Southern Rock: Under The Sign Of Capricorn

DOWN ON COTTON Avenue in Macon, Georgia, lie the offices of Capricorn Records, slotted between a funeral parlour and a beauty salon that’s anything but beautiful from the outside. Just down the street is the city centre, a white town hall with an eternal flame glowing in memory of John Kennedy.

During the American Civil War the city centre gained brief fame as the State Capitol for a short while. Seems that the Yankees missed out Macon in their pursuit of the Rebels so Macon became a safe place to fly the Southern flag.

All that’s changed now and Macon, which lies about 100 miles south east of Atlanta, is a slow-moving town where accents resemble the Beverly Hillbillies, where the churches are full on Sundays and where it’s kinda hard to find a cotton field even if the Swanee River does flow a few miles south from the city limits.

Right now Macon’s chief export is Southern rock and roll. It’s a brand that’s originated from mixing black soul music with the country sounds from Nashville, but playing it easy and letting the music flow forth instead of rasp its way forth like it does in the cities of America.

If rock emerged as the frustrated sound of the city, then Southern rock and roll has left the frustrations behind.

The Allman Brothers Band have a good ‘ol time playin’ their music (as they would probably tell you), and now there are others in their wake doing the same thing.

Capricorn has become the chief exporter of this brand, with its two principals, Phil Walden and Frank Fenter at the top of the tree. Walden is the boss of everything – manager of the Allmans, boss of the record company and also owner of sundry other Macon enterprises – while Fenter is his right hand, running the day to day business of the Capricorn while Walden is sorting out the numerous problems surrounding the Brothers.

Like the Brothers, Capricorn too is a slowly expanding family, a sort of ideal situation for a record company who just happen to also own the best studio for miles around, rivalling the facilities offered in New York and Los Angeles.

Many of their musicians live around the town and are constantly dropping into the offices on both social and business visits.

The first day I was there I met Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams, pianist and bass player with the Allman Brothers respectively, while Gregg dropped in the following day. If the offices were in the city it wouldn’t work – there’d be “Capricorn Scruffs” outside on the sidewalk all day.

Walden began his career in music as a fan and joined a local band. But after one night’s performance he realised his place was as a back room administrator rather than on the stage.

Walden was involved with Tony Joe White at one time, but the Allmans were his first real white band – even though they already were integrated with Jaimoe on drums.

“People asked me whether I had any problems with an integrated band, but I’d never even thought about it until I was asked,” says Walden. “I don’t think the band realised they were integrated until it was pointed out to them. They were picked because of their musical ability and the bulk of American musicians, whether black or white, have always come from the South.”

By this time – late 1968 – Walden had already built the Macon studio (although it was to be considerably improved in later years) and Jerry Wexler approached him about forming his own label to be distributed through Atlantic.

The first artists on the label would be the Allman Brothers Band.

“CAPRICORN right from the outset had a different approach and different attitudes to other record companies,” says Walden. “We wanted it to be a company rather than a label. Anyone can have a label; you can start one tomorrow. There’s always plenty of labels around. We anticipate an artist’s needs.

“We were in management first, and that’s because we’ve been successful.

“We have in-house producers, in-house press office, and an in-house promotion department, which makes us a company instead of a label. The artists are always the ultimate factor in assessing success but the way we go about caring for them has helped a lot.”

Walden also manages The Marshall Tucker Band and Wet Willie, both of whom are Capricorn Artists. The remainder of the artists on the label are managed by outside people; these include the James Montgomery Band, Captain Beyond, Hydra, Duke Williams and the Extreems, Dexter Redding (eldest son of Otis), Livingston Taylor, Eddie Henderson and Martin Mull.

Asked to explain the phenomenal success of the Allman Brothers, Walden is quick to explain that their career has been building for four years and has now come to fruition.

“They’re a band who have never short changed the public. They’ve been consistently playing good music for four years now and rightly won the acclaim they deserve.

“It’s been said that sympathy has played a part but I don’t think this is a major thing. People have asked me whether Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay’ would have sold so many copies if Otis hadn’t died, but all I know is that ‘Dock of the Bay’ is a damn good record. The Allman Brothers play damn fine music.

“I’ve seen a lot of bands that were so bad and I had a lot of sympathy for them. They never made it though.”

Today Capricorn is part of the Warner Bros. Record company. Two years ago they left Atlantic through various differences on how things should be run. Atlantic, says Walden, wanted to do things in ways that he didn’t like, so he decided it was time for a change.

Whether or not the change resulted in their success over the past two years is debatable, but no one can deny that Capricorn have put Macon on the map during the past two years.

South African Frank Fenter, Walden’s right hand man, worked at Atlantic’s London office for four and a half years before joining Capricorn when it was started. At this time Atlantic was distributed by Polydor in the UK, but Fenter’s major coup was signing Yes to Atlantic in Britain.

The Capricorn Studios are across town from the company offices. Although there’s just one actual studio, it’s as well equipped as any in America and staffed by a house band as well as engineers.

The house band call themselves Cowboy, and it is Cowboy who will be backing Gregg Allman on his upcoming solo tour.

They were built by Walden before he started the Capricorn label, and were used primarily by rhythm and and blues artists like Arthur Conley, who needed the staff band as backing musicians. As the record company grew, so the studios changed over to recording groups and over the past two years it’s been in an almost continuous state of rebuilding. The most recent overhaul cost them $600,000.

The studio is open for 24 hours most days and is used almost exclusively by Capricorn acts.

The only British musician to have been there is Jeff Beck, who was looking for musicians to join him and Cozy Powell, though Yes engineer Eddie Offord produced the first two albums by Wet Willie.

While I was there Tom Dowd, one of Atlantic’s top producers since the company’s inception, was working with Wet Willie on their third album.

