It’s been “full circle more than once” for bassist/”guitar tech” Joe Dan Petty, of Macon, Georgia. I put “guitar tech” in quotes because during his first stint as a member of the road crew for the Allman Brothers Band (he’s on the back cover of the Fillmore East album), his job description was the less refined “roadie” (we discussed the differences in the terms).
But, contrary to popular belief, Petty was a bassist before and between his associations with the standard bearers of southern rock. In a recent conversation, Petty discussed his years of playing and road work in a cordial conversation with Vintage Guitar.
Joe Dan Petty is originally from Bradenton, Florida, where he played in a self-described “kid band.”
“We played high school proms and skating rinks,” he said.
One of his peers in those days was Dickey Betts, and Petty advised that Betts’ father played fiddle at barn dances attended by Petty’s mother.
“The first real professional band I played in was called the Jokers,” says Petty. “Which wasn’t the same Jokers that Dickey played in when he was in Indiana; he formed this band after he moved to Florida. I could only play marginally when I started hanging out with Dickey, but he taught me a lot.”
Another “pre-Allmans” venture for Petty was called the Thunderbeats, which included lead guitarist Larry Rhinehart, who went on to subsequent fame with bands such as Iron Butterfly. Later, Petty and the Thunderbeats’ other guitarist, Mac Doss, went to the Jacksonville area, recruited a drummer, and began playing nightclubs, using the same moniker. Another Jacksonville musical aggregation for Petty was known as the Gold Rush, a blues-based combo.
Yet another Jacksonville-area band of Petty’s was playing regularly at a St. Augustine club when the venue shut down for two weeks for remodeling. “The Brothers came through town during that time,” Petty relates, “and asked me if I wanted to go to Miami with them; they were doing some recording. I went along and never went back to my band.”
Petty’s earlier basses included his first instrument, a ’50s Gibson EB-1.
“You could mount a stand on the bottom of the body and play it like an upright, and it was a dream to play, but I didn’t like its sound. It was too ‘muddy,’ and I never could get it to sound like I wanted. I bought a Jazz Bass, but the neck on it was so screwed up that it wouldn’t play in tune. There was a hot bass player around Jacksonville, named Chuck Parrish, who I really admired; he played a Precision, and I loved the tone of that instrument. The guitar player in his band sold me a Precision, but the pickup didn’t work, so we installed one of the pickups from my Jazz, and it sounded great!”
The switch from a short-scale EB-1 to a full-scale P-bass initially proved daunting.
“I’d take it to a club date, and could only play it one or two songs before it was killing me,” he said. “The neck was longer and wider, and it took awhile to get used to it, but once I got to where I could play it all night, I retired the Gibson.
Eventually, Joe Dan got another Precision, which he kept until it was stolen while he was playing in Grinderswitch (more about that band later). That particular P-Bass was a totally stock model in a sunburst finish.
As for his “roadie” days with the Allman Brothers Band, the erstwhile bassist averred that he was at some of that band’s earliest rehearsals in Jacksonville, and he recalled the Second Coming, a band in which Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley played just prior to the formation of the Allmans. Petty noted that in those days, the term “tech” didn’t exist.
“When I started, people who worked on the crew were called ‘roadies,’ but just prior to that, ‘roadie’ was what a band’s road manager was called. That was when bands didn’t have people handling their equipment. As ‘equipment managers’ we ended up being called ‘roadies.’ I think the term went through some changes.
“When I went back to work for the Brothers in ’89, I was called a ‘guitar tech,’” he said with a chuckle. “I haven’t been a ‘roadie’ in quite some time.”
Joe Dan Petty’s original assignment within the original Allman Brothers Band was to set up Butch Trucks’ drums, but he noted that among the roadies, “…everybody did a lot of everything.
“The ‘amp line’ roadie was Kim Payne, Red Dog set up Jaimoe’s drums, and Mike Callahan did sound, but we all helped each other out. The band took care of their own instruments. If they wanted something, like the pickups changed out, they didn’t hand the instrument to us, but in some cases we’d help if something needed to be modified.
