Soul survivors
The artists that emerged out of Macon, Memphis and Muscle Shoals, and the Southern music that still makes us move

by JOSEPHINE MATYAS AND CRAIG JONES • February 2015

You can tell a lot about a town by the music that spools from its borders. This is the story of a journey through three Southern centres, meccas for the some of the 20th-century’s musical giants. Two of these musical hubs are small — barely dots on a map — and one is a sprawling city, but all loom large on the stage of soul, R&B and rock, set in a time of America’s unfolding civil rights movement. Macon, Memphis and Muscle Shoals were like a melodious constellation. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, artists were constantly circling these three, dipping into the well of inspiration and coming away with hit after hit after hit.
Consider the adage “there’s something in the water,” as they claim in Macon, Georgia. It seems as good an account as any other. What else could explain a town of 90,000 producing musical giants like Otis Redding, Little Richard and The Allman Brothers Band?
There’s talk of Macon as “the cradle of American music.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Karla Redding, daughter of soul singer Otis Redding, who was just five years old when her father passed away, just as his career was rocketing to greatness. His first million seller, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” was recorded three days before the singer died in a plane crash at age 26.
“‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ was something he never got to experience,” said Karla. “He knew that it was a great song; he knew he was going to be different after he came back and finished Dock of the Bay, but he never got to finish it. I often wonder if that song would have been as big as it is now if he had lived ‘cause it’s so different from everything he did.”
“His songs are so passionate,” Karla said about the way her father’s music transcends generations. “All the feelings you and I have, people around the world have, I think you put on any Otis Redding song and it touches some part of your heart, or some similarity to something that’s going on in your life. All these things just kind of calm your soul.”
The Redding family continues to protect Otis’ legacy, just as they have for the past four decades. “The Otis Redding Foundation provides scholarships for young dreamers who, just like Otis Redding, have a dream but don’t know how to get there. You’ve got to be able to succeed in education and then go ahead and tie all of those successes to your music passion. We can’t touch them all, but the ones we touch will be successful.”
It was the music of Redding that transfixed another Macon-area great, Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band, the foundational group of what became known as Southern rock. Macon was the home of Capricorn Records, the springboard for the band that relocated from northern Florida to this small city.
One of the South’s first racially-integrated bands, these five white guys — with their black drummer — would gather together all the music of the Deep South, including the power of black gospel, Delta and Chicago blues, and fuse it into a juggernaut of jamming and grooving that would, and still does, inspire imitators to this day. When they played their farewell concert in 2014 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, no one in that audience, or on that stage, could have believed that for all the turbulence and celebration the band would survive for 45 years.
Die-hard fans of ABB songs like “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” get more than their fill by dipping into the well at The Big House (2321 Vineville Avenue; tel: 478-741-5551; thebighousemuseum.com; US$7; closed Mondays), which has room after room of lovingly-curated instruments, clothing, hand-written lyrics, concert posters and ticket stubs. The Big House is the spiritual and actual home of the original Allman Brothers Band; the members lived and worked there communally in the early 1970s.