Dickey Betts: The Lost Allman Brother

The guitarist's bad behavior got him fired from one of rock's wildest bands. Retired in Florida, he's ready to make peace with his past

Dickey Betts in July in Sarasota, Florida. The brilliant, hard-living ex–Allman Brothers Band guitarist looks back on his struggles with the group and reflects on retirement. Credit: Bob Croslin for Rolling Stone

Leaning forward on a couch in his home on the west coast of Florida, two cans of Budweiser in front of him and Duane Allman's Dobro on a stand nearby, Dickey Betts hesitates. "I don't know if you want to write this or not," he says. "But, shit, my career is over, so I don't give a shit."

He starts talking about an incident in 1993, when Betts, along with Bob Dylan, the Band, Stephen Stills and others, had been invited to play at a Bill Clinton inauguration event. Betts' performance was shaky – the house band was so inept, he says, it could barely get through "Southbound," a song from his years with the Allman Brothers Band. Backstage, Betts recalls, he met "a real smartass in a three-piece suit" who told him, " 'You got to do some woodshedding to play with the big boys.' " Betts became enraged, slugging the guy and knocking him onto Dylan, who was napping on a couch. Betts was afraid he had hit a congressman, but it turned out he was another act's drug dealer. "It was really a relief," Betts says. "I was worried about the police comin' to arrest me."

The Allman Brothers Band were among rock's hardest-living groups, and Betts more than lived up to his side of that deal – from taking swings at two cops in 1976 to instigating an Allmans band brawl 20 years later. Trashed hotel rooms and arrests are as much a part of his legend as signature songs like "Ramblin' Man" and "Jessica." With his horseshoe mustache and moody-cowboy image, Betts was so charismatic that Cameron Crowe based one of the central characters in Almost Famous – Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup – on Betts. "Cru-dup's look, and much more, is a tribute to Dickey," Crowe says. "Dickey seemed like a quiet guy with a huge amount of soul, possible danger and playful recklessness behind his eyes. He was a huge presence."

He still is. Betts' white hair and stout frame make him look like a Confederate soldier. Hunting accessories – bows and arrows – sit near his Grammy Awards in his high-ceilinged living room, where he relaxes with his dog, Mandy. "You really got to control her – she'll play with you and then draw blood with her damn claw," Betts warns.

Betts, 73, unamicably parted ways with the Allmans in 2000; today he considers himself retired. He last played live with his band three years ago, at a 300-capacity club in Mill Valley, California. Soon after, the death of his brother sent him into a depression, and his back was bothering him so much that he worried about relying on Vicodin to get through shows: "It's a little bit of burnout, a little sour grapes, a little bit like a boxer who gives it up. It's pretty tough, to tell you the truth. Everyone wishes they could be young forever. But I feel like I did my work, and I'm not gonna do anything that's gonna top what I'm known for. So why don't you just stay home?"

For all his excesses, Betts has outlived every founding member except drummer Jaimoe. Drummer Butch Trucks committed suicide in January, and Gregg Allman succumbed to various health issues, primarily liver cancer, in May. "You don't know the fuckin' half of it," Betts says, solemnly, of recent events.

Betts gives a tour of his home, full of Allmans artifacts. Gold-album certifications for landmarks like At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach are mounted near handwritten letters from then-President Jimmy Carter, thanking Betts for helping to raise money for his 1976 presidential campaign. The mementos are reminders of Betts' vital role in the group. It was Betts who suggested that Duane recruit his younger brother, Gregg, as the band's singer; it was Betts who wrote some of the Allmans' most enduring material (from the jazzy instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" to rare later hits like "Crazy Love"). And it was Betts who assumed the leadership role after Duane died in a 1971 motorcycle accident. "Dickey had so much reverence for the Allman Brothers' music," says Warren Haynes, who joined the band in the late Eighties. "He looked at it as a sacred thing."

In 1976, the Allmans broke up, Betts telling Rolling Stone, "There is no way we can work with Gregg again. Ever." Gregg had testified in court against his drug dealer and road manager, which the bandmates saw as a betrayal. After a three-year reunion that ended in 1982, they re-formed in 1989, and Betts soon became the driving force again, especially after Allman relapsed. "I have all the respect for Gregg Allman," says Betts. "He was a leader when it came to talent. Duh! But he was never the leader-type personality." But Betts wasn't easy to work with either. Tired of dealing with his bossiness, drinking issues and unpredictability, the three other founders – Allman, Jaimoe and Trucks – wrote him a letter after a series of rocky shows in 2000, saying he was out of the band until he sobered up. "He would say, 'I need to go get myself straight,' and that's what he would do," Jaimoe says. "This time he didn't do it. He didn't get fired. He quit."

