The Unparalleled, Two-Year Rock-Stardom of Dickey Betts

The Allman Brothers Band lead guitarist, songwriter and vocalist passed away this week, but his work on Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters will endure as one of the coolest creative peaks in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Music Features The Allman Brothers Band
The Unparalleled, Two-Year Rock-Stardom of Dickey Betts

It was sometime in the mid-2000s and I was gliding across a freeway in my dad’s blue Dodge pickup, listening to 93.3 The Wolf with the windows down. He and I, we were on our way to the Eastwood Mall to grab something for my mom’s birthday—maybe a ring from Kay Jewelers, or a snow globe for her to add to her collection that’s overflowing on our living room shelves. We were a radio family, always having local stations pouring out of any speaker we could get our hands on; The Wolf was my first history lesson into the magic of a rock ‘n’ roll that existed far before my birth. And there is something particularly magical about the way my brain has chosen to retain core memories surrounded by music, like Dad’s thumb and index finger quickly turning up the volume knob as the riff of a Gibson Les Paul Standard in A-flat major came into the truck cab like a gust of wind. It was such a little thing, but I remember him saying “listen to this,” and I remember not being able to muster up even a lick of language afterwards. I was in awe of the sounds fluttering through my ears, as if I’d been let in on some vibrant, elite secret.

When you’re a kid, you rarely know whose fingers are making a guitar sound cherry as wine. It wasn’t my dad’s first instinct to guide young, single-digit me on some technical endeavor of who, when, where and why. No, him turning his truck stereo up a few decibels was a measure of his love—an affection that, so often in our shared life, has existed within the realms of three or four-minute songs. And, like many of us, it is not human nature to be considering every song we adore at all times. So, when “Ramblin’ Man” came on rotation, a gleam of joy hit my father’s face—as if a life he’d lost touch with came back into focus, a life that, just maybe, he ought to share a piece of with his kid. And that he did, and together we soared—maybe even floated—across that highway to the sound of Dickey Betts’ rainbow-hued, Southern-dipped picking.

Last Thursday, April 18th, news broke that Betts had passed away at the age of 80. He had been living with cancer and COPD, and his death leaves only one founding member of the Allman Brothers Band left: drummer Jaimoe Johnson. Betts had started the group with Gregg and Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, and he became one of their two lauded and beloved axemen. After his brother-in-shred Duane was killed in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia in 1971—just a handful of months before the release of the band’s seminal LP, Eat a Peach—Betts became a crucial anchor in the Allman Brothers’ lineage, turning into a de facto frontman in Duane’s absence, putting pen to paper on some of the band’s most-acclaimed tracks—especially “Jessica” and “Blue Sky.”

When I got to college, I met a kid named Tom—a fellow only child whose only compass for culture was rock ‘n’ roll—on the fourth floor of a dorm building across the street from that of my own. You see, I was housed in the basement of an all-guys dorm, a sub-level filled to the brim with athletes (mostly baseball players) and I was certainly not on the same wavelength as them. Granted, I could very easily recite every member of the 500 home runs club or rattle off the leading scorers in NBA history, but I was no longer an athlete myself and long out-of-practice conversing with those who were.

On top of that, my living circumstances were randomized—and I was eventually paired up with an exchange student roommate whose verbal English wasn’t strong, not to mention he was also a few years my senior. It was an isolating life to live, initially, though we would float in and out of school functions together in a combined effort to make some semblance of friends. It didn’t help that he and I were opposites (he was terminally cool, I was far from it). But, after two months of humming around campus and busting my ass in my literary journalism class (which was usually only offered to upperclassmen, but my advisor made an exception because I’d declared my writing major so early), he and I both began to find our people—unwinding our own introversions in the process.

The fourth floor of that neighboring dorm was my own private Idaho, in some ways. It was brimming with geeks, queers and hotties—descriptions I had yearned so desperately to fall into, someday, as well. I’d known some of the students who lived up there from my freshman colloquium class, including the woman I would date for nearly five years. By that point, I’d not yet let my high school habits of smoking bounteous amounts of weed trickle into who I presented myself as in college. Tom seemed like a straight-and-narrow dude, someone who kept to himself and his computer (he and his roommate had a beautiful dual-PC set-up that I knew nothing about but admired the spirit of), and I found out quickly that he was a big Stones guy—and it wouldn’t be long before we’d share a bonding moment over their then-new album, Blue & Lonesome.

