Dickey Betts is one of the best guitarists of all time. Period. Dickey Betts is not usually recognised as one of the best guitarists of all time. Why not? Possibly because of the giant shadow cast by Duane Allman, a man with whom he invented a new way to play the guitar, where the roles of lead and rhythm guitar are forgotten, and as in jazz, both take the lead to push one another towards higher levels, harmonizing their instruments thereby creating 2 voices that don’t compete but have a fluid conversation.
They were always treated as equals but many don’t seem to recall that. Dickey is unjustly remembered as “the other” guitarist. It’s true that Duane was the more brilliant of the two, but Duane was more brilliant than the rest not named Jimi Hendrix, so the comparison is unfair. Together they formed the most awesome duo of guitarists in history, but their story didn’t end with the death of Duane, as Betts took over as leader of the band and led it during their most successful moment. Duane said it himself, trying to give him some of his own confidence, “I’m the famous guitarist, but Dickey is the good one”.
Forrest Richard 'Dickey' Betts was born in December of 1943. His father was a carpenter and an amateur country musician. At 5 years of age he picked up a ukulele, then a mandolin, the banjo, and finally the guitar. His father saw so much talent in him that he taught him music instead of carpentry, “You have such a gift, if you don’t want to play music, you could be a doctor or lawyer”. It never crossed little Betts his mind becoming a shyster, rock fever had bit him just like so many other teens of his generation. But of course, his love for country never waned.
At 16 he left home and began to play in several bands and even in a circus, in those early years he’s most remembered for his time in the band called The Jokers, who, years later would be remembered in lyrics in Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo by Rick Derringer. While he was in the band, one of the most popular in Florida, word was out about these Allman brothers, especially Duane, the virtuoso. So he went to see the Allman Joys and was so impressed, he introduced himself. The meeting was a flop, the brothers thought he was a hillbilly, and he thought they were stuck up.
By 1967 Betts was one of the most popular guitarists in Florida an had just put together Second Coming together with bassman Berry Oakley, a band heavily influenced by Cream. They moved to Jacksonville and began to play for free in the parks around the area, attracting the few local hippies. At the end of 1968 Duane Allman became a very famous session man, and was looking to form a band of his own. His manager, Phil Walden suggested creating a band around him as a type of power trio, along the lines of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. By his side was drummer Jaimoe Johanson, so he decided to call Oakley to get a recording at Muscle Shoals. He agreed but the results didn’t convince anyone much, so he returned to Florida with Betts. In ‘69 Duane got fed up with Muscle Shoals and along with Johnson, moved to Jacksonville. They stayed with drummer Butch Trucks and soon began to play jam sessions with Second Coming. Once they heard themselves play, Betts and Allman became inseparable, they conversed thru guitars rather than speaking.
One day they were playing and everything seemed to flow right along, in the room was Johanson, Trucks, Oakley, Betts, and Duane. After finishing one song Allman took the mic and said, “If anyone wants to leave this room they’ll have to go through me”. They all at once got it the Allman Brothers were born (although a brother was still missing). They all agreed that they were awesome musically but that Duane wasn’t much of a singer, so in the end they all convinced him to call his brother Gregg. On March 26th of ‘69 he showed up in front of the new band and was instantly intimidated when he heard their version of Trouble No More. He approached Duane and said, “I dunno if I’m good enough”, Duane dressed him down and told him not to leave him hanging here. After singing his lungs out they all looked at each other in compliance, from then on, they were an unstoppable force.
Gregg was not only the voice, he also brought along his organ and several original songs. Their first record was cut in August and put in the market in November. In spite of having some of their first classics like Whipping Posts or Dreams, it hardly raised an eyebrow commercially. The band’s spirits weren’t the best but Duane kept showing his blind faith in the project and the rest were encouraged to see their leader so convinced. Onstage Duane and Betts were as tight as if they were Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli reincarnated, or a rock version of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Their fusion of blues and rock as if it were explosive jazz, and they were gradually confirmed as the best live band in the country. Betts was playing his legendary Gibson SG from ‘61 while Duane answered with his Les Paul. Bett’s ear for melody was in tune with Duane’s sense of hearing , who could follow his phrases on a dime.
