NOBODY TALKS at all about the deaths. Gregg seems too spacey, anyway, detached and oblivious behind his shades; maybe a few brief nods of acknowledgement to well-wishers as he leaves the stage, that’s all.
It happened, and that was it — Duane’s dead, and Berry’s gone, but the Allman Brothers are 1973, riding high on the public’s love. Yes, love!
The Allmans are to America now what the Dead were in ’67.
But it is not the peace and good vibes of San Francisco, exactly; these people are from William Faulkner’s deep South.
They are close-knit and wary of outsiders; they observe a detached courtesy; they detest the process of image-building; they are anti-stars; purporting to be working-class boys from Macon, Georgia.
So be it. The Allman Brothers and their entourage, all those people down at Capricorn records in Macon, the city where Otis and Little Richard Penniman grew up, is… FAMILY.
It’s always been that way, from the spring of ’69, when they all began rehearsing together: Duane and Gregg, Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks from Florida, black Jai Johnny Johanson on drums and congas, and bassist Berry Oakley, who was to collide fatally with a Macon City bus just one year and 13 days after Duane’s motorcycle death.
The Allman Brothers Band Went to New York, to Atlantic studios. They played at the Fillmore and cut their first gold album, At Fillmore East.
They toured for three years across the country, and all the time they stressed the absence of the rock star trip.
They began recording Eat A Peach. Three tracks were finished at Criteria down in Miami.
Then, for the first time in two and half years, they went Off the road, only Duane did it for real. On October 29, 1971, he was dead at the age of 24. A death in the family.
And when it happened again, this was not just a band trekking across America, a people’s trip, this was a slice of pop History out there playing to the full houses, nourished by posthumous mystique, despite all the adamant denials of stardom.
And so in July this year the Allman Brothers Band plays to 600,000 people in upstate New York — an event numerically larger than Woodstock, even — and they’re up their with the Dead and the Band.
They’ve made the aristocracy. Listeners to a New York radio station vote them the most popular band ever after the Beatles.
Guitar Magazine votes Dickey Betts the second best guitarist in the world, next to Clapton. There is not only gold record, there is platinum.
All this, and now the Indians!
THEY GOT the idea for the Foundation just after the Indian uprising in February at Wounded Knee in South Dakota: paying in money from certain of their performances to a North American Indian foundation which will use it as they wish. A board of seven directors, all of them Indians. The Allmans just supply the money.
The Indians have had a belly-full of do-gooders in their time, so the reasoning goes. Already they have raised 21,500 dollars. This will be spent in sending delegates from all across America to the annual Indian Ecumenical Conference in Morley, Canada, just Northwest of Calvary in Alberta province.
And eventually, there will be involved not merely the Brothers, but a whole host of rock artists, playing for the Indians’ right to retain their traditions and way of life, helping America to pay its debt to the nation’s real landlord.
This is the dream. The Allman Brothers and Sisters, the family growing to encompass them all.
Don McLean has already said he’ll do it, and Alice Cooper and Leon Russell and Poco and the Beach Boys might be persuaded. And then there’s the Dead, of course, with whom the Allmans have been regularly gigging for the past few months. “Rock Scully, he wants to do somethin’.
“They’re interested, but you know the Dead — they’re very careful about anything they step into after all the crap they’ve bin through.
“So they’re not promising anything. But they’re watching to see what we’re gonna do.
“And Jerry, well, he’ll say, ‘that’s something to think about, you know,’ in that way he has. It’s funny how many artists really wanna do somethin’ for the Indian people.”
Dickey Betts is the prime mover. Dickey from Florida, with his drooping Marshall’s moustache and hard, bony face whose skin seems to have been stretched tight as on a rack.
These days he is not just lead guitarist, he is chairman of the North American Indian Foundation. He is Richard, rather than Dickey, Betts. Sitting in the gloomy, candlelit bar of the posh Navarro Hotel on New York’s Central Park South.
Dickey’s wife is Sandy, a highly attractive full-blood from Canada, with straight, black hair reaming (sic) down her back. As a kid she used to be discriminated against, but not as badly as the Indians from the reserves.
They would come into town, and the white folks would make fun of them because they weren’t properly dressed.
They had no water on the reserves and they were dirty.
There were no toilets.
In school Sandy was called Squaw.
And Dickey gets to remembering the last time they were up in Canada. An Indian woman had been found murdered on some country road. She had been picked up in a bar by some guys, carried out in the road and, well… Dickey pauses; his sense of Southern niceties leaves the sentence hanging in the air.
Nothing was ever done about it. It was all just covered up. A few people got curious, but that was all. Dickey was one of them.
“I imagine that Wounded Knee kinda stirred up the hornet’s nest,” he says.
They had discussed it now and then, the band and all those people down in Macon connected with Phil Walden’s Capricorn label.