But something really clicked when Tom, like my father 10 years earlier, said “listen to this” and played the Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” on his computer. We—and by we, I mean however many people we could cram into a shoebox dorm room at once—listened to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts trade guitar solos for five minutes, and no one but Tom and I seemed to notice the details that curved and sharpened into a fine blade of country-rock precision, like how, at the 2:29 mark, Betts joins in on the melody of Duane’s solo with such ease that I wouldn’t blame you for believing he was plucking along like that the whole time. But even with all of the uninterested bodies piling on top of each other on two twin-sized beds, I believed (and still do) that Tom was speaking only to me—as if to say “Here, take some of this magic.” And that I did, feeling every bit of Betts singing “Early morning sunshine tell me all I need to know.”

Early in their career, the Allman Brothers Band started to break through with tracks like the 22-minute rendition of “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider” and a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” But before Eat a Peach, Betts himself had only written a few songs (“Revival,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”) alone. On At Fillmore East, he co-wrote “Hot ‘Lanta” with the whole band, and “One More Ride” from Idlewild South featured a co-write from Greg. But Eat a Peach is where Betts found his stride and attempted to rival the songwriting chops of Gregg. While the latter penned the slow-burn ballad “Melissa”—which Duane famously considered his favorite of his brother’s songs and said wasn’t “rock and roll that makes me move my ass”—Betts crafted “Les Brers in A Minor” and “Blue Sky” for the record, along with the full-band concerto “Mountain Jam.”

At Fillmore East went Gold and turned the Allman Brothers into rock stars in a flash. Despite that newfound success, the band found itself plagued by drug addiction—and Duane and Oakley, along with roadies Robert Payne and “Red Dog” Campbell, checked themselves into rehab right at the genesis of the recording sessions for Eat a Peach that were taking place at Criteria Studios in Miami, after they’d recorded “Blue Sky.” When they all checked out of rehab soon after entering it, Duane is said to have been, according to Linda Oakley, “the leader, the great soul” who wanted the band to stick together amid all of the noise. “We all had this thing in us and Duane put it there,” Butch Trucks said. “He was the teacher and he gave something to us—his disciples—that we had to play out.” But, as At Fillmore East was about to hit the Top 15 on the Billboard 200, Duane’s fatal motorcycle accident effectively uprooted the Allman Brothers’ momentum.

The band would continue on, eventually wrapping up sessions in December 1971 and tacking on a number of live cuts to pad the project into a hybrid studio/live tracklist that masqueraded as a double-album clocking in at 68 minutes in length. The completion of Eat a Peach—which featured “Melissa,” “Les Brers in A Minor” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”—became a last waltz for Gregg’s leadership, too, as he was suffering mightily in the wake of his older brother’s passing. Enter Betts, the co-lead guitarist who was hardly a second-fiddle in the shadow of Duane’s immortal six-string greatness. The West Palm Beach native had always held his own, and he and Duane’s twin harmony quickly became a talisman for all bands with more than one guitarist in the lineup to behold. The two shredders admonished any idea of lead and rhythm roles, preferring, instead, to churn out parts in equal measure—which is how you get a track as singular as “Blue Sky.” Eat a Peach clocked in as high as #4 on the Billboard 200 and the Allman Brothers would do a 90-show tour throughout 1972 and purchase a 400-acre plot of land in Juliette, Georgia that became their “group hangout” spot—where Oakley was able to live out his, as the band’s biographer Alan Paul called it, “communal dreams.”

But when the Allman Brothers decamped to Capricorn Studios in Macon to record the follow-up to Eat a Peach in 1972, they did so on the verge of unforeseen further tragedy. On November 11th, Oakley (who, in the months leading up to it, was noticeably thinner and drinking and drugging harder than ever before) got into a motorcycle accident of his own—just three blocks from where Duane had crashed a year earlier—and passed away from cerebral swelling due to a fractured skull. It was déjà vu for the band all over again, as they were tasked with asking the same question two years in a row: “Do we carry on?” And, unanimously, they elected to do just that—bringing bassist Lamar Williams and pianist Chuck Leavell into the fold. And from there, due to his increase in songwriting, Betts became the voice of the Allman Brothers Band.

Brothers and Sisters is, to this day, Betts’ greatest living achievement. His country background lent well to the band’s chemistry, though his mates were hesitant to engage with the material initially—fearing, as Butch Trucks put it, that “it didn’t sound like us.” But the seven-song record would feature four original compositions from Betts, including “Pony Boy” and “Southbound”—the show-stoppers being, immediately, “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica.” The former was the album’s lead single and soared to #2 on the Hot 100—and was later labeled “miraculous” by Robert Christgau—while the latter became the second single, reaching #65 on the charts despite being an instrumental cut.

