OK, if New York is an island off the coast of America, as Saul Bellow said, and Chicago, in Carl Sandburg’s words, is hog butcher for the world, then what is Macon, a city of 93,665 residents (give or take) and a sleepy Middle Georgia town Sherman forgot to burn during his March To The Sea?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which I compared Macon to Renaissance Florence and conjured the spirits of Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were to it what Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers were to 20th-century Macon, the one group making paintings and statues and cathedral domes just as the other made rock ’n’ roll, soul music and blues, each in a small town and at the same time.
And then I put my fingers in my ears and stood back. “You’re comparing Florence to Macon?” I expected somebody to holler. “The Uffizi Gallery to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame? The Ocmulgee River to the Arno? The great restaurants of Tuscany to Nu-Way Weiners, whose signature dish is the Scrambled Dog Platter?”
But no one whispered a word of protest. Maybe I’m right, I thought. And now, with the appearance of Candice Dyer’s beautiful Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels With a Cause: Music from Macon, I know I am.
Sounds from the soil
More than one distinct genre of music either originated in Macon or drew sustenance from its thick stew of influences: the rock ’n’ roll of Little Richard, the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers, James Brown’s funk, Otis Redding’s soul music. Jimi Hendrix, Lena Horne, Lucinda Williams: these and a thousand others, known and unknown, made their way down Cherry Street, listened to the sounds coming out of one honky-tonk or another, and decided that they, too, would grab a guitar or throw their heads back and let their voices join in the sound that seemed to be coming up from the very soil.
No one is sure what turns a backwater into a cultural hotbed, but for this to happen, it’s essential that artists be not only encouraged but sustained. In Florence, the Medici and other banking families took care of that job, competing to sponsor the best statues and paintings. In a town like Macon, everyone agrees that the role of sponsorship is handled by the church. Gifted children begin singing in church choirs, are nurtured for years, and are groomed for solo work. Their training doesn’t cost a penny, and they’re guaranteed an audience several times every week. Plus church music is big-themed, loud, and physical, just like rock ’n’ roll.
Sam Moore and Dave Prater of Sam & Dave came from gospel backgrounds, and they sang the devil’s music as only churchmen could. And danced, too: their horn player Newton Collier recalls, “We had to stand still when we played for the Queen of England, and that messed us up. We looked and felt like a bunch of dummies.”
Ebony and Ivory
After the church, the greatest influence on the music of this period was the synergy that took place when blacks and whites put aside their differences and started harmonizing. Something similar happened in 1439, when a council was held in Florence so Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics could iron out their differences; the result was an infusion of Greek culture that served as the bedrock of Renaissance thought.
In America, it was a matter of black soul singers and white hippies coming to together “to change the world for the better,” as Candice Dyer writes. Before they moved to Macon, the Allman Brothers came of age in Daytona Beach, where, as they said, “The white cats surf, and the black cats play music. Therefore, we went with the black cats.”
Phil Walden, a white student who loved rhythm & blues, began managing Otis Redding while attending Mercer University and later, after Redding’s untimely death, founded Capricorn Records in his hometown. Alan Walden, who worked with his brother and later managed Lynryd Skynryd, shows up in Dyer’s book as much as Newt Collier does, and among his most telling stories are those about traveling with black musicians, often facing down gun-toting rednecks only to have them show up later for the performance.
Other than that, “Macon’s real quiet,” as Duane Allman said. “That’s why we stay there; it’s just good and quiet and there’s no trouble. Well, there’s no nothing, especially not trouble.” Why, then, does Little Richard single out Macon as the most important influence in his life and urge Maconites to come forward at his concerts? Maybe that’s the formula: sponsorship, cultural cross-pollenization, small-town quiet so the magic can grow.
Dyer is a writer-at-large for Atlanta magazine (and also a frequent contributor to Georgia Music), and she knows her stuff. A pleasure to read, her book is also a joy to look at, with often rare photos on every page. An astonishing range of musicians shows up here, from the Reverend Pearly Brown to The Police and R.E.M. And Dyer shines much needed light on lesser-known figures like Frank Fenter, who was born in South Africa but ended up discovering and signing some of Capricorn Records’ biggest acts.
People sometimes ask, if you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be? Well, my guests are all right here in Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels With a Cause.