“We might just say, ‘ain’t that a buncha shit!’ y’know. We’d already started doin’ some benefits for people like the Salvation Army in our home town. Somebody suggested why don’t we do one for an Indian group, and… one thing led to another.”
THE INDIANS. He’d really prefer to talk just about them. No gossip writers. “There are so many damned interviewers who ask you what’s your favourite colour, that kind of shit.”
Still, since Duane has gone, he’s the one who’s had to shoulder the responsibility, and in a way this has helped him personally, both as a man and as a guitarist, since it’s pushed him to the front.
But Duane, you ask, does he mind talking about him at all? And he will put down his whiskey and look frostily across the table.
“I don’t especially care to,” he says quietly. Sandy silently shakes her head. He reflects, and clears his throat.
“I mean, if there’s something that you’d really like to know that you think mebbe I could tell you.”
“I think it changed a hell of a lot, myself, because I think he had a hell of a lot to do with what the band sounded like at that time. But I think, actually, the band might’ve changed more after we lost Berry, because when we lost Duane we didn’t add anybody.
“We just maintained what we had. But then when Berry died we added two people, Lamar Williams on bass and Chuck Leavell on piano, which is a hell of a thing to do.”
When Berry Oakley died, some said it was like Robert Kennedy’s death to the Kennedy family: that some sort of jinx was in operation. But he snorts disgustedly. “Yaaaaah! that’s bullshit.”
A long silence. “You got any bubblegum with you?” he drawls. Touched There is no romance in death. Except for the public.
He first met the two brothers at Daytona Beach in Florida eight years ago. They would run into each other and jam a bit.
Dickey was from the Sarasota area of Florida, and he and Oakley had a group together, the Second Coming.
“We had a message, y’know. We were tryin’ to say somethin’. We were the Kansas City stars — y’know, the record that Roger Miller had out — only we were the Jacksonville, Florida stars; that’s where the group was doin’ good. Jacksonville is a pretty good town to gig in.”
The Second Coming never really cut any records, but they had success with a certain tape, a demo made to hawk around promoters’ offices.
“But the local radio station started playin’ it, and it got to be number one by request in Jacksonville. It was an old Cream song, ‘I Feel Free’, and an old Jefferson Airplane song, ‘Funny something-or-other’.
“It was two pretty good tunes. ‘I Feel Free’ we did just about like them — in our own way, but the arrangement was about like that.
“We did a lotta jamming. We stretched the solos out pretty good. They were about five minutes apiece.
“Hell, it got I don’t know what recognition, but it got somewhere in Billboard. It got so far from Jacksonville that our manager printed up some 45s of it, and they were selling locally, and then Billboard picked it up as a possible hit or somethin’.
“Anyway, right in the middle of the process of that, we had disbanded and started the Allman Brothers Band, so here Duane and Gregg and Berry and me and all of us were sitting in Macon, and we’re supposed to be rock stars (a small laugh at this), and we’re hearing the Second Coming’s record over the radio and everybody’s wonderin’ what it is!
“I don’t think it even had a label. It didn’t really do anything. It looked like it might, but it didn’t really deserve a hit.”
THE ALLMANS, in fact, had come into existence early in ’69, When the Second Comiing jammed in Jacksonville with Butch Trucks’ band, the 31st of February, which Duane and Gregg joined after the demise of their own Hourglass. The well-anecdoted story is that they played together in a park for more than two hours, and when it was over they all decided it was the band they’d been looking for.
Phil Walden, a hip, white Southerner, quickly assumed their management. He had looked after various artists like Clarence Carter and Percy Sledge, and had been a business partner of Otis Redding’s.
Capricorn records was formerly called Redwal, in fact, and it wasn’t until a year after he’d begun managing the Allmans that it was changed.
The Macon label is now the most prestigious young company in the South, with a reputation for its interest in basic, country blues funk.
The Allmans seem to remain unaffected by recent experimentations. There is no desire to dabble with electronics or to attempt sophisticated lyrics. There is no need.
“We just keep playing, and whatever comes out of it is the direction we take. We don’t have that much control over the music.
“I don’t get interested in new ideas, and I don’t think anybody else in the band does. We’re more interested in the old things, from the thirties and forties and the fifties, the old things that have already passed.
“We study those things, and then new expressions come out of it. Not re-working, just more or less studying where we’re coming from, where our roots are at, how we learned to play.
“If we studied new music as such, we’d wind up copying somebody else.”
Himself, he looks to the old Georgia blues, though his two personal favourites are Robert Johnson and Willie McTell. And then on the country side there’s Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams.
B.B., too, of course: “He’s got that elegance that none of ’em ever have. Man, he’s so much fun to jam with, because he’s so passive in his own way; he won’t force anythin’ on you.”
