REBUILDING THE BIRTHPLACE OF ROCK
Words by Javacia Harris Bowser
Photos by Matthew Odom
The Allman Brothers Band. Otis Redding. Little Richard. These are just three of the legendary musical acts whose roots can be traced to Macon, Georgia. Founded in 1823 on the banks of the Ocmulgee River, Macon boasts a musical heritage unmatched by any other midsize city.
As soon as you enter the city, it’s clear that Macon is a music town. You’ll drive down streets like Duane Allman Memorial Boulevard, Jason Aldean Way, and Little Richard Penniman Boulevard. A bronze life-size statue of Otis Redding sits on “the dock of the bay” overlooking the Ocmulgee River, next to the Otis Redding Memorial Bridge.
Macon’s influence on the music of the past has paved the way for the impact the city hopes to have on American popular music in the future. No place is this more evident than at Mercer Music at Capricorn.
Capricorn Sound Studios is known as the birthplace of Southern rock but was initially meant to be the home of R&B and Soul. Purchased in 1967, the space was originally meant to be a recording studio for Otis Redding and other R&B musicians on the label he’d created with Phil and Alan Walden, RedWal Music. RedWal Music was one of the first integrated office staffs in Macon and represented artists Percy Sledge, Johnny Taylor, Etta James, and more.
But tragedy struck. Redding was killed in a plane crash in December 1967, just one month before the release of “The Dock of the Bay,” which would become his biggest hit.
The Walden brothers started a new label with Frank Fenter called Capricorn Records and then opened the label’s official recording studio, Capricorn Sound Studios, in 1969.
The studio worked with a variety of musicians, including The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, Wet Willie, and many more. And it was at Capricorn that influences from blues, soul, rockabilly, and country blended to create a new musical genre—Southern rock.
The studio closed in 1979 and fell into disrepair. Part of the roof had caved in, and the floors in some of the rooms had fallen into the basement. Through a partnership with Mercer University, NewTown Macon, Sierra Development Group, and Southern Pine Plantations, Capricorn has been donated to the university and restored. In December of 2019, just in time for the studio’s 50th anniversary, the space was relaunched as Mercer Music at Capricorn and now includes two recording studios, a performance space, and an interactive museum that traces the history of Capricorn.
Mercer Music at Capricorn
A tour of Mercer Music at Capricorn feels like a journey back and forth through time. Historic Studio A, the original studio that produced some of Capricorn Records’ biggest hits, features state-of-the-art analog and digital equipment and the same curtains that hung in the room in the 1970s. Also, in the building you’ll see the piano where Otis Redding wrote some of his earliest hits, such as “Mr. Pitiful” and “These Arms of Mine.” Look closely and notice the singed spots on the ivory keys. That’s where Redding would grind out his cigarettes before picking up his pen to jot down lyrics. Meanwhile, the larger, more modern Studio B features video projection and is suitable for orchestral or large ensemble recording. The folks at Capricorn hope to get in on the film industry boom in Atlanta and serve as a hub for producing movie scores. The studios are fully functioning and are being used by both emerging and established artists. The Capricorn Music Incubator serves as a coworking space for musicians, and Capricorn will soon begin hosting classes for Mercer, too.
Upstairs you’ll find an interactive museum designed to look like a record store. With limited space to work with, Capricorn Museum curators got creative. While there’s some memorabilia in the room, such as handwritten notes between Phil Walden and Otis Redding, contracts for Duane Allman, and Frank Fenter’s briefcase, most of the treasures have been digitized. At the museum’s digital kiosks, you can browse through documents and photographs while listening to the music that Capricorn Studios and Capricorn Records helped put into the world.
Rock n’ Soul Tour
To truly appreciate Macon’s music legacy, you should take a guided tour through the city. Rock Candy Tours offers a two-hour Rock n’ Soul riding tour on Saturdays. Hop on a van and see the homes, offices, and favorite haunts and hangout spots of the legends that put Macon on the music map.
During the tour you’ll see Little Richard’s childhood home and some of the places the Allman Brothers Band members liked to crash when they weren’t on the road. You’ll see the building that once housed the official headquarters of Capricorn Records too.
