Snapshots of the South: The Allman Brothers and Capricorn Records

MAKING AN AIR APPROACH to Atlanta is like diving into a monstrous tossed salad. The land below is a fluffy carpet of complimentary greens which seems to stretch beyond the distant curve of the earth. The open spaces are given over to the necessary compromises to man – roadways, houses, and Golden Tombstone drive-ins – but Mother Nature steadfastly holds on to the rest.

The first thing you notice about Atlanta is its women. Eat a peach, indeed! Georgia has the most beautiful girls in the world: all suntanned and healthy, foregoing the standard street uniform of jeans and workshirts in favor of multi-colored blouses and skirts so short you’d swear (with a smile) 1966 had arrived and decided to stay.

If you’re as radically hirsute as this reporter was when he first set foot on Southern soil, you’ll get a lot of straight stares from the old crust who, if they’ve paid lip service to the liberalization of the South, keep their unspoken outrage close to their hearts. Still, the vision of a slow and sullen people with suspicious natures and itchy trigger fingers carried by outsiders like myself are soon enough revealed as twisted cartoons.

I was joined on the shuttle to Macon by members of the Allman Brothers Band and road crew. When an elderly gentleman in conservate grey suit and distinguished moustache inquired as to how things were going, the Band fell into an amiable conversation about gigs, motels, and life in general on the road. Apparently, Macon considers the Allman Brothers as respectable a business operation as the bank on the corner. And well they might.

On the surface, Macon seems like it could have leaped out of one of Faulkner’s classier sketchbooks. Its streets are sleepy and tree-lined; though she shows the signs of a contemporary face-lift, the spirit of Macon is old and dignified. Like most warmer locales, she has found her own comfortable pace for tending to business. There is a bad side of town, of course. But you almost have to have a bad side of town to learn the things they won’t tell you about on the right side of the tracks. Like rock and roll.

His multi-armed operation isn’t listed in the city’s Economic Profile, but Phil Walden has done considerably more than his share to breathe a new life into Macon and the South as a whole. It goes far beyond the Allman Brothers and Capricorn Records to encompass recording studios, management, booking and publishing concerns.

Walden wasn’t the first by any means: the Greyhound bus station where Little Richard wrote ‘Tutti Frutti’ over a sinkful of dirty dishes still stands as a point of historical interest, and will remain one long after the building itself is gone. Same for Anne’s Tick Tock, a black club that served as inspiration for ‘Miss Anne’. The musical heritage of Macon is as rich as the soil it sits on, and what’s happening there now may well serve as the basis for a future historical view.*

Right now Phil Walden is on the phone with a representative from the Music Men for Nixon, trying to rouse his energy for the re-election campaign. “I don’t know,” Walden is saying coyly, “I’ve been reading about how Mr. Nixon’s said he wants no part of rock’n’roll. Well, that’s about all we know down here. How can you ask me to support a man who’s publicly stated he doesn’t like my kind?” Later, he adds a well-placed jibe: “McGovern? Hell, if I answered every call form his people, I’d be on the phone with them all day long. Why, just last week, George said to me, ‘Phil, I’m gonna take all your money and redistribute it.’ And I said, ‘Sure, George, you can take it all. Just leave me enough to get high every once in a while, or drunk sometimes, and I’ll be happy.”

If Phil Walden was seen as the archetype of the Southern man – which, in a jet-age way he is – many less pleasing stereotypes might never have come to be. Barely thirty, he retains just enough boyish charm and enthusiasm to offset the hard calculation that is a natural part of his job. Walden seems most at home with a smile on his face, and prefers to dress casually – usually in jeans and some kind of print shirt. He seldom wears suits of any kind.

Long before Capricorn Records was even a tentative idea, Phil Walden was getting an education in rock and roll. He’d crossed over the tracks many times to catch a glimpse of some “real music” – the frenzied R&B of which Little Richard was only an advance warning. On one such night, he happened across Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers and was knocked out by the power and finesse of their lead singer. The singer was Otis Redding, and this is really where the Phil Walden story begins.

Much to the dismay of the white populace of Macon, Walden became Otis’ manager and set about breaking him into a market which felt safer with watered-down substitutes. In the standard tradition of one night at-a-time barnstorm tours (a formula to which Walden has adhered in breaking all his acts since) Otis quickly commandeered the R&B charts. What remained was the white market, an area whose barriers had steadfastly protected the young and innocent from anything as earthy as Otis Redding.

