Book Review: The Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters” — The Album that Defined the 70s?

By Scott McLennan

Alan Paul’s meticulous, in-depth research lays out many of the pieces needed to help the reader think more deeply about this era.

Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers and the Inside Story of the Album that Defined the ‘70s by Alan Paul. St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages, $32.

The title of longtime Allman Brothers Band chronicler Alan Paul’s new book asserts that the band’s Brothers and Sisters is the “album that defined the ’70s.” I can just see what fans of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours would have to say to that; or admirers of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or The Eagles’ Hotel California… well, you get the picture.

Hype is routinely used to sell books, but in this case the hyperbole is indicative of a problem that runs through Paul’s second volume about the Allmans. By centering on just one of the era’s groups in this narrative, Paul misses out on a bigger, broader, and arguably much better story about how the ’60s turned into the ’70s, the cultural shifts that made Brothers and Sisters into a best-selling album by a then-badly-damaged Allman Brothers Band. Lurking in the background — and screaming for attention — are social forces only touched on in the story Paul tells here that lifted a little-known governor from Georgia to the presidency and propelled a young rock and roll obsessive into becoming a music journalist-turned-filmmaker.

Paul’s meticulous, in-depth research lays out many of the pieces needed to help the reader think more deeply about this era. The writer had access to interviews that band members and associates did in the ’80s with fan-turned-confidant Kirk West. West planned to write a book and shelved the idea, eventually handing the tapes over to Paul. These exchanges don’t bring new issues to light, but do point to the healing that eventually pulled the band together after the tumultuous period examined in Brothers and Sisters.

The book is structured chronologically, focusing on the period between the 1971 death of guitarist Duane Allman and the band’s meltdown in 1976. The end result retells a familiar tale, which Paul himself already told in his excellent Allman Brothers oral history One Way Out. The problem this time around is that the writer doesn’t supply any convincing reasons to present the yarn again.

Still, for aficionados, the book serves up highly detailed portrayals of notable figures in the band’s history, such as Jimmy Carter, Cher, and Cameron Crowe, and probes pivotal events, such as the famous Watkins Glen concert featuring the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and The Band. In the latter coverage, for example, Paul weaves in stories not just from band and crew members, but from attendees and organizers as well. He captures all the weird and wondrous energy of a musical gathering that drew 600,000 people to upstate New York in the summer of 1973. This historic concert occurred before the release of Brothers and Sisters. As Paul notes, not even “Ramblin’ Man,” the big hit off that record, had been released yet. Put in contemporary terms, imagine Taylor Swift selling out multiple nights of Gillette Stadium before any of her biggest hits had registered.

Indeed, the Allmans of 1973 were quite different from the Allmans of October 28, 1971, the day before band founder and visionary Duane Allman succumbed to injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash. Up to that point, the young band out of Georgia had been scrambling to garner attention for its reappropriation of American blues from British rock stars, alchemizing that process further by bringing in jazz and psychedelia. These artistic aspirations finally won commercial success with the release of Live at Fillmore East in July of 1971. Following Duane’s death just a few months after that, the remainder of the band completed work on the studio album in progress, augmenting that material with live recordings from concerts to yield Fillmore East.

The lineup that recorded Brothers and Sisters: Jaimoe (aka Jai Johanny Johanson), Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Chuck Leavell, Lamar Williams, and Dickey Betts. Photo: The Big House Museum Archives

Original bassist Berry Oakley died little more than a year after Duane Allman. The remainder of 1972 and much of 1973 were spent rebuilding the band around the single guitar of Dickey Betts and the addition of Chuck Leavell on keyboard, which allowed Gregg Allman to move over and play more organ. Bass player Lamar Williams was brought in to join the double-drumming section of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe.

