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The Macon Newsroom

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The Macon Newsroom

Dickey Betts, legendary guitarist and founding Allman Brothers Band member, dies at 80

Betts, widely considered one of the greatest rock guitarists ever, penned ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ ‘Jessica’
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Dickey Betts, a founding Allman Brothers Band member and one of the greatest guitarists of all time, died Thursday. He was 80 years old.

Dickey Betts, who formed a legendary lead guitar duo with Duane Allman in the Allman Brothers Band and was widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, died Thursday morning. He was 80.

A 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Betts lived in and around the Sarasota, Florida area for most of his life.

Born Forrest Richard Betts on Dec. 12, 1943, the Bradenton native was raised in a musical family, learning to play various stringed instruments at an early age. He began playing in rock bands that toured Florida and the East Coast, forming Second Coming with future Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley in 1967. 

While working as a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Duane Allman began putting a band together that included Oakley and, through this connection, Betts. In 1969, after Duane convinced his brother Gregg Allman to return to the South from Los Angeles to sign and play organ, the Allman Brothers Band was born, with Duane and Betts playing guitar, Oakley on bass and Butch Trucks and John Lee Johnson, known by his stage names Jai Johanny Johanson or, simply Jaimoe, on drums.

To the uninitiated, it might appear that Duane — who pioneered the slide guitar and was the driving force behind the band — was the lead guitarist, but Duane and Betts shared that responsibility, building off of each other’s work and improvising complex harmonies. 

“We had an immense amount of respect for each other,” Betts told Guitar World in 2007. “We talked about being jealous of each other and how dangerous it was to think that way, and that we had to fight that feeling when we were onstage…

“When you think about it, I was only 25 and Duane was 23, and the things we were talking about were pretty mature for guys our age. Duane was one tough, cocksure guy. He had a strong belief in himself, and he was damn good. I was damn good too; I just didn’t believe in myself the way Duane did. It wasn’t until a few years later that I thought, ‘Well, I guess I am pretty good too.’”

On the verge of becoming one of the most popular bands in the United States, the Allman Brothers Band endured two tragic deaths that threatened to shatter them: Duane and Oakley both died in motorcycle crashes on the same stretch of road in Macon roughly one year apart, Duane in October of 1971 and Oakley in November of 1972.

Adding new members Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams but bereft of their leader and struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, Betts pulled the band together musically, writing hit songs like “Ramblin’ Man,” “Jessica” and “Southbound,” playing lead guitar and shifting the band in the direction of country and western swing music.

“After Duane died, Betts had never really played slide guitar, and he had to cover all the parts that Duane was known for,” Leavell told GTLN. “He handled that pressure beautifully and kept the band together. He was a very large reason that the band continued under those difficult circumstances.”

Betts explored that style more in his solo albums, beginning with “Highway Call,” which Capricorn Records released in 1974 under the name Richard Betts. 

Betts was mercurial and hot-headed, according to band members and road crew over the years, sinking into a depression when he wasn’t playing up to his own high standards, receding on stage or missing several shows in a row. 

Journalist Alan Paul, who wrote the ABB biographies “One Way Out” and “Brothers and Sisters” cautions that the popular portrait of Betts is not often accurate.

“Ninety-plus percent of the time, he could be charming, funny and a great conversationalist,” Paul said. “It’s sad that so much of his reputation was based on the small percentage of time, fueled by struggles with drugs and alcohol.”

Tension in the band ebbed and flowed over the decades, punctuated by both violent moments and some of the most memorable live performances in rock ‘n’ roll history, including legendary shows at The Fillmore East in New York City and alongside the Grateful Dead and the Band at Watkins Glen in July 1973.

The Allman Brothers Band broke up and reformed several times, with Betts playing in every incarnation of the band until a much-publicized split in 2000. 

Paul writes in “One Way Out” that the band had become frustrated both with Betts’ drinking and on stage performances.

“We did not fire Dickey,” Gregg Allman told Paul. “We laid him off for the summer tour.”

“In reality, Dickey quit the band,” Jaimoe added.

Betts said that he was “snapped out of the picture,” in a “cruel and impersonal” way. But while they would never play on stage again, Allman and Betts always maintained a level of deep respect for each other.

When Allman was battling cancer in 2017, Betts reached out to his old bandmate.

“I was trying to make him feel good and tell him how much he was loved and respected,” he told his hometown paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in 2019. “I would just call and try to make his day a little better.”

Dickey Betts at the Macon City Auditorium in December 1991 playing with Allman Brothers Band. (Danny Gilleland)

Betts made music outside of the Allman Brothers Band, both before and after his departure, forming “Betts, Hall, Leavell and Trucks” with his ABB bandmates, “Dickey Betts & Great Southern,” and later “The Dickey Betts Band.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone put Betts on its 100 Greatest Guitarists list, writing “For all his blues and slide chops, his roots are in jazz, and you can hear the influence of his clean-toned modal soloing in every Southern rock group that’s followed.”

Betts’ unique licks influenced generations of guitarists who have tried to imitate his iconic sound.

But there was only one Dickey Betts, even when there were two lead guitarists in the Allman Brothers Band. 

“I’m the famous guitar player,” Duane Allman once said, “but Dickey is the good one.”

What separated Duane and Betts, Alan Paul said, was not that Betts was a better guitarist: it was his songwriting ability. For a man with a reputation for violent outbursts, he penned some of the most uplifting songs in rock history.

“Dickey wrote a lot of great songs: ‘Blue Sky,’ ‘Jessica,’ ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’” Paul said. “Even if he wasn’t a great guitarist, those songs would stand the test of time.”

Leavell said he’ll miss Betts and their friendship, adding that Betts’ “indisputable and enviable” legacy shines on.

“He had these wonderful songs. Ramblin’ Man is a song for every man. ‘Jessica’ was a wonderful musical vehicle for a 20-year-old piano player at the time,” Leavell said. “I still get to play that song, and I love it every time I do.”

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