And then the English players. Peter Green jammed with the Allmans once in New Orleans.
“I wouldn’t especially prefer him to Eric, but he’s mighty good. His style is real compatible with ours. Eric is actually more like me. He’s kinda laid back a little bit in his playing.”
Laid back. It’s the key to their lifestyle. “We’ve always been kind of — I don’t know how to put it in words — kind of working class. I mean, we never did get into being rock stars.
“It was always a family, people’s type trip. Somebody said we were the ultimate expression of a male chauvinist rock and roll band.”
Dickey laughs at this. He isn’t a humourless man, just averse to committing himself as an individual.
Why, he thinks he and the rest of ’em might be as strange to these people in New York as Alice Cooper, and there may be something to it.
That easygoing Georgia style set down amidst the amyl-nitrate rush of Gotham City.
But stardom is a peculiar business. The night that Waylon Jennings played the open-air Schaeffer Music Festival, nobody noticed Dickey Betts in the audience.
And then he jammed on one cut with the bill-openers, the Marshall Tucker Band, and got the best applause of the evening.
“The other night at Madison Square Gardens,” he says, ” I put a suit on and nobody recognised me, either.”
But this is a joke. There were 18,000 people there that evening, and the Allmans normally do about three gigs a week. After all, it costs about 8,000 dollars to sit in Macon and do nothing for seven days.
BUT FIVE years now with the Brothers, and Dickey Betts needs to do something a little different, just for the fun of it.
Like Gregg Allman he wants to do a solo album, and in November probably he will do some recording in England (the Allmans as a whole may well arrive this year for their first British dates).
Only this time he will do a little experimenting.
“You familiar with ‘Revival’, that tune we did? Well, it has a very gypsy-flavoured introduction to it, about three minutes, and I’m goin’ to record it with Stephane Grappelli, one of yer home-towners over there.
“I haven’t met him yet, but Phil and Frank (Fenter, Capricorn label manager) talked to him about recording. He said yeah, he’d do it, but he don’t like flying, so rather than have him fly to Macon and all, I thought I’d just go over there.
“We’re gonna do ‘Revival’, go into a jam, and do ‘Les Brers’. We’ll be doin’ kind of a country jazz thing. It’s goin’ to be fun. I just hope somebody tries to make me feel at home there.”
There was a time when he disliked the studio, right up until Eat A Peach. He couldn’t really understand it.
“Seemed like a prostitution of music. You been out playin’ in bars, then you go onto concerts, and it’s always the raw communication between people.
“But here you are in this tin can with a buncha machines all round you, and you’re expected to produce… it takes a long time to get used to it, y’know.”
There has not even been much overdubbing on Allmans’ albums until the new one, Brothers And Sisters.
On one track, ‘Ramblin’ Man’, they put eight guitar parts together.
“I just said, well, y’know, there is such a thing as a recording artist and I guess I’m one.”
But Sgt. Pepper was done on four-track.
He looks incredulous.
“Nooooo, man, they had that big 32-track studio! Are you positive?” He digests the thought.
“Well, I did read somewhere they had the big 32-track.” Then adds judiciously: “You cain’t always believe what you read.”
There was no necessity to overdub when Duane was there. Duane on slide, Dickey playing counterpoint.
It’s funny, Dickey recalls, but there’s still a lot of old, unreleased recordings of Duane singing. Some old stuff by Chuck Berry.
“He did one kinda real funny tune. Chuck Berry was drivin’ — I cain’t remember the title of the song — he was drivin’ an old Ford, and he was gonna pull in and trade it for a Cadillac. You remember that song?
“All the accessories he’s gonna have in it, bed in the back seat and all that stuff? Well, Duane did a recording? It’s funnier ‘n hell.”
DICKEY BETTS, a good ole boy from in the woods around Sarasota, gets to reminiscing, but whatever he’s thinking he keeps to himself.
Amongst themselves, it’s said, the Allmans mention Duane about every five minutes.
But just then, a roadie walks into the cocktail bar with its smoky candles and smouldering waitresses, and Dickey calls out to him.
”Hi, Joe Dan! You wanna go to the show tonight? All right? We’re gonna go see Brando, yeah.” A group outing to Last Tango In Paris has been planned.
He turns back to the table, acting quite excited. “Did you see him on TV the other night? Oh sheeeit, he’s great!
“He wouldn’t talk ’bout movies at all. All he’d talk ’bout was Indians. I don’t have any idea what this movie is about.”
But Richard Betts, chairman of the N.A.I.F., husband of this beautiful Indian girl with a voice as deep and throaty as Cher’s, has a couple more drinks in the meanwhile.
And, in fact, he never does get to find out what Last Tango is all about.
© Michael Watts, Melody Maker, 25 August 1973