THE STORY of the Allman Brothers Band is one of the most glorious and the most tragic in rock. On this year’s tour, celebrating the band’s thirtieth anniversary, founding members Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts are joined by three musical heirs: Gregg’s son Devon, 27, who sings; guitarist Duane Betts, 21, son to Dickey and bearing the name of Gregg’s guitar-genius brother, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971; and bassist Berry Oakley Jr., 26, who was born after the death of his father, the Allmans’ bass player, in another motorcycle accident a year later.
The three sons (as well as Elijah Blue, Gregg’s son by Cher) play in bands of their own but reserve time to tour with the elder Allmans. All three are clear-eyedlive wires; backstage in Los Angeles, they (along with Dickey Betts) offer insights into a heritage they call “sacred.”
DICKEY: When my son Duane was young, he wouldn’t let me show him anything. He wanted to sit in his room and learn [the Allmans song] ‘Jessica’ himself. I said, “Why don’t you let me help you with this?” “Well,” he says, “I want to play my own way. I don’t want to sound like you.” And I said, “Son, listen. You talk like I do, you laugh like I do, you even like the same food I do, you know? You walk like me. You’re gonna play guitar like I do. You’ve got the same kind of voicing — your ideas. Don’t fight it.” And Duane — at the time he was fourteen — was saying, “Yeah, but…” And I said, “But you’re gonna be twice as good as I am.” And he went, “Awww.”
DEVON: Our parents were really supportive, but the most important thing is that they also give us the distance we need to just be our own musicians and our own people. Because you want to pay homage, but you don’t want to ride the coattail. Berry and I were born right when the Allmans were at the pinnacle. Their first record came out in 1969. It’s a sacred club, that thirty-years club.
BERRY: My dad passed away before I was born, but I’ve had a love affair with music, and lots of support, since I was four or five. I think music just speaks to certain individuals. I quit high school to go on the band’s twentieth anniversary in ’89. It was my senior thesis right there.
DUANE: My earliest memory is when my dad bought me a guitar. I didn’t take to it very well; I wanted to play drums. Then I got in my first childhood bands, started playing guitar and said, “Wait, man, I kinda like this.” My ex-stepfather [Chuck Negron] and I did a lot of touring with Three Dog Night. I saw the demise of Three Dog Night, basically, as a child. The three singers used to physically fight, on a nightly basis. It was a lesson in what not to do. There’s certain [substances] that should not be touched, certain things that should just be left alone. Very cut and dried; it’s not worth it, because people have lost a lot — some lost riches and fame, some lost families. I’d love to be around doing this thirty years from now.
DEVON: Our dads are really wonderful guys. Their story is pretty sad, a deep history. They take the punches and keep going. My dad said something that really hit me: If I can learn from his mistakes, then he didn’t really make them in vain.
© Fred Schruers, Rolling Stone, 11 November 1999