Behind The Scene: Alan Paul Revisits The Allman Brothers Band, NBA Journalism and Being ‘Big in China’
“I can’t really think of any other situation where a band’s most popular commercial era has been somehow overlooked,” Alan Paul says of the subject matter he examines in his new book, Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined the ‘70s. Paul focuses on the years 1972-76, when Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams joined The Allman Brothers Band following the deaths of co-founding members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. This time period includes the 1973 Summer Jam at Watkins Glen with the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and The Band, which drew over 600,000 fans. It also encompasses the release of the titular Brothers and Sisters record that yielded the group’s only Top 10 single, “Ramblin’ Man.”
This is Paul’s second work on the ABB, following 2014’s One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. His first book, Big in China (2012), tracked Paul’s experiences with his family in Beijing, including his unforeseen notoriety as an expat blues musician. Paul served as the managing editor of Guitar World from 1991-96 and later collaborated with GW’s Andy Aledort on 2019’s Texas Flood: The Inside History of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Aledort and Paul are also currently bandmates in Friends of the Brothers, who celebrate the music of the Allman Brothers on select occasions, including the opening slot of this year’s Peach Music Festival.
As you began work on Brothers and Sisters, what was your initial theory of the case, and did that evolve?
It started during a conversation with Brad Tolinsky [Guitar World’s former editor-in-chief ]. We were talking about our next projects, and I mentioned that I was trying to get away from being tagged as the Allman Brothers guy. Brad was like, “Dude, you’re crazy. It’s cool that people look to you for information about this band that matters and that people really care about. I think you should embrace it, not move away from it.”
Then he suggested that I write about the album Brothers and Sisters because it was extremely influential, especially in Nashville. I did look into that a bit. I think most of what became mainstream country music is influenced by The Eagles, Brothers and Sisters-era Allman Brothers and some of the Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff. But I didn’t think that was the whole book. It was a point to be raised as part of something larger.
Ultimately, I was drawn to exploring this era because it’s an oddly unexplored period. I say oddly because it was the band’s most commercially successful era. Nothing else is close, yet not much has been written about it.
Beyond that sheer popularity, there’s also some really interesting music that contrasts with every other era of the band. Chuck is a compelling soloist on keyboards and a foil to Dickey. Lamar can take things deep with his bass playing, yet also remain in the pocket. However, as you’ve mentioned, it’s an overlooked period.
That’s partly because it ended sort of badly. There was some bad blood between Chuck and the band, which I mention but don’t really delve into. The details of it are less interesting and important than the fact that he didn’t play with them for years. He wasn’t in there when they reformed. He rarely played with them after the whole ‘90s/2000s reunion, although they eventually patched things up.
When they reformed and hired Warren, they had this intent to go back to the Duane-era approach. From that point on, they were always a two-guitar band.
There was also a little bit of a weird embarrassment by some of the band members and some fans about “Ramblin’ Man.” That’s because it was such an anomaly, both in terms of its success and also what it sounded like. I think that’s kind of weird because it was a great song that hit the mark. But it eventually became something that they kind of shied away from. This was already happening to some extent before the split with Dickey, but it obviously ratcheted up after that.
In addition to your own interviews, you draw on an archival collection of conversations conducted by Allman Brothers “Tour Mystic” Kirk West. When did your friendship with Kirk begin?
Early in my tenure at Guitar World, Brad had the idea to do a cover of lost interviews. This was in 1991, pre-internet, so when things were lost, they were really lost. There wasn’t even an eBay to find them. He had interviews with Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page from somewhere, and he wanted a Duane Allman interview.
I somehow knew that Kirk was the guy to talk to, so I called him. He had the Laurel Dann Creem interview in his archives, which he faxed to me, and we eventually ran it.
