The Big House
(first published in 'Vintage Guitar Magazine', December 1996,
Vol. 11 No. 3)
This month represents part two of our three part series on Duane
Allman and the History of the Allman Brothers Band. First is
this tour of the band’s “Big House” in Macon. Elsewhere in this
issue is part two of our interview with Allen Woody, a
retrospective on Berry Oakley, and a look at Fame Studios. Next
month we will finish up our time with the Allman Brothers with
interviews with many of those that knew and worked with Duane.
On my trip to Macon, I visited several people and places that
are all part of the patchwork quilt that make up the Allman
Brothers Band. Everyone shares in the same belief; that Duane
Allman put together a monster band, which unlike many others
that fall apart al the first sign of trouble, has developed a
legacy that remains and will probably go down in musical history
as something very special.
The magic did not die with Duane, Berry, Lamar or Twiggs. It is
still alive and kicking in the town that calls itself “America’
s Dream Town,” Macon, Georgia. Having been home at various times
to such greats as Otis Redding, “Littie Richard” Penniman (they
have a bridge and street named in their honor, respectively)
James Brown, Lena Horne, The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie
and Sea Level, it is also the home of the Georgia Music Hall of
Fame (due to open sometime in ‘96).
The old Capricorn offices are now vacant, but the former
Capricorn studio at 536
Broadway is now the Phoenix Recording
Studio (as in ”...rising from the ashes of Capricorn” as owner
Dr. Greg Jones says). Once owned by the sons of the late Otis
Redding, it is still a viable, modern recording facility.
Engineer Chip Slaughter gave me a tour of the studio, pointing
out the control room, which appears on the rear cover of Gregg
Allman’s solo album Laid Back. David Ragsdale, violin
player for the group Kansas, was finishing a project at the time
of my visit.
The studio has started it's own label, White
Clay Records, and it is open for business. Many acts have
already recorded or rehearsed there, including Government Mule,
the Allen Woody, Warren Haynes and Matt Abts project. Chip and
Dr. Jones also took me into the basement and showed me the
reverb chamber; four bunker-like, asymmetrical, tile-lined rooms
with double doors, where JBL 3-way speakers send the sound to
Shure SM 81 microphones pointed the opposite direction. They
claimed Gregg had a mattress in one of them where he used to
like to go “...become one with the music.”
Probably the most interesting place in the town for lovers of
the Allman Brothers and their music is the Big House. Not only
is it still there, it is once again “in the family.”
The house is a shrine to what many devotees call ‘The Best
Band in the Land,” including memorabilia from four decades of
their music. Various friends and band members have donated items
to Kirk West, the Brothers’ “Tour Mystic” or “Tour Magician”
(a.k.a. the tour manager). Kirk and his wife Kirsten bought the
house a few years ago and have turned it into a museum which
will eventually become a bed and breakfast for visiting fans.
And visit they do. The Georgia Allman Brothers Association (GABBA)
hosts a weekend-long festival every September, where memorabilia
is sold/swapped, tapes are exchanged (the Brothers are one of
the only existing bands that encourage taping of their shows,
much like the Grateful Dead) and most importantly, great music
is made. GABBA is run by the congenial Marty Willett, who also
works as the Directors Assistant for Special Projects at the
Georgia Music Hall of Fame, located in downtown Macon, and
displaying quite an array of Allman Brothers-related
You may be saying to yourself, “...this is all well and good,
but I buy this magazine to read about guitars.”
Fear not, guitarheads! I spoke at length with Kirk, he set me
straight on all the rumors I had heard for years about where
Duane’s guitars ended up. We talked about the Big House, the
album covers he’s photographed for the band; then we went
through some of his pictures, which he was kind enough to let
VG use. Kirk and Kirsten were introduced to me through
several people I know who have a history with the Allman
Brothers, including George McCorkle, formerly
with the Marshall Tucker Band, Jimmy Nalls, former guitar player
for Sea Level and Dr. John,
my good pal Jack Pearson, who plays in the bands of Gregg Allman
and Jimmy Hall and The Prisoners of Love (former singer/sax and
harp player for Wet Willie).
