Berry Duane Oakley is the talented bassist for The Allman Betts Band, a group which plays an eclectic mix of rock, blues, country, folk, vintage R&B, jazz, and soul. Of the seven musicians who comprise the ensemble, three are the sons of original members of The Allman Brothers Band. Devon Allman is the son of vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Allman, Duane Betts is the son of guitarist Dickey Betts, and Berry Duane Oakley is the son of The Allman Brothers’ bassist Berry Oakley. In addition, Oakley’s stepdad is singer Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night fame.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Oakley and asked him about his musical childhood, the various groups he’s been a member of, his thoughts on being a part of The Allman Betts Band, and the ensemble’s brand-new album, Bless Your Heart.
Spotlight Central: We understand you grew up in Los Angeles and that you didn’t get serious about music until your teenage years. You’ve said, however, that at the age of eight or nine, you loved listening to The Beatles and especially enjoyed listening to Paul McCartney’s bass lines?
Berry Duane Oakley: Oh, yeah, definitely. Paul was probably one of my earliest influences, without a doubt.
Spotlight Central: With regards to your youth, you’ve called yourself “your basic pain-in-the ass-kid.” What did you mean by that?
Berry Duane Oakley: [Laughs] You know, it was just a sign of the times, growing up. I was born in the ’70s, so in my younger years — the late ’80s and the early ’90s, my teen years — that was before everyone was on cell phones and devices and all that. So we were still a generation that was outside causing trouble, so to speak — you know, nothing out of the ordinary — just being gone all the time, running around the neighborhood.
Spotlight Central: Is it true you sometimes caused havoc on your skateboard?
Berry Duane Oakley: Yeah, I grew up right near Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip, so when I was younger, I used to love flying down Hollywood Boulevard — [laughs] “taking out” the tourists, and stuff.
Spotlight Central: Around the age of 16 or 17, you gathered together a nice little collection of musical instruments including a Phantom bass, a Hohner Strat guitar, and a Casio keyboard. You played all three, but ultimately gravitated toward the bass. Why was that?
Berry Duane Oakley: I was self taught, so once I got the instruments, and got the bug in my ear, I just started messing with all of them and the bass just seemed to make the most sense to me. I could really pick it apart a lot more easily and understand what was going on, so it was easier for me to gravitate toward it, learning styles, and songs, and things I wanted to do at the time.
Spotlight Central: You’ve said you always knew about your dad and his legacy with The Allman Brothers, but you’ve acknowledged that, maybe, when you were young, you didn’t “quite get it” at first. Eventually, though, you realized the impact he had on the music community. Was there any specific event that precipitated that, or was it more of a cumulative effect of just learning more about your dad’s music and the effect it had on others?
Berry Duane Oakley: I guess it was more about just maturing with age. When you’re young, you don’t tend to pay attention to things that are important with regards to your own roots and history. As I was getting older and discovering music — like, really discovering it — the pieces all started to make sense to me; kind of like, “Oh, I get it!” And, definitely, once I first really heard the music, like Live at the Fillmore East and Eat a Peach and all that, it definitely caught me, like, “Woah, wait a minute. This is something really different.”
Spotlight Central: We understand your dad became one of your main influences as a bass player, but so did some other bassists including The Funk Brothers’ James Jamerson, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Stax session bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. What was it about these players that appealed to you?
Berry Duane Oakley: Just the — I wouldn’t say the intensity of the bass — but just the fact that the bass was more a part of the band and a part of the music, where it wasn’t in the background, or just something to help keep the songs together. Those particular players, they just really stand out: if you put it in a line, they’re just right up there with the guitar player, drummer, and song. Especially back in the ’80s and whatnot, most bass players just kind of laid in the back and held things down, but those guys definitely made a name for themselves with unique bass lines that really caught your ear and attention. So just the fact that they weren’t squashed behind the rest of the band — they were where I could really hear them and understand and feel them — definitely helped a lot.
Spotlight Central: You met Duane Betts in 1988 and Devon Allman in 1989 when The Allman Brothers brought their families out on the road for the Dreams tour. Did you guys ever get to play together at the time or play together with the members of the Allman Brothers Band?
Berry Duane Oakley: In ’89 when we all went on the road, we all kind of slowly — I think, except for Duane, who was still quite young at the time — got to play with the band. I, pretty much, was invited to sit in every night. Gosh, probably starting about the third or fourth show once we started hitting the road, Dickey Betts just pulled me aside and invited me up to play. He taught me “Southbound” on the spot and before you know it, I was getting up and playing “Southbound,” or “Statesboro Blues,” and songs like that.
