BIG BROTHER: DICKEY BETTS TALKS ABOUT LEGENDARY GUITARIST AND HIS CO-ANCHOR OF THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND, DUANE ALLMAN
By Andy Aledort
“People always ask me what Duane was really like; a good way to describe him is to point out that his hero was Muhammad Ali. That kind of supreme confidence that Ali had—that’s where Duane was coming from.”
Sitting in his beautiful home in Spanish Key, a suburb of Sarasota, Florida, Dickey is in between hunting trips, in the midst of his annual winter break from touring with his band, Dickey Betts and Great Southern. On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Live at Fillmore East, the most celebrated of the many essential releases by the Allman Brothers Band–along with the recent passing of what would have been Duane Allman’s 60th birthday on November 20, 2006–Dickey has graciously offered some of his time to discuss his feelings and recollections of one of rock guitar’s true icons.
“Duane was a guy that was bursting with energy; he was a force to be reckoned with. His drive and focus, as well as his intense belief in himself and our band, was incredible. He knew we were going to make it. His attitude was, ‘This is a fact that cannot be denied.’ We all knew we were a good band, but no one had that supreme confidence like he did. And it was a great thing, because his confidence and enthusiasm was infectious. He helped us all to believe in ourselves, too, and that was an essential key to the success of the Allman Brothers Band.”
Betts, born in West Palm Beach, began playing in rock bands in the mid-sixties while in his early teens. It was during this time, as a regular on the club circuit that included popular nightspots in Daytona Beach and Sarasota, that he first encountered the brothers Allman, Duane and Gregg. In early 1969, the three, along with Berry Oakley on bass and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks on drums, formed the Allman Brothers Band.
Duane Allman earned his stripes as one of the true legends of rock guitar via his incredible slide and standard guitar work on such Allman Brothers Band releases as The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach, as well as his magnificent contributions to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; in fact, Duane is credited with devising the title track’s dynamic primary riff while also contributing brilliant slide work to the song’s coda. His meteoric rise to fame ended tragically, at the age of 24, in a fatal motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971; he was soon to be hailed as one of rock’s greatest guitarists, alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
In the wake of Allman’s death, followed soon after by the death of bassist Berry Oakley in an eerily similar motorcycle accident, leadership of the Allman Brothers fell to Betts, under whose stewardship the band achieved their greatest success with the release in 1973 of Brothers and Sisters, which included the Betts-penned Number One single, “Ramblin’ Man,” as well as his classic rock instrumental staple, “Jessica.”
In this candid interview, Dickey offers a personal and intimate view of the real Duane Allman, and discusses the inside story of the recording of what many consider to be the greatest live rock album of all time, Live at Fillmore East.
ANDY ALEDORT Of all of the rock guitar legends, Duane Allman remains the most enigmatic. In your words, what was Duane like?
DICKEY BETTS It’s been so many years since any of us have seen Duane; it’s not like he was here just yesterday. But taking into account all that happened in his short career, it’s very interesting. Duane was a “triple Scorpio,” and there must be something to this astrological stuff, because if anybody ever acted like the book says triple Scorpios are supposed to act, Duane did! Triple Scorpios are people that are on fire, just blasting straight-ahead, and that’s exactly the way Duane was.
Now that I look back after all these years, it was almost like he knew he wasn’t going to live a long time. He didn’t know that, of course, but it was like he knew that he only had a certain amount of time to get things done. If you weren’t involved in what he thought was the big picture, he didn’t have any time for you. A lot of people really didn’t like him for that. It’s not that he was aggressive; it was more a super-positive, straight-ahead, “I’ve-got-work-to-do” kind of thing. If you didn’t get it, it was like, see you later. He always seemed like he was charging ahead.
Duane also had the respect of so many people; he was a natural leader, but if he got knocked down, you’d feel compelled to do everything you could to get him back up and going again! In fact, he and I talked a lot about that, and we decided that would be the difference in our band as compared to every other band we’d ever been in: when someone falls, instead of kicking him, or talking about him or taking advantage of him, we’d help him and pull him back up.
AA How did the strength of Duane’s positive attitude impact on the band?
BETTS He believed in what we were doing so much that, to him, it could not fail. The rest of us knew what we had, but the kind of confidence Duane possessed was something else entirely.
Duane didn’t plan the formation of the band; it kind of came together like the way a Polaroid picture develops. It was really a joint effort, but Duane was definitely the spearhead. The comments we heard at the time were that we were too good to make it as a commercially successful band!