Kirk and Kirsten met in a most peculiar way. Well, maybe not, it
is the ‘90s! Anyway, they met through a personal ad Kirk placed
in a Chicago newspaper. But let me turn it over to Kirk. The
following is a conversation we had at the kitchen table where
Dickey wrote “Ramblin’ Man.”
VG: How did you hook up with the Allman Brothers?
KW: In ‘82, I started working on a book project that
never saw the light of day, but spawned other stuff. The most
important thing that it spawned was the Dreams box set
(Polydor Records). So the book never came to pass but as a
result of doing all this digging, I was the associate producer
on that thing. All these little facts kind of fell in place and
I was going to shoot pictures of the ‘89 tour. They had hired a
freelance guy to tour manage and in the midst of the first leg,
they hired me to help him. They told me he would teach me what
to do. I just stayed on doing that, I’ve been doing it ever
since. They call me the Tour Magician because the band’s
manager, Bert Hollman, travels with the band. They want a
manager that they can go knock on his door at four in the
morning and he’s just down the hall. Although I do the tour
management position, it’s like there’s a grey area so we just
call me the Tour Magician (laughing).
VG: You’ve done
several album covers for the band, right?
KW: I’ve done all of the album covers since ‘89.
VG: You mentioned earlier that Dickey wrote some songs
here in the house.
KW: “Blue Sky” was in the living room and “Ramblin’ Man”
was in this spot right here. He actually lived across the fence
over here about a half a block away. But this was the Big House,
where everybody came. When Dickey was fighting with Sandy Blue
Sky, he’d be over here. He stayed here a lot and it was during
that period of time, ‘70, ‘71, that everything took place here.
VG: Was all this memorabilia yours to begin with?
KW: No, I started to gather memorabilia for the book
project, but I never really kept stuff. I had a few picks and a
lot of pictures, obviously. The whole book project was going to
be a photo album, a coffee table book. I didn’t fancy myself a
writer. So I was digging because I didn’t have photos before
1972. I didn’t shoot pictures that much. I’d shoot people I
didn’t really care about, but the people I really wanted to
listen to, I wouldn’t shoot pictures of. A lot of pictures of
like Frank Zappa, Pacific Gas and Electric, from 1968, and ‘69,
but no Allman Brothers.
VG: How did you come to acquire the Big House?
KW: I was down here actually looking at tapes at the
Capricorn studio, or the Phoenix studio. One of the (GABBA)
revivals was taking place that same week. The Allman Brothers
went on the road that month, it was October and the people at
the studio had these tapes and I started poking around. While
I’m down here a friend of my said, “Listen, you want to go to
the house?” I said sure, I’d like to go there, so Chank, who was
an old friend of Gregg’s, hooked up a little walking tour.
He knew the people that lived here and
he got Candy and Brittany (Oakley), Berry’s sister and daughter,
and Mama Louise from the H & H. So we were walking through the
house. The family that lived here, he’s a lawyer, she’s school
teacher, they’ve got three kids and he was kind of offish, but
she was very warm and gracious. They walked us all around, there
was about six or eight of us. And she kept making these
comments, these little asides, references. Taken individually
they didn’t mean
nothing, but accumulatively, over 30 minutes, a dozen or so of
these little comments, I came out thinking “...I think she’s
trying to sell this house to me, I bet she’d bite.” She say
things like, “The people who made the history of this house
really should be in it,” or .“...it’s a shame we don’t have the
money to fix it up because it’s just going to hell. I don’t know
anything about the band and we get a lot of people knocking on
I offered to send her some pictures to put up and show. She was
a warm and wonderful woman, but they were just making ends meet
and this house was just really collapsing. He got this house for
back taxes and they couldn’t afford to fix it, but he
immediately got a second mortgage and did something else rather
than fixing up the house.