And along the line, the same thing happened with Gregg and Devon where Gregg invited Devon to get up and start performing a song or two each night. So, yeah, it was an interesting kind of evolution through the ’89 tour. It was really interesting, and definitely a big shock!
Spotlight Central: Altogether, over the past 30 years, you’ve played in several bands with Duane including The Oakley Kreiger Band and Backbone 69, but in 1991, you started touring with Robby Krieger, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist with The Doors. How did that come about?
Berry Duane Oakley: Robby is actually my godfather. Since I was a small child, I grew up with Waylon Krieger, Robby’s son, where we’d spend a lot of time together. I’d spend tons of time over at Robby’s house — his great house up there in the Beverly Hills area — and as Waylon and I got older, Robby was always very open with us. He had guitars and instruments and stuff all around, and he’d always just let us noodle and play with them. As we got older and matured, he really wanted to help, kind of, show us the way, so to speak. So I guess it was a case where, probably after hearing us for so many years noodling, he figured, “OK, enough. You guys need to work on a few things.”
Spotlight Central: And isn’t it true that while working with Robby Kreiger, he got you into singing lead vocals, as well?
Berry Duane Oakley: It kind of happened by accident when I got in his band. Obviously, growing up around Robby, I was always a big fan of The Doors. When I first joined the band and started learning the songs and playing them, Robby was doing a lot of the singing. God bless his heart, but he has more of a Bob Dylan kind of vibe when he sings. So, I mean, there’s a song that they do that he actually sings, “Runnin’ Blue” and [imitates Bob Dylan] “You know, he’s kinda got this kinda thing goin’ on.”
So it just didn’t make sense for him to sing songs like “Moonlight Drive,” and “Unknown Soldier,” and stuff like that. Robby had heard me sing before doing blues stuff and all that, and he just kind of slowly, throughout my time with him, would say, “Why don’t you learn this song and you sing it, and I’ll sing that one?” So it was interesting — about six months in, I was singing about half the set, if not more.
Spotlight Central: That’s pretty cool!
Berry Duane Oakley: It was really cool, yeah. He never pushed me or made it difficult. It was him just kind of like going, “Why don’t you figure it out and we’ll see how it goes?”
Spotlight Central: You mentioned being friends with Robby’s son, Waylon Krieger. You were in a band with him called Bloodline, along with Erin Davis, the son of Miles Davis, and guitarist Joe Bonnamassa.
Berry Duane Oakley: That kind of came from me playing with Robby Krieger, too, which is interesting.
Spotlight Central: Yeah. Bloodline had a Top 40 single, and — you mentioned Bob Dylan — even opened for artists like Dylan. What was that experience like?
Berry Duane Oakley: Yeah, we opened for Bob Dylan. We opened for ZZ Top. We did a three-and-a-half month tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tesla. So, yeah, we were hittin’ it pretty hard. We did Conan O’Brien and Good Morning America, too, so things were really happening.
Spotlight Central: After that, you were the bassist and vocalist with Blue Floyd — a group founded by Alan Woody of Gov’t Mule — but then you toured for 11 years with your stepdad, Chuck Negron. How was it working with him and playing all of those great Three Dog Night songs he’s so well known for?
Berry Duane Oakley: It was fun — a lot of fun! First off, he had a really professional, stellar band of players. Each one of the guys was just insane in his own right. They were all very credible studio players and known all around, and I was the youngest guy in the band. It was a lot different than Robby’s band. It was a lot more — I’m not sure what the word is — I guess, organized. We really had to work on the material, and with so many vocals required, I was singing a lot with the band, because the Three Dog Night stuff always has at least three or four harmonies going on.
But it was great. In a way, it was like being in rock and roll college; it was like “All right, now you’ve got to really learn this stuff and study!” [Laughs] We used to tease and call ourselves One Dog Night. We worked so hard on playing the songs just like the records; we really, really worked hard at that. So, yeah, it was a great experience, especially because of all of the guys in the band. Again, I was the young guy who really didn’t have the experience the rest of them had, but they were all just right there to help me along with anything I didn’t understand.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of you being a young guy, for a young musician, you’ve really done a lot! In 2015, you were a founding member of Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band, where you played bass with The Allman Brothers Band’s legendary drummer, Butch Trucks. What was it like working with him, a guy about whom you once said you really learned about the importance of the bass player “locking in” with the drummer?
