In 1990, when a rising New York singer-songwriter named Lori Carson released her Hal Willner-produced, critically acclaimed debut for Geffen Records, it featured a surprising guest star: one of Carson’s childhood idols, Gregg Allman. (Rolling Stone described their duet, “Imagine Love,” as heard in the player above, as a “warmly sentimental ballad to which Gregg Allman lends his growling-bear voice.”)
In the days since Allman’s tragic passing at age 69, Carson has returned to that recording and her fond memories of this once-in-a-lifetime collaboration, an amazing opportunity for any young artist. Here, she pens a touching personal essay about her time in the studio with the Southern rock legend.
In the late ‘80s, I was making my first record, Shelter, with producer Hal Willner, and we were looking for someone to sing on “Imagine Love,” a ballad that would close the album. We wanted a singer whose vocals would be a contrast to mine, someone with a deep or gravelly voice. We talked about Tom Waits, but Hal said Tom wasn’t “doing that kind of thing.”
“What about Gregg Allman?” I asked — and Hal flipped for the idea. He loved putting people together in unlikely combinations. He saw it as a collision of worlds, “an odd pairing.” For me, it was something more. I had been a fan of Gregg Allman’s music since I was 14 years old. The prospect of having Gregg sing on my record was a dream.
The first time I saw Gregg Allman in person was December 1974 at the Felt Forum in New York City. My parents had said I was too young to go to Watkins Glen the year before to see the Allman Brothers Band but, since then, I had turned 16 and worn them down. My friend Marianne Cetrangelo and I took the train from Long Island to the City.
“I’m going to get us backstage,” I told her, as we arrived at the venue.
Soon we were following a couple of roadies to a hallway outside of Gregg’s dressing room. Inside, Gregg looked like a god. Marianne remembers his long blond hair glowing in a celestial light. When he came out, on his way to the stage, looked right at us, and said, “Hello, pretty ladies.”
Laid Back had come out in 1973, and I loved every song on that album; musically, it was a soulful mix of R&B, folk, and some gospel. Gregg had put out a live record too, The Laid Back Tour, and I loved how on “Queen of Hearts” he ad-libbed, “And oh I promise you/Baby, lonely you” — a passionate threat, different from the lyric on the studio version, which was straighter and more perfect.
Like all ‘70s kids on Long Island, I was into the Allman Brothers and liked At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach. Southern rock ruled on Long Island, and the Allman Brothers Band had pretty much invented the genre. But Laid Back was a different kind of record. It was more like the singer-songwriter records I loved best. The slowed-down pace gave Gregg’s voice room to breathe, and placed it tenderly in the foreground of the arrangements.
Fourteen years later, I got to tell Gregg how important that record was to me when he came to Electric Lady to sing on “Imagine Love.” He was standing right next to me in front of a microphone in the big room, downstairs, and I was very nervous, which I’m sure he knew.
“Your song is really good,” he said. And then we sang it together so he could find a harmony. At one point, he asked me to change a word that he thought was awkward to sing. It was from a line that went: “Closed in a room with pillows strewn about and bedding left unmade.” I told him I didn’t want to change the word (strewn). And he said, “Good for you.”
Hal remembers that he and Joe Ferla, the engineer, were in the control room and were just blown away when Gregg started to sing. His voice was massive and heartfelt, and always on the verge of breaking. He sang the second verse, and the choruses, and drew the line only when I asked him to sing on the bridge too.
The other night, Hal sent me a text after learning that Gregg had died. “Thought of you,” it said. It was good to hear from Hal. I was touched that he thought to contact me. I had just posted “Queen of Hearts” to Facebook, and was listening to it again. Over the next few hours, I listened to all the songs from Laid Back: “Please Call Home,” “Multicolored Lady,” “Midnight Rider,” “These Days,” and the rest. Gregg Allman’s cover of “These Days” was the first I ever heard (Jackson Browne was Gregg’s onetime roommate). The song has been recorded many times by other singers and bands, including my former band the Golden Palominos in the early ‘90s (with Lydia Kavanagh on lead vocals), but Gregg’s version is the best, by far. Listening to the whole record, it still seems as perfect as it did in 1974. The instrumentation, production, performances, the songs, Gregg’s voice like rough honey — it’s a beauty.
In recent years, Gregg was curating, and headlining, the Laid Back Festival, which featured multiple artists on a couple of stages. After his transplant surgery in 2010, he sometimes appeared fragile onstage, but in July 2016, when he brought the tour to the Jones Beach Theater on Long Island, he seemed healthy and strong. America, Jason Isbell, and Gregg’s son Devon Allman were on the bill. My old friend, Marianne Cetrangelo, still a fan, said Gregg sounded wonderful, his voice as incredible as ever.
I asked Marianne what she remembered about going to see him at the Felt Forum when we were 16, and she said that 42 years later, meeting Gregg backstage is possibly “the pinnacle” of her life. She still has the autograph he gave her that night — his name scrawled below a warning about a roadie. “Marianne,” it reads, “Watch out for Twiggs!” She plans to frame it now that he’s gone.
This morning, I was listening to “Imagine Love,” which came out in 1990 on Geffen. Despite the record’s beautiful arrangements and production, it’s always been hard for me to listen to because I don’t like my vocals. I hadn’t yet learned how to use my voice in the studio. But Gregg’s performance is amazing. I got chills listening to it this morning. I was especially aware of his skill and generosity, the way he matched my phrasing and adjusted his powerful voice to fit the delicacy of mine. He was a real pro, an extraordinary artist who had a wild life and spent it writing, and touring, and being loved by women.
We’ll miss you, Gregg. Thank you for your beautiful, one-of-a-kind voice.