It was around this time that Kirk told me he had done all these interviews and was writing a book. I mentioned it to Brad, who said, “If he’d like to do a dry run, I would publish his first-person account in a minute.” So I kept asking Kirk about it when I would speak with him on the phone or see him at shows. Finally, he said to me: “I’d love to do the article, but I’m not really a writer and I’m very busy. I could work on it with someone, though.” So I flew out to his house in Chicago, where he lived before he bought the Big House [the band’s former communal home in Macon, Ga., which is now a museum devoted to the group]. We spent three days in his basement going through his archives, working on his abridged version of the Allman Brothers’ history.
Kirk liked the way it turned out and that’s when we transitioned from business associates to friends. Then Kirk put my name into the mix with management and they started hiring me. I wrote liner notes for A Decade of Hits, the introductions to their guitar tab books and stuff like that.
Had you considered approaching him about the tapes when you were working on One Way Out? How did you come to use them this time?
I never asked him to use them when I wrote One Way Out. I felt strongly that it was more legit if all the interviews were done by the author. So there’s no Berry Oakley or Duane Allman quotes in there. The only exception I made was Red Dog [Campbell, the band’s longtime roadie] because I had talked to him a lot, but I never formally interviewed him. So I asked Kirk if I could use quotes from his interviews with Red Dog, and he sent me those cassettes. In the One Way Out author’s note, it says that all interviews were conducted by the author except for Red Dog, conducted by Kirk West.
As soon as I told him about this book, he offered me the tapes. I think Kirk had started to reflect on his own legacy and it was bothering him that he had done these interviews that were just gathering dust.
I didn’t quite anticipate not only how much they would help the book, but also how much time and effort it was going to take to go through them. There are hundreds and hundreds of hours. It was mostly joyful work because listening to Kirk do these interviews was fascinating, but that’s a lot of hours.
I went back through the tapes a month ago to get some clips, which are going to be in the audio book. When I listened again, I was like, “Wait, why didn’t I put that in?” It’s because while I was listening the first time, there were things that ended up being significant that didn’t hit me in the moment. But, again, there’s so much there. I’m excited about what people are going to hear in the audio book.
Beyond your music journalism, you were a longtime contributor to SLAM magazine, writing about basketball. What prompted that gig?
I was the managing editor at Guitar World magazine from ‘91-‘96. The publisher was a guy named Dennis Page, who owned a company called Harris Publications.
One day, I ran into him on the street as we were walking into the office and he said, “I’ve got a new idea. I’m going to do a magazine that’s only basketball—high school, college, pro. What do you think?” I was probably one of the first people to hear about it. I felt like he had just thought it up on the subway.
As the resident Guitar World guy who also liked sports, I would talk to the editors at SLAM quite a bit. I’d go back and hang out with them. Tony Gervino became the editor— he’s a really a great writer and a funny guy. At first, I didn’t have time to write because I was busy as the managing editor of Guitar World. Then I left that job because my wife Rebecca was hired by The Wall Street Journal in Detroit. So we moved to Ann Arbor, I had some time and I told Tony, “Hey, I’d love to write for SLAM.”
So Tony started giving me some Detroit-area stuff. They used to have these old-school interviews in every issue and one of the first things he assigned me was Isiah Thomas. I interviewed Isiah, but I called him out on a couple of things when I thought he was being ridiculous. In a way, it was easier coming in as an outsider. I wasn’t that precious about these guys. I sometimes pushed back on them, and Tony loved that. So he kept giving me the old-school guys and that sort of became my niche.
Had you written about sports earlier in your life?
I had been the editor of my high school newspaper and then I went to University of Michigan. But when I got to Ann Arbor, I decided not to go right to the Michigan Daily because I wanted to give it a year to make sure I wanted to do it.
I ended up stumbling into a job at Rick’s American Café—which was basically across the street from my dorm—initially as a busboy and then a doorman and a waiter. They had music five nights a week and it was on the Chicago blues circuit, so I saw Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. Plus, other people came through, like Fishbone, 10,000 Maniacs and NRBQ.
I had been into music since I was little, but this was when I got hooked on live music. So that year not writing turned out to be influential for me. I was also getting more into alternative culture. I wasn’t a full-on freak, but I sort of leaned out.
After a year of that, I walked into the Michigan Daily. Initially, I went to the newsroom. I thought of myself as a news feature writer, but everyone there was a little too serious for me. Then I walked over to sports. In the years I was there, Barbara McQuade, Rich Eisen and Adam Schefter were all there, so it was highpowered, but they were a little too jock-ey for me.
So I did a little news, I did a little sports and I drifted over to the arts department where the people were more my speed. I liked doing sports writing and I liked doing news reporting, but I felt more comfortable with the people on the arts staff.
You mentioned moving to Detroit with your wife, which brings to mind the time you spent in China starting in 2005, after she was named The Wall Street Journal bureau chief. You eventually became an online columnist for the Journal, which led to your entertaining, insightful book Big in China. How did you come to document that experience?
My wife has had this incredible career and we have three kids. The move to China was not only incredible for each of us individually, but ultimately for our careers in ways that were completely impossible to know.
I went there with a really open mind like, “This will be interesting. It’ll be fun and if it’s a fiasco, it’ll be a good story and I’ll know more about China than I do now. That can only be a good thing.” I viewed it as a little bit of a risk, but even if it went sideways, we’d be better, smarter, stronger on the other side of it.
For the previous few years, I was a staff writer for Guitar World and for SLAM. I’d go to basketball games or concerts, which was great, but I had to produce a certain number of articles per month, which was a lot. I became really professional, but I was losing a little bit of my sparkle and my love of writing.
When I moved to China, the first thing that happened was I didn’t have all these responsibilities. We had subsidized housing, I didn’t have a job and my kids took to things pretty quickly.
So I started exploring. I bought a bike, and I started a blog. It was a relatively new technology at the time, but I thought it was a way for my friends and family to see what was going on. I didn’t have good internet service, so I’d go out on these bike rides, then I would go to the nearby Starbucks with my laptop and sit there for hours, writing and drinking coffee.
I rediscovered my love of writing because there was no assignment. There was no word count. I was writing for myself, and it just reignited this creative spark in me.
Then Rebecca came home from work one day and said that the editors of The Wall Street Journal operation in Asia were actively seeking lifestyle stuff. So I took some of the blog posts I had written, polished them up and submitted them. They ended up running them and they made it a regular column.
I was writing for my own sake to help me process what was happening. I feel like that spark and the professionalism I had honed have both carried me a long way since then.
Big in China also tracks your musical development, which eventually led you to form Friends of the Brothers. What are the origins of that group?
When I was a kid, I played a little bit. I had some natural skill with rhythm, but I never pursued it enough to get facile with my left hand. I always felt like I could have been OK if I had given it time. That finally changed when I went to China. [There, he co-founded the group Woodie Alan with some local musicians and would come to perform for thousands of fans, which is part of the Big in China narrative.] I adopted the attitude from a B.B. King song: “You better not look down if you want to keep on flying.” I thought if I stopped to analyze what was happening, it could all fall apart.
Friends of the Brothers was never supposed to be a band. What happened, was when Butch Trucks died, I was shaken and then I was annoyed because I thought that no one was going to pay proper tribute to him. I had my local band Big in China, and we had a regular gig scheduled the Friday after Butch died. I turned it into a tribute to Butch and it was very emotional for me.
Then I thought I needed to do something like that in New York. My initial idea was that it was just going to be my Big in China band with some special guests. So I invited Junior Mack, who played with Jaimoe, Andy Aledort, who played with Dickey Betts and Peter Levin, who played with Gregg. I was friendly with all of them, and my thought was that if one of them does it and supplements Big in China, then that would be a good band. It turned out that all three of them agreed to do it and it went well.
I’ve tried to stay with it one step at a time. I know my own limitations, but I also know what it should sound like. Andy and Junior are fantastic guitar players and the very best at playing this music outside of Warren and Derek. At various times with Friends of the Brothers, I’ve been the road manager, the booking agent and the manager. My band experiences have deepened my understanding of music. Not only have I enjoyed it, but it’s been really helpful for my writing.