Berry Duane Oakley: Up until that point, I’d been really blessed to work with a lot of killer drummers — I mean, Matt Abst of Blue Floyd, and so on and so forth. But then when Butch approached me to start that band, he really wanted to go back to the early, early days of the ’69-’70 Allman Brothers vibe — the loose blues and the songs. As a bass player, things kind of fast-forwarded from my childhood. It put all of the pieces together getting to play those songs with the drummer who did them. Just like when I was playing with Robby or Chuck Negron, you can’t deny those are the guys who did the songs — they’re not covering the songs, they’re the ones who did them — so they know how they go.
Playing with Butch really added the final piece of the puzzle, as far as my father’s style goes, and how to approach the songs he played on. It all made perfect sense when I played them with Butch vs. all of the other drummers in bands I’d played “Elizabeth Reed,” or “Whipping Post,” or “Statesboro Blues,” or what-have-you with. Because once I played them with Butch, it was like “Ah!” The light flicked on and I was like, “Oh! I get it now! That’s why my dad played it this way. It’s because he had a drummer like Butch!” [Laughs] It was all Butch’s fault!
Spotlight Central: So that was like rock and roll graduate school for you, then?
Berry Duane Oakley: Yeah, right, exactly! It was kind of like, “Yeah, now you get to put all the pieces together.”
Spotlight Central: We were very surprised to learn that The Allman Betts Band was founded in 2018, because we saw you play live around that time, and you came across like a totally established group. It’s a pretty large ensemble — seven-pieces including two percussionists, three guitars, a keyboard, plus you as the bass player — to the point where you’ve even said that when you’re playing with the group, you have to “pick your battles.” What did you mean by that?
Berry Duane Oakley: Yeah, in a bigger band like this, you do. The difference, say, in a three-piece band, is you have a ton of space to really fill and get to play with the dynamics, etc. In a big band like this, you really have to approach it differently because there’s so much going on with notation, dynamics, and all that.
Like you said, there are three guitarists and a keyboard player, so there’s all kinds of melody and rhythm and stuff going on, and you just have to find your space in between, you know? It’s kind of like sailing: you have to hit the waves in just the right way, otherwise you’re gonna topple over. So I just kind of approach it that way.
The upside is working with and knowing Duane so well — he and I really have a good connection as to what the other is going to do, just from our history together. And, fortunately, everybody in the band is such a good player that we put our egos aside and listen to each other. That’s the most important thing with a band this big. You really need everybody to pay attention and not just play over each other. It really makes things a lot easier.
Spotlight Central: Music fans of all ages love The Allman Betts Band’s blend of original material and Allman Brothers’ songs where, in concert, for example, you tend to sing approximately two songs every show. How would you describe your vocal style, vs. your counterparts, Devon Allman and Duane Betts?
Berry Duane Oakley: The three of us definitely have unique voices. I’d say I’m probably more of the blues singer of the band. Devon’s definitely got a really strong voice; he leans more toward rock and roll, and he’s got a good range, too. And Duane’s voice is pretty much like his father’s; he’s got that country twang — but he’s also had his own influences over the years. So, in a way, we kind of balance each other out in that sense.
There are nights where I’ll do “Trouble No More,” just ’cause I love the old blues stuff and that’s my jam [laughs]! I always thought it was a neat tribute because, from what I understand, it was the very first song The Allman Brothers learned once Gregg got in the band after Duane Allman pulled him from California. So I always thought that was kind of neat because before they started writing all their own songs, they had their quote-unquote “jams” — plus “Statesboro Blues,” and “Trouble No More,” yada yada — but it’s nice to touch on our fathers’ blues roots, so to speak.
Spotlight Central: We’re big fans of The Allman Betts Band’s previous album, Down to the River, which you recorded down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. For a studio album, it’s got a really fresh, live sound. And now you have a new album, Bless Your Heart — which we also love — that you also recorded in Muscle Shoals. It, too, doesn’t have a “canned” sound; it sounds more like a live concert situation. On it, we understand you played your ’66 Fender Jazz Bass but, we’re told, you still own your father’s modified Jazz Bass, nicknamed “The Tractor.” How did it get that nickname?
