The only significant time Duane Allman spent apart from his younger brother Gregg was in the late 1960s, when Gregg was recording in Los Angeles after Duane moved back to Florida. Then one Sunday morning Gregg got a call from Duane, saying he was putting together a new band with two lead guitarists and two drummers. Gregg’s first reaction was, “Boy, that’s weird.” Then, as Gregg tells it, Duane said, “‘So why don’t you come on down here and round this thing up and send it somewhere,’ which is probably the finest compliment he ever gave me in my life. I said, ‘Let me hang up this phone, man. I got to get going.’ I beat feet over there as fast as I could to Jacksonville. And that was the Allman Brothers’ start. It was March 26, 1969.”
Guitarist Dickey Betts and bassist Berry Oakley had been playing in a Florida-based band called The Second Coming. Duane convinced both musicians to join his new group. Once Gregg arrived, they got to work pioneering their innovative blend of blues, rock, and jazz. Duane and Dickey quickly up-ended the traditional roles of co-guitarists in rock bands by sharing solos and working out complex harmonies and unison lines. In all, the original Allman Brothers Band lineup appeared together on The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, and portions of Eat a Peach, released after Duane’s death in a 1971 motorcycle accident.
My conversation with Dickey Betts took place on July 16, 1981. Dickey understood that this interview was in honor of the 10th anniversary of Duane’s passing, and he told me he was happy to focus totally on Duane. I admired him then — and still do today — for doing it. Later on, I did do an in-depth interview with Dickey about his own playing.
Tell me about the first time you met Duane.
I guess it was in ’65. Duane and Gregg had a band called the Hour Glass, and they were playing clubs around the state of Florida. We run into each other in a club over in Orlando and jammed. That’s when I first met Gregg and Duane. We both had more or less nightclubs bands, doing a lot of nightclub-type material. They were doing a lot of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland stuff, along with some Top 40 and a couple of original songs. The band I was working with or Duane’s group at that time weren’t in a position to do completely original material, like we were later.
Were you both playing lead?
At that point, I don’t think Duane was playing slide. He started really getting seriously into the instrument, aside from just sitting around the house or something, just about the time the Allman Brothers got together. I think that’s when he first started playing slide onstage.
Do you know how he got his style down?
Well, Robert Johnson. You’ve heard that name a million times, but he’s influenced so many people. I guess that he was probably one of the biggest influences on Duane. Who’s the guy, the slide player? Elmore James! He got really into Elmore James a lot for the electric part of it. You know, Robert Johnson never played any electric, of course. So Elmore James was a big influence on his electric slide.
I heard a story that Duane used to have Twiggs play him Elmore James records. Twiggs would play a couple of phrases, pick the needle up, and then Duane would try to learn them. And they’d do that all day.
Well, Duane didn’t exactly study slide that way. He would listen to a lot of albums, just sitting around in the daytime, and then pick up a guitar and play along with them. But he didn’t try to copy them note-for-note. He just kind of absorbed it.
In the beginning, what kind of an influence did you have one each other?
At first, when the band was trying to form, Duane was planning on just going to Capricorn with a trio. It’s was gonna be Duane and Berry Oakley and Jaimoe. Phil Walden had approached Duane and told him to put a group together, a trio. So Duane started showing up and sitting in with Berry Oakley and myself, with our band in Jacksonville. It was called The Second Coming. So Berry and Duane were kind of getting used to playing with each other, getting ready to go into this new venture. As we started jamming, we all realized that Duane and I playing harmony guitars together was something that we weren’t expecting to hear.
Had you heard other musicians do that?
Well, yeah. Western swing bands from the ’30s have always used the twin harmony guitars. A lot of the songs that we did were strongly influenced from that. And that’s probably what I offered Duane – talking about what we picked up off of each other – was that influence, like when we did things like “Blue Sky,” which is one of the last things Duane played on. He’s playing that kind of Western swing. You know, Jerry Garcia is into that kind of playing too. So that’s probably what I offered Duane, and then of course I learned a whole bunch about playing electric slide. I guess my whole thing with electric slide guitar came from Duane.
Would you describe how he played slide?
Duane played slide guitar more like a harmonica than he did a guitar. Like we were talking about him listening to Elmore James, he also listened to all the harp players – Sonny Boy Williamson and all that. He really played a lot of harmonica licks on slide guitar. He used glass, a Coricidon bottle. That’s before you could buy ’em in music stores – you can buy ’em in music stores now. And he wore it in his ring finger, which is so unorthodox. Most people who play slide either wear it on their middle finger or their little finger, so you can fret the guitar. But that was the way he wanted to do it, you know. He wore the slide on his ring finger, and he didn’t use a pick. He’d use just the thumb and the first and second finger, kind of a fingerpicking style, which is the same style I’ve adopted on slide guitar. As I say, he influenced my electric slide immensely.
Did he damp with his left hand fingers behind the slide?
