Dickey Betts – Keeper and Godfather of Southern Harmony – Has Died


The world has lost one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Rock and roll has lost a Hall of Famer. Southern rock has lost a founding father. Country music has lost one of its greatest influences. And the Southlands have lost one of its most cherished sons. Like a high ‘E’ string hitting the sweetest note of a soaring harmonious guitar solo, a collective exhalation of sincere grief, but undying gratitude pierces through the din of everyday news to mark the death of the indomitable Dickey Betts.

It wasn’t easy for Dickey Betts to distinguish himself from the throngs of guitar players birthed from the golden era of classic rock, especially when his own band mate was Duane Allman, who achieved God-like status himself before passing away in 1971. But instead of battling at center stage for attention as was the standard of the era, Dickey and Duane harmoniously collaborated, discovering a sound that was greater than the sum of their individual parts, revolutionizing Southern music in an instant, and rock and roll forevermore.

When Duane Allman was tragically taken from us, Dickey Betts wasn’t only skilled enough to fill his shoes, he was able to extend and grow the Allman legacy, even though he didn’t share the name. When we think of Southern rock, we think of Dickey Betts. When we think of instilling the sweetest part of melodies and the emotions of lyrics into guitar solos, we think of Dickey Betts. When we think of instrumentation saying things simple words can never convey, we think of Dickey Betts.

“Ramblin’ Man” written and sung by Betts might be one of the most iconic songs in the American music canon. It rendered scores of country songwriters insanely jealous, and inspiring them to compose dopplegangers of the song for decades to come. But just like Betts himself, “Ramblin’ Man” was the original.

Just as much as the songs sung by Betts touched us, it was the songs that left the music to say it all that resonated deeply. “Jessica” said things about love and devotion words will always fail to convey. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” seemed to rival the movements of symphonies in its ability to coax out human emotion and inspiration, unlocking corridors of the imagination inaccessible through most modern music. Dickey Betts was a maestro, no different than the composers in their powdered wigs of yesteryear, even if his adornment was faded denim, and tanned leather.

If you know the best of American music, you probably know the Dickey Betts story front to back. He was a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band in 1969 with brothers Duane and Gregg, along with bassist Berry Oakley. Despite many tragedies and lineup changes, the band would persevere to stretch the limits of what was possible in rock and popular music, bringing their skill that rivaled jazz greats to music that was boundless, bold, but curiously accessible for its depth and complexity.

But even though Southern rock is how Betts will be best known, he was a country boy at heart. Born in West Palm Beach, Florida and raised on the West Coast of Florida in Bradenton, he was influenced by traditional bluegrass, country, and Western swing before ever hearing a lick of rock and roll. Betts started playing the ukulele at the age of five, and by his 16th birthday, was touring throughout Florida in rock bands.

Dickey Betts had a band called Second Coming with bassist Berry Oakley before the Allmans came calling. Second Coming was allegedly the band referenced by Rick Derringer in the song “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” as “a group called the Jokers.”

Throughout the hiatuses are reformations of The Allman Brothers for many years, Dickey Betts was the fulcrum along with brother Gregg, but he also had a robust solo career that included collaborations and songs in the country realm. Dickey’s first ever solo album called Highway Call (1974) featured Vassar Clements on fiddle. Betts also played on the David Allan Coe song “Hank Williams Junior Junior.” Betts also taught Billy Joe Shaver’s son Eddy how to play guitar. Eddy ended up becoming one of the greatest country guitar players of his era before dying in 2000.

Betts had his own bands through the years like the Dickey Betts Band, Great Southern, and was a participant in the supergroup Betts, Hall, Leavell and Trucks. In 2000, Betts was officially fired from The Allman Brothers band via fax, supposedly for drinking and drug use. This opened up a contentious lawsuit with his former band that was never reconciled, though he did reconcile with Gregg Allman himself before he passed in 2017.

A year later, Dickey Betts suffered as stroke after falling and hitting his head. Though efforts at comebacks ensued, he mostly was out of the spotlight ever since. His son Duane Betts named after his legendary Allman collaborator plays in the Allman Betts Band keeping the Allman legacy alive.

The loss of Dickey Betts on Thursday, April 18th at the age of 80 leaves a hole in the legacy of American music that will never be filled. Dummer and percussionist Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson is now the last surviving original member of The Allman Brothers.

But the Southern harmonies Dickey Betts crafted will ring on through time, filling the soul with a honeysuckle sweetness that shepherds the spirit through tough times, and feels as refreshing and exhilarating as a Southern breeze. The work of Dickey Betts was music as manna, and promises to never be forgotten as long as Southern ground remains above the sea.

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