By David Kirby
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Little Richard welcomed me to Macon.
Okay, it was a recording of Little Richard's voice, not the actual artist who sang "Long Tall Sally," "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti," which, in June of this year, topped Mojo magazine's list of "100 Records That Changed the World."
Still, when you call the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, you can't help feeling happy when you hear a familiar voice shout, "Hi, this is Little Richard, the architect of rock-and-roll, talking to you from my home town of Macon, Georgia!"
And then you think, architect? The word conjures up a larger world, that of Leonardo and Michelangelo, say, who were to Renaissance Florence what Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers were to 20th-century Macon -- one group making paintings and statues and cathedral domes just as the other made soul music, rock and blues, each in a small town and at the same time.
Now how does that work, I asked myself. The Florence answer came easily: The artists there were banked by wealthy merchant families who competed with each other to commission great works. To answer the musical half of the riddle, though, I hopped in my car and headed to Macon. Why not? After all, Little Richard had invited me.
Located on the banks of the Ocmulgee River, Macon is a town of 97,255 citizens, at last count. It's also an anthology of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture, from Federal and Victorian styles through art deco. It seems that General Sherman had Macon on his checklist during his infamous march to the sea, which left a 60-mile-wide path of destruction between Atlanta and Savannah, but he left the town untorched when he had to move his troops quickly to fend off an anticipated Confederate attack. Notable among the buildings are the many Greek Revival homes on College Street, one of which is now the 1842 Inn, where I spent my nights.
At the visitors bureau, I watched a video in which locals speculate on the same question I was asking myself. And in guessing why their town had produced so much great music in such a short period, no fewer than three of these thinkers offered that "there must be something in the water."
Fine. It was broiling outside, and I intended to drink my fair share of water during my stay. First, though, I needed something solid after my time on the road, so I stopped in at the Market City Cafe, where I had the warm meatloaf sandwich with homemade chips and coleslaw. The owner said his meatloaf recipe was his grandmother's, which naturally meant that the particulars couldn't be divulged, though he did insist that I try Market City Cafe's signature banana pudding, which came in a fried tortilla bowl that had been dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
It was so delicious that I raved about it to everyone I met during my three-day stay in Macon, which turned out to be a little like claiming that the baby you just saw is more beautiful than all the other babies in town. "I'll put my banana pudding up against theirs any time" was a typical response, as was, "No, baby, you got to try my mama's before you can say you had real banana pudding." Hmm. Could it be that the wellspring of local musical talent lay not in the water, after all, but in a creamy dessert?Smothered With Hospitality
I figured I'd confront the music head-on, so I walked over to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, just two blocks from the visitors center. The exhibits are organized as "villages," each devoted to a different genre: jazz and swing, gospel, rhythm and blues, country and so on. There's also a kids' area that features such hands-on displays as a drum kit and a composition station where you can press buttons, see notes appear on an overhead screen and then hear your opus played back.
The list of annual inductees gives a sense of the extraordinary range of music found in a single state: There's Johnny Mercer, who wrote "That Old Black Magic" and "Moon River," but also James Brown, Lena Horne, Chet Atkins, groups like R.E.M. and the B-52's, Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden and soprano Jessye Norman. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration in the music business, the Hall of Fame makes a point of inducting both entertainers and background figures. The first induction ceremony, which took place in 1979, honored Ray Charles and music publisher Bill Lowery.
I got up early the next day and headed for the Ocmulgee National Monument, just outside town. Once home to a farming people known as the Mississippians, the site is memorable mainly for the enormous mounds that constitute a sort of earth-and-timber Machu Picchu connected by seven miles of hiking trails. Every September there's a two-day Ocmulgee Indian Celebration on the grounds during which Creeks, Choctaws and other Native Americans perform ancient ceremonial dances.
Working my way back into town, I paused at historic Rose Hill Cemetery, whose terraced hillsides and cypress trees allow one to think, as Shelley said of Keats's burial place in Rome, that "it might make one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts often took his instrument to Rose Hill to meditate and compose, and it's here, inspired by a tombstone near his favorite spot, that he wrote the Latin-tinged instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Ironically, Duane Allman and fellow band member Berry Oakley died within 13 months and a few blocks of each other in separate motorcycle accidents in Macon, and they are buried beside each other in Rose Hill.
