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All Heart: Peter Levin Hails The Allmans And A Miracle Transplant

Peter Levin
Michael Weintrob

When Peter Levin taped a studio performance of Allman Brothers songs last spring in East Nashville, he was in his element. He’d been Gregg Allman’s last touring keyboard player, and he was jamming with old friends. The pandemic was receding, and he was getting back to the wild schedule he’d known for years as a road musician and studio owner. Nearly the last thing on his mind was his heart, an organ that had been powering his lifestyle with the help of an implanted defibrillator since 1996. There were no signs that its time was running out.

“August of this year is when it started to deteriorate kind of rapidly,” Levin told WMOT on Monday. “I had a show at City Winery. And after I got off stage, man, I couldn't catch my breath. And I was jumping on (guitarist) Marcus King’s tour bus, but I couldn't really catch my breath. Everyone was like, Yeah, you just need to relax, and this and that. And it was a little bit more serious than that.”

Later that night he had to be delivered by ambulance from the tour bus to Vanderbilt Hospital where he was given heavy drugs and electric shocks to stabilize a furiously racing heart. He was released a few days later, but it happened again in September and again in early November. And that time it was truly dire, Levin remembers. “At that point, my heart was working maybe 15 to 20 percent at most, and they said we’ve got to intubate you to figure out what we're going to do. And while I was out, my heart totally skipped out.” Levin was given CPR for minutes before reviving. He nearly died again days later as the doctors realized his only chance for survival was a complete organ transplant.

Most heart candidates have enough runway to wait for their replacement while living with an artificial heart bypass machine. Levin didn’t have that time. It was a kind of hail mary moment where being at one of the world’s great centers for heart surgery may have helped. “They found it in like two days,” said Levin. “I had to go through all the tests to make sure my body could take it, but because of my profile and my situation, I shot to the top of the list for a transplant. And so, we put it in on (November) seventh.”

Here it is one month later and Levin is surpassing all expectations for recovery and rehabilitation, telling the story with laughter and industrial quantities of gratitude. Starting Wednesday night, he’ll be able to watch himself playing that Allman Brothers tribute set, because it’s getting its premiere webcast through Instrumenthead Live and Volume.com. The date was long planned, because Dec. 8 is Gregg Allman’s birthday. Now the show is a fund-raiser for the American Heart Association, as well as its original beneficiary, the Allman Brothers Band Big House Museum in Macon, GA.

“It was at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning. There were three of us in the room besides the band,” says photographer Michael Weintrob, who produced the session as part of his ongoing Instrumenthead Live series from his Gallatin Road studio. “They performed ‘Ain’t Wasting Time No More,’ ‘Dreams,’ ‘Whipping Post,’ ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’ and ‘Statesboro Blues.’ It was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard and one of the greatest tributes to the Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman that I’ve ever seen.”

Peter Levin

Levin was a New York city lifer before moving to Nashville three years ago. He established himself as a joyful master musician, in demand at the upper echelons of southern jam, funk and roots music. He’s brought the swirling Hammond organ, the piquant Wurlitzer, synthesizers and good old piano to tours by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Amanda Shires, Marcus King and many others. His Brooklyn studio has hosted Public Enemy, Train, The Beastie Boys and Gym Class Heroes.

“Guys like him carry on the legacy,” says Weintrob, a friend from New York since the early 2000s. “Without guys like him, we wouldn’t be able to hear this music played in the way it’s meant to be played.”

Levin is also a master in-the-moment improviser and innovator with an extensive network of colleagues. Levin shows that more clearly than ever on the album Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, Vol. 1, his debut LP as a leader. Released in early September, before his life-altering drama, it’s an absolute banger of funky blues and jazz-smart jams. Lamar Williams Jr., the heralded favorite singer of the Allman family who is part of Wednesday night’s webcast, joins Levin on track one, an original plea for “Peace And Understanding.” When Levin sings his own lead on the poignant “Love Letter,” he sounds like Randy Newman in a New Orleans bar. The stanky, horn-stabbing instrumental “Gotta Light” is one of the most dance-inducing tracks of the year.

Besides Williams on vocals, the Peter Levin-led Allman tribute set features Marcus King and Audley Freed on the vital twin electric guitar parts, while the rhythm section comes from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit, bass player Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble. While the 7 pm CT stream is free, donations will be solicited over the Volume.com platform and will be available to watch on demand for several months. Find the set and ways to watch and donate here.

Levin’s case has captured the attention of the American Heart Association. Annie Thornhill, the new executive director of its Nashville chapter said in a statement that “Stories like Peter’s give so much hope for a healthier future for everyone. We are so grateful for survivors like Peter who are willing to share their story to help spread awareness of the mission of the American Heart Association.”

A GoFundMe has been established to help Levin cover living expenses while he’s out of work, not to mention medical bills. Find it here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org