For reasons no one really understands – “something in the water?” – three small cities in Georgia have produced a disproportionate number of 20th-century musical giants
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
Athens – known to some as “the Liverpool of the South” – birthed the B-52s, R.E.M. and the Drive-By Truckers. Macon gave rise to Otis Redding, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers Band. Augusta was the home base of the Godfather of Soul, “the hardest working man in showbiz,” James Brown. Whatever you think of these artists, wherever you rank them in your personal pantheon of musical giants, they cut a swath across the music industry, transforming important elements of everything they touched.
We started in Augusta, where James Brown warrants an entire exhibit to himself in the artfully curated Augusta Museum of History. “Mr. Brown,” as they know him here, was a volcano of funk for most of his 73 years (1933-2006), knocking ’em dead until the very last months of his life.
Nancy Glaser, executive director of the Museum explains. “We are the only permanent installation of this material on Mr. Brown.” In his own incomparable way, he fused gospel with blues with soul with rock to spawn an energized funk/R&B driven by his own restless energy and performance perfectionism. By the time of his death he ranked seventh on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest artists of all time and was revered around the world.
The museum’s special exhibit divides his history into three: man, music and legacy. Mr. Brown started life in the Great Depression and launched his public career as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Augusta. Like lots of other street kids, his home life was turbulent. He did some time in jail and, deeply influenced by his church experience, began singing early and by the late 1950s was fronting The Famous Flames – whose leader he met in prison.
By the time he broke through in the 1970s, he was a polished performer and a highly accomplished singer and recording artist whose disciplinary control over his band bordered on the manic. The Museum features video recordings of various personalities reflecting on Mr. Brown’s performing style, his impact on popular music, his performance power and his stage charisma. Displays feature some of his better known – all hand sewn – stage costumes and one exhibit even deconstructs and teaches the viewer his iconic stage dance routines, subsequently copied by others including Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
Athens is the location of the University of Georgia, est. 1806, a sprawling but beautiful campus. Its downtown is sprinkled with bars, coffee shops, book/record/comic book stores, a theatre with a major history of its own, at least two or three Little Free Librarys and has been home to dozens of live music venues which have lived, died, relocated or are still thriving. University towns tend to spawn avant-garde artists and projects, many of which die a natural death. But a few break through and some prove transformative. Athens produced a plethora of rock ’n’ roll, punk and new wave bands – who can forget Rock Lobster by the B-52s? – but the most interesting and endurably transformative band was R.E.M.
Over its long career R.E.M. produced many radio-worthy and video hits, but it was their 1991 record, Out Of Time, and in particular its packaging that put them on the map as a legacy to the culture of progressivism. R.E.M.’s decision to package Out Of Time with a petition in support of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 mobilized the youth vote like never before and resulted in a deluge of petitions to U.S. Senators. The idea of tying voter registration to automobile licensing had been around since the 1970s, but never gained sufficient traction to turn it into a political reality. In a country with startlingly low voter participation, R.E.M.’s decision to do their part to “rock the vote” made them inadvertently important political actors. Sometimes seemingly small gestures have huge consequences.
Macon, Georgia, gave birth to Otis Redding, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers Band – and by any measure that’s a considerable music contribution for a small town. Little Richard powered the early transformation of race music into what became rock ’n’ roll. Ringo Starr “blamed” him for sparking the early energy and sound of The Beatles. Otis Redding – whose life was cut short at 26 years of age – staked out a fusion of gospel and R&B that stands out even all these years later. His greatest hit, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay – co-written with STAX guitarist and producer, Steve Cropper – was released posthumously but has come to define a particular sound in soul music.
But Redding himself was a giant in his short time. Dividing his hours between touring, family and the studio, he racked up something like 300 recordings – many of them high energy dance songs but also including an unforgettable version of Try A Little Tenderness that raises the hair on your arms. His story is told and his legacy continues at the Otis Redding Foundation.
No tour of musical Macon can ignore The Allman Brothers Band, who relocated from Florida in the early 1970s to take up residence in The Big House, a massive building where band members, wives and children, lived, wrote, jammed and honed their craft during the band’s early years. The Allman Brothers Band Museum is an artful collection of memorabilia, posters, clothes, guitars, amps, backstage passes from this band’s 45 years of southern rock.
It must be said that one either “gets it” or does not, where this band is concerned. But on the evidence of their thousands of sold out shows over the last 45 years – to say nothing of their influence on other bands – enough people “got it” to make it worth your time to visit this shrine.
WHERE OTIS AND THE ALLMANS ATE: There’s authentic Southern “meat and three” meals at the H&H Soul Food Restaurant. In the 60s and 70s the original owners, Mama Hill and Mama Louise, fed starving musicians (yes, The Allman Brothers once fit that bill!). They’re called the “matriarchs of Macon’s historical music scene.”
LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH: We also toured the Johnston-Felton Hay House, once the private residence of a railroad magnate and one of the nation’s finest examples of Italian Renaissance architecture. Most of the furnishings in the antebellum home came from Europe. The walls have been restored to their original faux painting.
Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.