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Michael Allman finds his voice outside his father's shadow

Michael Allman, 46, center, the son of the great rock and blues singer Gregg Allman, performs Monday at Cocktails in New Port Richey with bassist Marc Diaz, left, and guide and mentor Mark Shane.
Published Feb. 23, 2013

NEW PORT RICHEY

Michael Allman was at a crossroads last year when he decided to confront the curse of a famous father.

At 46, he looks and sounds almost identical to legendary rocker Gregg Allman, but the son is determined to cut a path of his own — through the New Port Richey nightlife scene, of all places.

Every Monday night, he and four local musicians turn Cocktails nightclub on Grand Boulevard into their own living room rehearsal space.

Guided by local music mentor Mark Shane, Allman describes himself as the "weakest link" among his new permanent bandmates in the Michael Allman Band. They are preparing to launch a spring tour next month at Daytona's Bike Week. Eventually, they'll record a follow-up album to Allman's 2010 cut Hard Labor Creek, named for the Georgia park close to his mother's home.

"I'm a singer and a gypsy who needs to fly another way," Allman said, quoting lyrics from the song It Ain't Me, written about him by friend Karen Bennett. "I'm gonna be a brand new man, leaving a lot behind."

He started out as a nomadic singer performing with pick-up bands, and now admits to "overdoing it." Allman, whose father's face is tattooed over his heart with fingers that spell out "it is what it is," scripted some wild chapters early on, barely surviving abandonment, assaults, arrests and cancer.

He was born July 3, 1966, to go-go dancer Mary Lynn Sutton, who met Gregg Allman at a Maitland discotheque. Her parents — a bank president and a librarian — ran Gregg Allman out of town upon learning about the pregnancy. Gregg Allman retreated to Jacksonville, where he formed the Allman Brothers Band.

Growing up, Michael Sean Allman never really knew his biological father. His original surname — Hendrick — came from the man his mother married to legitimize his birth. After that brief union ended, his mother married Daniel Green, the man Allman originally believed was his father. Then, when Allman was six, Green died in a Learjet crash. As he was mourning, his mother told him about his birth father.

"It took me years to make any sense of it," he said. "I still felt like I lost my father in the plane crash."

He remembers an unhappy childhood when he dreamt of being a preacher, chef or musician.

"Lots of time I felt like I was in a state of suspended animation," he said in a recent interview. "I wasn't happy, just wondering a lot. My friends and I were goofballs."

He left home at 15 to attend a military academy, which he describes as a divorcing couples' dumping ground for lonely kids.

"The only discipline I learned there was to get me gone," he said.

Then in 1983, when Allman was 17, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she went into treatment, he moved in with his rock star dad.

"I spent my senior year of high school on Anna Maria Island and another year (with Gregg Allman) in California seven years later," Michael Allman said. "Dad was on the road a lot and bounced in and out. He treated me very well … took me to Disney World and stuff. But fathering has never been his job."

Michael Allman migrated toward the music scene as a bartender, sound man and DJ. During his travels throughout the southeast, Allman started sitting in and singing with local bands, inspired by the raspy, bluesy sound of Steve Perry.

In the early 1990s, Allman was attacked outside a South Carolina nightclub and needed 300 stitches to his chest from knife wounds.

"The bouncer had just thrown three drunks out of the bar," Allman said. "They came back inside and started shooting up the ceiling. I was the DJ and jumped up when their gun jammed. I shouldn't have chased them out the door."

He formed and led the Michael Allman Band throughout most of the 1990s before trading it in for the serenity of domestic life. He worked in construction and fathered two sons —Brendan Michael, now 26, and Christopher Lenoir, 25 — but felt "trapped by the safety and security of family life."

It was a 2002 diagnosis of testicular cancer that sent him home again to reunite with his sons and first wife, Donna Sowa, in Michigan.

"I thought it was time to say goodbye," Allman said. "I had surgery to remove the testicle. But I wouldn't take chemo or testosterone treatment."

Eight months later Allman was cancer-free and felt like a whole man again, working as a framer and carpenter. With a grin and wipe to his eye, he adds, "the only residual effect was crying at movies."

His father stepped up and paid all the bills — the only time Michael Allman has accepted any support. But he said they're not in close contact: "Out of sight, out of mind," he explained. "We've crossed paths at Thanksgiving, our favorite holiday. If I needed him, he'd be there. But at this age he might be ready to ask me for help."

Allman feels closest to his musical half-siblings: Layla Brooklyn Allman, whose band Picture Me Broken won a regional breakout artist competition as part of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards; and Devon Allman, who heads the band Honeytribe in St. Louis.

"Devon is the hardest working Allman," Michael Allman said.

Over the years, Michael Allman said, he's been pursued by "hundreds of women" and he's made his mistakes. Twice he was arrested for domestic abuse; the first charge was dropped, the second sent him to jail for 60 days.

"I don't hide it," he said. "I work on my anger issues and always ask for patience from people close to me."

He spent the winter holidays with family near the rock quarries of Pikeville, Ky., reflecting on personal issues and composing a full book of original acoustic songs that reveal his new unplugged self.

"My life story made me ready to sing the blues," he said.

"He hasn't laid his book of new compositions on me yet," said Shane, who headed an Allman Brothers tribute band called Trunk. "It's a process since we got together … It was time to work on his musicality by sitting in his living room one-on-one focusing on pitch — that resonant instrument against your belly."

Allman also needs to overcome stage fright. He takes cues from drummer Rich Russo, bassist Marc Diaz, guitarist Shawn Paige and keyboardist Lonnie Sarao who help him overcome anxieties and triggers.

"Michael needs to slow it down and find movement onstage," Shane said. "That's when I'll throw the stools away."

It was Allman's desire to work with Shane, who lives in Tampa, that brought him to the area last October. Allman, now single, lives in New Port Richey.

Allman's ultimate dream is to open the future "Dew Drop Inn"— a bar/restaurant/hotel/recording studio he envisions on the west coast of Florida. He said he will follow his father's best advice:

"'Never sign anything,' he told me," Allman said.

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