Macon Music History: A Look Back and a Walking Tour Forward

By: Jessica Walden, Rock Candy Tours Co-owner

I am not a historian. I am not a musician. I am not even a music aficionado by any sorts. I wasn’t even a twinkle in my dad’s eye when he met a man named Otis Redding, who would ultimately change all of our lives and the rhythm of rhythm and blues forever.

But I’ve heard the stories. So, I am here today to share with you some of the stories I’ve heard second generation and first hand from my father Alan Walden, a 2003 inductee of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, who was pulled into the fabric of Georgia music history through his big brother Phil Walden, a 1986 inductee of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Phil was one of the most passionate music fans the South ever saw and right behind that was his passion for historic preservationist.

Along the way in the Walden family’s journey in Macon music history, my grandfather came on board, going from single-minded segregationist to a open-minded road manager to some of the world’s most famous rhythm and blues artists, who he loved and protected maybe even more so than his own children.

In 2010, I started conducting casual music history walking tours in the College Hill Corridor area of downtown Macon. A year later, Rock Candy Tours was formed. For over two hours we take you on a journey back in time that covers everything from the location and story behind the Allman Brothers’ first album cover to the first office space of my Uncle Phil and Otis Redding, which incidentally, became the first integrated staff of Macon. We can tell you about the birth of the concert t-shirt. The hotel room where Little Richard once lived. The room where James Brown recorded “Please, Please, Please” and the place where Lynyrd Skynyrd was treated as a business just as much as much one of the world’s greatest rock bands.

Just down the road from my home, across the Phil Walden Interchange and Otis Redding Memorial Bridge is Cherry Street. It was there that in the late mid-fifties, you might see a man named Richard Wayne Penniman twirling a parasol. By then he was known as Little Richard, and he was well on his way to being named the Architect of Rock and Roll. Before that he had been known for hitting the high notes at church or while washing dishes at Macon’s Greyhound Bus Station or doing crazy stage antics that nobody in this town had ever seen – or rarely approved – at Anne’s Tic-Tock Lounge.

My Uncle Phil was a teenager then. It was Little Richard’s “race records” that began his deep love affair with black music. Phil got to meet Richard several times over the course of his career – but the family legend goes that the first time was on Cherry Street. What was Richard doing? Twirling a parasol. My Uncle was star-struck but managed to speak:

“Tutti Fruitti,” he mustered.

“Good booty,” replied Richard with a hop, a jump, a skip and I can only imagine an elegant twirl of his parasol.

Phil was just a teenager. He started out in the car, parked outside the Douglass Theatre. He wasn’t allowed inside to catch the weekly talent shows hosted by radio station WIBB (whose call letters remain on air today). It wasn’t because the all-black audience wouldn’t let him. It was because the law would have them shut down if they did. He had fallen in love with the sound of the weekly talent show winner, Rockhouse Redding, who kept blowing the competition away.

Eventually Phil convinced Otis Redding to let him be his manager, despite he was just a Mercer University Phi Delt who knew little about business or management.

As fate would have it, what they didn’t know would be their greatest benefit. It started with Phil booking bands for his fraternity. In addition to Otis, Phil discovered an entire stable of black rhythm and blues artists that the white kids were beginning to dig. The business became business enough to open Phil Walden Artists and Promotions in the Professional Building, now the Robert E. Lee Building on Mulberry Street, near the Cannonball House and one of our tour stops.

This was also the place that WIBB had an office and a studio. My dad came into the business when Phil was commissioned through his service with ROTC to serve as a Second Lieutenant and sent to Germany. Dad got a crash course in music booking and management before his big brother was quickly deployed. Luckily, dad and Otis became fast friends. Otis was like a new big brother. And to Otis, he became his little brother, Red.

Otis was not the only hit to come out of their agency. Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” was the company’s first number one. Percy would have re-located from Alabama to live in Macon, but the house he purchased was burned to the ground just days before he permanently moved here.

It wouldn’t be long before Otis’ trajectory began. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t live long enough to see his own number one, “Dock of the Bay” climb the charts or his song “Respect,” as sung by Aretha Franklin, be named among the top five songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Otis’s plane went down in December, 1967. He was only 26-years-old and had a young family here in Central Georgia – Round Oak to be exact. They remain here today where they operate the Otis Redding Foundation in his honor in Downtown Macon, another stop on our tour.

