By Steve Bergsman
I was sitting in Grant's Lounge on Poplar Street in Macon, Georgia, drinking a beer with Newton Collier, one of the last of the city's great sidemen. The time was about 9 p.m., and the band, really just local musicians who gathered to jam, was going red hot. I realized rather quickly this was the best concert I'd seen in months. Even Collier had to give the men their due, and he has been a sideman since backing up the great soul duo Sam and Dave in the 1960s.
The guy who seemed to be organizing the show gave me his card, which had one name on it, Baatin. Collier whispered to me, "Baatin used to play with George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic band."
You can talk about legendary clubs such as CBGB in Manhattan, but those venues are no longer around. Grant's Lounge, still swinging, has its own performers hall of fame wall showcasing among others the Allman Brothers and Lynard Skynard. I was told Prince played here, although I didn't see his name on the roster. And Grant's Lounge, founded in 1971, isn't even the oldest music venue in Macon. The Douglas Theater, which was once a stop on the old chitlin circuit, when African-American blues musicians played in segregated music halls, is still erect and active - one of the few chitlin stops still in existence.
For history buffs of a particular inclination, there are a lot of places to go in the United States to relive the creation of American music, but one of the most under-appreciated is Macon, which helped give birth to soul music and Southern rock. After all, Little Richard and Otis Redding grew up in Macon, and James Brown first recorded here in 1956. The story about Brown is that he came to Macon because Little Richard had become famous and Brown wanted his help to get recorded. Little Richard wrote three words on a napkin, "please, please, please."
Brown took the napkin and wrote a song called "Please, Please, Please," which became his first big hit. He then recorded "Try Me," also in Macon.
At the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon there's a picture of Little Richard, circa 1950, playing piano at the Ann's Tic Toc Lounge on Broadway. That piano is in the museum with a sign that says, "Do Not Attempt to Play Little Richard's Piano. He Will Know." Even more interesting is the fact the Tic Toc Lounge is now the Tic Toc Room, one of Macon's better restaurants.
While there's a street in Macon named for Little Richard, Otis Redding gets even better recognition as, on the banks of the town's Ocmulgee River, sits a stature of him playing a guitar. Apparently the town fathers couldn't put the stature on the dock of a bay, so they did the best they could, placing it on the banks of a river.
If you bop over to Cotton Street, you'll find two small adjoining storefronts, both dedicated to Redding. One is the headquarters for the Otis Redding Foundation and the other is a mini-museum, where I visited with his daughter, Karla. I knew Otis recorded for Stax Records in Memphis, but she said his heart was always in Macon, and he had a huge ranch outside of town, which is still in the family today. On Sept. 10 the town will throw a big party to celebrate Otis' 75th birthday.
If Little Richard and Otis Redding came from your city, you would be hard-pressed to find another performer even more associated with your kind of town, but that's not the case with Macon because the performer - actually performers - best known for their Macon roots are the Allman Brothers. They weren't from Macon, but they came to the town as unknowns, and this was where they incubated their music, creating out of thin air the Southern-rock movement of the early 1970s.
Phil Walden of Macon was a business partner with Redding, but after Redding's death in a plane crash, Walden was at a loss as to where to turn next. Then he heard about a guitarist named Duane Allman. Walden, along with Alan Walden and Frank Fenter, founded Capricorn Records and convinced Duane to come to Macon and record on their label.
For a while the Allman Brothers band communally lived at a property on Vineville Avenue, which came to be called the Big House. Today it is the Allman Brothers Band Museum and well worth a visit as its collection of guitars, ephemera and all things Allman Brothers documents a creative time when rock 'n' roll was expanding its roots.
I met Jessica Walden, the daughter of Alan and niece of Phil at H&H Soul Food on Forsyth Street. Jessica and her husband, Jamie Weatherford, run a company called Rock Candy Tours, which offers the best and most comprehensive rock 'n' roll stroll through Macon's legendary musicology.
My meeting with Jessica at H&H was not capricious as the restaurant is part of music history, as well. Mama Louise, the founder of H&H, fed the Allman Brothers band when they were down and out, and after they became famous the band continued to frequent H&H. It's just down the road from the old Capricorn Records executive offices. The iconic but defunct Capricorn recording studio still stands on the other side of downtown.
One of the most famous live albums in history, "At Fillmore East," recorded in 1971, features the band standing before a brick building with all their equipment. That photo was not shot at the Fillmore in New York but across the street from the recording studio. Alas, that building no longer stands.
Duane Allman died in 1971 when his motorcycle collided with a truck on a local Macon street. Just over a year later, band mate Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle accident just a few blocks away from the site where Duane crashed. They are both buried in the picturesque and historic Macon cemetery called Rose Hill. Their gravesites are next to each other behind a high fence, which, I should note, doesn't deter fans from making a pilgrimage to the cemetery. To some dedicated fans Duane Allman was a guitar god.
Want to get in touch with your inner soul? Macon is a good place to start.
WHEN YOU GO
The nearest major airport is Atlanta, and then it's about an hour and a half drive.
Historic eateries include H&H Soul Food, www.mamalouise.com, and the Tic Toc Room, www.hotplatesrestaurantgroup.com. Two of the best music venues are Grant's Lounge, www.grantslounge.com, and Douglas Theater, www.douglastheater.org. For museums and tours: www.rockcandytours.com; The Big House Museum, www.thebighousemuseum.com; and Tubman Museum, www.tubmanmuseum.com.
Besides the music story, there are plenty of historic sites in the area. I visited two extraordinary venues: Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park (ancient Indian mounds), www.nps.gov/ocmu, and the Hay House (built in the mid-1800s), www.hayhouse.org.
Discover All Kinds of Music in Macon
By Steve Bergsman