(See -- and hear -- a musical retrospective of Dan Toler's career.)
As the grip of Lou Gehrig’s disease tightened and left him unable to speak, Dan Toler motioned as if he was snapping a pencil.
Then he pointed to his guitar. And then to his heart.
“He was telling me it was breaking his heart that he couldn't play guitar,” recalled close friend Chaz Trippy. “I didn't cry in front of him but I sure did when I got back into my car.”
More tears were shed Monday when Toler, a resident of Manatee County’s Whitfield area, died from the disease at age 64.
Nicknamed “Dangerous Dan,” Toler was among the most prominent and beloved musicians in the area and a guitarist of wide renown. He played alongside Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts in the Allman Brothers Band from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
His wife Debbie, who has cared for him throughout his illness, put her husband to bed Sunday night, Trippy said. Toler had his hands folded. He looked peaceful. When Debbie went to wake him up around 8 a.m. Monday, Dan Toler was gone.
“His ability to make people laugh and feel good and happy was amazing,” Trippy said. “That smile of his is just a force of life and, God, how he loved playing that guitar.”
Trippy, a percussionist in the Gregg Allman Band, recalled visiting Toler on Friday. The guitar great had not been able to speak or play his instrument in recent months.
“I was talking to him about the old days on the road,the stuff we used to do,” Trippy said. “He couldn’t speak but he squeezed my hand.”
Dan played with his brother, drummer David “Frankie” Toler, in several high-profile groups starting with Dickey Betts & Great Southern. David died in 2011 at the Tidewell hospice care in Bradenton after a prolonged illness following a liver transplant. He was 59 years old.
“It's a rough day but a good day,” Trippy said. “He's up there with his brother now jamming in heaven.”
Dan and David Toler helped the Allman Brothers Band rebound in the late 1970s.
Sarasota resident Betts, the singer/songwriter/guitarist behind the Allman Brothers hits “Ramblin' Man” and “Blue Sky” as well as the classic instrumentals “Jessica” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” hired the Tolers, then unknowns, for his Great Southern group. He then brought them into the Allman Brothers for the band's 1979 comeback album “Enlightened Rogues,” which cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard 200. The Tolers were Allman Brothers through the albums “Reach the Sky” (1980) and “Brothers of the Road” (1981) as well as during the accompanying tours.
The Tolers then spent the majority of 1980s in the Gregg Allman Band, touring and recording the gold album “I’m No Angel” as well as the follow-up "Just Before the Bullets Fly." Dan Toler co-wrote several songs for each album.
The siblings performed and recorded as the Toler Bros. during the 1990s.
Dan Toler rejoined Betts in Great Southern around 2002 for a several year run. Then, with John Townsend (formerly of the Sanford-Townsend Band), he created the Townsend Toler Band and later joined The Renegades of Southern Rock. Toler's last group, which also featured Trippy, was the Toler Tucci Band.
Shortly after his brother died, Dan announced he had ALS in August of 2011. That same month, thousands of people attended a fundraiser held for Toler at Aces Live in Bradenton.
In November of the same year, Dickey Betts & Great Southern headlined the two-day Dan Toler ALS Support Benefit Concert Festival at Herschberger Ranch in Sarasota. The event found Toler restricted to a wheelchair but playing superb guitar nonetheless. Current Allman Brothers Band guitarist/singer Warren Haynes and legendary R&B singer-songwriter and actress Bonnie Bramlett also performed at the benefit.
Bramlett, perhaps most famous for portraying Bonnie Watkins on the hit TV show “Roseanne,” first became friends with the Tolers while performing with them in Great Southern and joining the guys for the recording of Betts’ 1978 album "Atlanta's Burning Down." Bramlett, who as a member of Delaney & Bonnie performed with the likes of Duane Allman, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, also sang with the Allman Brothers Band during the Toler era.
When reached Monday at her home in Nashville, Bramlett choked back tears as she recalled her last time on stage with Toler at the benefit in Sarasota.
“To see how Danny walked tall through that disease and play guitar so beautifully with his blue eyes burning that night,” she said.“What a hero.”
Bramlett added, “He really showed people how to live, and how to die. He really made you check yourself. What a great man and a great musician.”
Staff Writer Gerry Galipault contributed to this this story.