AA Following the lead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, the Allman Brothers Band took the concept of free-form group improvisation into uncharted territory, and ultimately set a very high musical standard. Was there a feeling in the band that you all had developed something groundbreaking and new?
BETTS The feeling was that we had discovered the very thing that we’d all been looking for, even if we didn’t really know beforehand what that was. We could all feel that something was happening in the band that was real good.
AA Did Duane function as the bandleader?
BETTS He didn’t see himself as the bandleader. He led by example. And you gained a lot of respect from Duane if you earned it, if you proved you could stay with him. If you couldn’t stay with him, you’d either end up in awe of him, or you might not even like him.
He was very different from Jerry Garcia [guitarist/leader of the Grateful Dead], who was very easy-going. Duane didn’t have time to be easy-going; there was much more urgency to his personality.
AA Do you remember first hearing of Duane Allman?
BETTS Yeah; it was around ’65, ’66. I kept hearing from different people about this hot guitar player named Duane Allman over in Daytona. I started going out with a girl that had dated Gregg, and she told me about Gregg and Duane. I had a pretty good band at the time that played mostly Top 40; later on in the night we’d play Lonnie Mack and B.B. King stuff [laughs], which was the stuff we liked a lot more. I had the biggest crowds in town with my band in Sarasota, with Larry Reinhardt [AKA Rhino, later of Iron Butterfly and Captain Beyond] on guitar.
AA Was this band called the Jokers, name-checked so famously in Rick Derringer’s hit, “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hoochie Koo?”
BETTS Yes it was. We had a tough band; we had a tall, good-looking Chinese singer who could sing just like Wilson Pickett, believe it or not, and Joe Dan [Petty, later on the road crew for the Allman Brothers] played bass. So my girlfriend at the time took me over to Daytona to see Duane and Gregg’s band, The Allman Joys, and introduced me to them. I thought they were real good, but, to tell you the truth, we didn’t get along right away. I thought they were stuck-up, and they thought I was some hillbilly hayseed [laughs].
A couple of years later, they came by a club I was playing in Winterhaven and sat in with me. Duane came up onstage to play and I showed him the amp to plug into, which was on the dark corner of the stage. It was hard to see, so as he was plugging in, I tried to help him, saying, “This here is the bass and treble, and here’s the volume,” and he looked at me and said, “Man, I know how to run an amp by now, I think!” And I was just trying to be nice! So I said, “Okay, well, fucking have at it then!” So we didn’t get along that time either!
AA Before the formation of the Allman Brothers band, you and bassist Berry Oakley had forged a tight musical relationship from playing together in a variety of different bands.
BETTS Right; Berry and I started with a band called the Soul Children, which later became the Blues Messengers. By 1967/8, we moved to Jacksonville and our band had become The Second Coming, so named by a club owner because he thought Berry looked like Jesus Christ! We thought that was corny as shit, but the club owner offered us double what we were making in Tampa, and he had a new club with a wild psychedelic light show, which nobody had in Florida; that was “California” stuff! The club was called the Scene, and it was the only place in Jacksonville like that, and we were the only people in town with long hair! We’d drive somewhere and people would throw shit at us!
At that time, nobody was coming to the club to see us, and the ones that did all had “white-wall” haircuts. So we started to play for free in the park, and got some guys to put a little makeshift stage and a generator together for us.
AA What this Willow Branch Park?
BETTS I’m not sure of the name; it was by a place called the Forest Inn, a BYOB after-hours joint on ten acres, and we’d set up outside on Sunday afternoons. Berry would say things like, “We’ve got to get our people together,” and I’d say, “What people?!” [laughs] He’d say, “They’re out there; they just don’t have any place to congregate.” So, pretty soon, the people’s hair started getting long, and we started to see tie-dye shirts and beads. We started to get really good crowds, a couple thousand people. Then the police decided to run us out of town.
By late ’68/early ‘69, Duane started showing up and he’d sit in with us. That was when I really started to get to know Duane, and we hit it off great then.
AA Did this lead to the formation of the Allman Brothers Band?
BETTS It was around that time that Duane, Oakley and Jaimoe decided to put a trio together that Duane’s manager, a guy named Phil Walden, had a record deal for. So, Berry started going up to Muscle Shoals to record with Duane. Ironically, Duane was helping to bust up our band, which I knew was bound to happen; what I didn’t know was what it would eventually lead to.
Berry brought back some demos of the stuff they were doing, and, even though it was good, they weren’t going to be able to stand up next to Hendrix and guys like that. It was intended to be a power trio like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, but Duane had to sing, and Jaimoe doesn’t play drums in that style at all.
