In spite of career struggles due to drug abuse and infighting, the ABB put out consistent albums and continued to draw crowds over the years. In tandem with the ups and downs of the proto southern rock group, another story emerged.
Gregg’s solo career started in 1973 with the well received “Laid Back,” an album that didn’t veer greatly from the ABB’s blues rock sound. The subtle redirection that took place shifted listeners’ ears from jamming to Gregg’s soulful voice. His latest offering, “Low Country Blues,” continued that tradition and once again, a subtle shift took place.
With clean, minimal produc- tion, roots producer T-Bone Burnett let listeners reconsider a voice they know all too well. Burnett also used his own session musicians and kept Gregg’s trademark organ low in the mix. As a result, the voice of one of the country’s foremost blues singers was recast through traditional blues material.
In the following interview, I talked with Gregg about his career, performing in the shadow of his classic live album, “At Fillmore East” and how, once again, he found a lifeline in the blues.
Gene: What is it about your voice that conveys emotion so well?
Gregg: I really don’t know man. Probably actually having the case of the blues, you know, here and there in life. And just different ways of venting it. I mean some people vent it with anger, some people vent it with – I don’t know – they throw up their hands and quit.
Gene: Do you have a favorite singer?
Gregg: Oh man, there were so many good ones. I would say Milton Campbell, little Milton. And there’s two or three others that rank right up there with him. There’s Ray [Charles] and, I don’t know. That’s a hard question there.
Gene: What it is about singing that you enjoy?
Gregg: Well it’s the total release man. It’s like the steam switch on top of a boiler. It just lets all the pressure out, bygone pressures too, things that still kind of linger in your heart and head as well as the day-to-day pressures. They all, they all just kind of work out.
Gene: What’s the hardest part of being a singer?
Gregg: I can get carried away with the perfectionism. I always want another take and another take and another take and a sound check here and there, and rehearsals all the time. I want it to feel right to everybody in the band, and I want everybody to be comfortable and everything working fine.
Gene: And yet in spite of your perfectionism, the latest album was recorded pretty quickly. I think it was what, two weeks? How’d that work?
Gregg: From the first song we cut, “Floating Bridge,” it just sailed on from there. It’s always taken me at least three weeks and I was there in a dozen days. We got to couple of first takes and jeez, it really went so smooth. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
Gene: Has the way you relate to music changed over the years?
Gregg: I don’t think so. It’s hard to keep it and check on everything. But I think about music the same way as I did before and, I think the same way about gigs, and when I get up there to play, I get up there like it’s my last one because it very well could be.
Gene: One of your albums, “At Fillmore East,” is held up as one of the best live performances of all time. Do you compare yourself to that or try to aim for that every time you play live?
Gregg: The good thing about that record was, we didn’t know we were being recorded. We’d already recorded like two or three nights – see back then we didn’t have the electronics that we do now, and we didn’t have the portable electronics like we do now.
Gene: So the way that that album was done, there was less pressure because you weren’t aiming to record it specifically?
Gregg: Well yeah, not that par- ticular night ’cause the crowd was so noisy. They were making so much noise, God bless ‘em, that we had problems with the mikes and problems with getting it in the complete stereo and a lot of bleeding problems. So what they did, they pulled a trick on us. They said, “All right, guys we’re just gonna’ leave our equip- ment up because it’s going to be too hard to take down in the time we have. So when y’all play tonight it’ll still be standing up there. Sure enough, we never gave it another thought.
Gene: Have you ever sat back and thought, “What would have happened if I stayed in medical school?”
Gregg: I would have seen the light. I would have popped back into music.
Gene: This would have your only course – no matter what?
Gregg: Well, not my only course. There’s lots of stuff you can do. I’d hate to think of what I’d be doing this morning. Proba- bly down in West Palm or some- thing like that, you know, sitting on my front porch reading the paper.
Gene: When was the first moment you figured out that you were a singer?
Gregg: My brother, he quit school in the 10th grade and just passed me up like I was running the other way, and so in the beginning I was a guitar player and he was the singer. I was not a guitar player and he was not a singer. That’s just the way it is. He came to me and he said, “Little bro, you need to learn to do something besides beat on that guitar. We’re always looking for a damn singer or I’m having to do it. If I were you I would learn how to sing real quick or you might find yourself out of a job.” I said, “Wait a minute. I started this damn organization. You ain’t kicking me out of my own band.”
Gene: Is performing now sober different than all those years ago?
Gregg: Oh yeah, so much, I mean, compared to then it’s effortless.
Gene: How, what’s different about it?
Gregg: Well, you actually can remember what you did. It’s more tight and it’s more decisive.