Instrumental Illness: Filling The Bass Chair for the Allman Brothers Band

Throughout the long and storied career of the Allman Brothers, fourteen musicians have joined the six original members of the band to keep the flames burning.  While much thought has been given to the five guitarists who have followed Duane Allman (Dan Toler, Warren Haynes, Jack Pearson, Derek Trucks, and Jimmy Herring), far less attention has been paid to those that have held down the bottom end through four decades of glorious Brotherhood.

In celebrating four decades of Allman joy, Honest Tune pays our respect to the men that have occupied the bass chair over the past 40 years…

Berry Oakley  (1969 to 1972) – A founding member of the band, Oakley died from head injuries he received during a motorcycle accident on November 11, 1972, only three blocks from the site of Duane’s fatal accident just one year earlier. Oakley was known for his lead-like approach to playing bass, with long, melodic bass runs that provided the perfect undertone for dual lead guitar solos for which the band is best known. 

The thundering bass heard on songs such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” were amongst his best work, helping to forge the Brothers’ early sound.  Following Duane’s death, Oakley was credited with keep the group together, and became the de facto leader of the band onstage.

Lamar Williams (1972 to 1976) – Williams joined the Brothers at the end of 1972, just after Oakley’s death, in time to finish the album Brothers and Sisters. He had previously performed with Allman drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson in a band known as Sounds of Soul before being drafted by the US Army and sent to the Vietnam War in 1968. Williams received an honorable discharge in 1970, and soon thereafter joined the Fungus Blues Band until the Allman’s called in late 1972.  Williams’ style was more traditional than Oakley’s, and helped the band reach the peak of their commercial success.

When the Brothers temporarily disbanded in 1976, Williams co-founded Sea Level, along with Jaimoe and Chuck Leavell (who had joined the Allman Brothers in 1971). Williams left Sea Level in 1980, and was diagnosised with lung cancer a year later as a result to his exposure to Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam.  He passed away less than two years later, at the age of just 34.

David Goldflies (1978 to 1982) – After taking over a year off, during which time Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts pursued solo careers, the band reformed in 1978 and released Enlightened Rouges the following year.  Upon reuniting, the band added guitarist Dan Toler (marking the first time since Duane’s passing that the Brothers featured twin guitars) and bassist David Goldflies, both of whom had been playing with Betts in his band, Great Southern. The next four years would prove to be among the least productive of the band’s career, with Jaimoe being fired in 1980 and replaced by Toler’s brother, David. The Brothers disbanded for a second time in 1982 as Gregg and Betts decided to pursue solo careers.

Allen Woody (1989 to 1997) – When the Brothers regrouped in 1989 to celebrate their 20th anniversary, it was again Betts who brought new blood to the band, this time in the form of Warren Haynes on guitar and backing vocals and Allen Woody on bass. 

Woody’s eight year run marked the longest period, to date, that anyone had survived in the Brothers’ bass chair.  The period was unquestionable a second creative peak for the band as Woody’s thundering bass lines, reminiscent of early era Oakley, combined with Haynes’ and Betts’ dueling guitars to fuel live performances the likes of which the band’s fans had not seen in well over a decade. Listen to the opening notes of any “Whipping Post” from 1991, and it is easy to hear just how extraordinary the Brothers became during the time Woody spent in the band. 

Woody departed, along with Haynes, in 1997 to devote more time to Gov’t Mule, a behind they had formed playing on the bus while traveling the roads together during Allman Brothers tours.  Allen Woody passed away in August, 2000. 

Oteil Burbridge (1997 to Present) – Oteil was introduced to drummer Butch Trucks by Jimmy Herring early in 1997. At the time, Trucks was putting together a band, Frogwings, to tour while the Brothers were not on the road.  No one envisioned Woody resigning from the Brothers a few short months later, once again leaving the band with a hole in their bass seat. 

Since joining the band 12 years ago, making him the bass player with the longest tenure in the history of the band, Oteil has contributed to the evolution of the band, adding funk and jazz flavors to the Brothers’ deep rooted blues sound.  His presence has pushed the other members to excel in a way few bassists could, leading the band to a third creative peak that seemed unlikely when Haynes and Woody departed.  Always willing to explore new territory, Oteil’s improvisational nature helps the band to always sound fresh, mixing up their set list more than any other time in their history.

