Will His Spirit Float Away

In 1969, Duane Allman formed The Allman Brothers Band in Jacksonville, Florida, playing (slide guitar and lead guitar) with his brother Gregg Allman (vocals, organ, songwriting), Dickey Betts (lead guitar, vocals, songwriting), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Butch Trucks (drums), and Jai Johanny Johanson, frequently known by the stage name Jaimoe also on (drums). While the band has been called the principal architects of Southern rock, they also incorporate elements of blues, jazz, and country music, and their live shows have jam band-style improvisation and instrumentals.  They are the founders of what became known as Southern rock.

Duane & Gregg Allman had several bands together before the Allman Brothers were formed including The Houserockers, The Escorts, Almanac, The Allman Joys, The 31st of February & HourGlass.  Duane Allman quit Hourglass due to lack of artistic freedom, and he headed to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1968, to become the South’s premier session guitarist.  Jaimoe played with Lamar Williams in George Woods & the Sounds of Soul, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and other R&B greats.  Butch had pre-ABB (Allman Brothers Band) experience with The Vikings, The 31st of February, and he was classically trained, playing tympani in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.  Berry Oakley first played bass for Tommy Roe & The Roemans, then the Second Coming with Dickey Betts.  Dickey Betts was in pre-ABB bands such as The Jokers and The Second Coming with Berry Oakley.

The song ‘Melissa’ dates back to a time before the Allman Brothers Band existed, back when Duane and Gregg were in The 31st of February and a period when Gregg was still trying to find his songwriting touch.  Gregg was sick of playing other people’s material so he decided, “OK, here we go. One, two, three – we’re going to try to write songs.”  And about 200 songs later after creating a lot of garbage he wrote ‘Melissa’.   The 31st of February fell apart before they could release ‘Melissa’, but a demo from that time period eventually surfaced in May of 1972 on a collection of the brothers’ early recordings.  In the meantime, Duane and Gregg had moved onto superstardom with The Allman Brothers Band on the strength of two scorching studio albums and the stunning live document Live At Fillmore East, which showcased the band’s instrumental virtuosity as they straddled the realms of country, rock, and blues, creating epic jams out of that rich stew.

Gregg had previously struggled to create any songs with substance, and ‘Melissa’ was among the first that survived after hundreds of attempts to write a song that he deemed good enough.  While he was staying at the Evergreen Motel in Pensacola, Florida, he picked up Duane’s guitar and the words came naturally, but he stumbled on the name of the love interest.  Gregg had the melody and all of the lyrics except the title.  He began running different girls names through his head, sweet Barbara, Diane, Bertha, Delilah and none of these sounded right, so he just kind of put it away for a while. ‘Melissa’ was so mellow that Gregg didn’t show it to the Allman’s for years; it only resurfaced when the band needed additional songs for Eat a Peach.

Gregg was staying at a cheap motel on Hwy 98 in Ft Walton Beach, FL and one night it was his turn to go get tea, coffee, sugar, milk, juice and other supplies, so he headed out to this twenty-four-hour grocery store, one of the few in town.  There were two people at the cash registers, but only one other customer was in the store besides Gregg.  She was an older Spanish lady, wearing these colorful shawls, with her hair all stacked up on her head.  She had what seemed to be her granddaughter with her, who was at the age when kids discover that they have legs and they like to run.  Gregg saw her jumping and dancing down the aisles and he thought that she looked like a little puppet.  He was gathering his supplies, and at one point she was in the next aisle over, and he heard her little feet run all the way down the aisle.  The woman said, “No, wait, Melissa.  Come back, don’t run away, Melissa!”

Gregg realized that Melissa was the name he was looking for.  Gregg felt like he should’ve gone over there and kissed that woman.  They met each other at the end of the aisle, and he looked at her and said, “Thank you so much.”  He forgot about half the stuff that he went to the store for, and went back home and finished it, only he couldn’t really tell if it was good or not because he had written so many bad ones.  He was reluctant to show it to anybody for about a year.  He played it for Duane and he liked it.

