RIP Dickey Betts.

On April 18, 2024, the brilliant guitarist left this world at the age of 80, a good score for a hero from the old days of southern rock.

And there it is! We can now say that the history of this musical movement is coming to an end. There are no more legends, no more survivors.

Oh, there’s no shortage of good musicians. You kick a boot into a trash can and eight thousand come out at once. But the real rockers are over! Adventure too!

Okay, today’s musicians are talented. But they didn't invent anything. They are content to bring out the plans of the old masters to perfection (even easier since the advent of the internet). And then they are wise, too wise. Off stage, they hurry home to kiss their mom or feed their cat. Exciting !
We have to realize that the great era is over.

Dickey was the last emblematic veteran of the Allman Brothers Band, a legendary group that started the saga of southern rock (of course, the drummer Jaimoe is still there but his notoriety is less great).
And as Alan Paul (author of two books on the ABB) writes, Dickey was a key member of a group named after two other people. And that must be done!

When we talk about the ABB, the name Duane Allman comes up every time. An essential and innovative guitarist, who tragically entered the legend following a motorcycle accident.
But we often forget one very important thing: it was Duane who wanted Dickey to join his group.

If Duane was more of an instinctive musician and passionate about the blues, Dickey had better technique combined with a wonderful sense of melody. It also had a more country feel. Indeed, his father was a bluegrass fiddler and Dickey was immersed very early in Kentucky music and western swing. Pushed by his father, he started with the ukulele. He then took up the mandolin and the banjo, finishing with the guitar.

Growing up, Dickey gravitated towards rock. In an interview, he says that he began by working thoroughly on the repertoire and style of Chuck Berry. He claims that the great Chuck had as much influence on young guitarists at the end of the fifties as Jimi Hendrix had on budding guitar players at the end of the sixties.Dickey continued by immersing into the music of BB King and Freddie King.
He actually saw one of his dreams come true when he jammed with BB King one evening (ABB had just released their first album).

Later, he would be fascinated by Django Reinhardt without necessarily being influenced by the flamboyant playing of the legendary gypsy (Dickey still admits to having brought a certain touch of jazz to the ABB).

Initially, Duane wanted to form a “power trio” with Jaimoe on drums and Berry Oakley on bass. Dickey and Berry had known each other for a long time and also played together. Duane and Dickey inevitably crossed paths and started “jamming.” The two guitarists quickly realized that they complemented each other perfectly like true “musical brothers”. Dickey provided the melody and Duane added harmonies on top. Two different styles but which mixed in total osmosis. Always humble and modest when talking about his band, Duane used to say that he was the most famous guitarist but that Dickey was the good guitarist.

And from the ABB's second album ("Idlewild South" in 1970), Dickey composed an exceptional instrumental that the group will always play on stage, the famous "In memory of Elizabeth Reed". This piece was inspired by the girlfriend of musician Boz Scaggs whom he had known in Macon. Having had a relationship with her, he could not give her name to this composition. So that this young woman remained anonymous, he had chosen a name inscribed on a tombstone in the cemetery where the members of the ABB came to relax and play acoustically.He also brought the superb song “Blue Sky” (which he recorded with Duane but which was only released after the latter’s death), a small masterpiece of Southern music.According to the established formula, the rest is history.
And everyone knows the story of the ABB.

For decades, many rumors have circulated about Dickey. Bad character, quite feisty temperament, alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence. But he was mainly criticized for having recovered the group after Duane's death, for having transformed it into his personal combo.
Perhaps there is some truth in all this. Be wary though! We must not forget that Dickey dealt with the ABB single handedly during the dark hours after the death of its founder. Someone had to take the place of leader to get the group out of the rut and little brother Gregg certainly did not have the shoulders of a leader. The choice was simple: disband the formation or continue at all costs. And if we stopped, what would happen to the musicians? Only Gregg could perhaps get through it without too much damage (he already had a solo album to his credit). Dickey too, probably. But the others?

So Dickey put on the chef's hat. He worked on a new way of playing and learned the slide so that the old songs remained in the same spirit. And above all, he composed a lot. And for the resurrection album (“Brothers and Sisters” in 1973), Dickey provided the group with a hit, the best hit of his career, the famous “Ramblin’ Man.”

Johnny Sandlin finished producing the record and he was missing a song. Dickey had another one in store but he thought it sounded a little too country. Played in front of friends, it was adopted unanimously and everyone added their part. This song remains ABB's biggest success to this day.

An anecdote proves this incontestably. Dickey had been friends with Bob Dylan for a long time and had shared the stage with him several times. One evening, big Bob invites him and tells him that he is going to sing “Ramblin’ man”. Dickey offers to write the lyrics for him on a piece of paper. Dylan then responds with his sarcastic humor: “I know them, I should have written this song! ". A great compliment!

