BOUGAINVILLEA’S CALL: THE VERY BEST OF BETTS 1973-1988
(Raven) Australia, 2006
The words, "no introduction is necessary" come immediately to mind as I sit down to write the liner notes for a collection of songs by one of rock and roll's living legends, Dickey Betts. A founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, leader of several versions of his own solo band, as well as Great Southern, and a true road warrior, the Sarasota, Florida guitar player has given the world a peach truck full of great music. Over the years Dickey has put out a fine country album (Highway Call), great solo albums (Pattern Disruptive, with Warren Haynes, Matt Abts and company) and his work with the Allman Brothers Band has earned permanent status in the lexicon of classic rock, and an induction into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Betts has one of the most distinctive voices in music today. Known as one of the most influential guitar players of all time, Betts has mastered a seamless style of lyrical melody and rhythm – bringing together elements of country, jazz, blues, and rock into one unparalleled sound. The New York Times has called Betts "one of the great rock guitarists…who thinks like a jazz improviser, in thoughtfully structured, cleanly articulated, intelligently paced phrases…[when] Mr. Betts was tearing into one of his improvisations, the music was about as exciting as rock and roll gets."
As a member of the original Allman Brothers Band, Betts was known for matching band leader Duane Allman lick for lick on the guitar. After Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were killed in accidents a year apart in 1971 and 1972, the ABB worked through their sorrow, with Betts writing and singing the group's biggest hit, "Ramblin' Man," a song that reached #2 on the charts nationwide in 1973.
When Betts assembled some of the finest pickers in the country to help him record his first solo album back in 1974, he had no way of knowing he was creating a unique blend of rock, country and bluegrass that would set the stage (along with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken) for a style of music that would catch on like wildfire some thirty years later with the O Brother Where At Thou phenomenon. For Highway Call, Betts (recording under the name Richard Betts) assembled an impressive line up of musicians that included Capricorn Records staples Johnny Sandlin, Chuck Leavell and Tommy Talton, along with legendary fiddler Vassar Clements, Reese Wynans, Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, gospel singers The Rambos and bluegrass band The Poindexters,
“That album was done strictly for fun,” Betts told GRITZ Magazine in a 2003. “We were making a lot of money with The Allman Brothers Band, and we had some time off, and I think Gregg was working on one of his records, and I just wanted to do a fun record. I ran into Vassar Clements at a bluegrass festival. I just got a bunch of unusual people that you wouldn't expect, like The Rambos, to play on it, and Conway Twitty's steel player (John Hughey). The guys that played on that, The Poindexters had never been in a recording studio before. They owned a feed store down here in Manatee. They had big shows they would do on Saturday, they were professionals. They were real good players, but they had never been in a recording studio or anything.”
The resulting album was an instant classic from the up-tempo country rock of “Long Time Gone,” to the sweet vocal harmonies of Betts and The Rambos on “Rain.”
During the Southern Rock heyday of the 1970’s, Betts divided his time between touring and recording with The Allman Brothers Band, playing guitar on friends’ records, and showing up at the annual Charlie Daniels Band Volunteer Jam, where he would play alongside folks like Toy Caldwell, Dru Lombar, Bonnie Bramlett and Jimmy Hall on tunes like Billy Joe Shaver’s “Sweet Mama.”
Following the breakup of The Allman Brothers Band in 1976, Dickey teamed up with guitarist and long time friend Dan Toler to form Great Southern. The dual-guitar harmonies of The Allmans were back, with Toler supporting Betts flawlessly. The band's debut album was a legitimate extension of what Betts had been doing with the Allman Brothers.
Their first album, Dickey Betts and Great Southern, featured songs that would become concert staples for Dickey in years to come. Songs like “Run Gypsy Run,” “Sweet Virginia,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Bougainvillea,” co-written by Betts and a struggling songwriter friend of his by the name of Don Johnson, who was still years away from the star status he would achieve as the star of Miami Vice. After a show at New York's Bottom Line, Robert Palmer of the New York Times said that Betts "proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is one of the great rock guitarists."
Perhaps the album’s finest track, “Bougainvillea” showcases some of Betts’ signature country blues guitar work.
