Dickey Betts reflects on writing ‘Ramblin' Man’ and more The Allman Brothers Band hits

A bunch of wildly talented Florida boys, including guitar-wielding hellion Dickey Betts, formed The Allman Brothers Band in 1969. They were rock stars in the ’70s, nearly became a rock footnote in the ’80s, and then rose again in the ’90s en route to their rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

On Thursday, Betts passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, in Sarasota County, Florida, just off the Highway 41 he sings about in the Allman Brothers’ best-known song.

In honor of Betts, I revisited the interview we did in 2020 about the real Allman Brothers stories behind the film “Almost Famous,” as well as past ones, including our lengthy conversation from 2014 that took place in Betts’ den over glasses of what he called “hippie wine.”

Dickey Betts performs in front of a sold-out crowd at the old White Buffalo Saloon near his Sarasota County home in 2018.
Dickey Betts performs in front of a sold-out crowd at the old White Buffalo Saloon near his Sarasota County home in 2018.

'Dickey was larger than life': Dickey Betts, Allman Brothers Band guitarist, dies at 80

‘Revival’ from ‘Idlewild South’ (1970)

Betts’ first writing credit for the Allman Brothers finds the band at its blissful best, with an ebullient melody and lyrics to match (“love is everywhere,” goes the chorus). Featuring the twin lead guitar beauty of Betts and Duane Allman, with Gregg Allman on lead vocals, “Revival” became the first Allman Brothers song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

The band rarely performed the song in concert upon its release but welcomed “Revival” back after reforming in 1990. A fine version, again featuring Gregg Allman on lead vocals and with Betts now sharing lead guitar duties with Warren Haynes, can be heard on the ’92 live album “An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: First Set.”

Betts: “I think with my dad being a fiddle player I kind of naturally liked the uplifting aspects of music. But I was in a band with Gregg Allman, who is basically a melancholy kind of writer, the beautiful melancholy that Gregg would come with. So, I’m looking at what we have here and I’m thinking how do you balance this out? I don’t want to write a song that makes you want to go hang yourself in the bathroom. So, I would really make an effort to write more up songs, to balance the band out. That kind of influenced the way I wrote.”

'Almost Famous' turns 20: Dickey Betts reveals the true Allman Brothers stories behind the cult classic

‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ from ‘At Fillmore East’ (1971)

“This song Dickey Betts wrote from our second album, ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’” Duane Allman announces on the band’s landmark live album “At Fillmore East,” before Betts starts bending his guitar strings to sound like enchanting violins.

The original studio recording of Betts’ masterful instrumental appears in a truncated form on “Idlewild South,” clocking in at just under seven minutes. This version on “At Fillmore East” clocks in at nearly twice that, and Betts would continue to explore the composition — often approaching 20 minutes, with one of his solo band’s live recordings from 1974 topping 40 minutes — throughout his career.

With the Allman Brothers, Betts reinvented the song as a more meditative jazz rendition on tour in ’73 while acting as the sole guitarist and sharing lead playing with keyboardist Chuck Leavell (captured on “Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas”). Nearly two decades later, Betts offered a delicate acoustic rendition with accompaniment by co-lead guitarist Haynes for a performance included on the 1995 live album “An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: 2nd Set.”

Betts: “Duane and I had an understanding, like an old soul kind of understanding, of let’s play together. Duane would say, ‘Man, I get so jealous of you sometimes when you burn (a guitar solo) off and I have to follow it,’ and we would joke about it. So that’s kind of Duane and mine’s relationship. It was a real understanding. Like, ‘Come on, this is a helluva band, let’s not hotdog it up’ and that was our understanding, and it was an understanding from previous years of experience. That’s kind of amateur s---, you know, when you start trying to upstage everybody? That was kind of the way the thing built momentum. And then I wrote ‘Elizabeth Reed’ and instead of Duane being jealous of it he said, ‘That is the greatest thing, man.’"

“(When composing ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’) I was thinking of Benny Goodman. I was thinking of how he used melody and then I got all these Western swing influences from my buddy Dave Liles, who passed away about four years ago. But the thing came about, see, I was dating, I was slipping around, back-dooring Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend, live-in girlfriend, they weren’t married, but (laughs). She was a beautiful Italian girl. I wrote this song and I wanted to call it ‘Carmella’ but couldn’t. So the place we would meet, in this old 1800s graveyard, Rose Hill, there was this old tombstone that said on it ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.’

"What I love about that song is if you have a bunch of top-shelf players, they can express themselves beautifully in that song, once they learn it. I don’t have a favorite version but my least favorite is the studio version that we did. It was real stock, and we cut it real short.”

‘Blue Sky’ from ‘Eat a Peach’ (1972)

The first Allman Brothers song to feature Betts on lead vocals, “Blue Sky,” is also one of the final recordings made by Duane Allman before his death in a motorcycle accident. Betts and Allman alternate on lead guitar and then share the sweet, country-influenced melody lines. Joan Baez included a version of the song on her hit 1975 album “Diamonds & Rust” and a live version by the Allman Brothers would finally be officially released as part of their ’92 live disc “An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: First Set.”