And as if that wasn't enough, Dickey touches the sublime with the instrumental "Jessica" (in homage to his daughter), recorded with his famous Les Paul from 1957. A reference! Dickey had fun composing this song with only two fingers to sound like Django (of course, on stage, Dickey played with all his fingers on his left hand). He was so fascinated by the music of the famous gypsy that for his first solo record (“Highway call”), he wanted the participation of the violinist Stéphane Grappelli. But the musician did not want to take the plane, preferring the boat (which would have taken a good two months of crossing). Dickey had considered going to Paris to record with the fiddler, just before meeting Vassar Clements at a bluegrass festival. Quite a saving ! Concerning "Jessica", guitarist Les Dudek (who had participated in the recording of "Brothers and Sisters") maintained that he had co-composed this title with Dickey. This seems unlikely, as this claim has been refuted by pianist Chuck Leavell and drummer Butch Trucks.

So, we can say what we want but without Dickey, the ABB would perhaps have died prematurely. We can even argue that it opened the doors to new success for him.His colleagues can thank him for that. And then, Dickey didn't bring his friends to justice to avoid the fallout from a dark story of drug trafficking. Thanks, Gregg (who testified during the trial of a security guy who worked for the ABB: this indignity even caused the group to split up in 1976)!

For years, Dickey continued to compose and sing his melodic flights on his guitar. On the following album (“Win, lose or draw”), the fourteen-minute long jam “High falls” and the beautiful ballad “Just another love song” amply prove this.

And even during the "lean" period, when inspiration was sorely lacking in the group, Dickey would always be there to save the furniture (the ballad "Sail away" on the much-maligned record "Enlightened Rogues"). He will have another burst with “Hell and high water” and the instrumental “From the madness of the west”, saving the boring “Reach for the sky” from disaster. And then, he will end up doing like everyone else. Give up, compose uninteresting pieces together. After all why not ? It’s already a big rout! And the ABB broke up once again in early 1982. Dickey didn't care, he already had experience with his own band Dickey Betts and Great Southern and two albums under his belt (during the ABB's previous hiatus).

He continued to tour and even recorded a record again in 1988 with another talented guitarist who had played with country man David Allan Coe (being longtime friends, Dickey even played a solo on the song “Son of the south” by Coe).This guy is Warren Haynes. A guy full of talent, certainly, but who can largely thank Dickey for propelling him into the upper echelons of rock'n'roll by taking him with him when the ABB reformed once again in 1989.

Dickey's entourage told him that he was crazy to take such a good guitarist who could have overshadowed him. Dickey always responded that Warren Haynes pushed him to his limits and forced him to play things he wouldn't have played otherwise. He hoped it was the same for Warren.
Which clearly demonstrates that Dickey was not hungry for fame (he always surrounded himself with great musicians, guitarist Dan Toler not being incapable either).

And Dickey showcases his talent once again when the reunification album arrives in record stores. His name is credited on almost all the songs including "Good clean fun" which will perform very well in the "charts". He also wrote the superb ballad “Seven turns” which also hit the charts.
And the ABB will once again take the rock road. Until Dickey was fired by fax in 2000 (with part of the band accusing him of playing too loud and being constantly stoned). Which allowed drummer Butch Trucks to include his nephew as a replacement. And there, the ABB moved considerably away from its very particular style to move towards a musical universe close to jazz-rock.

Because it must be admitted, without Dickey, the group will never sound the same again.
Dickey will for a long time feel a certain bitterness towards Gregg Allman who did not defend him (well, it seems that they had reconciled before Gregg's death). Which will not prevent him from putting together a team with which he will play until his retirement, undoubtedly imposed by his state of health.

Now the man with the Les Paul is the stuff of legend. And even if he claimed that the ABB had little to do with the southern rock movement, Dickey will forever remain the image of the southern guitarist par excellence. Long hair and mustache, cowboy hat and boots, a few silver and turquoise rings, the Les Paul slung over his shoulder. And all the southern feeling! A musician capable of triggering emotion by letting an inspired note sound for a handful of seconds. This is how Dickey will be remembered!

It's not for nothing that he was quoted by Charlie Daniels in one of his songs ("The south's gonna do it again") as well as by Molly Hatchet in "Gator country" (is that why Dickey said in an interview that of all the bands labeled southern rock, Molly Hatchet was his favorite?). Cameron Crowe himself admitted that one of the characters in his film “Almost Famous” was directly inspired by Dickey.

Often copied but never equalled, his melodic style will remain timeless.
The sound of his guitar too. And the name Dickey Betts will always be associated with the famous Gibson Les Paul guitar. However, he moved away from this brand for a time because he felt that it did not take enough account of the opinions of musicians (the firm quickly approached Dickey by offering him a model respecting his advice). With the ABB, Dickey played two 100-watt tube Marshalls, avoiding effects pedals. He obtained a natural distortion by adjusting the volume. In recent years, he had made do with a single 50-watt Marshall. He always tested a guitar without plugging it in anyway. According to him, if the instrument sounded good like that, there was every chance that it would sound superb through an amplifier.

It should also be noted that in addition to being an exceptional guitarist and a talented composer, Dickey had a beautiful voice (although he always claimed the opposite). He claimed that it was Bonnie Bramlett who taught him to sing (it is reasonable to assume that he already had a natural gift for it).

Now that he's gone, only one thing is certain: Dickey Betts brought a lot to the world of music and he's not going to be forgotten any time soon. He joined his friends from the Allman Brothers Band for a cosmic and eternal improvisation in an always blue sky.

Blue sky forever !

Olivier Aubry
Translation : Y. Philippot-Degand

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