The Allman Brothers Band: The Road Goes on Forever
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2009
They’ve suffered breakups, addiction and death. But 40 years on, the
Allman Brothers Band remain a force to be reckoned with. In this exclusive oral history, Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and others tell the story behind rock and roll’s enlightened rogues.
"The Road Goes on Forever.” Gregg Allman wrote and sang the words in “Midnight Rider,” and his Allman Brothers Band (ABB) adopted them as a motto, and for good reason: despite the death of two founding members, two breakups and an acrimonious parting with guitarist Dickey Betts, this summer the band is marking its 40th anniversary and doing so in high style. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who have now played together for nine years in the ABB, form a dynamic, explosive duo that blows away the competition. In that respect, some things in the Allman Brothers Band never change.
The road for the ABB began in 1968 when Duane Allman, a red-hot session guitarist who had made his mark recording with Otis Rush, Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin and others, headed to Jacksonville, Florida, looking to put together a band. His manager wanted a power trio—just like Cream—but Duane reportedly scoffed at the notion, saying, “I ain’t on no star trip.” It was a revealing statement, for the group that resulted from Duane’s quest for kindred musical souls was anything but ego-driven. The music of the Allman Brothers Band has revolved around group improvisation and dynamics since their self-titled 1969 debut.
Duane’s musical vision and open mind allowed him to ignore protocol and put together a completely unique hard-rocking outfit featuring two very different but complementary drummers (Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks), an inventive bassist who could hold down the bottom end while displaying melodic flair (Berry Oakley), a soulful singer and organist (brother Gregg), and another hot lead guitarist (Betts).
Betts would prove to be a monumental addition, for his participation underscored the band’s adherence to a rule of jazz: that a group needs multiple, equally powerful lead voices to truly generate sparks. Betts and Allman rewrote the rules for how two rock guitarists can work together, completely scrapping the traditional rhythm/lead roles to stand toe to toe, alternately cutting each other’s heads and joining together for marvelous flights of harmony.
[[ Longtime Guitar World writer and editor Alan Paul has published One Way Out: An Oral History of the Allman Brothers Band. The Ebook is available exclusively through Amazon Singles for $2.99. “It’s their story in their words,” Paul says. “I went through hundreds of hours of interviews, pulling out the quotes to tell the tale of this American institution.” ]]
The ABB’s instrumental majesty was grounded in the blues and in the excellent tunes penned by Gregg Allman and Betts. This combination of a unique vision, instrumental superiority and great songwriting has carried the band through four decades. The Allmans pushed on after Duane Allman’s and Berry Oakley’s tragic deaths, reunited after two breakups and, perhaps most shockingly, have performed without Betts since 2000.
What follows is the ultimate overview of the band’s career, an oral history told in the words of the people who lived it.
Duane Allman met drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson while working on sessions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Duane wanted to form his own band, and his manager, Phil Walden, suggested that he create a power trio in the spirit of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Allman targeted bassist Berry Oakley, a Chicago native who was then playing in a Florida band called Second Coming with guitarist Dickey Betts. At Duane’s invitation, Oakley came to Alabama for jam sessions.
DICKEY BETTS The band just sort of happened. It was supposed to be a three-piece with Duane, Berry and Jaimoe. Duane and Jaimoe kept coming and sitting in with Second Coming to get used to playing together, and as we started jamming, something clicked. Eventually Duane asked if I’d go with them. When Butch [Trucks] came along one day and jammed with us, it was something special. All of a sudden the trio had five pieces. We all were smart enough to see that each of us was making a contribution to the sound.
BUTCH TRUCKS I had played with Gregg and Duane before, and he called me when he came back to Jacksonville. He was jamming with lots of different people. We played, and it just worked. Jaimoe told Duane I was the guy they needed—he wanted two drummers like James Brown had—but I don’t think Duane wanted me in the band. I fit musically, but I was a bundle of insecurity, and he didn’t want that. He was such a strong person—very confident and totally sure of himself—and that’s the kind of people he wanted around him.
BETTS It says a lot that Duane’s hero was Muhammad Ali. He had Ali’s type of supreme confidence. If you weren’t involved in what he thought was the big picture, he didn’t have any time for you. A lot of people really didn’t like him for that. It’s not that he was aggressive; it was more a super-positive, straight-ahead, I’ve-got-work-to-do kind of thing. If you didn’t get it, see you later. He always seemed like he was charging ahead.