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Dickey Betts, Allman Brothers Band Singer-Guitarist, Dead at 80

Dickey Betts, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band whose piercing solos, beloved songs and hell-raising spirit defined the band and Southern rock in general, died Thursday morning at the age of 80. The cause was cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Betts’ manager David Spero confirmed to Rolling Stone.

“It is with profound sadness and heavy hearts that the Betts family announce the peaceful passing of Forrest Richard ‘Dickey’ Betts (December 12, 1943 – April 18, 2024) at the age of 80 years old,” Betts’ family announced in a statement to Rolling Stone. “The legendary performer, songwriter, bandleader, and family patriarch was at his home in Osprey, Florida, surrounded by his family. Dickey was larger-than-life, and his loss will be felt worldwide. At this difficult time, the family asks for prayers and respect for their privacy in the coming days. More information will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.”

Although he was often overshadowed by Gregg and Duane, the brothers who gave the Allmans their name, Betts was equally vital to the band. His sweetly sinuous guitar style introduced elements of Western swing and jazz into the band’s music, especially when he was duetting with Duane. As a singer and writer, Betts was responsible for the band’s biggest hit, 1973’s “Ramblin’ Man,” as well as some of their most recognizable songs: the moody instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” the jubilant “Jessica,” and their late-period comeback hit “Crazy Love.”

From his trademark mustache to his badass demeanor, Betts was so iconic that he inspired the character of Russell (played by Billy Crudup) in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. “Goddamn, that guy looks like me!” Betts told Rolling Stone of his first reaction to the movie. “I didn’t do the jumping off the roof or the ‘golden god,’ but I knew Cameron.”

Born Forrest Richard Betts in West Palm Beach, Florida, on December 12, 1943, Betts began playing ukulele around age five, followed by banjo and mandolin. “When I finally got to about seventh grade,” he told RS, “I learned about girls and rock & roll and Chuck Berry.” As a teenager, he put together his own band while earning a living as a house painter and mail carrier.

In the mid-Sixties, a member of a Midwestern band named the Jokers heard Betts and recruited him for out-of-state tours. Back home in Florida later that decade, Betts formed the Second Coming, a Florida band that also included bass player Berry Oakley. The two ended up meeting and jamming with Duane Allman, who asked both to join the newly formed Allman Brothers Band in 1969. “It took a lot of talking and getting along,” Betts told Rolling Stone in 2017, “but we all knew this was something we had heard in our heads for a long time. We had to talk Duane into calling Gregg because they were having a brotherly fight and Duane didn’t want Gregg. Oakley and I said, ‘Come on, Duane, the band is too goddamn powerful. We need Gregg’s voice in there.’”

Although his initial role in the band was co-lead guitarist along with Duane, Betts made his mark as a writer thanks to his exuberant “Revival” on the band’s first album, 1969’s The Allman Brothers Band. During the band’s first few years, he and Duane took rock guitar improvisation and two-guitar dueling to new heights, as heard on the 13-minute version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” on the band’s At Fillmore East live album from 1971. Right before Duane Allman’s death, the band recorded Betts’ “Blue Sky,” a country-influenced gallop inspired by his indigenous first wife; the song that became one of the band’s signature songs.

After Duane Allman’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1971, Betts became the band’s de facto lead guitarist and frontman, a role he wasn’t always comfortable with. Featuring both “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” — the latter named after his daughter — the band’s 1973 album Brothers and Sisters album crossed the band over into pop. Betts’ 1974 solo album Highway Call — one of the best of the Allmans offshoot projects — incorporated country, jazz, bluegrass and gospel.

The bond between the Allmans and Jimmy Carter, whose 1976 presidential campaign they supported by way of benefit concerts, also applied to Betts personally. “I remember going to a jazz concert at the White House [1978],” Betts told Rolling Stone last year. “Of course, I got there and I left my damn ID at home. But the Marines said, ‘Oh, go ahead in.’ They knew me very well and knew I wasn’t going to do any harm. Jimmy was walking around the premises and someone said to me, ‘Go over and talk to him,’ but I didn’t want to bother him. Then I went to use the men’s room in the White House and as I was coming out, I ran into Jimmy with a group of people and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is Dickey Betts, one of the best songwriters around nowadays.’ That just floored me.”

But after Gregg testified in a drug trial involving a band employee, which infuriated Betts, the Allman Brothers fell apart for the first time. Betts recorded two albums with his own band, Great Southern, which didn’t replicate his Allmans success. In 1979, the Allman Brothers regrouped, broke up again a few years later, and reunited again in 1989.

In the Nineties, the Allmans experienced a musical and career rebirth, and Betts became its driving force especially after Gregg relapsed in the middle of the decade. But Betts was and remained moody and volatile; in 1976, he was arrested for drinking and clashing with police. That side of him resumed; in 1993, he was arrested in Saratoga Springs, New York, after getting into a shoving match with cops, and his drinking led to fights with band members and missed shows. In 2000, he parted ways with the Allmans. Betts always insisted he was fired, while drummer Jaimoe told Rolling Stone in 2017 that Betts quit. “Dickey was always sort of the guy who was — I don’t want to say troubled, but was more of a loner,” Allmans manager Bert Holman told RS in 2017. “More separate than the rest of the guys.”

Although his falling out with the Allmans left a bitter taste in his mouth for years, Betts told RS that, in the end, he looked back fondly on his decades with them. “I would’ve done something,” he said. “I would have worked for somebody landscaping. I was very pragmatic and industrious. But it wouldn’t have been as nice as what happened when I met up with that bunch of guys.”

For much of the 2000s, Betts tried kickstarting his own career and music, although he was overshadowed again by the Allman Brothers Band, who continued without him (with guitarist Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks). In 2014, Betts quietly announced his retirement and told Rolling Stone in 2017 that he decided to stop recording music.

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Despite the turbulence inside the Allman Brothers Band, Betts said he and Gregg had spoken right before Allman’s death in 2017. After Allman’s death — and after Betts talked about retirement — he was coaxed into returning to the road in 2018, with his son and fellow guitarist Duane joining his band. In August of that year, though, Betts suffered a mild stroke but recovered. Last December, Betts attended an 80th birthday concert in his honor by the Allman Betts Family Revival band, near Betts’ longtime Florida home.

In 2017, Betts looked back at his life to Rolling Stone with no regrets. “I’ve had a great life and I don’t have any complaints,” he says. “If I could do it again, I don’t know what I could do to make it different. There are lawsuits I probably could have dealt with better. But so what? You have to get in there and fight and do the best with your amount of time.”

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