Showing just how versatile the music of Macon truly is, the tour also includes a stop by the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings located in the historic Bell House. This is one of the most prestigious string programs in the world. And the porch of The Bell House is where the Allman Brothers’ self-titled debut album cover was shot. Yes, this means you and your friends can stand by the Antebellum-style columns and take an Allman Brothers-inspired picture of your own for Instagram.
Take a solemn stroll through Rose Hill Cemetery where Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band are interred side by side.
During the tour you’ll also stop by the historic Douglass Theatre. Founded by Charles Douglass, Macon’s first African-American millionaire, it began in 1921 as an African-American movie theatre and vaudeville hall and hosted the greats of blues and jazz, such as Duke Ellington, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and Cab Calloway.
Later, as R&B began to emerge, James Brown and Otis Redding would perform at the Douglass Theatre too. As a teenager, Redding competed in talent shows hosted at the Douglass Theatre, and he won so many times he was eventually no longer allowed to compete.
The Douglass Theatre closed in the 1970s but was eventually restored and reopened by the City of Macon in 1997. Today the Douglass hosts live performances, movie screenings, film festivals, and more.
The Otis Redding Mini Museum
Born in Dawson, Georgia, Otis Redding and his family moved to Macon when he was a boy. Growing up, he sang in the church choir and participated in his high school band. Otis was also a singing member of Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers before launching his solo career. In Macon, he met his manager, Phil Walden, and together they launched a management and booking agency for R&B artists who, like Redding, were integrating mainstream music and its audiences.
If you’re in Macon on a weekday, but sure to stop by the Otis Redding Museum. Located on Cotton Avenue in the heart of downtown Macon, the museum features memorabilia and merchandise you can’t find anywhere else and offers a peek inside Redding’s life, including his accomplishments and awards. At the museum you’ll see not only photographs of some of Redding’s performances but also images that capture tender moments with his family and friends.
You can snag an Otis Redding-inspired T-shirt or sweatshirt while you’re there too. Proceeds from items sold benefit the programs of The Otis Redding Foundation. Established in 2007 by Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, it offers camps, workshops, and private lessons for youth interested in music and is yet another example of how Macon’s musical past is paving a way for its future.
The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House
The Allman Brothers Band was formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1969 by Duane Allman (slide guitar and lead guitar) Gregg Allman (vocals, organ, songwriting), Dickey Betts (lead guitar, vocals, songwriting), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Butch Trucks (drums), and Jaimoe (drums). From 1969 to 1979, the Allman Brothers called Macon home and today are considered architects of Southern rock.
If you’re not an Allman Brothers Band fan, you will be by the time you’ve left Macon. And if you are a fan, you’ll never want to leave, especially after you step foot inside The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House.
This historic Tudor house is where the original members of The Allman Brothers Band and their extended family lived from early 1970 to January 1973. The house has been renovated and transformed into a museum that showcases instruments and other memorabilia from the band.
At the Big House you can stand in the room where the band would rehearse, and you can see Gregg Allman’s songwriting notebooks. You’ll see jackets and T-shirts the band members wore on stage. You’ll see handwritten letters, magazine covers, and photographs.
There’s a recreation of Duane Allman’s bedroom, complete with his first guitar and one of his favorite pairs of shoes. In the recreation of the bedroom Berry Oakley shared with his wife Linda, you’ll find a pair of jeans Linda customized for him.
It was in the kitchen of the house where Dickey Betts wrote “Ramblin’ Man.” The table you’ll see is an original from H & H, a diner run by Louise Hudson who would feed the band when they didn’t have any money in the early days. She was like a second mother to them.
Don’t leave Macon without having a meal at H & H. The walls are lined with pictures of The Allman Brothers Band and of other music legends with ties to Macon. Serving breakfast, lunch, and brunch, the H & H menu features biscuits with names such as Jaimoe, Berry, and Ramblin Man.
For dinner, head to the Rookery, especially if you like burgers. The Rookery has been voted best in town and was featured in Garden and Gun’s “Guide to the South’s Best Burgers in 2014.” How can you resist the James Brown Black and Blue Burger? If you’re in the mood for a sandwich instead, there’s the Little Richard Pennimelt or the Outkast’s Stankonia.
Before planning your trip to Macon, visit MaconMusicTrail.com, an online resource and directory created by Visit Macon to highlight the city’s music history and to help you discover what Macon still has in store.