sweet melissa -- 9/22/23

Today's selection -- from One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul. One of the most-loved rock ballads of the 1970s was the Allman Brothers Band's “Sweet Melissa”:

“A teenaged Gregg Allman spent years struggling to find his musical voice, writing and rejecting songs. He says he tossed away more than three hundred.

“‘They were just “I wanna swoon with you under the moon in June” or they were a few good licks that didn't really belong together,’ he says. ‘My brother and I were struggling with finding any sense of originality. Songwriting is not something you're born with.’

“Late in 1967, still struggling to write a keeper song, Allman found himself sitting in a room in Pensacola's Evergreen Motel, holding Duane's guitar, which was tuned to open E.

“‘I picked up the guitar and didn't know it was natural-tuned,’ Allman recalls; ‘I just started strumming it and hit these beautiful chords. It was just open strings, then an E shape, first fret, then moved to the second fret. This is a great example of the way different tunings can open up different roads to you as a songwriter. The music immediately made me feel good and the words just started coming to me. I started singing but stumbled on the name.’

“Years later, Allman, relaxing in a dressing room at New York's Beacon Theatre following one of the Allman Brothers Band's landmark shows, starts singing a familiar melody: ‘But back home he'll always run to sweet …’

“He stops and guffaws at the memory. ‘Nancy? Sweet. .. Stella? What the f**k is her name?’

"Allman lets out a long, loud laugh before continuing ‘I had the melody and the chords and the idea, but no name. That drove me nuts for about a week, Then I was in a grocery store late at night when a beautiful Spanish lady came in with a gorgeous little girl with black hair down her back, who took off running down the aisle, and the mother called out, “Oh, Melissa, come back!”’

“Allman leans back on the couch, lets his long blond hair out of a thick ponytail, shakes it free, and looks up with a sparkle in his eyes decades later.

“‘When I heard her yell “Melissa,” I knew I had it and I just sung out, “But back home he'll always run to sweet Melissa.” I wanted to hug that lady, but I just dropped my milk and ran home to my guitar and played it through and it was perfect. I just knew that was it.’

“‘I made a little recording and played it for my brother and he said, “It's pretty good–for a love song. It ain't rock and roll that makes me move my ass.” He could be tough that way. But we recorded a little version of it together.’

“That rough version was released on One More Try, a solo compilation heavy on outtakes and demos released in 1997 but quickly pulled from the market and now out of print.

"Sweet Melissa"  (Live on U.S. Tour - December 1991/March 1992)

“‘I had that song in my pocket for years and after a while my brother started telling me how much he liked it,’ Gregg says.

“A year after writing the song, the brothers Allman recorded it as part of a Florida demo session with Butch Trucks's band the 31st of February. That version is thought to feature Duane's first recorded slide playing. The sessions were eventually released under the misleading title Duane and Gregg Allman.

“When Liberty Records, who had the Allmans' band the Hour Glass under contract, demanded that Gregg return to Los Angeles to fulfill a contract, he did not have enough money to buy an airplane ticket. He says that he sold ‘Melissa’ and ‘God Rest His Soul,’ which he wrote in tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., to the producer Steve Alaimo for $250.

“Recalls guitarist Scott Boyer, ‘Gregg came to me after Vanguard Records turned down the demos and asked what to do about needing money and having an offer to buy these songs so he could fly back. I didn't know what to do and told him so and he just went, “Hell, I can always write another song.”’

“Years later, while recording Eat a Peach, Allman Brothers manager Phil Walden arranged to buy back half the publishing rights for Gregg.

“‘I think Alaimo figured half of a song on an Allman Brothers album was better than 100 percent of nothing,’ notes Trucks.

“Allman says he never brought the song to the Allman Brothers Band, in part because he no longer owned the rights and in part because he thought it too soft for the band. When Duane died, Gregg sang ‘Melissa’ at his brother's funeral, and when the band reconvened to finish recording Eat a Peach, the song was an appropriate tribute to his fallen brother. While everyone recognized the song's appeal, it lacked an instrumental component as compelling as its chords, lyrics, and vocals.

“‘I knew it needed something and told Gregg I would come up with a lead line,’ recalls Dickey Betts. ‘I took a recording home and started around and I came up with that entire lead guitar portion that night, which was actually Gregg's birthday [December 8].

“‘I walked into the studio the next day and said, “Happy Birthday, Gregg,” and laid that on him. Then we cut the song.’

“Allman has called Betts's melodic lead line on ‘Melissa’ the ‘finest guitar work’ he ever heard his longtime partner play. Four years after it was written, ‘Melissa’ entered the rock pantheon, quickly becoming one of the Allmans’ most beloved songs, used in movie soundtracks and commercials and for a crowd favorite.

“‘I knew it was good but never could have guessed it would impact so many people for so many years,’ Allman says. ‘I’ve met a lot of Melissas named after the song.’”

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Alan Paul


One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band


St. Martin's Griffin


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