In Georgia, there's music heritage, Civil Rights history and fried chicken to be found at every turn – and it'll blow your mind!
There's so much more to the American state's musical history than Ray Charles and Gladys Knight
Albany's Freedom Singers once performed as part of the Civil Rights Movement, now at church on Sundays
Rock band R.E.M. regularly ate at Weaver D's Fine Foods in Athens, inspiring the title of their eighth album
After all, the Deep South is also known for its 'famous' fried chicken and friendly Baptist church communities
It's pointless to pretend. Any trip to America's Deep South, whatever the purpose, will eventually turn to its history of prejudice and discrimination.
There's a Martin Luther King Boulevard in pretty well every city to remind you.
Rarely, though, do you brush up against it as directly as I did in Albany, Georgia, where I enjoyed a private performance by one of the singers who was at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s.
I'd travelled to Georgia in search of a musical heritage, which sometimes seems to shrink in the shadow of blues hubs such as Memphis, or Nashville with its country music dominance.
We know the devil went down there, Ray Charles had it on his mind, and Gladys Knight took the Midnight Train, but there's much more to the state's music history.
There is no Midnight Train any more – Atlanta's rail tracks are being turned into the Beltline, an urban trail for cyclists and walkers circling the city – but Gladys remains a presence in her home city via the Gladys Knight Chicken and Waffle House.
Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with the closure of the restaurant, a disappointment to me as I was keen to investigate the American marriage of celebrity and chicken – there was an entire episode of Seinfeld about Kenny Rogers's Roasters, and the singing cowboy Roy Rogers at the height of his fame lent his name to a nationwide chain of fast-food restaurants.
But Gladys has sadly stopped serving her 'signature' dish, though in truth the 73-year-old soul singer never did much serving anyway, leaving the running of the restaurant to her son.
Now financial problems and a health inspectors' report that included mention of 'heavy fruit fly activity' – something for which even the most tolerant of restaurant critics tends to knock off a star – have led to its closure, though Gladys's sign still stands somewhat dolefully above the boarded-up premises.
It's possibly not the most fitting tribute to a singer whose first hit as a 17-year-old, Every Beat Of My Heart, was recorded for a small local label, and who went on to have some of Motown's biggest hits (she actually heard it through the grapevine before Marvin Gaye).
Like many of her colleagues at Motown, Gladys was brought up a Baptist and learnt her craft in the church, so as I travelled south through Georgia, via the campus town of Athens and Otis Redding's home town of Macon, arriving in Albany on a Sunday morning, church seemed the place to be.
Albany's Mount Zion Baptist is a huge, extravagantly fitted church, closer to a good-sized modern concert hall than a chapel, accommodating a few thousand worshippers in a bowl-shaped space, with big-screen relays of the singers, a funky band with two keyboards, and a compelling preacher in Dr Daniel Simmons, who would be a real crowd-pleaser in whatever form of entertainment he chose.
Visitors from out of town, and especially from overseas, are made more than welcome, and you're invited to sign a visitor's card so Dr Simmons can give you a mention from the pulpit.
He asked me to stand up and take a bow, a novel experience for someone whose previous religious experience has been confined to weddings and funerals.
The pastor's sermon was no Thought For The Day – at one point he climbed on to the pulpit for emphasis – and all the more welcome for that.
The experience was genuinely uplifting, and the music magnificent.
Three Sundays out of four, Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers, who formed in Albany in 1962 as part of the Civil Rights movement, performs in the church.
There's a minute and a half of Rutha on YouTube singing We Shall Not Be Moved at the famous march on Washington in 1963, at which Martin Luther King delivered his I Have A Dream speech.
I have rather more of her, recorded on my phone, as she burst spontaneously into song as I talked to her after the service, in Carter's Grill and Restaurant, a popular lunch venue for the congregation, just round the corner from where the Civil Rights movement was born in Albany.
