Gregg Allman: Made in Miami

In this Aug. 24, 1978 file photo, Gregg Allman plays the organ at a concert in Macon, Ga. Much of his greatest music was recorded in Miami.
In this Aug. 24, 1978 file photo, Gregg Allman plays the organ at a concert in Macon, Ga. Much of his greatest music was recorded in Miami. AP

Gregg Allman’s voice carried the history of the South: the roadhouse bars, the churches, the gravel roads.

The blues, traditional country, gospel, jazz and rock all jockeyed for position in his weary, raspy and commanding Georgia drawl.

But Allman, who died Saturday at his Savannah home at 69, sought inspiration and relief in Miami. He, along with members of the Allman Brothers Band, made much of his greatest music in Miami. Something about the steamy city, combined with the talents of producer Tom Dowd and the warm sound inside the original Criteria Studios in North Miami, made it happen.

“It’s a more relaxed environment,” Dowd’s widow, Cheryl Dowd, said Tuesday as she pondered why Dowd left his beloved New York to live in South Florida. Here, he recorded many landmark recordings at Criteria by artists including Eric Clapton, the Allmans, Aretha Franklin and Rod Stewart.

This, too, she believes, is why Allman, his late brother Duane, and their bandmates left the endless road to join him inside Criteria to create masterworks like “Idlewild South” in 1970 and “Eat a Peach” in 1972. Several other group albums — seemingly always at times when the band was in rebuilding mode such as “Enlightened Rogues” in 1979 and “Seven Turns” in 1990, also took shape in Miami.

“During those short times of being in the studio, it’s so intense, so to get away to go fishing or take a walk on the beach draws out the creativity,” added Dana Dowd, Tom’s daughter.

Tom Dowd in the studio at Criteria in North Miami on Oct. 1, 1996. Dowd produced classics by the Allman Brothers Band at the studio in the 1970s and 1990s. C.W. GRIFFIN Miami Herald File

Allman loved golfing with Dowd on breaks between sessions. Clapton, who cut “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” with guitarist Duane Allman and Dowd in 1970, and his 1974 comeback, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” with Dowd at Criteria, would fish the waters of Biscayne Bay with the producer.

For Gregg Allman, the lowest lows necessitated a Miami retreat. Shortly after Duane died in a motorcycle accident on Oct. 29, 1971, Allman and the other members decamped to Miami to complete “Eat a Peach.” The double album was a mix of live recordings from the Fillmore East, material Duane had played on in earlier sessions, and new songs recorded after his death.

“I was so dinged out, and we were so f----- up. But we knew we had to get back in the studio,” Allman wrote in his 2012 autobiography, “My Cross to Bear.”

“I remember walking into Studio D at Criteria — the one with the 110-year-old Steinway piano. I saw Tom Dowd, and I knew my purpose, and I knew I belonged there,” Allman wrote. “We all saw that playing music brought us out of the doldrums. … We found strength, vitality, newness, reason and belonging as we worked on finishing ‘Eat a Peach.’ 

Allman had written the acoustic ballad, “Melissa,” years earlier but filed it away, figuring it “too syrupy.” A change in scenery made the song, one of his most popular, happen.

“I finally decided to cut it while I was on the plane heading down to Miami, and the finest guitar work I ever heard from Dickey Betts was on that song,” Allman wrote. The musician used Criteria’s old Steinway to finish composing “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” a song that felt like a mission statement.

Allmans Macon Restaurant
In this undated photo circa 1971, members of the Allman Brothers Band, from left, Dickey Betts, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman and Jai Johanny "Jaimoe" Johanso, eat at the H&H Restaurant in downtown Macon, Ga. AP/The Macon Telegraph

Seven years later, the Allman Brothers, which had split up amid too much drugs, infighting and unwelcome media attention on Allman’s brief marriage to Cher, regrouped to record the comeback album, “Enlightened Rogues,” with Dowd at Criteria.

The studio owned a row of houses along Biscayne Bay that artists could stay in while recording. Clapton titled one of his greatest albums, “461 Ocean Boulevard” after the house he lived in while recording with Dowd.

Allman and the battered band, which had hit a commercial peak with “Brothers and Sisters” in 1973 and a creative low with “Win, Lose or Draw” in 1975, took a house three doors down from 461 Ocean Boulevard.

“That place just calmed us all out — really helped us travel back in time,” Allman wrote in his memoir. “It was just a groove, man, one big family again.”

Gregg Allman My Cross to Bear
Gregg Allman’s autobiography, “My Cross to Bear,” written with Alan Light. WM Morrow

Allman would return to Criteria in 1986 to record his solo albums, “I’m No Angel” and “Just Before the Bullets Fly” with other producers. “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson, who had just finished recording his “Heartbeat” album in the same studio, cowrote and sang the track, “Evidence of Love,” with Allman.

Yet another Allman Brothers Band reunion album, “Seven Turns,” marked a return trip to Criteria to work with Dowd in the spring of 1990. The teaming — Miami, Dowd, Allman — would sustain the two men for the rest of their lives.

“He was a real treat,” Allman said of Dowd. “We had communication, and I mean the utmost communication.”

Tom Dowd died Oct. 27, 2002, in Aventura. On oxygen during the last four months of his life, public outings were few, limited to the occasional errand.

Dowd made one exception. With daughter Dana at the wheel, the Dowds drove to West Palm Beach’s Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre to see the Allman Brothers Band perform. The band’s management moved its tour buses aside to make room for Dowd’s car so that he would have close access to the stairs that led him to the backstage area. It would be Dowd’s last concert.

“That just goes to show how close he was with each of the members of the band — not just from a professional standpoint but on a personal level,” Dana Dowd said. “It was important for him. We knew it was his last days, it was important for the closure.”

Dana Gregg 2009
Dana Dowd and Gregg Allman reconnect backstage at Allman’s October 2009 concert at Hard Rock Live near Hollywood. Cheryl Dowd Dana Dowd/Facebook

Losing Allman, less than six months after founding drummer Butch Trucks died in West Palm Beach, also at 69, has been difficult for the Dowds.

On a Facebook post on the day Allman died, Dana recalled sitting in her “Uncle Gregory’s dressing room” with her mother and Allman’s longtime friend, Chank Middleton. Allman had turned to Dana to ask her for her opinion on a solo album he had been working on — his first since the death of Tom Dowd.

“After I gave him my advice and what I think would have been my father’s, I looked at him joking and said, ‘But hey, what do I know?’ His reply was, ‘Sugar, you are the closest thing I have left to your daddy.’ 

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen