BACK TO WHERE IT ALL BEGINS
An Exclusive with Dickey Betts
by Michael Buffalo Smith
The words, "no introduction is necessary" come immediately to mind as I sit down to write a foreword for the following personal interview with one of rock and roll's living legends, Dickey Betts. A founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, leader of several versions of his own solo band, as well as Great Southern, and a true road warrior, the Florida guitar player has given the world a peach truck full of great music. Instrumentals like "Jessica," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "High Falls," and the newer "Rave On," and classic tunes such as "Blue Sky," "Ramblin' Man," "Back Where it All Begins," and "Seven Turns." Dickey has put out a fine country album ("Highway Call"), great solo albums ("Pattern Disruptive," with Warren Haynes, Matt Abts and company) and his work with the Allman Brothers Band has earned permanent status in the lexicon of classic rock.
GRITZ was very pleased to be given an exclusive, and insightful interview with a man who doesn't seem to grant a whole lot of in depth interviews. Betts talks about his break from The Allman Brothers Band, his musical beginnings, working the carnival sideshows, "Almost Famous," Bonnie Bramlett and so much more. So without further adieu, here is our conversation.
Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, Dickey.
You are quite welcome, Michael. We really appreciate all the support you have given us.
Thanks man. I just got finished interviewing a friend of yours, Dangerous Dan Toler.
I tell you what, he's playing great these days. He was over at rehearsal when I was putting this new band together, and he of course sat in. He's developed a great style that's really his own voice, you know. He was always a great guitar player, but he would sound like this guy, or the other guy. You could tell his influences real clearly when you'd listen to him, at least a musician could. I was really impressed with him.
What does he sound like, or is it just totally original?
I'm not a big electronics guy. In fact I don't even use any outboard stuff except a wah-pedal, and I don't hardly use that now that Mark May is in the band. I'm just kind of a straight amp kind of player, you know? But he has a little contraption about half the size of your hand, about half the size of a cigarette pack I guess, on the back of his guitar. He said it was a MIDI. I have no idea what that is, but obviously it's some kind of computerized deal. But he's also playing a Stratocaster with a bar on it, and he incorporates that MIDI, it's like a real smooth distortion to sustain it, and he uses that bar, but he uses it differently than I've ever seen it used. He kind of presses it down and plays through while it's going down, and then plays his lick continuously while it's coming back up. It's just a real neat sound. Instead of just grabbing it and tuning the note down, he plays out of the sweep he does with that bar. It really is nice.
I'm thinking of putting together a thing, probably at The Beacon next year, and call it Guitar Town. And like try to get Derek Trucks and Jack Pearson, Warren Haynes and Les Dudek, and my boy Duane Betts, and Danny Toler. You know, all of the guitar players that I have been involved with in my career, and have them all sit in, and have my band as the "band." And have all these guys come out and play.
That would be great.
I think everybody would really enjoy coming out to hear all these guys play.
That reminds me of an album I had in the '70's called The Guitars That Destroyed the World.
(Laughs) I'd do my best to keep all of us from getting onstage at once.
It could cause a meltdown.
It would sound like a gymnasium full of hornets. But I mentioned it to a couple of promoters and they kind of liked the idea. Hell, we could fill the place up with guitar players in New York, you know?
Are you planning to record with your new band?
Yeah. We'll start recording this winter. In fact, I just wrote a real nice song. It's kind of in the style of "Revival," as far as the hallelujah kind of song. It's called "Let's All Get Together." It's brand new. I haven't even played it with anybody yet.
Got a gospel feel?
Yeah, a real hand-clapping kind of song you know. And of course I've got "Rave On," and I've got the be-bop tune that I've been calling "JJ's Alley." That's at least the working title, I don't know what I'll end up calling it. It's according to how it sounds when these guys get through with it. Then I went back and got the very first words I wrote to "Tombstone Eyes." I don't know why I re-wrote that song so many times, because the original one is really good. (Laughs) I do know why I re-wrote it. Because it was a sad song, and playing with Gregg, Gregg does a lot of melancholy stuff, so I always tried to get upbeat things to kind of blend with his more melancholy stuff. But now that I'm with a new bunch musicians I think that it'll work. I can hear Mark May singing it too.
Mark has a good voice.
He does. It's kind of Freddie King sounding. My keyboard player Matt Zeiner has a great voice too.
I don't want to dwell on the subject, but could you shed some light on what happened between you and The Allman Brothers Band?
I can tell you pretty much what is happening, and it's becoming more obvious if you've read any of Butch's quotes on the internet. Butch (Trucks) has kind of taken over the band, in my opinion. The way I see it, and I was there when all this shit went down, and I really didn't realize how much pent up resentment, and damn near hatred, I guess, Butch has for me. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that he kind of blames me for The Allman Brothers not getting involved in his business things. To put it simply, Butch has finally taken over the band. And the first thing he does is get rid of me, because he feels I was keeping the other guys from going along with his business ideas. I'm not sure Gregg was going along with them either. We had meetings and voted on it and all, and Gregg and I and Jaimoe would all vote against these things because we felt like it was a conflict to mix Allman Brothers business with Butch Trucks business. But I just saw on the internet that the Allman Brothers had gotten out of the deal with Sony and were signing with what they call The ABB Record Company. Which, I have an idea will be the Flying Frog Records. So really I think that's what is the problem in the band. But if that's what they want to do it's fine with me. I certainly don't want to be involved with it if that's what they are going to do anyway.
I was deeply saddened when I first heard you were out of the band.
Well it surely saddened me. It broke my heart as a matter of fact. And to think that Butch Trucks would get in there and mess things up the way it seems he has done. That's kind of pitiful. I was kind of hoping that The Allman Brothers Band would all say "Let's do a farewell tour," and everybody go do your own thing. And leave the thing in a more graceful or dignified way. But it turns out we end like all of the other bands end, with differences that just can't be dealt with.
The thing is, they kind of trumped up these things on me, when that's not the problem at all. It wasn't my playing, or any kind of substance abuse.
About the playing, there was one absolute train wreck on those tapes, and Derek and I laughed about it when it was over. Derek started the wrong song. We started "Black Hearted Woman." And he was so positive he had the right song that he came in playing real loud, and it threw the whole band off. We almost had to stop playing before we could figure out what the hell was going on. Because "Black Hearted Woman" starts in a 7/8 time, and Derek came in with a 4/4 time thing, and everybody was second guessing what song we were playing. That was the only thing I heard on the tapes that was outstandingly out of whack.
I wanted to ask you about a couple of things that have been running through the internet's rumor mill. The first one concerns you playing with Willie Nelson. Is this true?
Yeah. That's kind of an idea that Willie and I cooked up, and it took some of the promoters to go for it. They don't like to mix a quote-country act- with a rock and roll act. At first glance, it's kind of an unlikely thing until you start listening to the music. And Willie is damn near a jazz player. He's so subtle you don't realize what a great guitar player he is. But we're talking about, not just opening the show and then the next band plays and everybody goes home. We're talking about doing it as I open, or he opens, or we flip it around each night. Both bands play, and then at the end the key players from both bands come out together and have a big jam.
Those are the moments I live for. I love the jams.
Yeah! Make an evening out of it. Willie and I have known each other for thirty years, so I'd probably sing some of his stuff and he'd sing some of mine. Actually, we're trying to add Bob Dylan in the mix as well. His management people have been in Ireland, so I've got to return their calls. So we're trying to get the three of us together.
Well, as for Willie being country and you being rock, I don't agree with that. Willie's done rock and blues, and you've done straight up country, blues, rock...
We're not really that far apart. It's just the way I present my music, there's a lot harder of an edge to it, and it's more in a rock and roll style. But melody is really what it all comes down to. Willie's really a melodic kind of player.
Another rumor finds you touring with Les Dudek.
Well, what's really happened is Les and I have been playing a lot of golf together. He's been coming down and we play golf a couple of times a month or so. So we started talking about his band playing with my band, or either just a mixing of the two just to do some dates this winter. Just some long weekend kinds of tours. Just go out and play about three days and come home. We are talking about doing some stuff, but right now we're just throwing it around with the business people, the people that pay us. We've got to get them into it before we can go out there you know. (Laughs)
When did you first become interested in playing music, and who were some of your early influences?