Walden approached the problem by entrenching Otis in Europe, perhaps hoping that the phenomenon might be more readily accepted if it came by way of a foreign port. Europe received Otis with a passion with bordered on mania; Live in Europe remains the definitive document of R&B excitement. Appearances back home at the Whiskey A Go Go and Monterey Pop introduced the man to the emerging youth culture, and they welcomed him with open arms and no reservations.

A plane crash in 1968 resigned Otis Redding to history before he’d even begun to make his contribution. He never even saw the gold record for ‘Dock of the Bay’ which hangs on Phil Walden’s wall. It was his first.

Zelma Redding lives on the 130 acre farm outside Macon her husband purchased shortly before his death. The house is still cluttered with musical instruments; Otis Jr. does a pretty fair job of keeping up on guitar and drums. Somewhere in the jumble sits a scratchy dub of ‘Just Like A Woman’ which Bob Dylan submitted to Otis on 1966 for consideration. (When the two met in L.A., Dylan confided in hushed tones that he had attempted to sing like Otis on that tune.)

“I’m not going any place,” Zelma stated warmly but firmly. “I going to be right here. I can leave for two or three days, but then I’m ready to come back home. Everybody here is like, you know, one family. Otis was born in Dawson, Georgia, but he grew up here. He never thought of leaving Macon. Everybody said, ‘Well, Otis is getting big, he’s not gonna stay in that small town.’ But he loved this farm and he loved Macon; this is where he wanted to be.”

And then her face lights up as she remembers: “We had and all-night barbecue out at the farm in 1967. A convention was being held in Atlanta, and we invited all the disc jockeys. There were six Greyhound busloads and all the cars we could fit on the property. We had a bar set up, and to feed everybody we killed 5 hogs, 2 cows and… we just had everything. We even had a show – we had Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley, all of the artists were there. Why, everybody came! It was beautiful…”

The walls of Phil Walden’s office are proof enough that he has never been one to put all his eggs on one basket. While he was building Otis, he was developing other artists as well. There seems to be a gold record everywhere you look – ‘Soul Man’ by Sam and Dave, ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Percy Sledge and Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’ (written and produced by Otis) – everywhere you look. The loss of Otis was felt deeply on all levels, but it merely closed one chapter in Phil Walden’s book and ushered in another.*

At approximately the same time as Otis’ death, another kind of death was taking place on the West Coast. There, a group of five young southern musicians called the Hourglass were being strangled by the music business in ways they weren’t even aware of. Dressed up in somebody else’s idea of what a groovy rock and roll band should be, they weren’t making it on the charts or with themselves. When a B.B. King medley they’d recorded out of pure frustration (at their own expense in Muscle Shoals) was rejected by their record company, they kissed Hollywood goodbye and headed home.

While recording in Muscle Shoals, the guitar player of the Hourglass had drawn the attention of session man-producer Rick Hall, who thought enough of him to put him on a Wilson Pickett session. He may have looked strange to the conservative eye – walrus moustache, flowing red hair and left-over Hollywood pop-star clothes – but when Duane Allman picked up a guitar, nobody was inclined to complain.

“Duane Allman actually gave the song ‘Hey Jude’ to Wilson Pickett,” remembers Phil Walden with a smile. “He brought it in and played it and Wilson started singing ‘hey jew’ and then said ‘I don’t think Jerry Wexler’s gonna like me singing that; running down his religion.’ ‘No, no,’ we told him, ‘it’s ‘hey, Jude‘, the name of a person, a name of a man.’ ‘Shit,’ said Wilson, ‘I ain’t singing no fag songs…’ He sang it though, and that single established Duane as a session guitarist.”

When the smoke cleared Duane Allman had become Atlantic’s most distinctive session guitarist, compiling credits that probably would have qualified him to play on God’s next single. Walden took over his management when the urge to put together another band couldn’t be ignored.

They took it slowly. An early group (with Paul Hornsby and John Sandlin of Hourglass, and Berry Oakley) featuring Duane as guitarist and singer didn’t work out, but when he returned to Macon some months later with a new band, the situation had improved drastically.

This new band, which had come together in Florida, was a six man unit: Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson on drums, bassist Berry Oakley, brother Gregg Allman on keyboards and vocals, and Duane and Dicky Betts on guitars. In reaction to the image consciousness which had caged the Hourglass, the Allman Brothers Band (as they were called) dealt in what can best be described as pure music. They took their blues and country roots and expanded upon them to produce a new synthesis. Their music had the earthy appeal of those forms, but the band’s orientation was toward complex but well-defined jams.

