Berry Oakley Jr: Further On Down The Road

In the Allman Betts Band, Berry Oakley Jr. Honors and Extends His Father’s Legacy

Berry Oakley Jr: Further On Down The Road

In the Allman Betts Band, Berry Oakley Jr. Honors and Extends His Father’s Legacy

In the January/February 1993 issue of Bass Player, when I was the magazine’s editor, we published an article titled “In Memory of Berry Oakley,” written by Ray Conrow. Oakley, the original bassist of the Allman Brothers Band, had died just over twenty years earlier, on November 11, 1972, in a motorcycle accident eerily similar to the one that had killed guitarist Duane Allman a year before. At the end of the article, Allen Woody, who was then the bassist in the Allman Brothers Band, praised 20-year-old Berry Oakley Jr., saying, “He’s a great, together kid who looks and plays like his dad.”

Twenty-seven years later, Berry Jr. is the bassist in the Allman Betts Band, which features two other sons of original Allman Brothers Band members: Devon Allman, son of Gregg Allman, and Duane Betts, son of Dickey Betts. Founded in 2018, the seven-piece ensemble released their second album, Bless Your Heart (BMG), in August. Praising the album, Wade Tatangelo of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote, “Music lovers seeking a fresh fix of genuine rock and roll will be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying release in 2020 than the Allman Betts Band’s double-album Bless Your Heart. The follow-up to their impressive 2019 debut Down to the River, it’s rock music steeped in Americana—a heady mix of rock, blues, country, folk, vintage R&B, a touch of jazz, and a whole lot of soul—goosed with a smart, modern sensibility.”

While his father died before he was born, Berry Jr. is proud to carry on the family tradition of strong, solid bass playing. (Note: While he is usually called “Berry Jr.,” that name is not technically correct. His father’s full name was Raymond Berry Oakley III and his full name is Berry Duane Oakley.) The younger Oakley grew up in Los Angeles, where his mother, Julia, married Chuck Negron, the lead singer of Three Dog Night. His godfather is Robby Krieger, the guitarist for the Doors. Berry says he didn’t know much about his father while he was growing up. “When I was 11 or 12, my mom sat me down and filled me in on my history,” he says. “Robby was a big fan of the Allman Brothers, so he had mentioned it, but I was too young to understand it. It wasn’t until later that I started to grasp it.”

Early on, Berry’s interest in music was piqued by listening to the Beatles. “When I was eight or nine, I had a handheld cassette player, and I listened to one of those greatest-hits collections, the one with the blue cover [The Beatles/1967–1970]. I remember hearing those Paul McCartney bass lines. They just grabbed me.” Berry started playing when he was a student at Hollywood High. “When I was 16, I got a hundred-dollar Phantom bass. I bought it on the Sunset Strip, at a little shop there. I also got a Hohner Strat and a Casio keyboard and bounced among the three of them. But I gravitated toward the bass. It just made the most sense to me—go figure.”

Before long, Berry was playing bass in bands, including one led by his godfather. In 1991, he joined Bloodline, a sort-of legacy super-group that also included Waylon Krieger, Robby’s son, and Erin Davis, Miles Davis’s son, as well as guitar phenom Joe Bonamassa. They cut one album and toured extensively before breaking up over creative differences. After that, Berry teamed with Duane Betts for the first time in the Oakley Krieger Band—but he had met Dickey’s son years before. “I got to know Duane when I was growing up in California,” he says. “His mother, Paulette, was living at Cher’s house. She is, to this day, Cher’s personal assistant. Back then, I used to go over to the house and babysit Duane and [Cher and Gregg Allman’s son] Elijah Blue, when Paulette and Cher would go out for the day.”

More bands followed, including Backbone69, again with Duane Betts; CNB, with his stepfather; and Butch Trucks & the Freight Train Band, where Berry worked with—and learned from—one of the original Allman Brothers Band drummers. Along the way, Berry honed the chops that prepared him for his current spot with Devon Allman and Duane Betts, along with slide guitarist Johnny Stachela, keyboardist John Ginty, drummer John Lum, and percussionist R. Scott Bryan in the Allman Betts Band.

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Berry and Devon Allman performing live.

