Keeping the Blues Alive
by Kirk Andersen
So many cities around the United States have been touched by the history of music and the musicians and businessmen and women who propelled it. Unfortunately, either due to politics, commercial pressures/buyouts or the natural desire to find new music that is yours, these white-hot fires run their course and they flame out to embers. Without the oxygen of people continually dedicated to preserving the music and adapting, these fires soon die down to mere memories.
Our story starts off with Otis Redding and the branches of the blues known as rhythm & blues and soul. Otis had started his career at STAX Recording Studio in South Memphis with Otis’ recording of “These Arms of Mine” in 1962. Two years later Jim STewart & Estelle AXton (STAX took its name from the first two letters of each of the founders’ names) released Otis’ first album, “Pain in My Heart.” The fire was kindled and began to take hold as listeners from around the world found a connection to the music and the artist.
During the same period a Mercer University (Macon, Ga.) graduate named Phil Walden had been booking bands for fraternity parties when he discovered and started booking Otis. Their relationship grew as did each of their careers. Beginning in 1959, Phil started managing Otis’ career. As Otis’ career grew, Phil’s flame also grew as he branched out and started to manage Al Green, Sam & Dav,e and Percy Sledge. This led to Phil’s relationship with Atlantic Records co-head Jerry Wexler.
In 1967, Phil, together with Otis Redding, decided to pool their resources to buy a building and make a recording studio in Macon, Ga. The idea was that Otis wouldn’t have to travel from Macon to Memphis to record. They formed RedWal Music (again this was the first three letters of each partner’s last name, REDding and WALden).
Otis and Phil had chosen the block of four buildings off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Macon, which will also become the home for our story. The stage was set for Otis and Phil to build out the recording studio and continue bringing hits to the masses with distribution from growing R&B label, Atlantic Records.
But before Otis could record there, Otis was taken from his fans and his business partner. He and most of his band died on a chartered plane that crashed into Lake Monona several miles from the Madison, Wis., airport on Dec. 10, 1967.
“ (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” was Redding’s only single to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song hit this zenith a month after he passed away. Phil was lost. He lost a friend. He lost a career.
With the encouragement of Jerry Wexler, Phil shifted gears and joined forces with Atlantic Records’ first managing director, Frank Fenter. Phil and Frank joined forces with Phil’s brother Alan (also an alum of Mercer University) in 1968-69 to move from an R&B label. They were hellbent on showing they could find rock groups for the new label, Capricorn Records( the name Capricorn came from Phil’s astrological sign). Maybe the first lesson we can take away from this story is to believe in yourself and never give up.
In the early days of television, the 1940s saw the first serious efforts to produce a nightly newscast that would be broadcast to affiliates across the nation who would in turn broadcast that same nightly broadcast to their local viewers. This idea took off and with the next 20 years, most Americans who could afford a television tuned in each night to see for themselves what was happening in their nation. Those who could not afford a television listened to graphic details on the radio allowing their imaginations to paint those pictures.
During the late 1960s, scenes played on the nightly news of how African-Americans in the South were still being treated as less than human. These horrific images played across television screens regularly as festering negative regionalism mounted. People were appalled. As rhythm & blues and soul were coming out of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., to a mostly African-American audience, little other music with the regional flavor of the South made it into widespread distribution.
At the same time, the baby boomers were coming of age and hungering for new music. They had other regional musical acts which were growing out of the bubble gum from the ‘50s. Outside of Sun Records with country and Elvis Presley and the African-American oriented labels, the music that was brewing out of the heritage of the South was largely ignored.
The first artist that came to Phil’s attention after Otis Redding was Muscle Shoals session man Duane Allman. The same Jerry Wexler introduced Duane and Phil. Duane had tired of playing other people’s music and he left Muscle Shoals to go back to Florida to form a new band that would satiate the sound growing in his soul. Steeped in the blues, but also with jazz, country and hints of the English blues explosion interpretations, Duane pulled together musicians that were also honing their craft in Florida. In 1969, the Allman Brothers were the first target of Phil, Frank and Alan for their new rock label.
As the Allman Brothers Band started to mesh and feed an ever-growing fan base with relentless touring and the release of their first two albums, they released the seminal double live album, “At Fillmore East.” The double album that was specially priced the same as single albums of the day, allowed Phil/Frank/Alan and Duane to see this live album soar to the top of the charts as No. 3 on Billboard’s pop album chart.
Again tragedy struck Phil as Duane Allman, the band’s leader and driving force, passed away later that year in a motorcycle accident in their adopted hometown, Macon.
Willie Perkins, former road manager for the Allman Brother Band, published “No Saints, No Saviors: My Years with the Allman Brothers Band” through Mercer University Press in 2005. In the book, he recounts that first lesson: don’t give up. He wrote about the funeral of the driving force of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman. He tells that even though everyone was lost due to the clarity of Duane’s vision and leadership being stripped away, that after the funeral they knew they would carry on FOR Duane.