Months of woodshedding produced a tight and powerful first album, which sold only moderately well. Following Walden’s formula of non-stop roadwork, the Allmans developed a loyal grassroots audience. They were their own best advertisement. Each gig added a few more destroyed heads to their following. A second album, Idlewild South revealed the band’s expanding musical identity and a corresponding increase in sales. They weren’t yet rolling royalties or fan mail, but everybody seemed to agree that they were on the verge of becoming something big.*

In 1970 I produced and promoted an Allman Brothers Band concert for a small college in Ohio. Idlewild South had been released to favorable reaction, but the concert still carried the overtones of a risky proposition. The band name wasn’t exactly a fraternity password, and the general consensus seemed to be that the Association would’ve made everybody a lot happier. Tickets weren’t selling well at all.

The night of the concert arrived, and it didn’t look too bad. Word of mouth had drawn people from Cleveland and Cincinnatti, and there were enough curious and/or bored college students to just about break even. The only problem was that the Allman Brothers hadn’t arrived.

Ten minutes before they were scheduled to go on, we got word that they had been snowed in at their point of departure and would have to get another plane. They arrived a full two hours late, and promptly fell asleep in the dressing room, victims of battle fatigue. Duane remained asleep until they were called to go on, out once he hit the stage it was like a scene from a Japanese monster movie. They burned relentlessly for an hour and a half, and the crowd wouldn’t let them off. After two encores, they piled into a car and caught the last flight to Philadelphia. The crowd on Ohio was probably still screaming for more when their plane touched down.*

The first Allman Brothers album had been released on Atco, but attached was a “Capricorn Series” logo. “I had been fishing in Florida with Jerry Wexler,” Phil Walden recalled, “right after I finished the studio here in Macon. He told me I should have a label. I told him I didn’t want a label, but he said, ‘Aw, c’mon, have a label.’ I finally said ok, but I didn’t know what to call it. Jerry asked me what my sign was, and when I told him Capricorn, he said, ‘I’m a Capricorn too; call it Capricorn.’ And that’s the way it happened.

The “Capricorn Series” thing came about because they thought having the Atco label would help with airplay, but also because the mechanics of having a label hadn’t really been approached. Originally envisioned as an R&B singles label, they were forced into high gear by the release of the Allmans album. Walden had hired Frank Fenter, who had been heading Atlantic operations in Europe, and Capricorn Records quickly got down to the business of internal and external definition.

“When I learned how it was to deal with a big company – trying to get the attention required – we decided we would put together a very artist-oriented label.” Phil Walden speaks with the air of a man who knows where every paper on a cluttered desk can be found. “It was out of necessity. I couldn’t promise an artist certain things and then have the big company let him down. We’ve done a lot of thing that we’ve paid for out of our own pockets, and all our profits went right back into the artists.” One of the best of those moves was installing John Sandlin as producer-in-residence and A&R Director.*

From the street, Capricorn Sound Studios looks like a nesting place for indiscriminate winos. The only clue to the studio’s existence is a small hand-lettered sigh scotchtaped on a bare window. Expectations call for a couple of tape machines propped on wobbly chairs to protect them from the spilled beer and cigarette butts, and a Polish janitor with a three-day growth of beard, Gallo Port strong on his breath.

Inside, however, it’s like walking in on a Costeau acid fantasy. The boardroom has a circular feel, almost like a diving bell. The orange carpeting is so thick you can feel your feet sink in with every step. The multi-colored lights, a little too crayon garish at first, soon mellow out; what initially seemed like some bizarre amusement at a carnival becomes as comfortable as the overstuffed couch in your grandmother’s sitting room.

John Sandlin just about lives here. When you hear a tape in the studio, it’s as if he were entertaining in his living room. The perfect host, he takes the time to explain as many aspects of the equipment and recording process as he thinks you can comprehend. The studio he explains, is four years old, out the “new look” only six months. It was originally built to facilitate the recording demos, but the increasing demands of Capricorn necessitate ceaseless updates.

“The old studio was funky,” Sandlin said, “but it had basic good vibes. A lot of good music has come out of here because the environment feels right.” It was constructed with concepts borrowed from many different studios, and Capricorn feels (rightfully) that its synthesis makes the studio one of the best recording facilities on the continent.

Sandlin has seen the recording process from both ends. He put in a lot of time as a session musician, but feels much more at home when, as a producer, he can direct the action. “I get so frustrated,” he revealed, “I hate to even sit and play. I can’t take it; it does a weird thing to my head. And many times I’ll reject a track just because I’ve played on it. The only place I’m really comfortable is behind the board.”

The emergence of Capricorn has given Sandlin the opportunity to work where he feels most comfortable. “Phil’s done a really good thing. He’ll give everybody a shot; he’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself or be successful. I really appreciate that.”

