystical beginning. Much has changed over the years, but the Allman Brothers Band endures. While other classic rock acts go through the motions, ABB challenges themselves and its audience at every show, gaining the respect of their peers and a whole new generation of fans. Both age groups of enthusiasts will enjoy learning about the band’s formative years. Gregg Allman said the Big House was where “the triumphs were, the problems were, and the answers were. It’s where everything got figured out.”
The result was some of the most timeless an influential American music ever made. It’s a striking hybrid of blues, jazz, soul, rock and country that continues to soothe, enthrall and inspire. Perhaps even more moving, though, is the bond that sustained the Allman Brothers Band during that heady, heartbreaking period from 1970 to 1973. Those three years brought together a disparate group of blacks and whites, hippies and bikers in a way rarely seen in the South at that time — or any other era for that matter. These were trailblazing young men backed by equally strong women.
“It was a family; forget blood,” Gregg Allman says. “We were just as close as if we had come from the same womb — that’s a fact.”
Wade Tatangelo, is a former Bradenton Herald staff writer. Over the years, his interviews with Allman Brothers Band members Gregg Allman, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, as well as with original ABB roadie Jospeh “Red Dog” Campbell, and Gregg Allman’s son, Devon Allman, have been published in newspapers nationwide.