Dickey Betts, guitar titan from Allman Brothers Band, dies at 80

dickey betts dead

DICKEY BETTS, 1943-2024

Though he was overshadowed by the two siblings in the musical group that bore their name, Dickey Betts was the most prolific songwriter and clear onstage musical director in The Allman Brothers Band during most of the band’s lengthy existence.

Gregg Allman was famous for his bluesy voice, his rock-star presence and the gossip-page coverage of his life; Duane Allman remains revered as a slide-guitar genius more than 50 years after his untimely death. But legions of ABB fans, musicians and entertainment journalists know of the prominent role Betts played in the Allmans and beyond, with his guitar playing, songwriting and singing.

That is why the Ramblin’ Man will be sorely missed following his April 18 death in Osprey, Florida, at the age of 80, due to cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. His passing leaves drummer Jaimoe, 79, as the only surviving member of the six players who originally comprised The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.

“The monuments that he helped to create for southern rock will never be replicated,” said Marshall Tucker Band frontman Doug Gray on Facebook. “From the beginning, before achieving incredible success, he was a man that stood strong by himself. The things that matter the most to musicians were things Dickey already thought of. His God-given strength would not allow for failure in music or in life. May the world never forget this gentleman.”

“One of the best to ever do it. Rest easy Dickey,” posted The Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Warren Haynes, an Allman Brothers Band member from 1989 to 1997 and 2001 to 2014, posted on Twitter: “Such a huge loss. Not only for our musical family, but for the world of music in general. … By the time the Live at Fillmore East record came out in 1971, I was just starting to play guitar and that was with without question the album that influenced me and all my young guitar playing friends the most. … The way he and Duane Allman played together was a thing of beauty and glory. Dickey’s style was a combination of all his diverse influences filtered through his personality and what came out was a joyous sound that would directly or indirectly influence all related music to come.”

Betts is survived by his wife, Donna, a New Jersey native; four children; and other family and friends. A Facebook page for Donna Betts had listed Lincroft as her hometown and her as member of the Class of 1970 at Middletown High School South.

Betts was largely inactive, performance-wise, in his last decade, having stopped touring in late 2014 after some 50 years of playing live music. But in 2018, he toured for the first time in more than 3½ years, and played Allman Brothers songs, a chestnut or two of his, and blues standards, at performances that May and July. In late August of that year, the Bradenton Herald of Florida reported the guitarist suffered a “mild stroke”; then in September 2018, the Herald reported that Betts had suffered a fall at his home in the Sarasota area and was hospitalized in “serious but stable condition.” He underwent surgery to ease pressure on his brain, according to the paper’s web site.

The Allman Brothers Band on the cover of their classic “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East” album. From left, Jaimoe, Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley (top) and Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks.

On New Year’s Eve of that year, he appeared with his son Duane, and Devon Allman (Gregg’s son) at a show in Macon, Georgia, for his last known public performance.

The May and July 2018 shows were met with mixed reviews. At a July 20 appearance in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Betts was backed by a six-piece band that included Duane Betts on guitar. He had lost something off his fastball, but there were moments when his creative spark and talents showed through — particularly during classic passages of familiar songs that he had perfected so many times over the years.

On the day of his 80th birthday — Dec. 12, 2023 — he attended an Allman Betts Family Revival show at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Florida, and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

Born Dec. 12, 1943, in West Palm Beach, Forrest Richard Betts at an early age began playing stringed instruments as a result of weekends spent with his extended and musically inclined family. By the time he was in high school, he had taken up the guitar and soon established himself as a major player on the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene in Florida during the mid- and late 1960s. In that period, he connected with bassist Berry Oakley in the band, The Second Coming.

Betts and Oakley crossed paths with the already well-known Duane and Gregg, and spirited jamming and a mutual-admiration society soon began. Drummer Butch Trucks also was part of this scene, which often centered around the city of Jacksonsville in northern Florida. When Duane Allman returned from session work to the Sunshine State — with Jaimoe in tow — all that was needed was for Gregg to escape from contractual obligations in California, and the ABB was born.

The Allman Brothers Band merged the heavy blues influence of Duane and Gregg with the jazz and experimental leanings of Betts and Oakley. Betts also brought his country-music background to the table, an influence that became more prominent after Duane’s death in 1971. Trucks added the driving rhythm and Jaimoe rounded things out with his R&B- and jazz-influenced drum work.

Betts and Duane Allman pioneered the band’s dual-lead-guitar sound — something not yet known in the rock world. But Dickey was quick to credit Western swing king Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys for coming up with that sound; it was the Allman Brothers that brought rock stylings to it as the band made its name with blistering and lengthy shows while initially based out of Macon.

There are few places in the United States where the Betts and the Allmans had a deeper history and greater love affair with their loyal following than New Jersey. An informal tally indicates Betts played in at least 16 of the state’s 21 counties, with most of the those possibly missed being in the southernmost part of the Garden State.