In 1970 they released Idlewild South and this time they were sure they had recorded a masterpiece. Betts made his debut on the album as composer with wonders like Revival and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, an instrumental that became one of the band’s classics. He also left his print on one of Gregg’s songs, Midnight Rider, and where you can see his strong country influence. Despite it all, the record didn’t sell much and the band’s manager thought this was going nowhere. However, Duane was sure that their strength was in live shows so he decided to put out a double record live album.
This move couldn’t have worked out better, recorded on the 12th and 13th of March of 1971 in the Fillmore East in New York, the album became their trophy and is considered one of the top 2 or 3 live records in history. On In Memory of Elizabeth Reed Betts is Miles Davis and Duane Coltrane as in Kind of Blue, Whipping Post becomes the definitive ‘jam’ with long solos by both guitarists, where Betts plays to inspire what would become Les Brers In A Minor on Eat a Peach. There isn’t a bad moment here and the record was proof of a band in their finest moment, taking music to sophisticated places never dreamed of for a rock band.
The record was released in July and by October it was a Gold Record, they had made it, just what Duane had always told them. They were working on their next record by then, Betts came to the studio with a new song called Blue Sky, dedicated to his native American girlfriend. He wanted Gregg to sing it, as always, but Duane told him, “Man, this is your song, and it sounds like you, you need to sing yourself”. But that wasn’t the best gift he gave his friend, he made a terrific solo that elevated the song to the stratosphere. It’s a solo that you can sing and is left branded on the brain. The author of the song isn’t left behind either and , after harmonising with Duane, he throws it all in with another great solo, and they intertwine in the end, once again showing there was telepathic understanding between them . A few days later they recorded Little Martha, an acoustic instrumental that was the only piece of music that the band leader wrote.
Everything was rolling in the right direction and the band seemed ready to put out a studio record that would be as good as the brilliant At Fillmore East, when on October 29th Duane Allman crashed his motorcycle and died. Everyone was shocked, and decided to take some time to recover but it was impossible, so they chose to go on as a quintet. They returned to the studio to finish the record and in February of 1972 they released Eat a Peach. They tried to find a new sound on the first bit, beginning Ain’t Wastin Time No More, where Gregg faces the death of his brother, recalling the musical beginnings in the studio, with Dickey Betts on his great slide guitar, where it is obvious he had been practising relentlessly in order to manage to play Duane’s parts. There is also Melissa, which sounds like the band they would soon become, led by Betts, more pointed towards country/rock. He shows again that he is a great guitarist, ready to take the reins.
So that’s what happened, in 1973 Betts becomes the bonafide leader, not only composing but singing his own numbers, and Brothers & Sisters comes out, his best money maker, with three of the Betts songs becoming absolute classics for the band, Ramblin’ Man, Jessica, and Southbound, at that point, Betts was playing his ‘57 Les Paul Red Top. During this recording session they lost their second band member, Berry Oakley.
Nothing would be the same, despite being more popular than ever - in the same year they led a concert, together with The Band and Grateful Dead, of more than 600,000 fans- the band was suffering serious wounds. Drugs and lust for the forbidden apple got in the way, and Gregg and Betts were at each other’s ego. They both released (great) debut solo albums and went on tours at the same time. Despite writing the most popular songs, Betts could not garner the appeal of the man who is called after the band name. After a pretty lame record, the band folded in 1976.
Betts would form The Great Southern with acclaim, but at the end of the 70s he would return to the band, but the spark seemed to be gone forever. It wouldn’t be until much later, with a new separation in the middle, in 1982, when the best essence came back. It was in 1990 with Seven Turns. By this time, Warren Haynes, who came from the Betts band was already a part of the group and they resumed the fluid guitar conversation. It was like a 2nd rebirth but didn’t last forever and Haynes left to form Gov’t Mule. The funny thing was that a couple of years later, they found what they thought was the rebirth of Duane: Derek Trucks, Butch’s nephew. He joined the band and Dickey found a mate with whom he could get the best out of, but the brotherhood had been broken long ago, and the original members, tired of having to revolve around him, kicked Dickey out in 2000.
He didn’t care much though, he knew he had given it all. He continued playing nonetheless. He dramatically announced his retirement three years ago. This year we have lost Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman Dickey and Betts decided it was time for him to become a ‘Ramblin’ Man’ again. This very week he has announced that he’s going back on the road with Duane…Betts, his son, honoring the man with whom he wrote some of the best pages of our worshiped instrument, the electric guitar.