AA Were these the tracks “Happily Married Man,” “Going Down Slow,” and “Down Along the Cove,” which were, at the time, supposed to go on Duane’s solo album, and were eventually released on Duane Allman: An Anthology Vol. I and II?
BETTS Yeah, and they did some Chuck Berry stuff like “Maybelline” and “No Money Down,” too. Duane could sing, but he wasn’t a “singer,” and the stuff didn’t have the power trio kind of sound. It wasn’t making it. So it was around that time that Berry and Thom Doucette [harmonica] started talking to Duane about into getting me into the band. They said, “You and Betts together…this is too interesting to let it slide by. Fuck this trio! Let’s get Betts, and also get your damn brother Gregg in here!”
At that point, Gregg was out in L.A. and they were mad at each other. It was just a brotherly thing; they fought all of the time. Duane said, “Oh, he ain’t coming,” but we knew Gregg was going to have to come. And as soon as I got in there, Oakley and me and Doucette started harping about getting another drummer, because we felt one drummer couldn’t carry the band. Berry and I had been playing six nights a week with our band, and Duane was sitting in with us every night, plus we did the jam on Sundays, which was an unnamed band that soon would be called the Allman Brothers Band.
Our drummer at the time was great, but he wasn’t the kind of drummer we wanted for this new band with Duane and Jaimoe. His name was “Nasty” Lord John [laughs]. He played like Ginger Baker; he hardly ever played a straight beat. But when Butch [Trucks, drummer] came along, he had that freight train, meat-and-potatoes kind of thing that set Jaimoe up perfectly. He had the power thing we needed.
Now we had a five-piece band that really started to sound like something. And when Duane and I really started to play together all of the time, it was like [jazz violinist] Stephane Grappelli and [gypsy jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt, because we played together and complemented each other as best we could. We were just musicians blowing, and listening to each other.
AA When did Gregg come into the fold?
BETTS We kept nagging Duane to call Gregg, so he did and Gregg showed up in the beginning of ’69. And when Gregg heard the band play, he was floored. He walked in during a rehearsal, and he said, “I can’t play with this band!” We were really blowing; we’d been playing those free shows for six weeks by that point.
We had songs like “Don’t Want You No More” completely down, just the way it is on our first album [The Allman Brothers Band]. When Gregg got with us, we added the 6/8 part to “Don’t Want You No More” for the organ solo, and then segued into his song, “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” to make it like one big tune.
AA Once Gregg sang and played with the band, was it obvious that the ingredients were all in place, and this was something special?
BETTS We knew that what we were doing was the thing. We all had been bandleaders, we were all very experienced as musicians, and we knew what we now had.
And Duane was such a great guy for keeping things positive. He would talk about all of the things that we all had been thinking about, and essentially gave us pep talks. He’d often say, “I’m not the leader of this band, but if and when we need one, I’m a damn good one!” And he was.
AA An essential part of the Allman Brothers story that is often neglected is an acknowledgment of Berry Oakley’s many musical contributions to the band.
BETTS Absolutely. I bring up the importance of Berry Oakley in every interview I do, but it doesn’t always get printed. For one thing, Berry was the social dynamics guy: he wanted our band to relate to the people honestly. He was always making sure that the merchandise was worth what they were charging, and he was always going in and arguing about not letting the ticket prices get too high, so that our people could still afford to come see us.
AA And he also played a big role in shaping the band’s arrangements, didn’t he?
BETTS Oh yeah. “Whipping Post” was a ballad when Gregg brought it to us; it was a real melancholy, slow minor blues, along the lines of “Dreams.” Oakley came up with the heavy bass line that starts off the track, along with the 6/8-to-5/8 shifting time signature. When he played that riff for us, everyone went, “Yeah! That’s it!” In fact, Oakley called a halt to the rehearsal, and said, “Wait a minute; let me work on this song tonight and let’s get back to it tomorrow.” By the next day, he had that intro worked out.
Oakley morphed a lot of those songs into something different than the way they had started. And the arrangement on “Hoochie Coochie Man” [from Idlewild South] was all me and Oakley.
AA Is that “Hoochie Coochie Man” arrangement a good example of the way you’d been playing in Second Coming?
BETTS Yes, it was. That was the way we played together, with all of the constantly evolving unison licks.
AA What were the things that Duane brought to the table, arrangement- or composition-wise?
