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- The Amazing Musical Heritage of Georgia, USA
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November 29, 2016 Lee HowardLeave a comment
photo | Lee Howard
The USA‘s “Peach State” can also boast a fruitful musical heritage which has made an invaluable cultural contribution to this country and the world, ranging from groundbreaking blues and soul to hip-hop and Southern rock. And the state and its boosters love to promote this heritage and the venues in which to discover it.
Down in Albany, 113 kilometres (70 miles) north of the Florida border, the city’s most famous son, Ray Charles is honoured with a life-size statue (top) in the plaza that bears his name. Born here in 1930, Charles lost his sight by the age of seven due to glaucoma. By the Flint River at Ray Charles Plaza, on a pedestal he wears his trademark sunglasses and is seated at a baby grand piano, which revolves and plays his most famous tunes at intervals.
The pioneer of soul music left an important legacy for Georgia, not least in his recording of the state’s official song, Georgia on My Mind. When he originally recorded it back in 1960, it topped the Billboard Hot 100, and its success led to a busy touring schedule. Charles cancelled a show in Augusta, Georgia in 1961 after learning it was a segregated event. He patched up his rocky relationship with authorities in Georgia as the state slowly improved race relations and eventually, in 1979, it embraced Charles’ signature hit as its official anthem.
photo | Ma Rainey Blues Society
Northwest of Albany, on the border with Alabama beside the Chattahoochee River, Columbus is the hometown of Ma Rainey, “mother of the blues”. Ma started singing there around the turn of the 20th century, and at the end of her career ran local theatres, including the city’s Liberty Theater. Her influence spread far and wide (including a mention on Nobel-prizewinner Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album). In recent years, her status has grown and fans visit the museum at the Ma Rainey Home, where she retired, to see her piano and other memorabilia, and to take part in April’s Ma Rainey International Blues Festival, started just this year.
In Macon, central Georgia, Rock Candy Tours weave stories of the city’s cultural past out on its downtown streets, touring on foot or by bus. Nicknamed “the Song and Soul of the South”, Macon was home to Capricorn Records, founded by Phil Walden, whose niece Jessica co-founded Rock Candy Tours and was even named after a song by The Allman Brothers Band, signed to the label. The Big House Museum is a mecca for the group’s fans, stacked with their guitars artifacts and partially dressed up to represent the 1970s heyday when they lived there and when, for a time, they became the number-one band in the country.
photo | Lee Howard
Macon claims to be the birthplace of Southern rock because of its links to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, managed by Alan Walden, Jessica’s father. Rock Candy tell tales of tragedy as well as success, and how the Allman Brothers lost two members to motorcycle accidents in Macon in the early 1970s. Later that decade, Skynyrd lost three members in a plane crash.
Music lovers in Macon recall a similar tragedy, the death of Otis Redding in a plane crash in December 1967. He’d started his career in the city and was a business partner of Phil Walden. Shortly before his death, Redding had recorded (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, a mournful tune about a man at a crossroads in life. “I left my home in Georgia…” croons Redding with a melancholic air and a depth few artists can convey. The song topped the charts, becoming the first posthumously released number-one in the US.
Redding, the “King of Soul” in the 1960s, had been influenced by Little Richard, the “Architect of Rock and Roll”, who started out in 1950s Macon. These artists and others were honoured in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which was based in Macon until it closed in 2011. Rock Candy Tours picked up where it left off, beginning the very next day.
The hall of fame’s contents were dispersed, and one of the recipients was the Augusta Museum of History, which also celebrates the city’s industrial past and golf history and boasts the world’s only James Brown collection. Three galleries are devoted to the “Godfather of Soul”, who moved to the city as a child and began his career there, tap-dancing in the street for money. The singer’s elaborate costumes are on display alongside walls decorated with album sleeves, posters and an interactive screen that plays video clips – watch James Brown moonwalk and do the “robot” years before Michael Jackson followed his lead.
The museum has a small section on other music stars from the area, including a mention of Blind Willie McTell, the blues artist from Georgia’s Piedmont region, covered by countless bands including the Allman Brothers and The White Stripes (Dylan also named a song after him). Forty-eight km (30 mi.) east of Augusta in Thomson, where McTell was born and is buried, the city celebrates his legacy with the annual Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, debuted in 1993 and one of the largest of its kind in the region.
Heading northwest into Athens, home of the University of Georgia, the city has had a vibrant bar, club and college music scene for decades, finding international recognition in the 1970s and 1980s for alternative rock and new wave, spearheaded by the B-52s and R.E.M. Famous haunts of these acts such as the record store where R.E.M’s Peter Buck worked and where the group played early gigs, form self-guided Athens Music History Walking Tours, taking advantage of the pedestrian-friendly city’s sights.
Then of course then there’s Atlanta. The state’s big, booming capital has long been home to a variety of music. Blues fans can get their fix at Blind Willie’s, the blues club named after McTell. The city’s also the birthplace of country star Zac Brown who, until recently, owned the eatery Southern Ground (the name of his record label) in Atlanta suburb Senoia. Music fans can also stop by for soul food at two locations of Chicken and Waffles, owned by Midnight Train to Georgia singer and icon Gladys Knight.
photo | OZinOH
Knight, Charles, James Brown and many others played early shows on historic Sweet Auburn Avenue at The Royal Peacock (above), a nightclub restored in 2010 and now a reggae club. Another venue for music fans is the Apache Café, formerly The Yin Yang Café, where neo-soul artists such assuch as Erykah Badu and India.Arie had career-making performances. This small venue plays hosts to local soul, jazz and hip-hop artists looking for their break.
Hip-hop and urban music propelled Atlanta’s rise in the industry in recent decades. Music producers L.A. Reid and Babyface formed LaFace Records here in 1989, launching the careers of local act TLC as well as Toni Braxton, OutKast and Pink. Usher was on the roster too and his influence can be seen today in artists such as Drake and his protégé Justin Bieber, who in fact launched his career in Atlanta. The city is also home to CeeLo Green and B.o.Band was crucial to Lil Jon’s career and crunk music – up-tempo Southern hip-hop.
Many of these artists, including Lil’ Jon, OutKast, and Beyoncé, are represented with gold and platinum discs on the walls of Patchwerk Recording Studios, originally opened in 1994 in Midtown before moving to northwest Atlanta. The studio runs tours – by reservation – and isn’t short on stories about some of the acts that have dropped by to record there, including Mariah Carey and One Direction.
In 2009, the New York Times called Atlanta “hip-hop’s center of gravity”. In 2005, at the height of Southern hip-hop, Ludacris released Georgia, featuring Jamie Foxx, who won an Oscar that year for playing Ray Charles in the movie Ray. The song sampled Georgia on My Mind, and came the year after the singer’s death, his influence on a new generation enduring from beyond the grave.
Rock on, Georgia…
Lee Howard is a London-based freelance and photographer who covers travel, arts and culture; his work has appeared in The Guardian, National Geographic, Rough Guides and Where Traveler. Follow him on Twitter at @LeeeHoward.