In 2003, the Allman Brothers released the outstanding retrospective live album “S.U.N.Y. at Stonybrook: Stonybrook, NY 9/19/71.” It contains an 11-minute rendition of “Blue Sky” with Betts sharing lead guitar with Duane Allman and Gregg Allman clearly heard backing Betts on vocals. Following the death of Jerry Garcia, Betts started opening “Blue Sky” with an homage to the Garcia-composed Grateful Dead song “Franklin’s Tower.”

Betts: “I guess from listening to The Dead every now and then I remembered the riff and it was a good way to set the tone for that song. The band, the drummers especially, tended to get too fast and kind of play too much like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or something. And I was trying to get that real, like, loping feeling to it, so I started doing ‘Franklin’s Tower’ in front of it to kind of set the tone for it.

“(Blue Sky) is a cool song. I wrote that for, I was married to an Indian girl whose last name was Wabegijig, which means ‘clear blue sky,’ so I was writing it for her and I was writing it as, ‘She’s my blue sky, she’s my sunny day’ (Betts sings). And I thought, nah, this would be a better song if I just sang it to the sky instead of to a woman. That was a very good move that could make or break that song. It made it more universal. If you’re a songwriter, that’s not a big jump. In fact, in ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ the original line to that was, ‘Playing my music and doing the best I can.’ Everybody doesn’t play music, but everybody works for a living.

“I sang some with (my previous band) Second Coming but I never saw myself as a singer and still don’t. I sing because it’s necessary (laughs). I asked Gregg to sing ‘Blue Sky’ and actually the producer, Tom Dowd, he said, ‘No, why don’t you sing it.’”

‘Jessica’ from ‘Brothers and Sisters’ (1973)

A positively joyful musical statement, “Jessica” is the rare instrumental to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 (at No. 65). Originally clocking in at seven minutes-plus with a four-minute single version, a brilliant 16-minute live rendition Betts worked up for the Allman Brothers’ album “An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: 2nd Set” would win a Grammy in 1996 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Another favorite of mine is the rowdy rendition with co-lead guitarist “Dangerous” Dan Toler (and his sibling David “Frankie” Toler on drums) captured on the Dickey Betts and Great Southern live album “Southern Jam: New York 1978.” It’s “Jessica” as a speeding locomotive with a “Southbound” detour in the middle. Betts has a blast with the lusty traveling man lyrics (originally penned for Gregg Allman to sing) before returning to a fabulously frantic “Jessica.”

Betts: “I was in a room like this (his den in Sarasota County), but it wasn’t as extravagantly furnished. It was a rented apartment. I had been writing for ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ and it was not clean or anything. I’m in there trying to write and Jessica, my daughter, she was like a year and a half, two years old, she comes crawling in the room and I started playing to her. And I was thinking of Django Reinhardt, and that’s the way it came out.”

‘Ramblin’ Man’ from ‘Brothers and Sisters’ (1973)

A charming country rocker with a top-shelf guitar hook and singalong chorus, “Ramblin’ Man,” from the Allman Brothers’ blockbuster 1973 “Brothers and Sisters” album, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 1 on the Cashbox Top 100 and remains the lone Allman Brothers single to crack the Top 10 on either pop chart.

Fellow Floridian Gary Stewart would record a version of “Ramblin’ Man” for his debut single in ’73, and it reached No. 63 on the country chart, paving the way for a string of much bigger hits for Stewart in the ’70s. “Ramblin’ Man” would appear on numerous live Allman Brothers and solo Betts albums over the years including The Dickey Betts Band’s 2019 release “Ramblin’ Man Live at the St. George Theatre.”

Betts: “I was going to send ‘Ramblin’ Man’ to Johnny Cash. This was when Johnny Cash was really vital in his younger days. I thought it was a great song for him. But everybody liked that song. Even my dad liked the song, before we recorded it or anything. And I’m thinking I’m going to send this to Johnny Cash and see if he wanted to do it. The producer (Johnny Sandlin) said we needed another song for the record and asked if I had anything. I said, ‘Well, I got one but I was going to send it to Nashville for Cash to record.’ He said, ‘Let’s hear it.’ And then, ‘No! we gotta do that.’

“What pissed me off, though, I still got my feathers up about it, is the producer sped it up. He didn’t think we had the tempo up enough so he sped it up, which makes my voice sound (sings ‘Lord, I was born’) you know, they speed something up, your voice goes up. But it was a hit. But it was not the way we cut it. I cut it just a little bit slower and my voice sounds more like this. I heard it and thought that doesn’t sound quite like my voice. Then I found out later they sped it up. I said, ‘You son of a b----’ (laughs). But they do that (stuff) to you.”

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Dickey Betts talks songwriting, The Allman Brothers Band hits