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Capricorn In Retrograde: Macon's Endangered Musical History

Otis Redding in 1967. Redding was also known as "The Mad Man From Macon." (Getty Images)

City officials in Macon, Ga., say they may have no choice but to demolish the crumbling original headquarters of Capricorn Records, the label that played a key role in the birth of Southern rock and soul music.

To understand what the old Capricorn Records building represents, check out a 1967 promotional video featuring Carla Thomas, "The Queen of Memphis Soul," and Otis Redding.

The man who wrote such hits as "Respect" and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" is shown counting his money in front of a sign that reads, "Redwal Music Building, 535 Cotton Avenue." "Red" in "Redwal" stood for "Redding," as in "Otis." "Wal" was for his manager, Alan Walden, who still lives outside Macon.

"Just the sheer fact that this was Otis Redding's office alone should be enough to preserve this building," Walden says.

Redding never got the chance to record for Capricorn, the label Alan Walden and his brother Phil launched in 1969. The singer died in a plane crash two years earlier. Still, in a way, the relationship between Redding and Walden previewed what would make Capricorn and Macon so important through the 1970s.

That friendship showed what could be unlocked when Southern blacks, like Redding, and Southern whites, like the Waldens, united to make music. The Waldens based their label in the Redwal Building. Their most successful act featured a young white guitarist: Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

Just around the corner from the Capricorn building is another Macon landmark, a smoky dive bar where the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others, cut their teeth.

Grant's Lounge calls itself "The Home of Southern Rock." But a few weeks ago, five people were shot out front following a late-night argument. Now, the landlord is trying to shut the place down as the neighborhood converts into tony lofts. Singer and guitarist "Big Mike" Ventimiglia sits in a corner booth, reminiscing.

"You know, in the '70s, not a lot — black people and white people didn't play together," Ventimiglia says. "But in Macon, Georgia, they could come to Grant's and play together, and it was not only nothing said; it was encouraged. And a lot of good music came from that mixture."

Co-owner Ed Grant Jr.'s father opened the place in 1971.

"You had country bands coming through, and you had blues bands coming through," Grant says. "So I always tell the story, you had country get in bed with the blues, and out came Southern rock. And that's why Southern rock was born, right here in Ed Grant's Lounge."

Capricorn headquarters and Grant's are just two of several endangered relics of Macon's rich music history: Capricorn's old studio building is also in danger. A local nonprofit has longstanding plans to rehab it into a museum with lofts upstairs. While the project awaits private investment, the structure is deteriorating.

To go further back, "Little Richard" Penniman grew up in Macon, in a modest house that now lies in the way of a massive interstate expansion plan. Rather than wreck the dilapidated Victorian, the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to move it and convert it into a community center. Last year, I got to ask the ailing Penniman what he remembers about the place.

"All I remember is that it was an old house," Penniman says. "With a bathroom toilet stool in the hallway, and had some good meals there, had a good mama there. My mother, she was a good lady."

The era when Macon set the tone for American music, beginning with Little Richard in the 1950s, ended in the early '80s. Jessica Walden, daughter of Capricorn Records co-founder Alan Walden, leads music-history tours here.

"Macon did have a moment when it could have evolved with the new-wave/punk scene, but we actually lost two members of R.E.M. to Athens, Georgia," Walden says.

Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry grew up in Macon. Berry even interned at Capricorn Records.

Now, you might be thinking, "Who knew Macon, Georgia, played such an outsize role in the story of American music?" Well, Jessica Walden says, if these relics aren't preserved, no one will know.

"We don't seem to get interested in these places until they get to the point of no turning back," she says.

She says she hopes that's not the case here in Macon.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Macon, Georgia, relics of a remarkable period in American music history are in danger. City officials say they may have no choice but to demolish the crumbling, original headquarters of Capricorn Records. The now defunct label played a key role in the birth of southern rock and soul music. And as Adam Ragusea reports, the Capricorn building isn't the only cultural artifact that could soon fade away in Macon.

ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: To understand what the old Capricorn Records building represents, check out a 1967 promotional video featuring Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul and Otis Redding, The Madman from Macon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

CARLA THOMAS: You know what, Otis? I don't care what you say. You're still a tramp.

OTIS REDDING: What?

THOMAS: That's right. You haven't even got fat bank roll in your pocket.

