Bass Players To Know: Berry Oakley
After the recent passing of Gregg Allman, it was only fitting to binge listen to some Allman Brothers records. Swept away by the lengthy jams, slide guitar solos, and beautifully in-sync double drummers, this band helped define Southern Rock and usher in a new era of blues. The man keeping it all together was Berry Oakley, whose bass lines to songs like “Whipping Post” and “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” fueled the band, facilitated improvisation, and showed off his creative and boundary-pushing approach to musical motion. While the world lost him at too young an age, Oakley certainly made his mark on iconic records including The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East, and Eat A Peach and has earned the distinction of Bass Player To Know.
Who Is Berry Oakley?
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 4th, 1948, Raymond Berry Oakley began his musical life as a guitar player and switched to the bass due to fortuitous circumstances. Throughout high school, he performed with local bands and opened up for touring acts, including Tommy Roe. Roe’s bass player was drafted, Oakley decided he could learn the instrument and fill the spot, and he dropped out of high school to become a full-time musician. After touring with Roe, he landed in Florida and began playing with Dickey Betts in the group Second Coming. He crossed paths with Duane Allman, who invited Oakley to join his new band, and both he and Betts joined what would soon be known as The Allman Brothers Band.
After a few years of honing their skills, touring, and writing, the band released their self-titled record in 1969. Oakley, his family, and the rest of the band lived together in the Big House in Macon, GA while not on the road. This fostered the creative and communal environment embodied by the band’s music. Almost a year after Duane Allman died from a motorcycle crash near their home in Macon, Oakley rounded the same turn on his motorcycle and crashed into a bus. He suffered from head injuries due to the accident and passed away on November 11, 1972.
Let’s Talk Style
Oakley’s playing was the ideal vehicle to drive the Allman Brothers Band. An ambitious player who found the balance between musical foundation and exploration, he was able to maintain the integrity of song form while exhibiting creativity. His approach to the blues demonstrated respect for the genre and knowledge of Chicago style feels—he would often adhere to the twelve-bar form, the classic box pattern, or walking bass line. On other tunes, he took a far more original stance by integrating chord inversions, funky and energetic grooves, and playful quips that added to the musical conversation of the band.
With a background in guitar, Oakley was daring enough to take the risks that most bass players shy away from; he confidently played long fills, harmony parts, and solos that drew attention to the instrument. His unique tone helped the bass lines cut through the mix and hold up to the double drummers of the rhythm section; he frequently played with a pick and used a Fender Jazz with a Guild pickup (affectionately known as the “Tractor” bass). This imaginative style of playing helped set a precedent for the bass chair in jam band music—you didn’t have to stay completely true to a recording and in fact, were encouraged to explore the instrument. His successors in the band, including Allan Woody and Oteil Burbridge, followed in his footsteps with a more modern approach to playing and tone.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Whipping Post” (The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East)
Probably the more revered Oakley performance, he kicks off the tune with an intense, ominous sounding groove that toggles between the root and flat seventh. As the vocals kick in, he transitions to jumping from the root to the octave—this sets an intriguing guideline for the harmony of the song, leaving it somewhat open ended for exploration. He strategically places fills that navigate the full range of the instrument, often following the Dorian mode and climbing the neck to coincide with dynamic moments of solos. As the band breaks down and drops into the atmospheric jam, Oakley is free to open up the groove and play call and response with the guitars. He is equally responsible for defining the harmony of the song, guiding the dynamic flow of the music, and ushering in the main musical themes.
“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” (The Allman Brothers Band: Eat A Peach)
Characterized by a laid back, yet undeniably funky bass groove, this song exhibits three “Oakley-isms.” First, the Mixolydian-inspired bass line that drives the verses; he sticks to this particular groove with little variation, leaving space for the vocals and playful percussion. Second, moments of light ambiance at the chorus breakdown; he plays with long, spacey notes, and accents the higher octave and 9th of the chord. And lastly, the funky walk that carries the bridge of the song—Oakley clearly outlines the chords and brings the energy up with a simple walking line that falls down the arpeggio to hit the lower third of the chord to emphasize the bottom end.
“Trouble No More” (The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East)
This song marries the traditional Chicago style blues feel with catchy, unison licks played by the full band. Oakley’s groove is perfectly reminiscent of the blues and can be traced back to tunes by John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Booker T. and the MGs. He plays with a confident and pocketed feel that expertly provides the foundation for trading solos.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Berry Oakley? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!