Just a few years after Otis’ death, at the dawn of the 70s, Capricorn Records was born. There was a time that the Allman Brothers didn’t sell out shows at the Macon City Auditorium in record time. A few bucks meant the coldest beer in town in a hot box club called Grant’s Lounge, where the Allmans would often play, as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, Boz Scaggs or other future legends who would be passing through the night.

My dad left Capricorn before the Allmans struck it big and went on to go solo and discover another southern band with a unique sound called Lynyrd Skynyrd. Dad’s office was located on Walnut Street. It was there he managed their career and publishing on songs like “Freebird,” “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

It was right before a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert that my dad and mom married in true seventies style. Several years later, I was barely a month old when Skynyrd’s plane went down, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who had served as my dad’s best man. Fortunately, for all of us, dad was no longer their manager or he could have been on that plane.

There were too many funerals in the late sixties and seventies for musicians. Otis’ funeral was the largest one the Macon City Auditorium has ever seen. Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were both pronounced dead at what is now the Medical Center of Central Georgia, by the same fate, far too young, in motorcycle crashes. They are interred side by side in Rose Hill Cemetery, now maintained by Macon’s Parks and Recreation.

Some say all things happen for a reason. But I am not sure the reason why music had to die in Macon. Was it the rise of disco? Was it bad business decisions? Was it good riddance from a town who still wasn’t sold on blacks and whites living, working and playing alongside each other – or all those things that come along with rock-and-roll and long-haired hippy boys?

But the reality is it happened. And the truth is, Macon has never been the same – for better or for worse. My uncle moved on to Nashville and later Atlanta, where he continued to have one career resurrection after another with his unbelievable ability to spot a star . . . a young Kenny Chesney, a struggling writer and actor named Billy Bob Thornton, a comedian with a humorous “Hey Vern” skit named Jim Varney and a band that seemed to have an audience appeal like no other named Widespread Panic were just a few of them. Phil Walden never came back to live in Macon. He recovered his losses and occasionally came back to visit. But it was never home again until his final days. His funeral was to be in Atlanta. But he asked that his burial would take place, back where it all began, also at Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery.

Here in my hometown of Macon, we’ve certainly got enough existing historic structures that serve as some of the best relics a museum could never hold. We’ve got walls that can talk. Sidewalks that could sing. Existing structures that truly created history. And a stories that no movie script could quite replicate – deep racial division, soul music, over-coming that division, tragedy, heart break, a rebel re-birth that proved the south could do it again – this time on level playing fields instead of cotton fields – as well as tragedy and heartbreak again and again.

The Allman Brothers Band Museum is in the reclaimed and re-used Big House. We still have shows at the renovated historic Douglass Theatre. Grant’s Lounge on Poplar Street continues to host live music on its original stage. The former Capricorn Studio, which made the Georgia Trusts’ “Ten Places in Peril” list for the state, has been rescued and is currently undergoing renovation. We have a world class music program at Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie School of Strings, soon to be located in the original building where the Allmans shot their first album cover.

When Macon lost the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2011, we formed Rock Candy Tours because an institution doesn’t hold our music history. We do. Just scroll through your iPod – Otis Redding, James Brown, Little Richard, Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Marshall Tucker, Boz Saggs, Tom Petty, REM and even today, rapper Young Jeezy and country popstar Jason Aldean have the town of Macon somewhere on their map to success. And I can guarantee you, as a fan of the local live music scene today, that Macon is not done with its music exports.

Lightening doesn’t strike twice. Unless you’re here in Macon, Georgia. What else gave Little Richard that Whap-bop-a-loo-lop; James Brown that plead in “Please, Please, Please;” Otis’ signature “Gotta, Gotta;” Duane Allman’s weeping slide guitar, Phil Walden the uncanny ability to befriend legendary talent time and time again? We’re all lightening rods here today. This isn’t just my heritage; it’s yours, too. It’s closer than you think. Here in Macon, Georgia, we’re one of the few cities where historic songs still shout in its parks, sidewalks, landmarks and historic structures. We’ll take you there on a Rock Candy Tour.