So we go out to the car and Chank says, “You know, I think
they’re trying to sell you this place.” I had just been married
a year, I was 41 or 42, and I’d never owned nothing. I’d been an
apartment liver, never really wanted to own anything, but
Kirsten, my wife, and I decided we wanted to do something, you
know? Get out of Chicago, we were tired of winter. I came home
and I’m all pumped about the (GABBA) revival and all the fans
showing up and I mentioned, “...oh I went to the Big House and I
think they’d probably sell it.” She said, “Oh that would be a
great piece of memorabilia for you. You’ve got this big
collection, let’s open an Allman Brothers bed and breakfast.” I
said, “...yeah that’s cool!”
So we just started talking about it with our friends. I talked
to the guys in the band and everybody we talked to thought it
was a tremendous idea. A couple of the band guys thought I was
goofy as **** to want to move to Macon, but they were kind of
tickled by the notion that there would be a Graceland for them.
We call it Disgraceland (laughing). After about four or five
months talking about it, it seemed like the conditions and
interest might be right, so I called them down here and asked if
they were still interested in selling. They were like, the house
isn’t for sale, but we’ll talk to you.
So we came down and she wanted to sell the house bad. He didn’t
want to sell the house because he had a lot of issues with
people in town here. They're a black family
and it's a seriously old white house in town. Conservative as
**** and a lot of racial and class politics involved. I stepped
into a quagmire here. He said, flat out, sitting on the back
porch, “This town wants me out of this house and they’ll do
anything they can to get me out and you in”. I mean, I'm not
your middle-of-the-road, cocktail party kind of guy. I’m the
kind of guy they used to try to run out of town (laughter). It
Because of the way it all came to pass was, we agreed to pay so
much for the house, but we couldn’t get a mortgage for the price
we had agreed to pay. It was flat out, “...there is no
negotiation, this is what I want, take it or I’ll let the house
fall down around me.”
He was asking a little too much for it, twice what it was
appraised for. His wife said, “Look, you’re not buying one
house, you’re buying two.”
They had declared bankruptcy months before. This was the only
thing they had left and it was going to pay off their debts and
buy them a new house. And it did. Because we only had X amount
of money, we put that in the house. We had enough to get the
house. But then we didn’t have any money to fix it, so we would
have been no better off than they were. So one conversation lead
to another and we got an appraisal on the finished condition of
the house, not the buying condition, so we got a loan based on
the eventual work (laughs).
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame is being built here in town. It
was going to be built when we moved down here and the seller and
his partner had come up with the idea about bringing it down
here to a property they owned. Like I said, it
politics. The state representative from this
district pushed it through because he was jammed up with all the
politicians in Atlanta, then as the process is being designated
to locate down here, he resigned his post as representative, ran
for mayor, and won. So, rather than putting it in this location,
which was a salvation because their little project was a little
too ambitious and it was going down the toilet, he puts the
Georgia Music Hall of Fame down the road about four blocks.
It would have been kind of nice, in a Nashville sort of way,
using these old Victorian houses, not like the Country Music
Hall of Fame, but kind of like Music Row. But they built a new
building specifically for it, a very nice place. It’s downtown
and it’s going to save the city, help revitalize the downtown
district and it’s near the interstate. So that’s the way it all
came to be. We are the only building of (musical) historical
significance outside of the studio down there on Broadway and
Miss Ann’s Tic Tock, which is Little Richard’s starting ground.
It’s between the new Hall of Fame and the old studio. Little
Richard’s house is a little shotgun house in the ghetto and
Otis’ (Redding) in-town place is in the projects and James
Brown’s place was where the interstate is now. There is no drive
by, Mecca, kind of place, so they’re looking at us saying we’ll
be a part of this tour.
VG: When did you buy the house?
KW: ‘93. We’re coming up on three years here. We lived in
a construction zone for nine or 10 months. It was like
scaffolding, 40 people here at dawn (laughing) and here I am,
gone all the time.
VG: I know this is switching gears kind of quickly, but
can you straighten out all the rumors about Duane’s guitar, like
where it is now and what happened to it? Gregg said Duane’s
daughter owns it, but didn’t go into much detail.
