Gregg Allman has been rightfully celebrated as one of the world's leading exponents of blue-eyed soul -- a Southern rocker whose growling, expressive, road-burned vocals more often than not are reminiscent of certain beloved African-American singers straight out of Motown, Memphis and Chicago. "Searching for Simplicity," Allman's first solo album in nearly a decade, offers more evidence to support the accolades.
Allman's soul connection can be traced to Floyd Miles, the veteran musician now working as a percussionist and backup vocalist in Allman's eight-piece road band. Gregg and his older brother, the late slide guitarist Duane, met Miles in 1960, about three years after the siblings and their mother left Nashville for Daytona Beach.
"He pretty much turned me on to rhythm & blues and Motown and the blues itself when I first started playing," Allman says from a tour stop in Newark, N.J. "We were playing this surfing music. He said, ‘Man, you gotta come with me,' and showed me some records: ‘This is Otis Redding, this is Ray Charles, this is B.B. King,' and all that. It made you want to move and shake and made you happy. You can't listen to ‘Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' without feeling it in your feet."
Gregg and Duane soon began sitting in with Miles and hanging out with their pals at black nightclubs and a store that was a combination record shop, barbershop and pawnshop.
Allman's fascination with the artists he mentions, along with Howlin' Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Milton and Bobby "Blue" Bland, was further stoked by evenings spent listening to Nashville station WLAC. Those influences inevitably rubbed off on the sound of the siblings' bands. But he didn't come by his vocal prowess and Hammond B3 organ mastery overnight.
"I had no idea at first," he says. "I was just groping around in the dark. I was for a long time [self-consciously copying others] until I finally relaxed and let it flow out. I've heard for over a decade from my friends and fans who would tell me that they could always tell who was singing when it was one of my songs. I couldn't hear it myself until about three years ago. That's when I really felt relaxed about playing. Now I feel like a seasoned player, a pro."
Evidence of Allman's newfound confidence in his own work might be heard on his slow-burning take on the Southern soul classic "Dark End of the Street." The track benefits from a rich horn arrangement, gospel-edged background vocals and slide guitar courtesy of Jack Pearson.
"That was one of my brother's favorite songs," he says. "He was always on me to learn it, way back as far as the first bands we had, like the Allman Joys."
"Searching for Simplicity" also benefits from the inclusion of the 1961 Ray Charles single "I've Got News for You," with Hank Crawford on alto sax, a chunky acoustic-electric funk workout on the Allman Brothers classic "Whippin' Post," and a slow and greasy take on "Neighbor, Neighbor," the 1966 Jimmy Hughes hit, complete with blazing slide work from Derek Trucks.
The break between Allman's last solo disc, "Just Before the Bullets Fly," and the new one has been filled by nonstop road and recording commitments with the Allmans. Since the group reunited in 1989 with original members Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johnson, they've landed every summer on the list of the Top 10 grossing touring acts.
"This new lineup has a certain real sophistication to it," says Allman. "I think some of the decibels have dropped. It's not quite so loud. It's progressed. Over the years, you get more refined."