The waitress in the coffee shop leaped at the chance to tell her story to a famous reporter from the outside world, spilling, in her enthusiasm, a full cup of coffee in his lap. “We had a little colored boy staying here once,” she bubbled. “He’d had some hit records, but that boy was flat broke. He came back for another try, though. I ’bout fainted when he told me how much it costs to make a record; it’s more than I make in four years. What I can’t figure out is where them hippies got all that money…”

The popularity of the Allman Brothers began to mushroom. The non-stop touring formula began to show some returns: in many of the larger markets (New York, Boston, Miami) their audiences rivaled the biggest bands’ in numbers, surpassed them in enthusiasm. Duane’s work with Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos only seemed to focus more attention on his own band. When the Allmans released their third album, Live At Fillmore East, the road ahead couldn’t have looked more open.

Capricorn, too, was beginning to flex its muscles. Following the first Allman’s album came an excellent Johnny Jenkins record, and soon albums by Livingston Taylor (originally singed as a songwriter), Jonathan Edwards and Alex Taylor. None of them produced sales figures to match, but they fared well enough aesthetically to establish Capricorn as more than a one-shot label.

Then, as the machinery hit full throttle – Fillmore East had just been certified gold – a motorcycle accident on a wet Macon road put an early end to the career of Duane Allman. The band met that night and resolved to push onward, but nobody could say for sure exactly what lay ahead.*

You won’t find many of Macon’s best places listed on the city sponsored Heritage Tour. Places like the H&H Restaurant, a funky little lunchtime spot that serves lemonade in big jars, and eatin’ that’s worth getting up before noon. Or Le Carousel, where you’ll get great late-night barbecue chicken, and beer served under the counter in paper cups. (The locals delight in telling stories about Carousel’s owner, who, because he has no liquor license, can frequently be observed running out the back door with kegs of beer under his arms, the Macon constabulary in hot pursuit.)

“There’s always been the pressure to move the label to New York or Los Angeles,” Phil Walden said, “but I ignore it. Here in Macon, nothing’s farther away than the telephone. I don’t particularly care to be involved in the social aspects of the music business, and that’s the only benefit I can see to living in New York or L.A. This way, it breaks down to you and your music; it just sort of cuts away all that superfluous crap.”*

The Allman Brothers’ dressing room was an exercise in well-ordered confusion. Its occupants came and went in a steady stream, as band and business personnel, admires, hangers-on, sightseers and your journalist worked frantically to make the most of a few minutes of precious Allmans’ time.

Even though there was a full hour before show-time, ace road manager Willie Perkins was already in a back room hassling with promoters and police to get the curfew extended, a task he would still be carrying out well into the set. In a cubicle not much larger than a high school locker, Dick Betts, tuning with a small guitar, produced better sounds than most guitarists could get in a 312 track studio.

Since Duane’s death, Dick Betts has been left with all the guitarwork and some mighty big expectations to fulfill. Part of the load is slide guitar, an area where Duane was an acknowledged master. “We have a lot of things,” he stated, “that just sound better with slide. If we decide it needs slide, then I play it.” This workmanlike attitude is abetted by the fact that Dicky happens to be one of rock’s most inventive and melodic guitarists.

Gregg Allman’s keyboard work, too, has of necessity been expanded; he alternates effectively between piano and organ. “Shit,” said drummer Butch Trucks between last-minute gulps of Budweiser, “if he (Gregg) would just grow another pair of hands and play both at the same time, there’d be no problem.”

When it’s time to go on, the road crew cuts a merciless path from the dressing room to the stage. Led by the notorious Red Dog, it is probably the most efficient and certainly the most loyal crew of roadies in all of rock and roll. If you stray a step too close to the band or – God forbid-the equipment, they’re instantly on top of you, fangs bared, a no-nonsense look in their eyes. Their job has only begun when the Brothers hit the stage. Nobody does it better.

A large measure of the success which has come to Phil Walden and Capricorn can be attributed to the convenience of their size. “I don’t ever want to get so large I can’t devote the kind of attention to artists that exists now,” said a firm Walden, “even if it means passing on a sure thing. I don’t like to see a lot of records coming out; I like to put time, planning and energy into each individual project. When a guy signs a contract, you owe him something.”

Then, talking about another manager (who remains nameless to protect the innocent and the lame): “He did absolutely nothing for X, except totally fuck up his affairs. He raised his price to some ridiculous figure and said ‘because I’m so-and-so and I represent him, you pay it.’ Bullshit! You have to look at box office, you have to figure out honestly what a guy is worth. So many managers’ egos become so great they actually think their name is worth box office. We don’t sell tickets; you’ve got to be realistic.