Brothers and Sisters, the Allman’s last album, was cut in these studios but, apart from a few tracks on Idlewild South, their other albums were made elsewhere, Gregg Allman’s Laid Back was cut here.

WET WILLIE were the second band to be signed to Capricorn Records. Though originally they come from Mobile. Alabama, they signed with Walden in 1970 and have gradually built up a loyal following in the South through numerous local appearances and three albums, the last one a live recording. Nationwide they have still to make an impact.

They’re a hard driving, dirty rock and roll outfit – a British equivalent could well be Status Quo, though Willie do stretch out beyond the basic blues format, and their choice of material is roughly a half and half split between original and trusted favourites, by other writers.

Wet Willie are Jimmy Hall (vocals), bother Jack Hall (bass, vocals), Rick Hirsch (guitar), John Anthony (keyboards, vocals), and Lewis Ross (drums).

“We were all playing in various bands around Mobile before we eventually got together to call ourselves the Fox,” says Ross. “We got together about four years ago, although we’ve changed guitar players twice and added some chick singers called the Williettes who join us whenever they can.

“Rick and John do most of the writing but Jimmy gets in there, too, writing songs individually sometimes. But we do our own arrangements of other people’s tunes as well.

“We didn’t form with the intention of playing any specific kind of music, just good music which we hope everybody likes. You can’t say that we’re definitely a hard rock band or a rhythm and blues band but I suppose we’re heading in that direction. We’re into black music as well.”

Willie have spent most of their time on the road since their formation and have played support to several bigger outfits on national tours. “We can go to certain cities in America now and do very well, but we still have to make ourselves known in certain parts of America,” says Ross.

“The audience response has changed a lot since we’ve been going, maybe because our kind of music is getting to be popular. Obviously we’re bigger in the South than anywhere else.”

The link up with Eddie Offord came about through Frank Fenter, who knew Eddie from his days with Yes in London. “When we first went into the studio we had a different producer but we didn’t particularly like what he was doing so Frank got in touch with Eddie for us. The next thing we knew he was producing our album.

“For the next album, which we’re doing at the moment, we have brought Tom Dowd from New York, and he’s nothing short of being the best. Although Offord was excellent, Tom Dowd is more familiar with the kind of sound we are after.

“He knows r & b and Southern music and admires people we admire, too. Eddie Offord’s work with Yes is kinda different from ours.”

Willie have toured the States with the Allmans, Jeff Beck, Alice Cooper, War and Sly Stone – with the last they were supposed to play five concerts but Sly turned up for just three. “The first gig we did with him, we had just finished our set when the stage manager came up to us and told us to get out quick ‘cos he was about to announce that Sly wasn’t going to show up. It was a pretty weird situation.”

Despite their closeness with the Allman Brothers, Ross doesn’t think that Wet Willie have been influenced by them a great deal.

“They do a different style of music to ours. People have told us we’re influenced by them but I can’t draw any comparisons.”

THE MARSHALL TUCKER Band are a more recent addition to the Capricorn stable of artists.

They’ve made a couple of albums, the second of which is due to be released any time. Unlike Wet Willie, they don’t live in Macon but in Spartanburg, South Carolina, around 400 miles away. By American standards that’s a neighbouring area.

The band was formed from the remnants of another Spartenburg band, the Toy Factory, in 1971, and a year later they auditioned for Capricorn at Macon’s Grant’s Club. Phil Walden signed them the next day.

The group comprises Tommy Caldwell (bass, vocals), brother Toy Caldwell (lead guitar, vocals), George McCorkle (rhythm guitar), Doug Gray (vocals, percussion), Paul Riddle (drums) and Jerry Eubanks (reeds and vocals).

It was in late 1971 that Tom Caldwell, George McCorkle and Paul Riddle formed a three piece outfit that was to become the nucleus of the Marshall Tucker Band. The rest joined during the following six months.

“Basically it was different people from different bands in the town getting together to play original material instead of other people’s songs,” says Tom Caldwell, who has now taken over the role as leader of the band.

“Most of the bands in South Carolina do the usual Top 40 showband material, but we decided we wanted to do something different, so when the band was finally all together we sent some tapes to Phil Walden.

“Fortunately he liked them, so we came down to Macon to make the first album.

“My brother and I started playing together when we were really young. Our father was a country musician so we started out along those lines but gradually moved into rock and roll.

“There are many different aspects to the people in the group, though, which makes for the better. Jerry, the horn player, is more into soul than any of us; Paul, the drummer, is into jazz a lot; Doug, the singer can sing anything you tell him to; George the rhythm guitar player is into rhythm and blues, while my brother and I were brought up with a country music background.”

The Tucker band were due to have come over to Europe with the Allmans so the cancellation has left them with an unwanted lay-off.

They spend three weeks out of every month on the road, and frequently appear on the same bill as the Allmans. “They like us and ask us to play with them whenever we can,” says Toy. “I don’t think they have influenced us much musically but they have taught us a great deal about life on the road and were very helpful to us.”

There’s more sublety to the Tucker Band than Wet Willie, who are basically a rhythm and blues outfit. Tucker add touches of jazz and play in a much freer vein. Their new album, says Tom Caldwell, will be even freer than their first.

“There’s a lot more parts for everybody to play and we had more opportunity to jam in the studio. Everybody in the band has become looser now.

“When we play live we often get into a groove and stay in it. We don’t often play the same set live twice, and the reaction to us has generally been good, even though most audiences are sitting waiting for the Allman Brothers.

“It’s a great experience to play in the big 25,000 seater halls that the Allmans do.”

© Chris CharlesworthMelody Maker, 2 February 1974

Leave a Comment