“Berry Oakley was really into his rig,” Petty continued. “And he was always modifying things, trying to get a better sound. He had some older, vintage basses that he didn’t mess with, but when he’d been in the Second Coming he’d had a blond Guild hollowbody bass with a big black pickup, and he had somebody put that Guild pickup onto a fairly new Jazz Bass he owned. That bass is still around; his son has it and still plays it.” Ed. Note: Berry Oakley, Jr. is the bassist for a band of second-generation musicians called Bloodlines.
Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, Petty noted, pretty much stuck with Les Pauls.
“Duane had a Goldtop he traded for a Sunburst,” he said. “But he liked the pickups in the Goldtop better, so he and Kim Payne switched the pickups in a motel room in Daytona. Dickey was playing an SG, then he got a Les Paul in Detroit, but he never did warm to it, and got another Les Paul. Dickey gave Duane his SG, and Duane set it up for slide.”
Petty also offered his input on the “Big House” in Macon, noting that both Gregg and Duane lived there “at times.”
“Mike Callahan and I lived there off and on, and Kim Payne lived there most of the time,” he said.
The permanent residents were Berry Oakley, his wife and his sister, according to Petty, and the house wasn’t the proverbial “crash pad.”
“Sometimes, somebody might end up sleeping on a sofa,” he said. “But there weren’t a lot of mattresses all over the floor.”
The largest performance for the Allmans was at the Watkins Glen pop festival, and Joe Dan Petty was there.
“I thought it was pretty well organized,” he said. “You have to remember that it was really only one day of performances, but we’d arrived a couple of days before. There were over 700,000 people there, and I think about 90 percent paid admission; usually such big concerts ended up becoming free festivals. It was amazing to stand onstage and look out at the audience.
“After about the first 10,000 people, the rest looked like wallpaper,” he chuckled. “I know they had at least two delay towers, and they may have had more than that. The day of the concert, the only way for us to get there was by helicopter.”
The circumstances that led to Joe Dan Petty’s departure as an Allman Brothers Band road crew member germinated while the band was taking some time off.
“I was hanging around Macon, and I thought I might like to get a band together,” he said. The combo that became known as Grinderswitch ended up recording some demos, and ultimately Capricorn Records offered them a record deal. Petty had some decision making to do, and when he told the band he wanted to try his luck at being a player once again, they patted him on the back and wished him the best.
“The last show I did as an Allman Brothers roadie was on a New Year’s Eve at the Cow Palace in San Francisco,” he said. “When the Brothers went back out on the road the next March, Grinderswitch went out as their opening act.”
Petty notes that Grinderswitch still did its share of stereotypical “Southern boogie” material, but the band was, in his opinion, a bit more country-oriented in its overall sound and songwriting. Some of Grinderswitch’s albums have been re-released on compact disc, including a live-in-the-studio FM simulcast performance.
After Grinderswitch played itself out in the early ’80s, Joe Dan formed a group called the Lifters, which he says did a lot of covers and a lot of what he termed “corporate” events.
It was quite lucrative, he said, but in the late ’80s, he got a call from Dickey Betts.
“I’d told Dickey years ago that if they ever got back together, I wouldn’t mind going back out with them. He remembered that, and called me when the Brothers were going out to support the Dreams boxed set Polydor was releasing,” he said.
“That’s all they were going to do. At that time, Dickey had a record contract, and so did Gregg, but the Allman Brothers Band didn’t. Things went so well, they decided to keep the band going on again. I left a couple of times to finish up some commitments I had with the Lifters, but I’m back with the band permanently. And like I said earlier, these days I’m known as a ‘guitar tech’.”
Petty’s main duties these days involve the guitars of Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman. He averred that Betts was still using his ’57 Goldtop, which went by the name of “Goldie,” at the inception of the band’s reunion, but that instrument has since been retired. Betts favored Paul Reed Smith instruments for awhile, but he is now playing a Gibson ES-335. Gregg Allman’s instruments are primarily acoustic, such as the Gibson J-200 he plays on “Midnight Rider,” and Petty stated that Allman “…also has some Taylors and Washburns he likes.”
So, Joe Dan Petty is back on the road with the preeminent purveyors of the Southern sound. His decades of experience, both onstage as a performer and backstage as a road crew member, have served him well, and he’s probably had more unique experiences than most people can imagine. And it sounds like he’s still enjoying the ride, especially the current incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band, which is putting out some incredibly potent music in concert.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.