Hiking and grieving can give one an appetite, so I stopped in at H & H Restaurant, a soul food "meat-and-three" presided over by the ever-present Mama Louise and once the favored establishment of the Allman Brothers, who lived and wrote at the nearby Big House (now a museum undergoing renovation and scheduled to reopen in late 2008). The story goes that, on their first visit, the band members were so poor that they tried to get by on a single plate of smothered fried chicken, but when Mama Louise got wise to their plight, she fed them for free.
As I dug into my plate of trout with okra, collards and lima beans, I tried to flag Mama Louise down, but high noon in a meat-and-three is rush hour plus; besides, she was busy chatting with a blind customer and helping him season his food. Behind an apron that looks as though it has a lot of miles on it, Mama Louise is an elegant-looking woman of a certain age and with little patience for nonsense. When I finally caught her eye, I asked her if we could chat for a minute, and she said, "No, baby -- I got to make my corn bread!" Oh, well. The cashier at the Hall of Fame gift shop had told me to hug Mama Louise because "she likes handsome men." (I hugged her anyway.)
On the south side of town is the Tubman African American Museum, formerly called the Harriet Tubman Center, after the escaped slave who led others to freedom and served as Union spy, scout and nurse during the Civil War. The museum has several permanent exhibits, including one of folk art and another of inventions by African Americans including the one-hand ice cream scoop, the golf tee and the light bulb. Parents, beware: Working models of many of these gadgets are bolted to the walls, and your kids will want to fiddle with them. (You will, too.)
In downtown Macon, Southern hospitality takes the form of two-hour free street parking, which makes it easy to drive everywhere and park no more than a block from your destination. The people are gracious, too. Almost everyone I talked to claimed that Macon's musical heritage was something that meant a lot to outsiders, whereas locals took it in stride. But the pride is evident; everyone has a story, and it only takes the mention of a Macon artist to tap a river of lore as wide as the Ocmulgee.
Leroy, the bartender at a club called Jazz Plex, told me between the sizzling Motown grooves of a sextet called Old Soul that he worked at the S & S Cafeteria (which still has two locations in Macon) when Little Richard was washing dishes at the Greyhound station. "He used to come over to the S & S, and there was a gal who worked with me there named Sally, and she used to leave by way of the alley . . . " I finished his sentence: " . . . as in 'Long Tall Sally,' " and Leroy nodded knowingly.
Having given the devil's music its due, I fell in with a church group -- young and old, black and white, homeless and working-class -- who were grilling burgers and singing on a traffic median. At one point we joined hands to say a prayer, and then one young woman said, "My brother is going to Iraq tomorrow -- can we pray for him?" and another said, "I'd like to include my cousin, who's going next week." Suddenly, things weren't so merry, but that's why the blues were written in the first place.The Top Banana
Any request for a fine dining recommendation in Macon will invariably lead you to the Tic Toc Room. Art adorns the wall, there are candles and a rose on every table and the menu features such upscale dishes as osso bucco, which makes the refurbished club rather different from the place where Little Richard sang in the mid-'50s, when it was known as Ann's Tick-Tock Club.
In the bar I met Tommy, a young health care administrator who told me his parents had gone to school with Little Richard and knew he was going to be an entertainer even then because, when the teacher left the room, young Mr. Penniman would jump up on her desk and sing. Inside the restaurant, staffers will show you the spot where the stage was and even bring out photos of the Architect of Rock-and-Roll at the time when he was just beginning to put his house together.
As far as figuring out how so much great music came out of tiny Macon, I was able neither to disprove the must-be-in-the-water theory nor confirm my own banana pudding idea, though I ate as much of that dessert as I could (and never found one better than that at the Market City Cafe).
Maconites I spoke with emphasized the importance of the church, which makes sense: A child can't get a band together, but he can sing a choir solo as beaming adults encourage him. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame is right to emphasize that showbiz is a family affair, and a number of people stressed to me how important family is to entertainers; Little Richard lives in Nashville now, but he is well known for taking care of his Macon friends and relatives, and recently he slipped back into town unheralded for a funeral.
But I'm not ready to let go of my theory yet. I've still got a lot of banana pudding to eat.
David Kirby is writing a book called "Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."