RIP Richard Betts (1943-2024)

19th April 2024 · 1970s, 1971, Music, R.I.P.

In my early teens I was a big fan of The Allman Brothers’ 1971 live album At Fillmore East. And this 13-minute instrumental was my favourite track.

With hindsight, it’s probably one of the first songs to introduce me to the possibilities of the electric guitar – or in this case guitars, as it showcases two virtuosos at work in tandem.

Duane Allman, who died soon after this was recorded in 1971, and Dickey Betts, who died yesterday – 53 years later – were among the first musicians to use melodic guitar interplay (along with Wishbone Ash in the UK), playing in harmony and counterpoint rather than rhythm and lead.

Probably because of his premature death in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24, Duane Allman’s legend swiftly grew to the point where many of my schoolfriends regarded him as the greatest guitarist of them all (at a point where Clapton was widely regarded as God and Hendrix pretty much universally agreed to be even better; not to mention the likes of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin).

This was unfair on Richard ‘Dickey’ Betts, the Allmans’ other guitarist, whose skill was every bit as great as his bandmate’s, but who tended to become sidelined in rock history simply by dint of being still alive.

In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed was one of his first compositions for the band, and the first of his signature instrumentals, one of which – Jessica – would later become their best known song.

Betts plays the ethereal violin-like volume swells from which the main theme emerges at the start of the song, and the first solo prior to Gregg Allman’s organ solo.

He wrote it about the girlfriend of fellow musician Boz Scaggs though the name ‘Elizabeth Reed’ was taken from a headstone in Rose Hill Cemetery in the band’s hometown of Macon, Georgia, where Duane, Gregg, drummer Butch Trucks and bassist Berry Oakley (who died in a motorcycle crash a year after Duane, just three blocks away) would be laid to rest.

If you had to define the difference between the two guitarists, Betts’s playing had more of a country influence – he had grown up on Western swing and bluegrass – while Allman’s was rooted in jazz, with influences of Miles Davis and John Coltrane audible in his later contributions to the song.

RIP Dickey Betts (1943-2024)