Berry Duane Oakley: From what I understand — and from what various members of Allman Brothers Band told me — is that they called it that because they just thought it was the ugliest thing they ever saw! When my dad finally unveiled it to the band — I think you can find a quote about it from Dickey Betts somewhere — they all were like “What in the wide world of sports is that thing? It’s hideous looking!” And, on top of that, they actually didn’t like the sound of it either, but my dad didn’t care — he did his thing! And that reminds me of another great quote that Dickey has out there; he said, “We didn’t have a bass player. We had two little guitars and one big guitar.”
Spotlight Central: Bless Your Heart has so many great songs. You happen to sing lead and play piano on one of them, a song you wrote called, “The Doctor’s Daughter.” Can you tell us what inspired you to create it?
Berry Duane Oakley: Long story short: In Los Angeles, there were some other children of celebrities growing up there, and a few of my best friends were the daughters of Mac Rebennack — better known as Dr. John — and one particular daughter of his was Jessica. We were really, really tight through our teen years, hanging out in L.A., and just doing all the crazy stuff that teenagers do. So we were really, really close — like brother and sister — but, unfortunately, she passed away about 15 or 16 years ago. She was a big Pink Floyd fan and, obviously, her father was Dr. John who played the piano, so I kind of tinkered with this song for years trying to write something in her honor.
Spotlight Central: It’s very soulful — moody, and soulful — and very well done.
Berry Duane Oakley: Thank you.
Spotlight Central: One of our other favorite songs on Bless Your Heart includes “Magnolia Road,” which features some very melodic bass playing, but probably our most favorite is “Savannah’s Dream,” a 12-minute-long instrumental piece. We think it’s so cool where, near the end, you play chords on your bass and then play these neat runs that sort of “pop up” in just the right places. What we’re wondering, though, is: Do you have a personal favorite from the new album?
Berry Duane Oakley: I hear you; it’s tough. There are a lot of great songs, but probably “Savannah’s Dream” is my favorite, too. Knowing Duane as long as I have, and after hearing all the things he’s written and played over the years, when he brought this song to the table, I went, “Wow! Now that’s a Betts’ song if I ever heard one!” And he really did a great job putting his feelings and thoughts into that song, and he definitely did it in a way which pays homage to his father, even though it’s definitely his thing.
Spotlight Central: It’s beautifully orchestrated, too.
Berry Duane Oakley: Right. And even though it was his song, he let me have free range with it. When I approached him, I said, “Man, this song is crazy! What do you want me to do?” He was like, “Dude. Classic Berry Oakley meets [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh,” and I was like, “OK, you got it! Let’s go!”
Spotlight Central: These days, with the postponement of many live concerts, for so many bands, there hasn’t been very much going on, but you guys have still been doing a few things. Can you tell us about them?
Berry Duane Oakley: It’s a tough balancing act — we’re all pretty aware of what’s going on in our country right now, so it really is hard to balance it all. We’ve been trying to break it up, so we did a little run about a month ago where we did a handful of concerts at drive-in movie theaters, and that worked out well. With that format, we could still put on a live show, still honor social distancing and whatnot, and still be able to bring people some good live music.
So we’re just trying to find our way through this. A few months back, we went out to California and did a livestream performance that people could purchase and watch. We’re trying to navigate the waters just like everyone else in the country — trying to figure out, “How do we move forward?” and “What’s the best way to do it?” all while being conscious of everything that’s going on. But it is tough. A lot of the musicians and artists out there — especially the touring bands — are all trying to figure out how to work in this new world, so we’re doing our best.
Spotlight Central: You are. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything you’d like to say to all of your fans who look forward to seeing you again?
Berry Duane Oakley: It’s tough — the climate in the country right now is kind of tough. We definitely need some more love out there, for sure, and good vibes. So it’s a tough balance. In my opinion, everyone should just calm down. It would make it a little easier for everyone on every front — from the front line workers to us touring musicians. Everybody wants to get back to some kind of life. It’s just tough, because the times are tough right now. My biggest word of advice to the general public is: we all just need to calm down a bit.
Spotlight Central: It’s a good thing we have music — for instance, for us, your new album — to listen to, because music can really help, right?
Berry Duane Oakley: Yeah. I mean, music is the universal language and the language of love, just about, in most aspects — there is some harsher music out there, too, of course — but I know a lot of us turn to music, you know? You want to feel good? You pop on a good record and you kind of lose yourself in it. And it’s the same with live shows. That’s why we all go out and do them — to get those good feelings and good vibes going — so we’re looking forward to getting back out and doing it ourselves again very soon!
To learn more about Berry Duane Oakley and The Allman Betts Band, please go to allmanbettsband.com.
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