Inside the Rebirth of Capricorn Sound Studios, Ground Zero for Southern Rock
Wandering the hallways in the depths of the Macon City Auditorium, Chuck Leavell was just moments away from taking the stage for the Capricorn Revival concert at the historic Georgia venue.
“To see all of this come back to life is nothing short of a miracle,” Leavell told Rolling Stone before sitting behind his keyboards as the musical director of the showcase, the official relaunch of the former Capricorn Records studio and the groundbreaking label that’s been dormant for years, its original Macon studio abandoned for decades.
“This is a second chance for all of us involved. This isn’t just the old guard, this is a hope for the future and also a great opportunity for the community of Macon,” says Leavell, a longtime member of the Allman Brothers Band during the group’s commercial pinnacle in the 1970s and with the Rolling Stones since 1982.
Playing to a sold-out audience of around 2,600, the revival featured an all-star cast of rock icons — Taj Mahal, Bonnie Bramlett, Jaimoe, Jimmy Hall, John Bell, Tommy Talton, Randall Bramblett, Paul Hornsby — and current torchbearers like Marcus King, Bonnie Bishop, Charlie Starr, Duane Betts, Berry Oakley, Jr., Brent Cobb, and Lamar Williams Jr.
“It’s an honor to be here and be able to pay tribute to the cast of musicians that did it before us, paving the way for us to do what we love,” says King. “I feel a great deal of responsibility to be able to carry the torch and put my own spin on it. I think it’s a beautiful thing that I now know I can always go and cut a song at Capricorn Records.”
With many of the older rockers at the revival former labelmates on Capricorn, the evening’s set list honored the countless classic radio hits to emerge from the studio. The grand opening this week fell on December 3rd, the exact 50th anniversary of Capricorn opening in 1969, with the celebration culminating at the nearby auditorium.
“Capricorn wasn’t the West Coast and they weren’t New York. They saw the talent and they wanted to work with the artists,” says Mahal. “The most important thing that Capricorn did was really build around some great Southern groups that had something to say — it was a different kind of way with them.”
With the success of its featured act the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, Capricorn quickly become a recording hub through the 1970s for ensembles including the Charlie Daniels Band, Elvin Bishop, Marshall Tucker Band, Stillwater, Sea Level, and Wet Willie, among countless others.
“The Allman Brothers were one of the first bands that picked up what we were doing, and that meant something,” says Mahal, whose 1968 cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” was embraced and rerecorded by the Allmans in 1971 on the landmark live album At Fillmore East.
The story of Capricorn Records is as long, tangled, and tragic as the lives of the artists who came into its fold and created some of the most iconic rock songs and albums ever conceived.
“We were all bands looking for a place and an inspiration where we could accomplish our dreams — that beacon was Capricorn,” says Jimmy Hall in a dressing room after his segment in the revival (formerly of Wet Willie, now with Jeff Beck). “The label had more to do with attitude. I saw a direction with Capricorn that just felt right. We wanted to make music like the Allman Brothers and that was where we wanted to be.”
The road to the formation of Capricorn Records begins with the “architect of rock & roll” himself — Little Richard. A native of Macon, Richard was a teenager in 1946 when he attended a Sister Rosetta Tharpe show at the City Auditorium.
Richard was so overtaken by the soul singer that Tharpe noticed him dancing in the audience and brought him onstage. In that moment, Richard had his epiphany of someday becoming a performer.
A decade later, another Macon teen, Phil Walden, attended a concert at the City Auditorium and had his own epiphany, though his was to be behind the scenes in the music industry.
This was also around the time Macon’s own Otis Redding, inspired by Richard’s presence and swagger, was at the beginning stages of his musical aspirations, ultimately becoming an electric and mesmerizing performer.
By the late 1950s, Walden had befriended Redding, eventually becoming his manager and forming a music publishing company together in Macon. But that all changed with Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash in 1967 at the height of his career.
During that period, Walden was also managing several notable R&B acts (Al Green, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave), which led to a relationship with producer Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records.
In the ashes of Redding’s passing, Walden decided to launch Capricorn Records in 1969 with storied music executive Frank Fenter right in the heart of Macon.
Though independently run, Capricorn had distribution through Atlantic, with Wexler up in Alabama running the mecca of rock and soul that was the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
“All of the soul is in the South. And that’s not only in the United States, but every country you go to — that’s the way it seems, no matter where you go,” says Blackberry Smoke’s singer-guitarist Charlie Starr. “Capricorn is the birthplace of what people call Southern rock & roll music. But, it goes so much further than that — it was a movement that changed not only this town, but the country, too.”
And it was Wexler who introduced Walden to guitarist Duane Allman, an interaction that parlayed itself into Duane moving to Macon and forming the Allman Brothers Band under the Capricorn banner.
“There are three M’s in the history of rock & roll — Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Macon,” Bramlett says backstage at the revival. “Sadly, a lot of people back then didn’t embrace Little Richard or Otis Redding. But the Southern rockers at Capricorn tried to make a difference and change that with their music — they didn’t see color lines.”
One half of Delaney & Bonnie — a popular husband-wife act in the 1960s and 1970s that collaborated with George Harrison, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, and Gregg and Duane Allman (which led to Clapton meeting Duane and forming Derek & the Dominos) — Bramlett found her way to Macon after her divorce from Delaney. She was welcomed with open arms.