RAGUSEA: Actually, he does. The man who wrote such hits as "Respect" and "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" is then shown counting his money in front of a sign. It says, Redwal Music Building, 535 Cotton Avenue. Red in Redwal stood for Redding, as in Otis. Wal was for his manager, Alan Walden, who still lives outside Macon.

ALAN WALDEN: Just the sheer fact that this was Otis Redding's office alone should be enough to preserve this building.

RAGUSEA: Redding never got the chance to record for Capricorn Records, the label that Alan Walden and his brother, Phil, launched in 1969. The singer died in a plane crash two years before. But in a way, the relationship between Redding and Walden previewed what would make Capricorn and Macon so important through the 1970s.

A. WALDEN: Otis Redding was my best friend in life, you know? I mean, I loved this man.

RAGUSEA: That friendship showed what could be unlocked when Southern blacks like Redding and Southern whites like the Waldens united to make music. The Waldens based their label in the Redwal building. Their most successful act featured a young, white guitarist, Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND SONG)

RAGUSEA: Just around the corner from the Capricorn building there's a smoky dive bar where the Allman Brothers and Leonard Skynyrd, among others, cut their teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

RAGUSEA: Grant's Lounge calls itself the home of southern rock. But a few weeks ago, five people were shot out front following a late-night argument. Now the landlord is trying to shut the place down as the neighborhood converts into tony lofts. Singer and guitarist Big Mike Ventimiglia sits in a corner booth reminiscing.

BIG MIKE VENTIMIGLIA: You know, in the '70s, black people and white people didn't play together. But in Macon, Georgia, they could come to Grant's and play together. And it was not only nothing said, it was encouraged. And a lot of good music came from that mixture.

RAGUSEA: Co-owner Ed Grant Jr.'s father opened the place 1971.

ED GRANT: You had country bands coming through, and you had blues bands coming through. So I always tell the story; you had country get in bed with the blues and out came southern rock. And that's where southern rock was born, right here at Grant's Lounge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right, right in this building.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON SMILING THROUGH THE RAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: Keep on smiling through the rain.

RAGUSEA: Another piece of Macon's music history is also in danger, Capricorn's old studio building. A local nonprofit has long-standing plans to rehab it into a museum with lofts upstairs. While the project awaits private investment, the structure is deteriorating.

That floorboard almost just gave way underneath me.

Still, fans can get a tour of the place by reservation.

So here we are in one of the original echo chambers down in Capricorn Studios. The way they would have done this is they would have taken a speaker. They would have put it at one end of this little room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM SPEAKER)

RAGUSEA: They would have put a microphone on the opposite end of the room. And the microphone would have picked up the music coming out of the speaker, but with all of the added echo of these tiles and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM SPEAKER)

RAGUSEA: We're not done with our tour of threatened Macon music historic sites yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")

RICHARD PENNIMAN: (Singing) Bop bopa-a-lu-bop a bolap-bom-bom. Tutti frutti, au- rutti.

RAGUSEA: Little Richard grew up in Macon, in a modest house that now lies in the way of a massive interstate expansion plan. Rather than wreck the dilapidated Victorian, the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to move it, and convert it into a community center. Last year, I got to ask the ailing Penniman what he remembers about the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENNIMAN: All I remember was that it was an old house with a bathroom toilet stool in the hallway and had some good meals there, had a good mama there. My mother, she was a good lady.

RAGUSEA: The era when Macon set the tone for American music, beginning with Little Richard in the 1950s, ended in the early '80s. Jessica Walden, daughter of Capricorn Records co-founder Alan Walden, leads music history tours here.

JESSICA WALDEN: Macon did have a moment where it could have evolved with the new wave punk scene. But we actually lost two members of R.E.M. to Athens, Georgia.

RAGUSEA: Bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry grew up in Macon.

J. WALDEN: Bill Berry, who interned at this very building where we're standing when it was Capricorn Records...

RAGUSEA: Imagined if they'd signed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO FREE EUROPE")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Decide yourself if radio's gonna stay.

RAGUSEA: Now, you might be thinking, who knew Macon, Georgia played such an outsized role in the story of American music? Well, Walden contends if these relics aren't preserved, no one will know.

J. WALDEN: We don't seem to get interested in these places until they get to the point of no turning back.

RAGUSEA: She hopes that's not the case here in Macon. For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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