Macon, Georgia: A Journey To The Song And Soul Of The South

There’s a special nickname for Macon, a small city in America’s Deep South: the Song and Soul of the South, earned by its rich rock and roll, soul music and Southern rock heritage…
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There’s a special nickname for Macon, a small city in America’s Deep South: the Song and Soul of the South, earned by its rich rock and roll, soul music and Southern rock heritage…

Otis Redding courtesy of Atlantic Records

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When music legend Otis Redding was starting his career in Macon, in the heart of Georgia, the South’s notorious segregation laws often kept black and white industry people apart. In the late 1950s, Redding got his break in a music contest at the city’s Douglass Theatre, an African-American only venue. Redding’s white manager, Phil Walden, used to sit outside the theatre listening on his car radio to broadcasts of acts performing live on stage close by, but separated by the colour of their skin.

I heard this story on the sidewalk outside the theatre, where paving stones featuring the faces of music stars including Redding, Little Richard and James Brown form the Douglass Walk of Fame beside Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, once called the ‘Black Broadway of the South’.

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Paving stones of James Brown, Little Richard and Otis Redding on the Douglass Walk of Fame.

It’s one of many stories told on a Rock Candy Tour that mines the rich music history of Macon, known as the Song and Soul of the South. The biggest names in rock and soul music journeyed along the ‘Southern soul triangle’: Memphis, Tennessee; Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Macon, a city where Little Richard, the ‘Architect of Rock and Roll’, started out in the 1950s, influencing Otis Redding, the ‘King of Soul’ in the 1960s. Macon (pronounced as in ‘bacon’) is also the birthplace of Southern rock where The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among many others, made their mark in the 1970s.

Rock Candy Tours

One of the four Rock Candy tour guides is Jessica Walden, whose father Alan Walden took over the running of Macon-based Phil Walden Artists and Promotions, when his brother Phil was called into military service in the 60s. Alan Walden worked closely with his brother’s business partner Otis Redding and when the music business claims you, heart and soul, it never lets go.

“My dad was only 19 years old, he was just a kid and together the whole family was brought into this magical story that involved rhythm and blues, the South, and, of course, Macon,” reveals Jessica, at the start of a tour that takes visitors outside and onto the streets of the city.

Jessica launched Rock Candy Tours with her husband Jamie Weatherford in June 2011, the day after the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon closed its doors. Jessica had worked there for five years and both her father and uncle, along with other Macon music luminaries, were inductees.

“Our main reason for doing this is that we feel like Macon’s music history doesn’t have to live within a museum’s walls. It doesn’t have to be within an institution,” explains Jessica. “Here in Macon it is everywhere. You’ll see on the tour it’s on our sidewalks, it’s in our historic homes, it’s in these old office spaces and if our walls could talk, they wouldn’t just talk, they would sing!”

Jessica was a first-hand witness to the music business in Macon during her childhood. She recalls riding her tricycle in the 70s around the car park outside her father’s office on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, another stop on the tour.

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The entrance of Grant's Music Venue In Macon.

“Another reason we started our tour company was because my dad is a really great storyteller and I love to share his stories,” adds Jessica, who leaves the fact-checking to her husband. “Jamie is the history buff of the two of us. He loves the research and spends a lot of time in (the local) Washington Library looking up addresses and dates. I enjoy the storytelling part of it all,” smiles Jessica, who was named after a song by The Allman Brothers Band, signed to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records label.

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The gates of 'The Big House', now the Allman Brothers Museum.

Near her father’s old office in downtown Macon, The Allman Brothers Band grouped together for a photograph that became the cover of their seminal live album At Fillmore East. In the early 70s, Alan Walden discovered another Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, bringing them from Florida to Georgia where they would later record Sweet Home Alabama.

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“I left my home in Georgia…”

Rock Candy’s weekly tours, on foot, tell tales of rock and roll excess, success and tragedy throughout the decades. “The landscape does not lend itself to a particular timeline so we jump back and forth a lot,” says Jessica. “I do say that there’s one date to keep in mind and that’s December 10, 1967, the day that Otis Redding’s airplane went down on the way to a gig in Wisconsin and killed him at the age of 26.”

Shortly before his death, Redding, whose hits include Try a Little Tenderness and These Arms of Mine, had recorded (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, a mournful tune about a man at a crossroads in life. “I left my home in Georgia…” sings Redding with a melancholic air and a depth few artists can convey. The natural sadness to his voice propelled the song to the top of the charts, becoming the first posthumously released number one in the US.

“That was a very defining moment,” says Jessica, in relation to Macon’s music scene. “So much had happened with rhythm and blues before Otis’s death and after Otis’s death things began to transform into Southern rock and that’s where The Allman Brothers entered the picture and Lynyrd Skynyrd and all these other great acts and, of course, Capricorn Records. We go before and after throughout our tour.”

