Then, tragedy struck. On the afternoon of Oct. 29, 1971, Duane was leaving the Big House after a birthday party for Linda Oakley when he swerved to avoid a flatbed truck and lost control of the bike. The 24-year-old died a few hours later. Band members were devastated, but they vowed to continue on because it’s what their leader would have wanted. They finished the album Eat a Peach in 1972, with Betts doing the remaining guitar work by himself. Oakley was hit the hardest by Duane’s death, but he tried to step up as the group’s de facto leader. However, drugs, alcohol and depression hit him hard. On Nov. 11, 1972, just a year and 13 days after Duane’s death and a few blocks away from where that accident happened, Oakley sideswiped a city bus while he was on his motorcycle. Initially, he went home to the Big House rather than the hospital. Later, he went to the hospital, where he died from his injuries. Like Duane, he was 24 when he died, and he was buried next to Duane at Rose Hill Cemetery. Eventually, the band brought in keyboardist Chuck Leavell and the late bassist Lamar Williams as new members.
Alan Walden: Berry had given up on living when Duane got killed. He drank too much, and he didn’t have the same spirit. Duane, it was almost impossible to replace him. That’s when Phil added Chuck Leavell. He wouldn’t accept anything less than the band being a big success. ... They were forced to deal with a lot of tragedies. But a lot of things kept the band going. It made them tighter. They did it as much for (Duane) as they did for themselves.
Linda Oakley Miller: All of us were in shock from Duane’s death, but Berry could never fill that space. They loved each other. The thing between Duane and Berry was special. Berry could not fill that space in his life. He did a little too much of everything. He had a feeling he would not be around too long.
Judi Petty, widow of ABB guitar tech Joe Dan Petty: In some ways, (Duane’s) death brought us a lot closer together. The band used to have this farm in Juliette, where we had these barbecues. The kids would all run around. Some of the men would run around as well.
Chuck Leavell, ABB keyboardist, 1972-1976: When Duane died, there was a lot of talk about who was going to replace him. There were rumors like (guitarists) Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. But the band did a gutsy thing and went out without a replacement. They went as a five-piece band. It was a very emotional thing. Dickey stepped up to the plate at that time and filled in very respectably. I was called in to do a solo record for Gregg and did some casual jam sessions with the band. We’d play for fun—the guys needed that. There was no pressure. They just did it for the love of music. ... One day, I got a call from Phil Walden to see him in his office. I was barely 20 at the time. I was wondering “What did I do wrong?” Phil said, “We’re interested in you being on our team.” I finished my work on Gregg’s album and then we went to work on (the ABB album) Brothers and Sisters. I did two or three live performances when Berry was alive. It was a devastating blow to me when Berry died, because Berry was the guy who went out of his way to make me feel at ease. Now, all of a sudden, he’s gone. ... We looked at a few bassists, but it was obvious that with Lamar Williams, we were much more comfortable. We looked at several outstanding bassists, but Lamar stood out. It was a combination of him respecting Berry’s style and having his own style.
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Brothers and Sisters, released in 1973, became the band’s biggest commercial success, climbing to No. 1 on the charts. Betts’ song “Ramblin’ Man” off that album became the group’s first top 10 hit. The band continued to tour and had become a major success, both critically and commercially. In 1973, Rolling Stone crowned the group “Band of the Year”, one of several such honors the Allman Brothers Band earned. That year, they performed at Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, NY, in front of an estimated crowd of 600,000. The band, encouraged by Phil Walden, also became major supporters of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the White House in 1976.
However, cracks were starting to form in the band’s foundation. Solo projects from Betts and Gregg Allman got lukewarm receptions, and while the 1975 album “Win, Lose or Draw” reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts, it drew mostly mediocre reviews from fans and critics. The excesses often associated with rock stars - drugs, groupies, money issues—started to affect the band in a major way. At rehearsals, the only members consistently showing up were Jaimoe, Williams and Leavell, who eventually decided to form the band Sea Level. Gregg Allman was in the midst of his well-publicized, roller-coaster marriage with Cher. The couple had an on-again, off-again relationship between 1975 and 1979.
The group’s low point came in 1976, when federal authorities busted Allman on drug charges. He had to testify against his former personal assistant, Scooter Herring, to avoid facing criminal charges himself. Allman was ostracized by the rest of the band, who viewed his actions as betrayal. Herring was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 75 years in prison, but the charges were later overturned. He ended up serving three years.
Willie Perkins, ABB road manager, 1970-76 and 1983-89: One thing is that artistic types are on the edge of everything, which includes experimenting with drugs. ... It’s not exclusive to rock ‘n’ rollers. They were experimenting with music and experimenting with temptations. They had made a lot of money real fast, and now they had the means to deal with everything they wanted. Excess, excess—every band has that within them. Somewhere, the music had lost its spark. They had gone from playing for hours and hours and hours and hours (to) not even doing sound checks. Once Duane was gone, they were wanting that leader. ... At that moment, nobody was focused on getting back together. After a while, things chilled out, but when the feds put pressure on you, I don’t know many people who can resist.
Chuck Leavell: It’s pretty well documented, the incident with Scooter Herring. Gregg had been busted and was forced to testify against Scooter. It caused hard feelings within the band. It resulted with the first breakup. Some of us wished fences could be mended, but it was not meant to be (at that point).
Red Dog Campbell: The trial was a major factor. There were people around us who increased the size of the organization. But when you bring in people who don’t see things the way you see things, you get away from your roots. I think that Gregg got bad-mouthed unjustifiably. I always felt it was a political move because we had been supportive of (Jimmy) Carter. ... Things happen sometimes. When the trial went down, everybody was mad at Gregg.