Betts disagrees, saying he was kicked out thanks to "a whole clandestine business thing" that stemmed from the moment he asked manager Bert Holman for an audit of their finances. "Big fuckin' mistake on my part," Betts says. (Holman says he has no recollection of that request.) Whatever the case, Betts was awarded an undisclosed financial settlement and his walking papers. Betts neglects to discuss that period in detail ("I don't want to say anything bad about Gregg"), but he speculates that without all the dysfunction, the Allmans might have gotten even more popular – as revered as the Grateful Dead. "After Jerry [Garcia] passed away, we were right in the position to move into that next-step thing," he says. "But everyone was fucking my band up. Gregg wanted horns. And it was just so crazy." 

It's time to head to Betts' favorite local bar, Mad Moe's. He gets in his pickup and pulls out of his gated driveway, passing a property called the Bay Preserve, a nonprofit center that hosts sports practices, weddings and other events. "They have 300 teenage kids come over there and they're arrogant as hell," Betts says. "They're driving down the road and won't get out of your way. You work your whole life to get a place like this, and they're renting!"

The Bettses have long been irked by the Bay Preserve. In March, Betts' fifth wife, Donna, whom he married in 1989, grew so outraged that she pointed a rifle at a crew team as it paddled past their house. Charged with 18 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, Donna was sentenced to 90 days of rehab and 30 days in jail. "It's a crummy situation," Betts says. The incident was the latest bump since Betts parted ways with the Allmans. Betts figured on his own he could draw 5,000 fans and make $20,000 a night. Instead, he wound up playing bars for a fifth that amount and staying in low-rent hotels. Haynes wonders if some fans might not have known Betts' role in the Allmans. "Dickey wrote a lot of key songs and all those great instrumentals," he says, "but because the band was called the Allman Brothers Band, it was confusing for people."

During their 40th-anniversary run in New York in 2009, Betts was presented with an opportunity to rejoin. Newer members Haynes and guitarist Derek Trucks had made the case he should be invited. But he felt the invitation was halfhearted – just three songs, at the last minute. "On one level, we were disappointed," says Holman. "On another, we were relieved. It was going to be a tense moment."

Betts once dubbed the later version of the Allmans "a tribute band," but is now more careful with his words. "Those guys are on the other side now," he says, referring to Butch Trucks and Allman. He dismisses rumors of bad blood with Allman, who made several less-than-flattering comments about Betts in his memoir My Cross to Bear. "That whole idea about me and Gregg not liking each other was bullshit. I liked the old fucker!"

Two years ago, Allman said he'd welcome a reunion with Betts, and the comment set off tentative plans for a joint tour. Allman's worsening health prevented it, but he was thinking about Betts to the end. Recording his final album, Southern Blood, Allman left a spot for a solo to be played by Betts. "Gregg wanted to tie up loose ends," says Don Was, who produced the LP. "[Dickey] was the last one."

Allman never got around to asking Betts to record that part, but the two did speak a few times in the weeks before Allman's death, their first conversations in 17 years. "Gregg could only whisper, but we got things worked out," Betts says. "We went through the court thing, so he thought I had it out for him. I had to let him know I didn't." Betts attended Allman's funeral; his son Duane says his father was very quiet.

Duane isn't convinced his father has retired. Dickey disagrees. He's financially secure thanks to a combination of real estate investments, licensing and a cut of Allmans merch. After Betts jovially flirts with waitresses at the bar, it's time to go home. The relentless Florida heat is pounding down. "I don't really go fuckin' outside until later on," he says. Arriving home, he steers past the gate and opens his front door. "I've had a great life and I don't have any complaints," he says. "I don't know what I would've done to make it different. There are lawsuits I probably could have dealt with better. But so what? You do the best with your amount of time."

Gregg Allman, Southern rock pioneer, fused country blues with San Francisco-style improvisation, creating a template for countless jam bands to come. Watch below.