MY PERMANENT mental image of Dickey Betts comes from a photo taken on the last Allman Brothers Band tour, in which he has short hair, a moustache, is dressed in an elegantly tailored white suit and looks the quintessential Southern gentleman. Which is a compelling image to the half-Southerner I am. But what really nails me in this photo is the eyes. This Southern gent is angry. Not in any venal sense, but in some proud tradition of noble Southern anger — what a Yankee might call passionate determination.
THE CITY Squire Inn at Seventh Ave. and 49th St. on the northern fringe of the Times Square sleaze belt is about as far from the Confederacy as one can get. It is pure post (Civil) war Yankee shabbiness. Newspapers are scattered around the floor of the hotel’s near-empty “English pub” and there’s lots of screaming going on between waitresses and the host at some unseen waitress station. A lone customer sits hunched over a beer at the bar. He has long messy hair, wears a vest and a rumpled yellow shirt, and minds his own business. After enduring several long moments of noise and commotion, the previously silent bar, as several publicists, a photographer, and a writer make their way in, the long-hair at the bar turns around. I’d recognize a gentleman of the Confederacy any day. The publicist says, “I’d like you to meet Dickey Betts.”
We were seated around a table in the rear of the plastic pub waiting for one of the waitresses who seemed to be more interested in her own arguing. Betts says, “This would be a good place for a bar.” Which is funny. But the eyes are angry. Something’s got to be done. In a moment he is up doing it — but politely, like a gentleman. In another moment we have service.
The reason for this meeting is that Betts wants to publicize his new band, Dickey Betts Great Southern. He does not particularly want to discuss the breakup of the Allman Brothers or Gregg Allman because to him at this point, in spite of the legal battles which are ensnaring his recording contract, that is just about far behind. But the question has to be asked. Betts hesitates, considering. “I told the real hard story about all that to a lot of reporters,” he says, looking intensely at his hands in front of him. “I don’t want to deprive you of the story, but I have to say I’m getting real tired of it, talking about it all because it’s nailing Gregg’s ass — and I’m tired of nailing people’s asses.” Betts never refers to specifics of the infamous drug case in which Gregg Allman, in exchange for leniency, seemingly ratted on their mutual friend Scooter Herring, who received a sentence partially as a result of the testimony, of 75 years. “Now I realize,” Betts continues in low key, “that Gregg was in a bad situation. But I think he could have handled it a lot better. I think he should have had a little more insight into what was going to happen to everybody around him.
“He made a real bad mistake that hurt a real close friend of mine and the rest of the guys in the band — and was what supposed to be a friend of his. So he’s got some dues to pay for that.” In other words, Gregg has violated a gentleman’s code.
But Betts keeps it all in perspective; Allman’s transgression is not the most important matter at hand. First, there’s a friend. Betts cheers somewhat. “I think Scooter’s gonna eventually come out of it. Things are lookin’ real good for him. I think they’re gonna lighten his sentence — mainly because of the public sentiment drummed up from all the interviews and from having it written the way it was. I think people are beginning to say Scooter didn’t deserve it.”
And was Gregg’s testimony the main reason for the Allman Brothers breakup?
“That’s the main reason. That kind of brought the whole thing to a climax. But the financial thing was terrible as well. We got into the same thing the Grateful Dead got into — you know, carrying 40 people on the road all the time and all that. Just too much. But I think we could have solved the financial thing, and I think we could have solved the personal thing that resulted from Gregg moving out of the South and into a new life style. But when the Scooter Herring thing fell on top of all that, everybody just threw up their hands.” And then he winds it all around, as if to say, “Enough. On to the new business.”
“But I think the breakup will be a good thing for all of us in that people will now get to see just what everybody can do.”
What Dickey Betts can do is Great Southern. Judging by his often overlooked role in the Allman Brothers Band, that’s quite a lot. He explains his concept and some history. “I went back to two guitars in the new band. It’s something I got very used to over the last fifteen years. That’s why Duane and I got along so well. See, originally, Duane wasn’t planning on putting a six-piece band together. It was going to be a trio. But you see, I’d always worked with another guitar player. Anyway, Duane was only interested in a bass player at the time, and me and Berry Oakley had a band in Florida and Duane would come down and play with us to get used to playing with Berry. But in the process of playing with another guitar player — me — Duane came up with a lot of stuff he dug. And the Allman Brothers became six pieces. The point is, with this band we’re going back to two guitars and guitar harmony and all that stuff I like to do.” His pretty brunette fiancée, Paulette Egharizarian (Cher’s ex-secretary), who has been sitting with us, chimes in at this point with a soothing Southern accent, as modesty seems to get the better of Betts. “The songs the band will be doing are like the things he wrote for the Allman Brothers, songs like ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man’.”
Betts picks it up again. “Yeah. It’s not like the solo album. It sounds more like our old stuff. I might as well say that ’cause I know critics will be comparing this band to the Allman Brothers and it does sound like them. But you know, I was a part of the Allman Brothers. I was part of their style and that style is me and you can’t expect me to just completely change how I play.” In fact, it is not generally recognized — particularly in light of Duane’s critical canonization — that Dickey Betts was at least co-author of the unique Allman Brothers sound. Did he ever feel like he was being ignored by the press and fans in favor of Duane? Betts is perfectly open. “Everybody has their little jealousies. Duane and I would sit and talk about it sometimes, both of us getting everything out like we were on a psychiatrist’s couch or something, and that kept it from ever getting in the way of the relationship on or off stage.” Neither is there any hint of braggadocio or of Betts feeling any undue credit. He’ll admit to his contribution but always make it clear that “Duane was a very special person.” And not just because he was a gentleman.
It’s been some distance and a very short time since the elegant white suit, from the Ritz to the City Squire, and Betts is realistic about building a new career, a process which would start within the week with a mini-tour of the south. As a “Special Guest” act. “I think we’ll be successful,” he says, “But I don’t think we’ll have the effect that the Allman Brothers Band did on American music. Now there are a lot of Southern bands — we’ll just be one more. But we will be accepted — hell, this tour we’re doing is just to warm up and we’re playing to 10,000 seat halls!” Is it scary to start over? “Yeah, but that’s not the dominant feeling. It’s more exciting. If I didn’t have as good a band as I’ve got, it’d be scary. They’re really good.” I believe him and believe in his talent. But the main fact is, what I can see plain as day right next to me at the table: Dickey Berts has angry eyes and that’s what magic is all about.
© Robert Duncan, Creem, March 1977