(Laughs) I was actually playing music before I was in the first grade. My dad brought home a ukulele for me. My dad could play just about any stringed instrument, but he was a fiddle player, which was his main instrument. He was really a fine bluegrass player. Back then we called it "string music." Bill Monroe kind of coined that phrase "bluegrass," because he called his band The Bluegrass Boys. So, my uncles all played, and my dad played, so when I was about four-years-old, I started playing little tunes on the ukulele, and started playing in the jam sessions when we'd get together on weekends a couple of times a month.
So I went from that to a mandolin, and I started playing banjo for a while, and after that I went to guitar. I didn't start playing guitar until I was sixteen. I had started getting interested in rock and roll and hot cars and girls, things like that. But as soon as I started playing guitar I studied everything that Chuck Berry did. And back then Chuck Berry was what Jimi Hendrix would be to the late sixties, that real different guitar sound. If you think about it, nobody bent strings and made sounds like Chuck Berry did back during the fifties.
Definitely one of the true guitar innovators.
Yeah, I mean, he had that loose tuning, and nobody knew what loose tuning was back then. I mean everybody sounded like Duane Eddy or The Ventures. (Laughs) Anyway- then I met a guitar player from Boston that could get that Chuck Berry sound, and I looked at his guitar and he had an unwound 3rd on there-which, everybody does that now, but then, it was a wound third string, and you couldn't get that Chuck Berry sound with that. That was my early influence and introduction, Chuck Berry.
And then I started playing a lot of The Ventures stuff along with that, and started studying B.B. King and Freddie King. I loved Freddie King when he came out with "Hideaway." It knocked me out. I had everything Freddie King did, and played a lot of his tunes. By then I had my own bands together. When I was seventeen I went on the road for the first time with a circus show. We had a tent on the midway, like at the state fair, and it was called "Teen Beat." (Laughs) And we was the band! And the barker you know, he'd come out and tell all of these outrageous lies about how the band had just been on The Ed Sullivan Show. (Laughs) You might have missed 'em, but they were there! It was like a side show on the midway. We did about twenty shows a day, these little thirty-minute shows. And we'd jump off of the top of the amps and do splits. And I could do the Chuck Berry duck-walk. It was kind of a little quick show. It was called The World of Mirth Shows. And I learned how to talk carny talk, which was like, if I was going to say "Michael" I would say "Me-a-zee-a-zikle." They put "z's" and "a's" all in the middle of words and you can't understand 'em. It was quite an education.
After that I came home and forged my birth certificate and started playing night clubs. I got more into a lot of the real old blues stuff. I had a friend here in town that was kind of an oddball. He already knew who Lightnin' Hopkins was, and Muddy Waters, and all of these people. He said, "Hey man, Chuck Berry is like pop. You've got to listen to some of the real stuff!" Then he showed me all of these real old players, he had all of these 78's and stuff. I got educated that way. I just met a lot of good people along the way. And then Lonnie Mack came along. He was like a ray of sunshine. There was just so much Beach Boys and that big sound from Philadelphia, (sings) da-do ron ron ron, da do ron ron." (Laughing) Then Lonnie Mack came out, and I played every damn thing he put out, you know. I don't play anything like him now, but back then I studied him. And I kind of got my shake from B.B. (King). Learning how to get that tremolo the way he does. And I never really studied Django Rhinehart, but I think every guitar player listens to and gets influenced by him. And I love Charlie Parker. I put my Charlie Parker stuff on and just listen to it. I don't try to learn any licks or nothing, I just put it on and enjoy it. Of course, when you're younger, you just put it on and learn it lick by lick.
How well I know. One of the first records I did that with was "Jessica."
There you go! And I still do it with Robert Johnson. He was such a genius. You can't just pick up a guitar and start playing his stuff.
One of my all time favorite albums was "Highway Call."