“Phil and Frank fought and gave their lives for Capricorn, for all of their artists that they believed in,” Bramlett says. “We were all so young back then, and nobody told us we couldn’t do what we did in the studio and onstage — there were no limits.”
In 1971, Capricorn and rock music itself was devastated by the death of Duane Allman, who perished in a motorcycle accident at 24 in Macon. Just a little more than a year later, Allman’s bassist Berry Oakley also died in a similar motorcycle crash in the city. In that deafening musical vacuum, the band summoned the strength to continue and soon hit radio gold with guitarist Dickey Betts at the helm.
“There is a real and obvious heritage to this music that comes out of the South,” says Duane Betts (son of Dickey) backstage at the revival, who currently fronts the Allman Betts Band with Devon Allman (son of Gregg). “With the label reopening, it’s not only preserving history, it’s also a blank canvas for future bands that come through here. And that’s what it’s all about — finding artists that are being honest and have something to say.”
But even with incredible success and wealth, Capricorn fell on hard times and went bankrupt in 1979. Fenter made an attempt in 1983 to revive the label, but that effort dissolved when he had a heart attack in the midst of negotiations with Warner Bros. Records and died at 47 (Walden would die from cancer in 2006 at 66). The studio itself remained in limbo, only to be boarded up and gathering dust for the better part of the last 40 years.
In the 1990s, a relaunch of the label in Nashville resulted in some success, where acts like 311, Cake, Widespread Panic, and Kenny Chesney were signed and released albums. And yet again, the label fell by the wayside and closed its door by the early 2000s — silent and somewhat forgotten, until now.
“I don’t think we’d have had a career without Capricorn. They were our first big record contract and propped us up when we were a young band,” says Widespead Panic’s John Bell. “Macon is a little town that had a big explosion in the music industry — it blew across the south and around the world. There’s a lot of pillars of rock & roll in this town.”
The Capricorn studio fell into severe disrepair coming into the 21st century, so much so that it began to collapse into itself. Though the studio remained intact, the building itself was considered an eyesore, especially with the recent gentrification of its Macon neighborhood now building modern apartment complexes and business structures.
“And to think it somehow didn’t become a parking lot or set of offices,” Leavell says. “When the label went bankrupt they sold all the equipment and everything inside — the Steinway piano that I played ‘Jessica’ on is long gone — but the studio walls, control room and feel of the place is still there.”
This third incarnation of Capricorn and studio renovation came about when Gregg Allman was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mercer University in 2016, just down the road from where Capricorn stands in Macon. When Allman received the honor, plans were already underway at Mercer about purchasing the Capricorn property and bringing back the studio.
Mercer was all in on the relaunch, with Allman insisting that they not change a single thing in the studio because the sound in the room “was perfect.” Allman died at 69 in 2017.
“Gregg said, ‘Don’t change that room. Don’t mess up a good thing,’” Leavell says. “And when I walk in the studio, I can feel the presence of Phil and Frank — I feel it, and it’s all good. I’m sure they’re smiling somewhere.”
In that time, Mercer has poured around $4.3 million into the four building, 20,000-square-foot Capricorn property, now renamed Mercer Music at Capricorn.
“The imagination can play some tricks on you, and I imagined the studio to be much bigger than in reality when I finally went back after all these years,” Leavell says. “But to walk back in and to see what it is, and to see that nothing has changed — it’s incredible.”
Alongside the studio space (featuring both analog and digital recording methods) and extensive label museum, those involved look at the project as a catalyst for the arts and the city’s economy, as the facility will focus on historic preservation, talent development, cultural tourism and music education.
“With Mercer doing all of this, it’s not only preserving the history, it’s also a whole new chapter of new artists — that’s our legacy,” Bramlett says. “Maybe we didn’t see it at the time all those years ago, but we all made a heck of a difference. We were just kids then, but it also means Duane, Gregg, and Dickey did good.”
Bramlett’s sentiments are closely held by Hall, too.
“Do I realize how exciting this is? Yes. This is one of the greatest labels that ever existed, now relaunched with health, with love, with help — and with the right help,” Hall says. “From a musical and educational standpoint, this is a win-win for everyone involved. Capricorn Records was built on real camaraderie and cooperation. We were trying to help each other, and here we are with a chance to do something great again.”
With the Capricorn showcase coming to a close following a riveting, all-hands-on-deck rendition of “Revival,” the lyrics “People can you feel it?/Love is everywhere/People can you hear it?/The song is in the air/We’re in a revolution/Don’t you know we’re right” echoes out of the auditorium.
Packing up his things in a dressing room backstage, Mahal sits down and takes a moment to gather his thoughts after an emotional night — one decades in the making, now here and in real time.
“You know, a lot of people don’t understand that the audience is a big part of the performance. It’s a two-way street. It’s not, ‘we’re up here and you’re down there’ — the energy come towards you and you pull from it,” Mahal says. “Tonight? Everybody played and everyone was together. The people really got it. We were all there. We lifted each other into the air — just what this music is supposed to do.”
“Capricorn Revival” set list:
“Heard It In A Love Song”
“Can’t You See”
“Fooled Around And Fell In Love”
“Only You And I Know”
“Please Call Home”
“Keep on Smilin’”
“Rendezvous With The Blues”
“Brand New Man”
“Please Be With Me”
“Walk On Gilded Splinters”
“Weight Of The World”
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