BETTS Duane and Gregg had a real “purist” blues thing together, but Oakley and I, along with Rhino [Larry Reinhardt], would take a standard blues and do what we did with “Hoochie Coochie Man” to it. We were really trying to push the envelope all of the time, and we didn’t care about a purist blues attitude. We loved the blues, but we wanted to play in a rock style, like what the Cream and Hendrix were doing.
Duane was smart enough to see what ingredients were missing from both bands. We knew that we didn’t have enough of the true, purist blues in our band, and he didn’t have enough of the avant garde/psychedelic approach to the blues in his band. So he decided to try to put the two sounds together, and that was the first step in finding the sound of the Allman Brothers Band.
AA Both you and Duane were very strong personalities, musically and otherwise. It’s easy to imagine that it would have been difficult for two such formidable guitar players to work together as well as you two did.
BETTS We had an immense amount of respect for each other, to the point where it was almost a rub, like, “don’t push me too far.” I didn’t push him and he didn’t push me. We talked about being jealous of each other, and how dangerous it was to think that way, and that we had to fight that feeling when we were on stage. He’d say, “When I listen to you play, I have to try hard to keep the jealousy thing at bay, and not try to ‘out do’ you when I play my solo. But I still want to play my best!” We’d laugh about what a thin line that was. We learned a lot from each other.
When you think about it, I was only 25 and Duane was 23, and the things we were talking about were pretty mature for guys our age. Duane was one tough, cocksure guy, from the spirit world! He had a strong belief in himself, and he was damn good. I was damn good too; I just didn’t believe in myself the way Duane did. It wasn’t until a few years later that I said, well, I guess I am pretty good, too.
AA In April of ’69, the band moved up to Macon, Georgia at the behest of Phil Walden, who had by then become the band’s manager and had signed the group to his new Capricorn record label. In August the band cut the first album, and cut the second record, Idlewild South, between February and July of 1970. Around this time, Duane talked about wanting the next record to be a live album.
BETTS We were all real happy with the first two records, and I should point out that Duane was a monster in the studio. He taught me—and everyone–a lot about having the proper mindset for working in the studio environment. He knew how to make a record, and he taught me how to get into the game.
But it’s true; we all wanted to make a live record by that point. I think it was [producer] Tommy Dowd that suggested the Fillmore East, and we said, “Yeah!” The Fillmore was our Carnegie Hall, and we loved [Fillmore manager] Bill Graham so much. He never gave us one grain of bullshit, and he’d raise hell with other bands over all kinds of things. On the closing night of the Fillmore East, he called us the “best damn band in America,” and that floored us.
AA At Fillmore East is a magical record, one that is widely regarded as the greatest “jamming” album ever recorded.
BETTS With many live records in those days, the joke was, “the only live thing on the record is the audience,” because just about every band would go into the studio afterwards and fix the tracks. On At Fillmore East, nothing was changed; the only studio work that was done was that we edited down the length of one or two tracks, and that was it. Also, the first night we had some horn players come and sit in with us, and we ultimately cut them out, too. So, there was some technical stuff done, some solos cut down in length, but there is not one single overdub.
AA The opposite end of the spectrum is “You Don’t Love Me,” which goes on for nearly 20 minutes.
BETTS Yeah, we let that one go! [laughs] It’s great! The thing is, I played shit in there that I’d never played before in my life. Duane played his solo bit forever, so I thought, well, I guess I’m supposed to come up with something, too!
AA Another groundbreaking by-product of the popularity of At Fillmore East was that FM radio began to play album tracks like “Whipping Post,” which was the length of an entire album side.
BETTS In those days, FM radio was an “underground” thing, where the DJs would tell you who the players were, and give you some background into the music. They didn’t have to follow a strict format the way AM did, so it was pretty open. There’s nothing like that now, but we came along at a time when we could get our stuff, even our live stuff, played on the radio, and that was how a great many people found out about us and became fans.
AA What are your feelings about At Fillmore East today?
BETTS I think it’s one of the greatest musical projects that’s ever been done, in any genre. It’s absolutely honest; an honest representation of our band, and an honest representation of the times.
AA Why do you think it’s important for people to listen to Duane Allman today?
BETTS Simply because he was one of the best there ever was. When you listen to Duane, you are hearing a truly gifted individual giving his all to the music, and there is nothing better than that.
Duane played music the same way that he rode his motorcycle and drove his car. He was a daredevil. Just triple Scorpio, God’s-on-my-side wide-open. That was part of the romance. And I loved Duane; I have nothing but admiration for him.