Betts wrote “Jessica” as an ode to Django Reinhardt, a Romani-jazz (or, manouche jazz) guitarist with origins rooted in France and the Manouche clan of Romanis. Written mostly at the Farm, Betts named the track after his then-infant daughter and, while composing it, he aimed to capture her joy in the melody. To this day, “Jessica” remains one of the most beloved Southern rock songs ever released—with the Wall Street Journal calling it “a true national heirloom.” And, in terms of guitar-based instrumentals, no one in the mid-1970s could have touched the Allman Brothers on “Jessica”—and nobody would, not until Van Halen’s “Eruption” five years later—as it was the most important wordless rock composition since Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” in 1969.

All things considered, Betts becoming the Allman Brothers’ honcho in light of Duane’s death extended the band’s immortality a few extra decades. It’s impossible to predict what their legacy would have been had they closed the book after At Fillmore East and opted to not finish Eat a Peach without their shepherd. But few career-saving songs are as perfect, charming and one-in-a-million as “Ramblin’ Man.” Betts conceived the track in Oakley’s kitchen in the middle of the night, as he was taking inspiration from Hank Williams’ track of the same name. When they completed it in the studio, with Les Dudek filling in as co-lead on guitar, Red Dog is said to have claimed that it was “the best I heard since Duane.”

“Ramblin’ Man” was Betts’ swan song, even though he lived for 51 years after it came out. It’s a coming-of-age tale with an idyllic pastoral of the South as its backdrop, the perfect set-dressing for a cross-town drive or a dance around a fire pit. “My father was a gambler down in Georgia, and he wound up on the wrong end of a gun,” Betts sings. “And I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus rollin’ down Highway 41.” The guitars from him and Dudek pierce through the verses and chorus like a background vocal, the two-part solos formulating their own side of the story.

Like all great rock songs of any era, “Ramblin’ Man” is multi-dimensional and timeless in scope, execution and passion. It’s summery and hellbent on ringing catchy with every instrumental phrase it brandishes.“They’re always having a good time down on the Bayou, Lord—and Delta women think the world of me!,” too, remains one of my favorite verse-closers of all time. Betts’ writing often paired sublime articulations of familiar places with verses drunk on romantic lullabies, and he would continue writing most of the band’s music on later albums like Win, Lose or Draw and Enlightened Rogues—furthering their country-rock legacy through reunions, comebacks and hiatuses someplace in-between like the rock he was willed into becoming by tragedy, necessity and the wants of music’s cosmic, forever-returning divinity.

I contend that, between February 1972 and August 1973, there was no greater rocker walking among us than Dickey Betts. While, on early Allman Brothers releases, Duane’s guitar-playing found much of the glory, the technicolor soul of the band’s compositions rises with the embers of Betts’ white-hot arpeggios. And considering how, in the decades that followed, he’d grow into a tattooed outlaw with a million-dollar handlebar mustache—and fuel the fire of the Allman Brothers Band’s continued, intermittent stints on the road and in-studio—there was a tack-sharp gloam radiating beneath the warmth of his Gibson Les Paul Standard, which made him recognizable not by name, but by power and string-bending emotionality. Most musicians would kill to write “Blue Sky,” “Jessica” and “Ramblin’ Man” over the course of a long career; Betts did it in just 16 months’ time, a creative peak few musicians of his caliber, genre and longevity have ever paralleled. And even from a young age, I felt the singing in Betts’ fingers—a holy movement deemed proverb by my own father, who was precious about what soundtracked the cord affixed from his heart into mine.

As Christmas was creeping up on me and my friends during our first semester, Tom’s girlfriend asked me if I would help get her a gift for him: Eat a Peach on vinyl. He didn’t own a turntable, but she thought he oughta start a record collection the right way. Together, we found a good copy on eBay and had it shipped to our campus’ mail center and then, some weeks later, at our communal gift exchange, I watched Tom open his present—his eyes widening into a smile of their own, as he held the record close to his chest and gave his girlfriend and a kiss and a thank you. Almost two years later, after he and I found other friends and, slowly, drifted apart, I wound up on the dorm floor he lived on and walked past the always-open door of his room. On his desk was the copy of Eat a Peach, still unplayed yet lording over the space like some sacred kind of spiritual token. We locked eyes, gave each other a nod and I carried on my way—humming quietly, likely about a good old Sunday morning. Or maybe I wasn’t humming about anything in particular at all.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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