Allman, Betts, and Oakley first got together during an Allman Brothers Band tour. “That was in ’89, when the Allman Brothers brought all the families out on the road,” says Berry. “That’s when we connected.” After that, while pursuing different projects, they stayed in touch. “We were all doing things on our own,” says Berry. “I think this is the fourth band Duane and I have worked together in, so we had a history of playing with each other. Devon, over the last ten or so years, was working hard on making his own name, and we were always crossing paths. When he started the Devon Allman Project, he brought Duane out as his opener, and Duane would sit in with him. I’d come out and hang, and then I started sitting in with them. Devon finally pulled the trigger. He said, ‘We should give this a shot. Why don’t we get together as a band—see how we write together and play together, how we work together.’ So we did that and everything blended really well. It was probably good that we didn’t do it any earlier. We had to find our own voices before trying to jump into a project together. I’d been through that before, with Bloodline, where we were all just too young. It was good for us to wait for the right time.”

The band started off fast, going right into Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to cut Down to the River (BMG), produced by Matt Ross-Spang, which was released in June 2019. “That was the first time we played together, making the album,” says Berry. “It was an interesting experience, because we all came in cold. We just went at it, and it came out great.” On most of the songs, Berry sticks to strong, simple lines, more like Duck Dunn—whom he cites as an important influence—than his father. “I’ve always been a fan of down-home, rootsy bass lines, and when this band came about, as big as it is—seven pieces, with three guitars—I was like, OK, I’ve got to find the right space. It’s a real test of your bass playing. You want to throw in a lot of licks or double it up, but if it doesn’t work for the song, so what if I can do that. I need to just lay it down and be in the pocket.” That said, there are flashes of his father’s melodic playing in several tunes on the first album, including “Autumn Breeze” and “Long Gone”—signs of things to come.

With their debut album done, the Allman Betts Band hit the road. Their strength as an ensemble grew as they toured, something that’s evident on the second album, which came together quickly. “We knew the tunes,” says Berry. “It was more comfortable and easy for us to just flow. Getting that many songs done in that short of time—it’s unheard of. I think we did it in a week and a half.” Once again, the band cut the album at Muscle Shoals Sound with Ross-Spang as the producer. “That room is just magical. You walk in there and you feel the good energy and the history. Then it starts hitting you, all the people who’ve been there, all the hits that were recorded there. And David Hood came and hung out while we were recording, so that was really cool for me. A big inspiration.”

Oakley cut most of the album using his ’66 Fender Jazz Bass. “That’s my baby,” he says. “I’ve had it since ’91 and played it in just about every band I’ve been in.” He plugged into a Markbass Little Mark Tube 800 head driving a Fender Rumble 410 cabinet and also ran direct. “I also had David Hood’s old Fender rig with a 2×12 cabinet,” he adds, “and on some tunes I used my father’s ’65 Jazz Bass. I tweaked the tones for different songs and went between fingers and pick, depending on what sounded right.” For strings, Berry favors a standard Rotosound roundwound set, .045–.105. “On the ’66, I haven’t changed the strings in maybe seven years. I clean them off, but I just like it when the strings get nice and broken in. I know that a lot of bass players like that sharp, trebly sound. That’s not so much for me—I’ve always been more of a low-end kind of guy. So the deader the strings the better.” Berry cites John Paul Jones as a key influence on his sound: “a Jazz Bass guy with that big, rumbly sound. He’s probably one of my biggest idols.”

While he didn’t use it on the new album, Berry still owns his father’s modified Jazz Bass, dubbed “The Tractor” by Allman Brothers’ roadie Joe Dan Petty. Berry says his father was inspired to modify his stock Jazz Bass after talking with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and seeing some of his modified basses. “So he just went home and ripped apart his ’62 Jazz Bass. The neck is actually from a ’65 Jazz Bass. He took the neck pickup and placed it behind the bridge pickup, and he put in a Bisonic pickup from a Guild Starfire where the bridge pickup had been. There’s no switch; it’s the controls for the Jazz Bass with an added volume and tone for the Bisonic. It’s weird, but if you blend everything it gives it those wild tones that are unmistakable.”

Berry says that the Fender Custom Shop made him a replica of The Tractor in 2000 and chuckles as he remembers the experience: “They were scratching their heads on how to put the electronics together. They kept calling me back—‘We need to see it again. We’re not sure how this works.’” Although that project was a one-off, Berry says he’s recently had more discussions with Fender about making a commercially available Tractor.

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On Bless Your Heart, Oakley’s playing sounds a lot freer and more open than on the first album—you can hear him taking more chances and driving the band harder. “The guys really pushed me,” he says. “They said, ‘You can do some more stuff. It’s all right.’ And I’m, ‘You sure? I don’t want to play all over the songs.’ In this band, everybody looks out for each other and listens to each other. All of our egos are in check. It’s a beautiful thing.”