“I wouldn’t allow shit like that to come out,” he said in reference to another label. “I’ve got 20 albums as good as that stuff lying around the studio I’ll give him to put out. We’ll make an album, but if it doesn’t meet certain requirements, we won’t release it. We cut Willie’s album three times – and we didn’t charge them for that.”

Bobby Womack isn’t on Capricorn Records, isn’t managed by Phil Walden, but he is booked by Walden’s agency. For Womack, an R&B force since the early Sixties but only now beginning to “make it” on a large scale, the advantages of Macon are crucial. “They’re hardworking cats,” he says with obvious pleasure. “You got bigger agencies, but they’re bullshit. These people are a small enough agency to be big – if you can get hip to that – because they get behind the artists and really promote. They’ll book you into a lot of places you normally wouldn’t work. Most of the big agencies will book you into only major markets, wait until you’ve burned yourself out, and then drop you. The biggest difference is that these guys care.”

Matha’s Vineyard is a long way form Macon. Alex Taylor, who has two Capricorn albums, maintains a home and budding chicken empire on the island. “The main advantage,” the way Alex sees it, “is that [Capricorn’s] a relatively small operation. You’ve got the advantages of a small label where you can get right to the head man without any problem, but on the other hand, you’ve got the advantages of Warners’ huge distribution. It’s perfect, almost.”

Almost. Alex is currently having some problems with Walden, and the future of their association is up in the air. Alex is slightly older than your average struggling rock and roll singer, and Walden’s grueling tour formula is in direct conflict with the time he feels he must devote to his home and family. “I don’t really know how this going to be resolved,” he said, “but I’ll tell you one thing. Regardless of what might happen in the future, I have the utmost respect for Phil Walden as a manager and a man. Our philosophies might not exactly match up, but what he’s done down there is tremendous.”*

At this very minute, the Allman Brothers are hard at work cutting their next album. Eat A Peach was easily their most successful album, and the side recorded without Duane showed the band as strong – if not stronger – than ever.

Coinciding with the recording dates, the Brothers cancelled their live engagements and are taking a well-deserved vacation. “We toured constantly for three years,” said Dicky Betts with a grin. “We’ve never had to do anything like 30 dates in a row; usually it was just four of five nights a week. But there were times when we were damn lucky if it was only four nights a week.”

“Being on the road can be a depressing proposition for some people,” offered bassist Berry Oakley, “but for us, nothing will ever replace playing for people. We’re just doing what we like best, man – and making a pretty good living at it as well. That’s it right there.”

While most eyes are focused on the Allmans’ activities, Phil Walden is setting up new challenges. Capricorn has recently signed a slew of young talent and you can expect to hear a lot from people like West Willie, Captain Beyond, White Witch and Martin Mull in the coming year. Those acts indicate Capricorn is attempting to move in some different stylistic directions. It’s certainly a healthy sign. If there’s one thing to be said about Phil Walden, it’s probably that he’ll never be tomorrow where he was today.

A perfect case in point is Mac Rebennack (better known as Dr. John), recently added to the Walden management list. “I’ve always been a fan of Mac Rebennack’s” Walden enthused. “At that particular time, I’d said that I wasn’t going to take any more management clients, but I couldn’t turn down getting involved with Mac. He’s just so good. Nobody’s ever made money with him; it’s strictly not a money situation. It was almost as if I owed it to take him on. With a guy that works as hard as he does, somebody’s got to take the time, whether it’s a money-making proposition or not. I’ll always be willing with a guy like Mac Rebennack.”

According to local legend, Otis Redding’s ghost is supposed to haunt Frank Fenter’s office. Duane’s ghost has been alleged to haunt a local house belonging to the band; several people claim to have felt his presence there. In that sense, I guess most all of us are haunted by Duane Allman.

And what of Macon? The population has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and Michael Hyland, a New Yorker now thriving on Southern soil as Capricorn’s publicity director, sees that trend continuing. “I think you’ll see a lot of people coming into Macon,” he said, ‘a growth pattern something like Woodstock. There was a big fuss made about Woodstock, yet it never got out of hand. I don’t think Macon will.”

If this is true, it is because the changes Macon has experienced have been essentially organic. Home-grown operations like Capricorn Records are making the power felt. If a lot of the townspeople still don’t quite grasp many of the things going on around them, there exists at least a workable truce between the old guard and the alien invaders. This time around, the aliens are their own children.

© Ben EdmondsCreem, November 1972

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