On the one hand, the Allman Brothers camp was in turmoil, recounted through Paul’s descriptions of drug abuse and emotional despondence. Yet the Allmans were on the brink of becoming even more commercially successful, and music was being made during this volatile period. Paul leaves it up to the reader to untangle the paradox. One key to understanding what happened is provided by the author’s rich portrait of Phil Walden, head of Capricorn Records, who was making money off just about every aspect of the Allman Brothers’s work. Walden was also a power broker in Georgia and was one of Jimmy Carter’s key allies. Post-Watergate, America — and the American South — was changing. Paul pulled this gem from an interview Betts gave Rolling Stone magazine about Carter’s governorship: “It was like the sun came out in Georgia. It was the Peach State instead of the ‘afraid to drive through it to get to Florida’ state.”

Paul establishes the Allmans and Walden as essential players in a movement that was about powering up the South’s cultural and political cachet. And the nation had an appetite for this aesthetic and sensibility as well.

Moving back to the making of the album Brothers and Sisters, Paul notes how both Gregg Allman and Betts were plotting solo albums around the time the album was being made, with Allman ready to spring one first. Allman was leaning more into singer-songwriter and R&B motifs with his solo material, while Betts was digging into his country music roots and picking up ideas from the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The Dead and the Allmans had shared the stage for several epic concerts between 1970 and 1973.

It’s Betts who brings that country influence back into the Allmans via “Ramblin’ Man.” Listening to the otherwise blues-infused Brothers and Sisters, the irony is inescapable: the biggest commercial hit from the record is its outlier.

Author Alan Paul. Photo: George Lange

A burgeoning audience for “Southern rock” embraced “Ramblin’ Man,” but the genre was not central to the Allmans. Paul notes that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut disc was released the same day as Brothers and Sisters. Al Kooper produced Skynyrd’s debut, and Paul includes Kooper’s critique of the Allmans’ improv-heavy sound. That argument makes it tough to claim that the Allmans inspired this rock and roll subgenre. The apologetic tone of Paul’s insistence that they did undermines the book’s thesis.

Also, Paul’s defense of the band is unshakable, even when it comes to rehashing the Allman Brothers’s greatest controversy: Gregg Allman’s decision to testify against a crew member in a federal drug case. Paul lets Allman off with a “what was he supposed to do?” defense, even as he notes that Allman’s own bandmates and other musicians turned against him. It’s amusing to read, at one point in the book, that nobody could explain why the Dead and Allmans never shared the stage again after a 1973 New Year’s Eve concert. Yet Paul supplies the reason later on when he quotes Garcia saying he wouldn’t play with a “rat” as the “real reason” the bond broke.

That said, Paul looks at how the political establishment at the time was trying to stop Carter’s run for the White House. Was Allman just a pawn in a larger game to embarrass Carter and cut off the presidential campaign cash that was coming from Walden and benefit shows performed by the Allman Brothers Band? Paul does not go far enough in that direction: he tiptoes around these issues, mainly because he is bent on keeping the spotlight on the Allmans.

To its credit, Brothers and Sisters makes it clear that the national spotlight moved away from the Allmans not long after the album came out, which raises some serious questions about Paul’s claim. Was Brothers and Sisters really all that influential? Or is there a case to be made that the lingering influence of the Duane-era band was enough to keep the group moving forward for a while? That, without him, the band broke apart.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.


  1. Susan Kell on July 30, 2023 at 10:55 pm

    This was a great book! The best book on ABB that I’ve read. Alan Paul does an amazing job.

  2. Alan Paul on August 1, 2023 at 12:42 pm

    Thanks for the thorough review. I am sure I shouldn’t respond online to criticism, but what the heck? I find tour review to be thoughtful and fair, though I disagree with a few points, so why not?

    On the bigger point here, if I had to do it over, I probably would use a different subtitle, not because I think this is wrong or easy-ish to defend, but because I’ve had to do so and if you have to explain, you’re losing… and it’s ultimately a waste of time, when I’d much rather be discussing the content of the book. I think i lay out pretty well that the album was the launching pad for southern rock, which dominated mainstream rock for the second half of the decade, and a giant impact on Outlaw country and eventually nashville and country music as a whole. Its success also led Gregg to marry Cher and become briefly the center of a newly emerging celebrity culture, and it led very directly to the election of Jimmy Carter, a figure who to me defined the second half of the decade in America.