That album was done strictly for fun. We were making a lot of money with The Allman Brothers Band, and we had some time off, and I think Gregg was working on one of his records, and I just wanted to do a fun record. Get a bunch of guys I know and have some fun. The original idea for that was, I was going to do more of a country jazz kind of thing with Stephan Grapelli. But he will not fly. He would only go by steam ship, and hell, he wasn't going to be over here for six months. I was going to have to go to Paris if I wanted to record with him. During that same period of time I ran into Vassar Clements at a bluegrass festival. I just got a bunch of unusual people that you wouldn't expect, like The Rambos, to play on it. And Conway Twitty's steel player. The thing on there, "Let Nature Sing," that was from my old Navajo friend, he's passed away now about six months ago, but he was a Navajo priest out in Arizona. And one of his things was "let nature sing." When your mind is troubled and everything, just sit and let nature sing. The guys that played on that had never been in a recording studio before. They owned a feed store down here in Manatee. They had big shows they would do on Saturday, they were professionals. They would charge people to come in and everything. They were real good players, but they had never been in a recording studio or anything. So next time you spin that you might kind of get a kick out of it. They were like a bunch of guys who had just been to the city for the first time. (Laughs. Does backwoods accent ) HEY MAN! This mike here is real sensitive, ain't it?!
Out of the body of work you've created, what would you say are some of the things you are most proud of?
We all get asked that question a lot, and I just don't know how to answer it. I like all of 'em. It would be easy for me to say the one that I don't like. (Laughs)
Okay, which one is that?
The one that none of us in the band liked at all was "Brothers of the Road," because Clive Davis kind of ran a producer in on us. And they mixed out all of the guitar harmonies, and tried to really disco-pop it up, and we really were trying to do some kind of hit single jingle kind of stuff on there. (sings) "Straight from the heart, baby my love." You know, some of that shit. So even when we tried to make the best out of having to do some of those tunes, the guy mixed out some of the hardest work we did on it, and even simplified it from that. So none of us really liked that record. That's when we said hey, we're just going to split The Allman Brothers up until the disco period gets behind us. We went to playing clubs, you know, Gregg took his band one way and I went the other. But I love the "Brothers and Sisters" album of course, and I like "Fillmore East" a lot. You know, "Shades of Two Worlds" is a good record, and so is "Seven Turns." It's just different periods of time. I can't really say that I like the music we were playing back in the seventies any more than I like the "Seven Turns" record. In fact, the stuff I'm writing right now will probably be one of my favorites when we get it done, you know?
In the new movie "Almost Famous," the central character Russell looks an awful lot like you in the early days. Was any of that actually reflective of your life?
Cameron Crowe says that the band in the story is a compilation of the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and some of The Eagles. And the actor that does the part of the guitar player says that he based his character a lot on me. It was kind of unsettling. (Laughs) He looked like me about twenty years ago.But that's what they say. And you know how you hear people in a certain business, whether they are a cop or a mafia guy, say. "That movie was the closest to the way it really is." As far as rock and roll movies go, I felt that one was the closest anybody has come to depicting how it really was. But the thing with Cameron Crowe and I really did happen like that. He was real young, and everybody was kind of brushing him off, and I defended him. A lot of that stuff really happened. Gregg got his tapes, and wouldn't give his tapes back to him because he got paranoid, and I ended up going and getting his tapes from Gregg and telling Gregg is was alright, and giving Cameron his tapes back. But what Cameron did was he took some of that and mixed it with some of his experiences with Led Zeppelin.
I read where Robert Plant said he was the one who yelled "I am a golden god," and jumped from the top of the house into the pool. (Laughing) Yeah.I thought it was a real good movie. In fact, my son Duane just came in from California, and he and my wife are gone to see it right now. Yeah, I thought it was good, and a lot of that stuff reminded me of situations that really happened. I always liked Cameron. He was so young that no one took him seriously. But I found him to be a real good interviewer. He was really knowledgeable about what he was talking about.
He seemed to really care about it too.
Yeah. And yeah, he was a little young, but so what.
We recently ran an interview with Bonnie Bramlett, and she said some nice things about you.
