The third installment of the new GuitarSong series profiles Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers Band’s iconic and genre-defining instrumental Jessica from the 1973 album, Brothers and Sisters. This was the album where Dickey really stepped up to drive the ABB to new heights of success with this tune and the smash hit Rambling Man. But he had been a great guitarist and creative force in the band from the very beginning and, of course would continue on as a Brother until (almost) the official end of the band. The ABB were easily one of America’s best bands and the whole package: the playing, the tunes, the drink, the drugs and the highs and lows are so much a part of the story. They lived every song they ever created.
The Allman Brothers Band were one of the most original and promising new bands to emerge from the late 1960s. A talented band of 7 road warriors they fused elements of blues, jazz, swing and rock and roll to create a whole new sound and style. Not only are they usually credited with inventing Southern Rock, they also (along with the Grateful Dead) were the prototype for every jam band that has existed since the early 1970s. The band was successful and flying high when tragedy brought down both Duane Allman and stellar bassist Berry Oakley in the space of a little over a year. By the end of 1972 the band was desperate to get back to work and prove that they could carry on in the face of this loss. The Brothers and Sisters album would be a commercial and critical triumph and would launch the band to fame and fortune. During the recording of this album Forrest Richard (Dickey) Betts, the second guitarist in the band, picked up the reins and became the new leader of the group. Duane was gone and Greg was not in great shape at the time. Dickie was not only a great picker, but he had also already contributed tunes that became early ABB standards: Revival, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Blue Sky, and Les Brers in A Minor. He wrote four of the seven songs from the album and in the process, expanded the sound and direction of the band.
What made the Allman Brothers different is that they were not a straight ahead rock and roll band, nor were they strictly blues-based players. Duane had mentioned the influence of Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue was on the instrumental vision of his soloing and the band’s aesthetic. Dickey was a fan of country, western swing and jazz legend Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s love of diminished arpeggios seem to influence Betts’ composition “Elizabeth Reed” and Jessica was written as a bonafide homage to Django; a song that could be played with two fingers. The bouncy, jazzy A-major melody was also influenced by Betts’ young daughter, Jessica, who was crawling around the floor as Betts was trying to write the melody. There was some help from guitarist Les Dudek and other members of the band, including new keyboard player Chuck Leavell on banging a bridge and the rest of the structure of the song into shape and later this would be a bone of contention among the principals as far as songwriting credits go, but it is undeniable that the source and vision of this 7 and a half minute piece of goodness was Dickey Betts. His contributions to the Brothers and Sisters album cover all bases in hot guitar playing; blazing country rock (Ramblin’ Man), stinging slide guitar (Wasted Words), the soulful bluesy guitar (Come and Go Blues, Jelly, Jelly) rock and roll (Southbound) and delicate dobro (Pony Boy). Jessica, however, was the album’s centerpiece, not only in terms of execution, but also the sophistication of the construction, something Dickey related to … architecture!
“The instrumentals are very studied,” says Betts. “It’s called architecture, and for a good reason. It’s much like somebody designing a building. It’s meticulously constructed, and every aspect has its place. Writing a good one is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody. My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love.”
— Dickey Betts
The song has the structure of a jazz standard; after an intro kicked off by Les Dudek on acoustic guitar, the melody line is stated by Dickey with Chuck Leavell playing the top harmony line of a Fender Rhodes piano and Gregg Allman playing the bottom harmony on Hammond organ. After two “A” parts the song navigates to the harmonized bridge “B” and then back to the third “A” before the solos start. This is a common AABA jazz standard structure. The harmony chords are a simple A-D-G vamp style for the main theme and modulate to G for the bridge. The harmony is the same for the keyboard solo and then, after an ascending line modulate to the key of D for Dickey’s solo. The band returns to the bridge after the intense harmonized descending lines that end his solo and then does the theme again before the song ends. The feel of the song is bouncy and rollicking and the almost bagpipe nature of the guitar solo gives it an element of a pagan Celtic dance. Speaking of which, here’s a interview with Dickey where he talks about many things, including “the pipes”. It’s interesting how he believes that “you can trace country or American music back to the bagpipes” because there are is a lot of that sound in his playing, especially in country type songs like Ramblin’ Man and Jessica. Dickey’s clean, lyrical guitar with the easy vibrato and ringing against another string bending results in a sound that approximates the sound of pipes, or the reel of a violin when he’s playing those major hexatonic fiddle-type lines. Interesting viewpoint especially since the original inspiration for this song, Django Reinhardt, played for many years with the great violinist/fiddler Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt and Grappelli were a huge influence on American Western Swing bands and Dickey is also a fan of that music.
There are many links to lessons on how to play Jessica, including one with Dickey himself here. Also, here, here, here and here. For people who prefer to read tab, try songsterr. The tabs there seem pretty accurate and having a midi player track through all of the changes as they happen can help you work through the song accurately. If you’re a member I think you can slow down the tempo.
Here is a good primer of Dickey’s style complete with review of some of his pentatonic and hexatonic patterns courtesy of Guitar World.
Here is the video companion to the above Guitar World lesson with Andy Aledort.
Here’s a great primer on getting that Dickey guitar tone.
Here’s an interesting discussion with Dickey on his 1961 SG.
There are many great ABB concerts on YouTube, including this one from 1979. This was an interesting period for the band. I always like the late Dan Toler’s playing and he is here along with the legendary Bonnie Bramlett and a guest appearance by John Belushi. Dickey and the band are on fire at this show!
Late last winter, on one of the first days that spring weather beckoned, I made my way to the local park. It was late morning and as I sat on a bench sipping a beverage in the 40 degree temps a guy on a bike with a huge boombox rolled up to an opposite bench. A couple minutes later the first strains of Jessica were heard and the volume was then cranked. The change that came over the park and everyone there was magical. The song has the power to turn any location into one of those groovy, warm and beautiful mega-festivals from so many years ago. I felt like I had ingested magic mushrooms and almost wished I had some at that moment. The song had turned me into one of the many sunbeams now glowing over neighborhood in the first days of Spring. Even though I have heard the song literally five hundred times I heard it for the first time again that day. That a forty year old rock song would have the power to put young, old, rich, poor, drunk and Sunday sober people into a instantaneous good mood is pretty amazing and a testament to the power of music and of an absolutely stellar guitar tune.