“I was actually playing music before I was in the first grade,” Betts told GRITZ. “My dad brought home a ukulele for me. My dad could play just about any stringed instrument, but he was a fiddle player, which was his main instrument. He was really a fine bluegrass player. Back then we called it "string music." Bill Monroe kind of coined that phrase "bluegrass," because he called his band The Bluegrass Boys. So, my uncles all played, and my dad played, so when I was about four-years-old, I started playing little tunes on the ukulele, and started playing in the jam sessions when we'd get together on weekends a couple of times a month.
“So I went from that to a mandolin, and I started playing banjo for a while, and after that I went to guitar. I didn't start playing guitar until I was sixteen. I had started getting interested in rock and roll and hot cars and girls, things like that.
“And then I started playing a lot of The Ventures stuff along with that, and started studying B.B. King and Freddie King. I loved Freddie King when he came out with "Hideaway." It knocked me out. I had everything Freddie King did, and played a lot of his tunes. By then I had my own bands together. When I was seventeen I went on the road for the first time with a circus show. We had a tent on the midway, like at the state fair, and it was called "Teen Beat." And we were the band! And the barker you know, he'd come out and tell all of these outrageous lies about how the band had just been on The Ed Sullivan Show. You might have missed 'em, but they were there! It was like a sideshow on the midway. We did about twenty shows a day, these little thirty-minute shows. And we'd jump off of the top of the amps and do splits. And I could do the Chuck Berry duck-walk. It was kind of a little quick show.
“After that I came home and forged my birth certificate and started playing night clubs. I got more into a lot of the real old blues stuff. I had a friend here in town that was kind of an oddball. He already knew who Lightnin' Hopkins was, and Muddy Waters, and all of these people. He said, "Hey man, Chuck Berry is like pop. You've got to listen to some of the real stuff!" Then he showed me all of these real old players, he had all of these 78's and stuff. I got educated that way. I just met a lot of good people along the way. And then Lonnie Mack came along. He was like a ray of sunshine. There was just so much Beach Boys and that big sound from Philadelphia. Then Lonnie Mack came out, and I played every damn thing he put out, you know. I don't play anything like him now, but back then I studied him. And I kind of got my shake from B.B. (King). Learning how to get that tremolo the way he does. And I never really studied Django Rhinehardt, but I think every guitar player listens to and gets influenced by him. And I love Charlie Parker. I put my Charlie Parker stuff on and just listen to it. I don't try to learn any licks or nothing, I just put it on and enjoy it. Of course, when you're younger, you just put it on and learn it lick by lick.”
Great Southern’s second release Atlanta’s Burning Down included the epic Civil War themed title track, along with more guitar magic from Betts and Toler, who would reunite in 2002 to reform Great Southern. By now, Dickey had replaced everyone in the group except Toler and drummer Doni Sharbono. Toler had a lot of input into the new lineup, recommending bassist David “Rook” Goldflies to Betts and bringing in his brother, Frankie Toler, as the second drummer. Another high point of the album is “back On the Road again.” As in the past, Betts enlists friend Bonnie Bramlett to aid in the vocal department.
Just prior to the reformation of The Allman Brothers Band in 1989, Betts formed a new group called The Dickey Betts Band, featuring soon to be Allman Brothers members Warren Haynes and Johnny Neel, along with future Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts, and bassist Marty Privette.
With the release of Pattern Disruptive in 1988, Betts presented a more hard-edged rocking style, especially on the set opener “Rock Bottom.” The album also included the beautiful tribute to Duane Allman, “Duane’s Tune.”
In 1989, their 20th anniversary, the Allman Brothers Band reformed, and the undeniable chemistry that resulted from the unique two-guitar approach of Warren Haynes and Betts made the Allman Brothers Band once again one of the most compelling bands in the country. The ABB enjoyed continued success throughout the nineties -- being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, winning their first Grammy, and continuing their powerful live performances.
Betts stayed with The Allmans until after their 30th Anniversary Tour in 2000. In 2001 he released a new Dickey Betts Band album before reuniting with Dan Toler to reform Great Southern in 2002.
-Michael Buffalo Smith