Oh, I love Bonnie. That's the singing-est son of a bitch. (Laughing) She taught me how to sing. I'd be a great singer if I had a voice, you know? (Laughs) 'Cause I can really sing, I just don't have a voice! But what little I have I got from her. She told me, "You can't try to control it. You just got to open up and let it go!"
She told us there are two Dickey's. The cowboy and the indian. She loves the indian, but she doesn't much like the cowboy.
(Laughing) She tells me that all the time. She says you make a better indian than you do a cowboy. I'm not very good at the honky-tonk hero thing. I always get in trouble.
Another person I was speaking to recently about you was Bobby Whitlock.
Oh, yeah! Bobby is a great player and a great singer. We're road buddies. I used to run into him on the road. Music is what usually brings Bobby and I together. I haven't seen him in a while. I'd like to see him again.
He just put out a great new album.
I tell you what I'm going to do with ours, if I can get out from under the iron hand of the Sony conglomerate. I'm going to just do it myself and sell it on the internet. And between GRITZ and Hittin' the Note and Relix, I think we can do it. And the Allman Brothers web site,of course.We each have our own forum page. If I see a running commentary on something that I feel needs an answer, I'll get involved and try to answer. But I really don't think that thing should be a commentary between the players and the fans so much as for the fans. Then if somebody from the Allmans, or my band, or Gregg's band, sees a question on there that nobody can answer, you put a comment on there, you know. It makes it interesting for everybody.
One thing I wanted to ask you is for your insight on a couple of your old friends and brothers, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.
Well there's so many feelings, I could tell you a damn book. Well, Oakley and I were closer than Duane and I. Oakley and I were both young adults when we met, and we were both still searching for our style of playing. He had so much insight and vision. I was playing night clubs, and I was making what would be the equivalent now of about $3000 a week. Back then it was about $600 a week, which was real good money in the sixties. Oakley would come around and he's say "You gotta get out of these clubs, and do your original stuff!" I'd say, "But Oakley, we'll starve to death. I'm married, and I've got to pay rent." But he kept telling me we had to break out of it and kind of starve for a couple of years. I used to kid him, I'd say, "You're like my big brother, but you're younger than I am." (Laughs) He was the real visionary in the band. He and I got together, and we started doing about half cover stuff and half original stuff. The band was called The Blues Messengers. A guy from Jacksonville came down to this club we were playing at called Dino's in Tampa. It was a real big blues club. The guy had a club in Jacksonville that had all this plexiglass that lights came through, psychedelic lighting, an electric dance floor. Jacksonville didn't have anybody in that town that wasn't playing soul music. They were kind of behind the times. He came down and saw our band and said, "Man, I want to bring you guys to Jacksonville. But I've got to change the name of the band to The Second Coming." He thought Berry looked just like Jesus Christ. Oakley hated that! (Laughs) So we went to that club, and we were the only people in that great big city that had long hair and were playing that kind of music. So Oakley said, "We've got to get out and get our people together." I said, "Oakley, we don't have any people. He said, "Yeah we do, they just don't have anywhere to go." So we got out, and some of our hippie friends built us a stage on this lot that some people let us use. They had electricity on it. They had about twenty acres there, and they told us we could play there on Sunday afternoons. So we got one guy to build the stage and another guy to get the electric lines run, and we set up our stuff and just did free shows. And in about two months we had like 3,000 people coming there, and everybody's hair kept getting longer and longer. But Oakley was the visionary. Kind of the guy who could see how to get people together and make things work. And that's kind of what he brought to The Allman Brothers Band.
When the Allman's started out, it was supposed to be Jaimoe and Duane and Berry. They were going to be a power trio like a Hendrix or a Cream. But the more Duane played with our band to get used to playing with Berry, the more we realized that Duane and I played great together. So then it was two guitar players, and Butch started coming around, and we saw it sounded great with two drummers. So we rehearsed that way for about two months. Duane and Gregg were in a big fight at this time. They weren't speaking. We kept telling Duane, "You've got to call your brother, man, because nobody in this band can sing good enough for the kind of band we've got. So we finally got Duane to call, and Gregg showed up and that was The Allman Brothers. But when it started out, it was supposed to be a trio. And of course Phil Walden was going nuts. He was ready for a trio, and all of the sudden he had a six-piece band, and we had to have all this new equipment and stuff. He said, "I've got all kinds of bands, and they have their own stuff." He had been dealing with Percy Sledge and Otis Redding. But a rhythm and blues band didn't have to have all that stuff like a modern band needed.