    As for being repetitive, of course in the early chapters there is some repeat from OWO, but there is a LOT of new new information there, and almost exclusively new from about chapter 4 on. An early draft of the book dropped most of that and started with the recording of this album and it felt unbalanced. Couldn’t fully explore Chuck and Lamar and leave Duane unspoken. I wanted it to stand on its own, not that you would have had to have read OWO for it to make sense. No regrets there.

    I also really don’t think I am a Gregg apologist, or could be accused of glossing over ugly sides of the band and band members’ lives. I stand by what I wrote that the list of rock stars who would go to jail to protect a crew member from prosecution is exceedingly short. They had him dead to right and he flipped. Not sure most of us would have behaved much differently, but I never gloss over or excuse a lot of his behavior, including what got him into that bind in the first place.


    • Scott McLennan on August 1, 2023 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks for dropping a note. I have told, and will tell, any Allmans fan or Allmans-curious music fan to read your work. The reporting and details are always excellent. I guess where we diverge is on the point whether Brothers and Sisters was a launching pad or if it benefited from other things happening in that era, and that without those forces, ABB may very well have splintered sooner than it did. As you mention, Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker and ZZ were on the trail, with Outlaws and others soon arriving. It struck me that Allmans courtesy of the “Ramblin’ Man” stumbled onto something, not really launched it.
      Many of the huge concerts you detail took place before B&S was even released, suggesting the band’s popularity was still solid at the beginning of this new era. I agree that having a hit with “Ramblin’ Man” brought another level of commercial fame to the band, but I think again it’s a stretch to say the Gregg and Cher romance sparked celebrity culture, but they certainly were swept up in it.

      The very line you repeat in your comment and used in the book about how many rock stars would have saved the roadie is what led me to think you are defending Gregg simply to defend Gregg. It’s a hypothetical suggesting justification. Let your reporting do the talking on this one. Gregg has always said Scooter told him to testify; is there other evidence to support that? The way the other members shunned Gregg likely had something to do with the overall shape of the band at the time, which you allude to with Butch’s interviews with Kirk West. But I’m sure you could write chapters on what was going on in that ugly period.

      We haven’t talked about then ending, because I’m still thinking about it. That image of Gregg playing in a high school auditorium with some pick up guys from Buffalo is unshakeable. Drawing the line from Watkins Glen to Buffalo just led me to different conclusions I guess. I tried my best to simply reflect on the information that you provide in the book. I have no reason to or interest in arguing over the facts presented here.

      I have huge respect for you and your work. But I still think there is another story lurking in this book.

      • Alan Paul on August 2, 2023 at 12:12 pm

        thanks. Your review was really respectful and I read it that way, totally. I’m glad you mentioned the Buffalo story and honestly I’ve been a bit bummed that not a single review has. I think it’s an incredible story and I was really proud of how I told it and that I was able to find a new tale in the final chapter of my second ABB book.

        As I said in the original comment, i sort of wish we used a different subhead. It was an attempt to sum up a lot. I feel like I can make the argument, but I guess I viewed it as more of a marketing tool than anything when I approved it. I’d think of it differently now. I do think its fair game for you or any reviewer, to be clear. But also I’d just like the writing to be judged on its own and I’m proud of the research and all the threads I pulled together. I really don’t feel defensive for Gregg, and I think I’ve been pretty critical of him at times, but I think people still calling him a rat 50 years later is ridiculous. Quite amazing that none of the guys, particularly RB, =ever did significant jail time.


  3. John Kaminski on August 30, 2023 at 9:49 am

    Just finished the book, and I was spellbound. Not surprising, since I’m a hard-core ABB fan and Deadhead. Just the fact that the book has me (re)discovering Gregg’s and Dickey’s solo work, along with “Wipe the Windows…” made it a great read for me. Good amount of Dead stuff in it. Also just listened to “Fillmore East” straight through for the first time in decades, and it blew me away. Looking forward to reading OWO by the same author next summer (I’m a beach reader).

    Fully appreciate the above comments by both the book author and reviewer too!

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