When we first started out, he used to just tune his Les Paul onstage. When we got ready to do a slide tune, he’d just tune the guitar to a straight E chord and play slide right on the guitar that he’d been playing all night, rather than switching. As he got more advanced and got into it more as a couple of years went by, he started using a Gibson SG. He liked that because of the long neck, and you can get way down to the bottom frets without any trouble.
Who took care of his guitars?
When the band was first together, Twiggs [Lyndon] was the road manager and the stage manager, and the whole thing. Red Dog and Twiggs.
What fingers would Duane use to bend notes?
You’re talking about regular tuning now, right? Not slide.
Jeez – I’m not sure about that! I guess he was bending with whatever finger he had [laughs].
Do you spend a lot of time jamming offstage?
Yeah, yeah. Well, we still do that. You’re talking about Duane and myself or the whole band? Because with the band, in the early days we almost lived together. The main reason was nobody had the money to have an apartment, so we just rented a big house and everybody chipped in.
Did most of the songs come together through jamming?
Hmm. I wouldn’t say that. No. A lot of the ideas for the arrangements for the songs would come together through jamming, yeah. In fact, that’s all of it. Like in “Whipping Post,” for instance. When Gregg brought the song to present to the band, he just strummed it on acoustic guitar and sang it. So all the parts and the arrangement and all that was just taken from just jamming together a lot. You know, like, “Hey, let’s put this part of that jam we was doing the other night in this song” – that sort of thing.
How about “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”?
I’d written the melody and the very basic chords and brought it to the band. We played it for a week or so before we taped it or anything, just seeing what we could do with the tune.
Was it hard being in the band with Duane?
It was hard not to try and have just this complete contest all the time, trying to outdo, because we were both playing lead. The only way that can work is if somebody lays back just a little bit. It’s the same position Danny Toler and myself’s in right now. That’s the position I was in with Duane, and if I had that jealousy and got involved in it too much, it just wouldn’t have worked. So in that sense it was kind of hard. But, hell, I learned more through those years than probably any other period of my playing career.
Did he like to talk about guitars and music outside of playing?
Yeah. He knew more about that than anything else.
Was he partial to any Allman Brothers songs?
I don’t know. I don’t know what his favorite songs were. “Dreams” was, I think, one of the best performances he did on record, as far as the Allman Brothers Band. You know, he’d performed on a lot of people’s records, but the slide thing he did on “Dreams,” he was really proud of that. And he had a lot of fun playing it when we did it live.
Was the first long solo in “Dreams” Duane’s?
Yeah, that’s Duane. I don’t think I’m even playing a solo on that song.
The very strange part near the end was done with a bottleneck?
That was basically a live album done in the studio, if you know what I mean. There was very little overdubs on it. Of course, you redo the vocals. So Gregg would sing the vocals and then go back and redo them. That’s the way it’s done. There were parts that were just exaggerated, just because you kind of have to exaggerate the music on an album because you can’t see anything. But all the solos and that sort of thing was done right when the track was being played. We still it that way, as a matter of fact.
That brings more spontaneity to it.
Who did the first and second solos in “Just My Cross to Bear”?
On that album, I always appear left and Duane always appears right – or vice versa, depending on which way you’ve got your wires hooked up. You can always tell, because one of us will always appear in the same spot on the record each time.
Is that true for any of the other albums?
Uh, I’m not sure about the others, but that one’s for sure. I know it is. I think all of the rest of them we did with Duane were that way, just because it would be easier to distinguish who was playing what. Sometimes it gets kind of confusing on an album.
In “Black Hearted Woman,” did you play the straight solo?
Let’s see. You know, I haven’t played some of these songs in so long I can’t remember. Yeah, I think Duane was playing slide on that, so I was playing the regular guitar.
Who created the “Bolero”-like ending to that song?
Did you play acoustic in “Trouble No More”?
No, I played electric. I think Duane overdubbed acoustic on it, and then he played the electric slide.
The tune “Whipping Post” has that far-away guitar in beginning. Do you remember how that part was recorded?
The intro? I think it was Duane playing three parts. No tricks to it – it was just an amplifier and guitar. Maybe they put echo on it or something and drifted it back – I don’t know.
Who did the pedal steel effects in “Midnight Rider”?
That was probably me.
Was that album recorded the same way as the first one?
“Midnight Rider” – which album was that on?
Yeah, that was a little more of a studio album than the first couple. Let’s see – was that our second album?
That was a little more studio-oriented.
That was the one with “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Please Call Home.”
Well, it was still pretty live when I recall those songs. We’d set the amps up in the studio just like we did onstage. We’d run the producers crazy [laughs]. Instead of baffling all the amps off, we’d just set up like we do onstage and we’d even stand like we did onstage on a lot of those tunes. “Midnight Rider” was more of a studio cut song.
Who was playing most of the acoustic on Idlewild South?
Was the Live at the Fillmore album an accurate representation of your sound at the time?
Yeah. Some of the things on it – the “Mountain Jam,” you know.
That came on Eat a Peach.
Oh, did it? We cut it, though, at the same time at the Fillmore. Yeah, there was no overdubs whatsoever on the Fillmore. No vocal overdubs, no repair work. There was some edits in some of the jams. You know, they had to edit it to try to get it on the record, but other than that, there was nothing done to that. It’s just a pure performance.