But Duane, the thing he had, Duane and I were just musical brothers. We would sit up late at night and get us a bottle of ripple you know, and talk about how the thing that breaks up every band is jealousy, and fighting over women. So we had the women thing figured out. Nobody messes with anybody else's girl. But we talked all the time about how easy it was for he and I to get jealous of each other. It was just a human nature thing. It was just something we dealt with straight ahead and talked about it in private. I'd say "sometimes when you play, I either get jealous or it makes me want to play harder." But Duane was just so assured and straight ahead. When he wanted to get something done, he would jus go straight ahead, and nothing would stop him. And that's what he offered to the band. That confidence and the "We can do it!" Not a cheerleader, but keeping everyone's morale up. And of course his playing was incredible. (Laughs) We know about his playing! But when Duane got his mind set, he was straight ahead. And he would inspire people around him.
So it was kind of an interesting mix. Berry was kind of the guru of the band, and Duane was the real fire-breathing, straight-ahead, nothing can stop me guy. It was really a good mix.
What's next on your agenda? As far as touring and recording?
Of course I am planning on the album. We've got tons of material. Mark May has got so much material. Besides what he and I are writing, he's got three cd's that are really new material. Because not that many people have heard it. I don't mean that to sound derogatory, it's just that he's not yet that well known, so not everybody has heard his stuff. So we can take some of the really special things from his albums and re-do them with this band and it'll be like new material. Plus, he's writing all the time. And our keyboard player, Matt Zeiner is a good writer too. Matt is interesting. He's from Hartford, Connecticut, and his dad had a band back in the early sixties called Wild Weeds. His dad was a B-3 player too, and he sang. And as time went along, they changed the name of the band to N.R.B.Q.
You're kidding? What a great band.
That was his dad. And Matt is just a chip off of his daddy's butt. He plays B-3 and sings and writes. He comes from a musical family and just falls right in.
Is your band going to tour again soon?
We're not going to tour until March. Mark is out with his band, Mark May and the Agitators. They have a great little Texas blues band. We're going to get together between Thanksgiving and Christmas and do some writing, Mark and Matt and myself. Then in January we're going to start recording down here. I'm going to get Bud Snyder to do it, and kind of do it almost live, but have the instruments baffled enough so that if anybody makes a mistake we can go back and repair it. But I'm not even going to go in a recording studio, I'm going to use a rehearsal hall. The only reason you need a recording studio is if you get a thunder storm or something, it'll get all over the tape. Hell, if you're doing it and you've got enough time, if there's a thunderstorm you can just cancel the session.
And then you're not paying those ridiculous prices for studio time.
$400 an hour for studio time!? That's crazy. We can get this garage over here for $1000 a month! And if we get a thunderstorm we'll just take the night off. Actually in the winter time we don't get any thunderstorms, and there's no big heavy traffic over there. But that's what we're up to. And I'm going this weekend to Tom Dowd's birthday, and Tom Petty, it's his birthday. And they're honoring a bunch of us Florida musicians at the museum in Tallahassee. So we're going up there for that. It'll be a blow out. Great. It'll be fun. Stephen Stills is from here, and Bo Diddley.
Any last comments on The Allman Brothers Band?
All I can say is I had thirty-two years with one of the greatest bands in the world, so all good things have to come to end, so if this is the way it's got to end, I guess I'm gonna have to accept that. But I tell you, I'm having a hell of a good time with my guys. These guys are great and they're enthusiastic. It's a lot of fun.
Well I certainly do appreciate the interview. I think I've taken enough of your time.
Well, I've enjoyed it. I'm in no hurry. Like I said, Donna and Duane are gone to the movies, and I'm just sitting around having a glass of wine and talking. I very much enjoyed it myself.