Gregg Allman sold the publishing rights to his song ‘Melissa’ to former teen idol singer from the early 1960s and later producer Steve Alaimo for $250.  Gregg had been tied up in Los Angeles, contractually bound by Liberty Records (who had previously issued albums by the Allman’s earlier band, the Hour Glass), and he used the money to buy an airplane ticket so he could fly back.  Steve Alaimo had nothing to do with writing the song, but he happened to be in the studio where The Allman Brothers recorded this song.  Alaimo had a few Hot 100 entries as a singer in the ‘60s and early ‘70s and he is probably best known for hosting and co-producing Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is in the late 1960s, before he moved into production work.

This was one of the first songs the band recorded without Duane Allman, who died in a motorcycle accident about four months before it was released.  Eat A Peach came out in 1972 and it was dedicated to Duane.  Melissa charted at #86 in the US.  There is a character in ‘Melissa’ who is referred to as the gypsy, a man who always on the road, living a wandering life that might be one constant party.  He is never making commitments, never having anything steady, except this woman Melissa.  This song is not about Melissa, as she is just the girl who is mentioned in this song.

The gypsy doesn’t interact with people for very long and he doesn’t keep any long term connections, other than Melissa. Basically, Melissa is the only exception in this man’s life of “Knowing many, loving none”.  The song can be viewed as a metaphor for the nomadic existence of a touring rock star, but Gregg’s lyrics are somehow more cosmic and universal than that, hinting at the innate restlessness that dwells within us all and contradicts the need for the stability and love that waits when the road finally winds down.  Again the gypsy is on the run without a care.  This song starts off with a mention of the “Crossroads” that exert their pull on the gypsy character, and this could allude to the Robert Johnson myth that fueled so many blues and rock songs, because that is where one supposedly goes to sell his soul to the devil in order to become famous.  Yet a crossroads is also a crucial turning point in everyone’s life, that line of demarcation that separates the reckless adventurer from the settled homebody.  Rather than being romanticized, the road that the gypsy wanders is portrayed as unforgiving, nearly cruel.

He rides on freight trains and nobody knows his name.  “No one hears his lonely sighs There are no blankets where he lies.”  Melissa waits in the gypsy’s “deepest dreams”, she has become a redemption in his lonely life.  The gypsy spurns lasting relationships by picking up his gear and rolling on, and he wonders if the Crossroads will ever let him go.  He ponders his death, wondering if “his spirit float away”. “Without Melissa”, life would be unbearable for him.

The Allman Brothers performed at the Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, NY, on July 28, 1973 with The Band and The Grateful Dead and that concert drew about 600,000 people, making it the largest rock concert ever, and I was there, but that is another story.  Duane Allman and Berry Oakley died as a result of motorcycle accidents three blocks away from each other, Duane on October 29, 1971, Barry on November 11, 1972.   Oakley did not die there.  He got up, went home and hung out with his friends.  Three hours later he died from a brain hemorrhage.  Both were 24.  In 1995, Jaimoe and the other founding members of the Allman Brothers Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Willie Nelson.  Gregg Allman went into rehab the next day.  Gregg died at the age of 69 of complications from liver cancer passing away peacefully at his home in Richmond Hill, on May 27, 2017.  Following the 2017 deaths of Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman, Jaimoe and Dickey Betts are the last surviving original members of the Allman Brothers Band.

Crossroads, seem to come and go, yeah
The gypsy flies from coast to coast
Knowing many, loving none
Bearing sorrow, having fun
But, back home he’ll always run
To sweet Melissa
Mmm, hmm

Freight train, each car looks the same, all the same
And no one knows the gypsy’s name
And no one hears his lonely sighs
There are no blankets where he lies
Lord, in his deepest dreams the gypsy flies
With sweet Melissa
Mm, hmm

Again, the mornin’s come
Again, he’s on the run
A sunbeam’s shinin’ through his hair
Fear not to have a care
Well, pick up your gear and gypsy roll on
Roll on

Crossroads, will you ever let him go?
Lord, Lord
Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?
Or will he lie, beneath the clay?
Or will his spirit float away?
But, I know that he won’t stay
Without Melissa
Yes, I know that he won’t stay, yeah
Without Melissa
Lord, Lord, it’s all the same

3 thoughts on “Will His Spirit Float Away

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