One of Oakley’s strongest performances is on “Magnolia Road,” which was released as a single before the album came out. “On that song, I was playing it really basic and simple,” says Berry, “and Duane Betts kept saying, ‘Man, go for it. Do that Berry Oakley–Phil Lesh thing. Go!’” The tune, written by singer-songwriter Stoll Vaughan, is a fluid rocker that evokes The Band as well as the Allman Brothers Band. Its solid groove is driven right from the start by Oakley’s flowing, melodic playing, as Allman and Betts share the lead vocals and Stachela wails on slide guitar.

Another standout is the 12-minute Duane Betts instrumental, “Savannah’s Dream,” which extends the tradition of such great Allman Brothers instrumentals as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica,” both written by Duane’s father. On the tune, Oakley sometimes plays in unison with the harmony guitars and in other places in counterpoint to their lines. “Duane and Johnny Stachela were working on it for months,” says Berry. “It’s like science. When they sat the rest of us down and started showing it to us, I’m scratching my head. How do I approach this? I’ve got to find something cool that doesn’t take away from all the guitar stuff. Duane would lead me a little bit—‘Hey, it would be cool if you did this here’—but he pretty much left me to my own devices. He said, ‘If you hear it, go for it. If I don’t say anything, then don’t worry.’” In the ninth minute of the tune, the spotlight is on Oakley, who soars into the upper register with probing runs and thunderous chords that drive the piece toward its conclusion. (“I’m going to have to listen to that again to remember what I did,” he says.)

The album features one Oakley original, “The Doctor’s Daughter,” on which he sings the lead vocal and plays piano. (Devon Allman handles the bass.) “I wrote that song about ten or so years ago,” says Berry. “Growing up in Los Angeles, I was close friends with Mac Rebennack’s three daughters—Dr. John. They lived in LA with their mother. I was really close with one in particular; she was like a sister to me. Unfortunately, she passed away, so I wanted to write a song for her. That’s where that song comes from.”

The band’s key strength, enhanced by Oakley’s approach, is its ability to improvise collectively within the framework of the songs. “I’m trying to keep that tradition of the improv,” says Berry. “One of my favorite things to do in the live show is that I have a look that I’ll give to Duane or Johnny when they’re soloing, and they’ll know that I’m about to start chasing them. I’ll start running along with them.”

It’s not surprising, given their heritage, that the Allman Betts Band has taken an improvisational approach. To their credit, they have found a way to both honor and extend the tradition of the Allman Brothers Band—something they made explicit in a TV performance on CBS Saturday Morning, where they played both “Magnolia Road” and the Allman Brothers’ favorite “Midnight Rider.” In concert, they play other Allman Brothers songs, including the blues classic “Trouble No More,” which Oakley sings. “I took the helm in bringing that in,” says Berry. “It’s an homage to our fathers. The interesting history there is that it was the first song that the Allman Brothers Band learned when Gregg finally joined the band, once Duane got him out from California.”

One of the band’s other strengths, it should be noted, is their sense of humor. You can see this in the title of the new album, as saying “bless your heart” to a Southerner can either be an expression of sympathy or, in a different context with a different tone of voice, a way of saying “you’re full of it.” Their music video for “Magnolia Road” is an animated short, with good-natured caricatures of all the band members performing the tune. They also get off a humorous tribute in the country-ish song “Much Obliged,” where Devon Allman’s vocal sounds more than a little like Johnny Cash. And then there’s the outrageous rocker “Airboats & Cocaine,” with its tongue-in-cheek commentary on lives not well-lived. “Oh, I remember when they first brought that to me,” says Berry. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding … no, wait, I think it’s cool … no, you’re kidding.’ It took me awhile, but you know what I think? It’s like ‘Brown Sugar.’”

The pandemic has thrown the Allman Betts Band for a loop, just as it has for thousands of other musicians who rely on playing live shows. “The record just got released and usually we’d be out touring like mad behind it,” says Berry. “Being a family man, the upside is I’ve had a lot of time at home with the kids. The downside is I’m not working and the bills are still coming in, so that’s a little stressful. And not being able to play with the band—I can work on my chops, but when you’re not playing with people, it’s a different vibe. You need to be with people to get that energy. What we’re trying to do is, every month at least get a live stream out, and we’re going to do a couple drive-in concerts. That’s the plan until we can get back on the bus and hit it again.” –BM

Jim Roberts   By: Jim Roberts

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