The rest of the band picked up their instruments for the first time since his passing and played for Duane. The music, and the magic, was still there. At a band meeting in the following weeks, everyone felt it and agreed that they must find a way to carry on. All of the business types said that without Duane, the band was done. But the musicians had kept the faith in themselves and picked up and worked hard to reinvent the project.
The following year, the band’s de facto leader, bassist Berry Oakley, passed away from another motorcycle accident and the band and its management had to pick themselves up again and reimagine themselves. In 1973, adding Chuck Leavell on keyboards and bassist Lamar Williams, they released “Brothers and Sisters,” which provided the band’s biggest hit singles, “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica.” The album was recorded over three months at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon. It was a revamped recording studio but in the same building that Otis Redding and Phil Walden envisioned.
The ensuing years saw hubris, increasing alcohol and drug use. The 1970s recession, along with the ever-changing appetite of the American music listener, sealed the fate of the Allman Brothers Band and Capricorn Records. A lack of vision, control and a cohesive plan by many entities that should have been working together meant that seeing and reacting to change never successfully happened.
The Allman Brothers Band did finally recapture its lost success in the late 1990s. Separately, Capricorn Records relaunched in Nashville with Phil and his son. Bands such as Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule, Cake, 311 and Kenny Chesney all signed with the reborn Capricorn and worked hard for success. This chapter for Capricorn closed in late 1990s when Phil sold Capricorn to Volcano Records.
This article is a two part article in cooperation with the Cascade Blues Association and the Washington Blues Society. Part 2 in the June Washington Blues Society’s Bluesletter holds my interview with Mercer University’s senior vice president of marketing communications and Chief of Staff Larry Blumley, who was in charge of overseeing the renovation of the Capricorn Recording Studios. Larry was also charged with completing the renovation project into what I saw that winter day in Macon. It moved me to write these two articles, hoping to bring some of that insight back to the Pacific Northwest music scene.
So what does a story about a Recording Studio in central Georgia have to do with the great work that both blues organizations are doing in the Pacific Northwest? I was going to bury this idea within the words of the articles to plant subliminal seeds in the minds of like-minded readers.
My hope is that like-minded musicians and business people here in the Pacific Northwest who have had the fires of successful music burn so brightly and fall into the same embers as did Macon might see how another town in central Georgia fanned their embers back into flames. Not by themselves, but as a collective. All working together to bring their talents to the table and to work on filling the holes left by people and projects that have passed. These bright flames haven’t left us. They are there as embers, waiting for you and me to put ourselves to the task to continue to work together to rekindle those lost flames.
The list of artists who have grown their flame is numerous in Oregon. The Helio Sequence who signed with Sub Pop; Brad Wilk and his funk metal drumming with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave; Portugal. The Man; Sleater-Kinney; Cool Nutz and The Kingsmen to name a few.
The music industry people in Oregon are either homegrown or come from the music industry outside of Oregon but now call Oregon home. Music fans from record stores to halls of fame to promoters all currently working to push the stone up the hill.
Lisa Lepine was one we lost in 2016. The Oregon Music News called her, “… mentor, manager, publicist, promotion queen, friend …” Someone who realized that it takes the musician and the business person together to make success. Her comment in a 2011 interview stated it so well: “The national scene had imploded.” She went on to talk about how she saw it here. “(The) local scene to be authentic and do their expression in a pure way.” The old guard is gone and the internet has opened up a new way of doing it and people don’t know how. She was there to help them find their way.
And there was Greg “Slim Lively” Johnson. I never got to meet Greg. In talking with musicians, music industry people and fans of the blues, all I ever heard was his unselfish way of supporting everything about the blues. From the Cascade Blues Association itself to all of the surrounding musical events and fundraisers to the personal effort he put into mentoring musicians and helping fellow CBA board members and association members learn about their passions and learn how to help others. His photographic documentation of so many concerts and events inspired others to take up and share what they could in giving back to the music.
All of us can’t start a recording studio, record label, music club or band. Part 1 of this article shows you what Phil Walden and Capricorn Records and the Capricorn Recording Studio have been through. The roaring flame and then the seeming dead embers made people think that the studios and all of that history are too far gone.
I challenge each of you to think about what talent you have and to bring it together with other like-minded people who can work with the art and the business. Maybe your burning love of the blues by night gives way to a career in the civic section. Maybe you’re on the board of a preservation foundation and can direct funds to historic buildings with musical heritage. Don’t give up. Find a path to a concerted effort to bring your vision together with others to remember those before you who made Oregon music so fantastic. What would Slim Lively do?