 

In honor of all those that have come and gone, and to those that still remain, Honest Tune proudly shares some of our favorite Allman memories.  The following Friend Named Fred column first appeared in the summer of 2004 edition of Honest Tune (Volume 5, Number 3), as this writer shared his thoughts on most irreplaceable Allman of them all.

FRIEND NAMED FRED – MISSIN’ WOODY 

During my many years as the town’s head music critic, the only advice my editor at the Athens Banner Herald ever gave me was, "Don’t write in the first person." While I have always tried to adhere to those words, the views expressed herein are deeply heartfelt, and come from years of attentive reflection upon this music scene that I have followed so passionately.  Given that, these thoughts could only be expressed from a personal perspective.

During the early 1990’s, a musical renaissance was upon us.  As young "jam bands" such as Widespread Panic and Phish, were cutting their teeth, touring relentlessly to earn their places in history, the Allman Brothers Band were enjoying a long-awaited second creative peak, thanks in large part to the influx of two new "Brothers" – Allen Woody and Warren Haynes.  At the time, Panic was the band that earned my loyalties, and was closest to my heart.  Yet, every time I would go see an Allman show, I left knowing that I had just seen the world’s best live band. 

For me, the Allman experience changed drastically on September 27, 1997 at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I went, curious to hear how my old friend Oteil Burbridge would fair as the newest Brother, and wound up leaving before the show was over.  Not only were Warren and Woody long gone, having left the band in March to concentrate full-time on Gov’t Mule, but Dickey Betts was a no show, replaced for the evening by Jack Pearson, and the show fell severely below expectations.  

Before I proceed, I should add that Oteil is not only one of my favorite bass players, I also think he is one of the top all around musicians on the planet. That said, there is flat out no way that he can ever bring it to an Allman Brothers show like Woody did. Not just Oteil, but no one seems capable of filling the void left when that beast of a bass player departed.  His bass was deep, it was heavy, and it filled the bottom end the way it was meant to be filled – a mean and wicked sound that resonated from within the soul in a way only Woody could play. 

As I sat in the Beacon Theater on March 20, my first experience of the Allman’s traditional March Madness run, I was thrilled to see Warren pushing the band to yet another creative peak.  The experience of watching as he and Derek Trucks traded leads was nothing short of delightful.  As the performance unfolded, a thought that had been brewing in mind suddenly became crystal clear. 

It would seem a forgone conclusion that most fans would cite the dearly departed Duane Allman as the most missed Allman.  With no disrespect towards Duane, or anyone else intended, the Allman Brothers Band that toured from 1989 to early 1997 were, for my money, not only the best collection of Brothers ever, they were the best band alive.  Watching the latest rendition of Brothers surge once again, I came to the realization that, from my perspective, Allen Woody was the most irreplaceable member the band has ever lost.  In fact, his loss seemingly took more from the Allman’s than it did from Mule, who have soldiered valiantly on, to the point that they have actually become a much better band than they were during their earlier years with Woody. 

True, it did take nearly 18 years to replace Duane, but Warren Haynes eventually came along, and few would argue that he filled the void unlike anyone who had previously attempted to replace dear Duane.  In addition, would anyone really argue that Derek, a second generation Allman by birth, has quickly proved up to the task of replacing the legendary Dickey Betts?  Derek may not sing, but, as usual, there is Warren to fill the gap, keeping the band churning right along. 

Back to the Beacon, where the latest version of this American institution is suddenly mixing up their set lists more than any time in their career. As the first set is coming to a close, the band begins to play "No One To Run With," and there he is – larger than life – Allen Woody, being shown on the screen behind the stage.  Interestingly enough, Duane also made an appearance during this video clip, but was given far less time on the screen, and received but a fraction of the crowd reaction that Woody received.  

A deafening roar exploded from the crowd when Woody first appeared. Warren turned to look at the screen, only to see his old friend.  He then turned back to the crowd, with a huge expression of joy on his face for the reception that had been given to his pal.  For a brief moment, the slow happy boys were back on stage together, and Warren couldn’t have looked any happier.  And neither could I.  It was an emotional moment, for this fan and, seemingly, for the band as well.  

As the video ended, Woody still on the screen, I was left with one last thought – God bless Allen Woody! We miss you brother…

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