The Song Remains: Richard “Dickey” Betts (1943-2024)

Innovative guitar player for one of history’s iconic bands.

As of 18th April 2024, when Forest Richard Betts died at home in Sarasota, Florida, of cancer and COPD, Jai Johnny Johnson AKA “Jaimoe” became the last surviving member of the original Allman Brothers Band line-up. The Allman Brothers Band were one of those rare musical acts that changed music forever and influenced artists across genres. Southern rock was built on the back of the band’s success, it is difficult to image the jamband scene without the Allmans and their partners in improvisational rock music, the Grateful Dead, their ‘Brothers and Sisters’ album was also a major influence on country rock and subsequent country artists. While Duane Allman founded the band and Gregg Allman was the featured singer, Dickey Betts’ guitar was at the heart of the Duane Allman era innovative dual guitar sound, and following Duane’s untimely death in 1971, Betts took on much more of a leadership role in the band which included steering the band to two subsequent reformations before personal problems and band conflicts meant he left the band he founded for the last time in 2000. During this time Dickey Betts became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and featured in many lists of the greatest guitarists.

Dickey Betts was born on 12th December 1943 in West Palm Beach, Florida, into a musical family that exposed him to country music, bluegrass, and western swing. Like most musicians at the time, Betts was drawn to the electric sounds of rock and roll forming the Second Coming with bass player Berry Oakley. This was fortuitous because it was Berry Oakley who introduced Betts to Duane Allman when he was pulling together the original Allman Brothers Band. The duelling guitars of Allman and Betts were there at the start, but it was ‘In The Memory of Elizabeth Reid’ from 1970’s ‘Idlewild South’ that was one of the first indicators of Betts’ songwriting potential with an instrument tune that combined jazz and classical influences that was ready-made for live explorations by the 6 band members, is at the centre of what some people have said is the greatest live album of all time, 1971’s ‘At Fillmore East’. Dickey Betts’ first vocal with the band was also very poignant as it included one of Duane Allman’s last recordings with his band, ‘Blue Sky’ was about Betts’ current girlfriend and future wife, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig, and pointed to the sound Betts explored on ‘Brothers and Sisters’.

Founding bassist Berry Oakley died in 1972 in very similar circumstances to Duane’s motorcycle death, and it was Dickey Betts who emerged as a leading force in the band as they added Gregg Allman’s keyboardist Chuck Leavell as a replacement for Duane Allman and Jaimoe’s friend Lamar Williams on bass. Dickey Betts was all over 1973’s ‘Brothers and Sisters’ which broke the band through to mega-stardom. He composed four songs to Gregg Allman’s two, and sang and wrote what became the signature song of this new version of the band, ‘Ramblin Man’, which wore its country influences with pride. Django Reinhardt was the inspiration for Betts’ instrumental tune ‘Jessica’ which was also a feature the piano of Chuck Leavell, and was used for many years as the theme tune to the BBC’s Top Gear.

In 1974 Betts released his first solo album, ‘Highway Call’, which celebrated the country, western swing, and jazz influences of his youth even more than he did on ‘Brothers and Sisters’. As well as members of the Allman Brothers Band the record featured members of the country and bluegrass Poindexter family, who were also related to the Rice family in California, together with bluegrass fiddle legend, Vassar Clements. When Betts toured ‘Highway Call’ he included Tony Rice’s brother Larry Rice on mandolin, cementing the bluegrass credentials of the band. While it was Betts’ debut solo album, many think ‘Highway Call’ is also his best solo album and captures the essence of him as a musician. Unfortunately, 1974 proved to be a high point for Betts and the Allman Brothers Band who disbanded for the first time in 1976 amid personal problems and label issues.

While Dickey Betts maintained a solo career in between his stints with the reformed Allman Brothers Band, it is his work with the Allmans that is his true legacy. While the late ‘70s reformation was based around Bett’s Great Southern, the band didn’t re-establish their trademark creativity until their second reformation in the late ‘80s. This time the improvisational spirit of the original band was rekindled with the dual guitars of Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes that saw the Allman Brothers Band become one of the biggest live bands of the ‘90s. However, the mid to late ‘90s also saw Betts suffering personal issues which resulted in him missing shows which led to his subsequent sacking in 2000 for drug and alcohol-related problems.

This meant that Betts never again played with the Allman Brothers Band, the band with Derek Trucks replacing him on guitar continued to be a live draw until 2014 when Trucks and Haynes decided to leave and the Allman Brothers Band called it a day. While the sacking was clearly a sad event for all concerned, it shouldn’t overshadow Betts’ contribution to the Allman Brothers Band legacy, and music in general. While his vocals and songwriting came from a soulful place, it is for his guitar skills that Dickey Betts should really be remembered. He definitely added a new voice to the electric guitar that has influenced subsequent generations of musicians across the genres that make up American southern music.

About Martin Johnson 408 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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ANDY TROTT

A lovely and very fitting obituary Martin. I’m amongst the many i’ll bet that after hearing “Live at Fillmore east”, a turning point was reached. R.I.P. Dickey hope you are up there now trading licks with Duane .