Southern rock had its share of tragedy too. On the tour, Jessica points out H&H Restaurant where African-Americans Mama Louise Hudson and Mama Hill fed “skinny white boys in need of a meal” in the early days of their career – The Allman Brothers who later took Mama Louise on tour with them. Near to this famous greasy spoon you can see the Medical Center of Middle Georgia where Duane Allman died at the age of 24 in 1971, following a motorbike crash in Macon. The group’s bass guitarist Berry Oakley died at the same hospital less than 13 months later, also because of a bike accident a few blocks away.

In 1977, a plane crash in South Carolina killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the group disbanded. I ask Jessica if this was the moment Southern rock’s heyday came to an end. “I was one month old when the plane crash happened,” she says. “I remain grateful to this day that my dad was no longer working with Skynyrd or he probably would have been on that plane. Personally, I don't think this was the marker. I think this was some foreshadowing. Recklessness was coming in all directions in the late 70s.”

“Cigarettes and late night sessions

Lynyrd Skynyrd and James Brown recorded at Capricorn Records Studio on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which has now fallen into disrepair. It was hollowed out to improve the acoustics but years later the structure become, for want of a better word, unsound. The building, which was on The Georgia Trust’s top ten Places in Peril list in 2010, has been stabilized and there are plans to turn it into a museum. Rock Candy Tours donates part of its profits to help with the restoration project. Jessica assures me that, at the moment, the interior has an authentic 1970s music industry vibe to it with a shag carpet redolent of “cigarettes and late night sessions.”

Times have changed. When Phil Walden died in April 2006 it marked the end of an era for music in Macon. Late night sessions and drink and drugs remain in the past for Alan Walden. Jessica reveals that her father has been sober for over 14 years now and is a family man living outside Macon with his second wife and teenage son.

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Jessica with her father Alan in the early 80s, Washington Park, Macon.

Alan Walden lives a very different life from those rock and roll years when his music industry lifestyle often played out at the expense of spending quality time with his two daughters, Jessica and her sister. Jessica, who works in PR and marketing, never felt the urge to follow the family into the music business. “I rebelled by going to college! I figured I’d be a goody two shoes. I broke the family tradition: I haven’t been to rehab. Yet,” she laughs.

Music, though, has always featured prominently in her life. Jessica and her husband knew each other from school and reconnected, appropriately enough at a music festival, Macon’s Bragg Jam. Now, of course, they run Rock Candy Tours together.

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Jessica with husband Jamie.

They tied the knot in Macon in April 2011 and celebrated with music, two hits from 1966 in particular. Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness was played as the bride walked down the aisle and the first dance was to the tune of When a Man Loves a Woman, Percy Sledge’s song that gave the Walden brothers their first number one single in America.

Jessica and Jamie held their wedding rehearsal dinner at Grant’s Lounge, the final stop on the Rock Candy tour. “It’s the single greatest dive in Macon,” beams Jamie. The bar opened in 1971 and followed trends into disco and dance music before returning to its Southern rock roots. Ripped leather bar stools look as if they’ve borne the weight of every kind of music fan passing through. Bands played here in the hope of being discovered by Capricorn Records and posters, gig tickets and other rock memorabilia on the walls tell a story of Macon’s past, of the ones who made it.

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Alan Walden's place on the Wall of Fame.

Jessica points out a picture of her father on the Wall of Fame. I mention to her that Rock Candy is pretty unique – where else can you get such a personal tour from someone whose family is so connected to a local but prominent music scene? “I’m aware I tread a fine line,” she responds, “I’m not making money from my heritage. I just want to increase tourism in downtown Macon and keep its music heritage alive.”

And what a music history Macon has, spanning the decades with a claim on the origins of rock and roll, soul music and Southern rock, a somewhat disproportionate feat for the fourth largest city in the state of Georgia (with a population of around 155,000, it’s smaller than a city like Ipswich, for example). What’s in the water down in Macon, I wonder? Jessica’s eyes light up as she mentions the local river in Macon, which is on the fall line between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastal plain. The Ocmulgee River was named by Creek Indians for the bubbling up of water from a spring. “Maybe the drinking water does bring something special out in you – soul.”

Information

When water isn’t enough for you, on Friday nights when Macon relaxes its container laws you can take a cocktail out onto the streets during Rock Candy’s Free Birds & Night Owls Tour on Fridays starting at 9pm at The Rookery on Cherry Street and ending at Grant’s Lounge on Poplar Street. The tour is an hour and a half and costs $10 per person.

Call Rock Candy on (478) 955 5997 for information on their Friday night tours, fortnightly Saturday morning tours (starting in Washington Park) and reservations for private tours.