The band played most notably at three New Jersey venues: The Garden State Arts Center (now known as The PNC Bank Arts Center) in Holmdel; The Waterloo Concert Field in Allamuchy; and The Capitol Theatre in Passaic.

Dickey Betts on the cover of his 1974 solo album, “Highway Call.”

It was at these New Jersey shows and elsewhere that fans came to hear some of the songs Betts wrote and is best known for: “Ramblin’ Man”, the band’s highest-charting hit at No. 2; the sweet “Blue Sky”; the rollicking “Southbound”; the hypnotic “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”; and the joyous “Jessica.” His song catalog contains much more, though, and shows the talents of a terrific writer and player. It was Betts who wrote or co-wrote nearly two-thirds of the original songs The Allman Brothers Band recorded and released post-1971 through his departure from the group. And a review of any number of videos shows that Betts led the ABB onstage, with the other band members locked into his musical moves and cues.

He was a sight to see up close as he played: his long hair swinging, veins on his forearms popping, his many tattoos glistening in sweat and his hands owning the guitar as he led the Allmans or his solo band through their paces. He would stand on his toes, raise his instrument and then lower it while he offered one of his trademark “swoops” down the guitar neck as a cue to the rest of the band that a musical change was coming.

Still, Betts — no taller than 5 feet 9 — often stood in the shadow of the brothers Allman. That Betts felt as much is confirmed by former band manager Danny Goldberg, as described in Alan Paul’s book “One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band.”

“Dickey said to me once that he wished he hadn’t agreed that the band be called the Allman Brothers, that he felt cursed and marginalized by that,” said Goldberg, the band’s manager from 1989 to 1991. “He felt that he had written a lot of the music and had been integral to the band but because his name was not Allman, he would never have the clout, and that bothered him.

“And he certainly had a point.”

Part of what Betts brought to the American musical scene was his unique guitar sound. Usually playing a Gibson, he had an immediately recognizable tone, the ability to play both lead and rhythm guitar and the uncanny knack of making a song his own. He could take a standard blues song — played largely the same way by hundreds of bands — add an inventive intro, come up with a captivating solo and bring the tune to a close with a dramatic flourish. And he did it time after time during a career of more than 50 years.

As a testament to his versatility, Betts was equally adept at playing electric guitar during ferocious, sprawling jams as he was strumming and picking on an acoustic while sitting on a chair.

Though he was known for the five popular songs listed above, he wrote many more in any number of styles. Some were catchy, toe-tapping tunes, but others had complex structures and plenty of room for improvisation. No matter how involved a song and the jams that resulted were, the tune always had a clear beginning, middle and end. Betts brought songs to the stage that, while allowing for spontaneous playing, followed a structure and were largely devoid of the kind of meandering and drifting music that other bands of his era and later were or are guilty of.

Two songs that show his abilities and versatility are the jazzy instrumental he co-wrote for the Allmans, “Kind of Bird”; and a version of the Billy Joe Shaver tune “Georgia on a Fast Train,” a take of which he later released in 2002 with his band Great Southern. (See videos below; “Georgia on a Fast Train,” from the 1980s, features legendary violin player Vassar Clements.)

He left The Allman Brothers Band in an acrimonious parting in 2000, and much was said and written afterward about his playing, behavior and demeanor. Also, there were reports of subpar performances at clubs and theaters during the first decade of the 2000s, when he toured the U.S. with his backing band. Yet he consistently put forth a strong effort when I saw him over the years.

As a testament to the enduring legacy of that sound, Duane Betts and Devon Allman (Gregg’s son) formed the Allman Betts Band and debuted live on March 26, 2019 — 50 years to the day their elders held the first full band practice in Florida. Morristown native John Ginty (keyboards) was part of the band, as was Berry Oakley Jr. (bass). This new band was well received and played several ABB classics live, to the appreciation of longtime fans of the tribal following that the original band had.

An early ’80s Allman Brothers Band lineup (from left, Mike Lawler, Dave Goldflies, Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Dickey Betts, Dan Toler, Dave Toler).

Much of The Allman Brothers Band’s dysfunction and discord in the 1990s was attributed to Betts. However, he always was cordial during the half-dozen or so brief encounters I had with him, usually while in New Jersey as he was going to or coming off the stage. It was in 2005 at Mexicali Blues Café in Teaneck when we crossed paths once again.

He was on the way into the small club for a stellar performance when I happened upon him. While shaking hands, I said, “Thanks for all the great music over the years.”

To which Betts replied in his soft, Southern drawl: “All right, bud.”

Yeah, bud, it was all right. It was way more than all right for all those years.

Now that The Ramblin’ Man finally has left the road and gone to his final resting place alongside Highway 41, fans in New Jersey and beyond may look up on the next sunny day and see blue sky. And think of Dickey Betts and the lasting contributions he made to the American songbook.

Tom Skevin is an award-winning journalist and music publicist who resides in Sussex County. He can be emailed at tskevin@live.com.


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