Who introduced the songs onstage?
Duane did most of it.
In your song “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” who was playing the volume swells?
That was me.
Those are beautiful.
Can you tell me who did which solos in the live “Whipping Post” and “Hot ’Lanta”?
I played the first one in “Whipping Post,” and Duane played the second one. “Hot ’Lanta” – jeez, I haven’t heard that in so long. It was probably the same way. I usually played first.
So in “You Don’t Love Me,” that’s you soloing before the harmonica part?
Yeah, yeah. The solo afterwards, that was Duane. No, wait a minute. The live one? That switches back and forth. Actually on that particular cut, I played the last solo – the real long one that just goes on with the drums. And then Duane comes back in after I finish that and puts his signature on it.
That sort of “Joy to the World” lick?
Uh, Duane named it.
What were the last Allman Brothers cuts he worked on?
Duane was killed in the middle of the Eat a Peach album, wasn’t he?
Yeah. He’s on “One Way Out,” “Trouble No More,” “Stand Back,” “Little Martha.”
I think “Blue Sky” was one of the last things we did. We did all those songs in about three weeks in a studio in Miami, and then we decided to take a break because Tommy Dowd had something else he had to do. Anyway, we decided to take a few weeks off, and then Duane was killed. After everybody had a chance to get over what was happening, we came back in and finished it a few months later.
Was Duane usually on when he played?
He was always on when he played. Yeah.
What was the difference between what he played onstage and what he played by himself?
Well, he really enjoyed just sitting around a hotel room or around the house playing like old Robert Johnson tunes or Willie McTell on acoustic – real personal stuff – and singing those old songs. A lot of things that he never recorded. I mean, he never put any of it on tape.
How did “Little Martha” come about?
He wrote that for his wife.
Was he married at the time he died?
He was married one time, and then they were going to get a divorce. And then he was living with his girlfriend – the same as being married. They had a house and everything. His girlfriend’s name was Dixie.
Did he have children?
Yeah, he had a little girl. Her name was Galadrielle.
When was she born?
I don’t know exactly. It was just before he was killed. She was just a year old or something – a couple of years old. Her mother’s name was Donna Allman. I think she’s in St. Louis.
Can I ask you about “Layla”?
Do you happen to know which parts Duane played on “Layla”?
Yeah, he’s doing the slide.
Did he come up with the hook for the song?
You mean [sings the opening riff]? Well, I know that he had a lot to do with that line because that was a kind of a typical Allman Brothers-type line. But on the other hand, Eric Clapton plays those kind of lines too. So probably just between the two of them they came up with it. But the slide guitar part was all freestyle – he was playing around the line.
Did he play most of the slide on that album, like on “Tell the Truth” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”?
I don’t know just how much, because Eric plays some good slide guitar too. Duane was playing most of the electric slide, I think.
The cranked-up solo at the end of “Why Does Love Got to Be a Sad” sounds much more like Allman Brothers material than Eric Clapton.
Yeah. Duane was all over that album. Really. They had a lot of fun doing it. They stayed in the studio for hours and hours, just jamming and stuff, and coming up with lines. I think if Duane hadn’t have been there, the songs would be a lot different – especially “Layla.”
Did he take a break from the Allman Brothers to do that album?
No. We’d just got off tour and needed some time off. We used to tour ruthlessly [laughs]. I mean, we’d be out on the road for three or four months, so then we’d get home and take a month off, just to re-create. Duane had some time to spare when he did it. He didn’t stop the Allman Brothers Band to do that. He went out on the road with Eric too, right when the album was released and Clapton did the tour behind the album. Duane went out for a couple of weeks with him on the road.
Who were Duane’s best friends while he was in the band?
King Curtis was a real good friend of his. They tried to spend all the time they could together. Thom Doucette and Duane used to run together a lot. Tommy’s the harp played that played on all that stuff. As a matter of fact, he’s living down here in Sarasota.
How do you view the period of the band when Duane was in it compared to later lineups?
It’s been ten or eleven years has gone by. The band is still unique in the way we play, but it’s not the same band that it was at all. We don’t try to be. As a matter of fact, it took a long time before we’d even think about playing with two guitars again. We played for a long time and didn’t even consider hiring another guitar player. Finally after a few years went by we decided, well, it might be nice to try it. But it’s a little different thing now than it was then.
What do you feel Duane contributed to the guitar?
I think that he’ll probably be known as the best electric slide guitar player of that time period. When enough time goes by, people will write it up. Well, I guess it’s about that time now for him to be documented for what he did. He was the foremost electric slide guitar player – of course, you know that as I do [laughs]. He was a great guitar player all the way around, but I think that’s probably what he’s most famous for than anything. And putting the band together – he did put the Allman Brothers band together, and I guess he’ll always be known for being the leader or the guy that made that whole thing happen.
Do you have any favorite memories of Duane?
I enjoyed knowing him, being around him the whole time. I’m just glad that I got a chance to work with him.
For more on Duane Allman:
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