'I grew up protected from some of the worst elements of segregation,' she told me. 'Our father was a preacher and sheltered us. I didn't know how bad things were until I got involved in the Movement.'
Rutha, 77, and her fellow Freedom Singers – two of the four are still alive – took gospel songs and changed the words to appeal to a secular audience.
They sang all over America during the struggle, and were actually appearing at a coffee house in Los Angeles just before the march on Washington. Harry Belafonte chartered a plane and flew them back east to perform in time.
Her impromptu recital in Carter's distracted from the 'famous' fried chicken – everybody's chicken is famous in the South – which is wonderful, but for which my taste was beginning to pale after a week on the road in Georgia.
This cafe and Gladys's were not the only places where musical heritage and battered poultry intersected.
Athens, Georgia, is the home of rock band R.E.M. who not only ate regularly at Weaver D's Fine Foods, but took its proprietor Dexter Weaver's catchphrase for the title of their eighth studio album.
Weaver was in the habit of saying 'automatic y’all' as he took orders for his, er, famous fried chicken, and the phrase was later adapted for the album title Automatic For The People.
This and other fascinating R.E.M. facts are revealed on a walking tour by Paul Butchart, a veteran of 40 years on the Athens music scene, whose story is not quite Pete Best, but who was reportedly invited to join a band with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. but never showed up for rehearsals.
What Paul doesn't know about the still vibrant Athens music scene probably never happened.
His tour takes in the story of The B52s, formed in the city in 1976, and goes back to the jazz age.
It's worth it simply for the names of some of the Athens bands Paul remembers; Porn Orchard, Barbecue Killers, and who knew Michael Stipe once played in a band called Hornets Attack Victor Mature?
However you rate Stipe's music, it's difficult to fault his taste in food. Without wishing to start fried chicken wars, I’d say Weaver D's was the best I ate, and I ate a lot.
Not that Paul's tour is without a Civil Rights element.
We visit the University of Georgia campus, where Paul tells the story of Dave Brubeck calling off a show there in 1959 rather than replacing his bassist Eugene Wright with a white player to conform to the college's policy on race. The University remained segregated until 1961.
Paul has an equivalent in Macon, who runs Rock Candy Tours, a coach trip round sites associated with local legends Little Richard, Otis Redding, James Brown, and the Allman Brothers Band, but I turned up late for the trip, having spent too long at a service station on the way pondering whether there's anything you can eat on the road in America that will not shorten your teeth, or your life, or both.
No matter, though. Music history is not difficult to find in this town.
America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299) offers a seven-night Georgia's Music Legends and Heritage fly-drive package from £1549pp, including return flights from London to Atlanta; seven days’ fully inclusive car hire; three nights room-only at the Crowne Plaza Atlanta, Midtown; two nights room-only at the Hotel Indigo in Athens; and two nights’ B&B at the Burke Mansion in Macon.
The first chap I bump into in H & H Soul Food – more fried chicken – turns out to be country star Waylon Jennings's cousin, and among other stories, he recalls a time when Macon had as many African-American clubs as Harlem, and James Brown was first dubbed 'the hardest working man in show business,' by a DJ at local radio station WIBB, for playing several of them on one night.
Macon is crazy about music. There's a Duane Allman Boulevard, for goodness sake, a plaque at the downtown grill house where his brother Gregg proposed to Cher in 1975, and a statue of Otis Redding in a park by the Ocmulgee River. Otis’s songs play on a loop, just out of range of the visitors' center, which they tell me used to be a Trailways bus station where 16-year-old Otis washed dishes.
But while Otis yearned for Georgia when sitting on the dock of the San Francisco bay, and Gladys took the train back there from Los Angeles, it was Ray Charles who recorded the best-known version of Georgia's state song, and he's remembered in a statue in Albany.
It's the final stop on my trip through the state's music history, and a timely reminder it's a heritage often fashioned by hardship and tears.
Journalist Martin Kelner
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-4825416/Georgia-ll-blow-mind.html#ixzz4r3yF36lo
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