KW: Twiggs Lyndon had it. When he died, he wanted it to
go to Galadriel when she turned 21
reached a responsible point, you know. He died in ‘79, on tour
with the (Dixie) Dregs, he was tour managing them. So Steve
(Morse) had it. Twiggs’ brothers were caring for it and Steve
played it on every record he recorded until it got
back to Duane’s daughter. That was something
I didn’t know.
He played it on ”Free Fall” and ”What lf” and all those things.
Not throughout, but some on every Dregs record and every Steve
Morse record he played that
guitar. I interviewed him a couple times, so I was down here and
he was living southeast of Atlanta, way out in the country. I
had to meet him at a gas station off I-75, and followed him to
his place and here’s this guitar. It had been refretted, and
Twiggs inlaid Duane’s name with the old frets. He didn’t want to
discard anything, so he took the old frets and spelled Duane’s
name on the back side of the guitar, on the body. It was in a
canvas bag underneath Steve’s bed.
There’s an interesting story about that guitar. I wasn’t there
for it, but I know that it happened. Duane was playing a gold
Les Paul, the one he’d been playing for a year, year and a half,
something like that. And he’s looking for a different year,
different model, he wants a sunburst. So somebody finds him one,
may have been Billy Gibbons. I think Billy had his fingers in
the arrangement, in the connection. It turns out that it’s
Christopher Cross, so they meet at a hotel and Duane fiddles
around with it, but he wants to keep the pickups out of this
goldtop, but he doesn’t want to tell him.
So they look at the deal, look at the price, they agree on
something and Duane says, “...well, I don’t have the money here,
we’ll have to go get it.” They’ve got (former ABB roadies) Kim
Payne and Red Dog with them. So Duane and Chris go to get the
money, I think it was something like $500. They were going to
trade guitars plus $500 and they’ve got to go find Willie
Perkins to get the cash. So they’re gone four or five minutes,
and in that time, Kim and Red Dog switched the pickups (laughs).
But they come back and no big deal, you know, here you go,
here’s your guitar. Duane had pulled Red Dog aside while they’re
doing this thing and said, “Man I’ve got to have them pickups.”
VG: So did Cross ever find out?
KW: Yeah (laughing). It was printed in a little story
we did for the newsletter. I’m not sure that he ever found out.
As it turns out now, Galadriel’s got the goldtop,
too! It came back to her [in about
August of 1995].
VG: Do you know about any others?
KW: I know Dickie has an acoustic that belonged to Duane.
The red SG that used
to be Dickie’s, see Dickie bought the
SG in 1969 and played it through ‘70, and Duane took a shine to
it. I don’t know if it was actually sold or just given, but
Duane ended up with it and Dickie bought himself a Les Paul.
Duane played slide with the SG. He used it exclusively for slide
the whole last year, March or February. The first pictures I
have of him using it to play slide with I know are February of
'71, and you never see him playing slide with the Les Paul after
that. That guitar now is owned by Graham Nash.
When Duane died, there was guy by the name of Gerry Groome, who
was a kind of precocious little guitar player from Miami. Duane
took a shine to him in about 1969 or
‘70. Gerry was, how would you put it, fond of himself. Nobody
else was very fond of him, except Duane. But he was around a
lot. And made himself around a lot. Apparently somewhere along
the line, Duane had said to Gerry, “If anything ever happens to
me, I want you to have this guitar.” Talking about the SG. Now
nobody else in the band ever heard that statement, or will admit
to hearing that statement.
So when Duane died, Gerry got onto Gregg about “...Duane wanted
me to have this!” Gerry told the story that Duane was on his way
home from this house and was going over to his place to call
him. I knew Gerry pretty well. So he got the guitar early in
‘72. He was a really good guitar player. He never put a record
out until after he died (in a scuba diving accident). They put
out a couple records. Some stuff he did with Mick Taylor. He had
some pretty serious problems and he’d hitchhike around the
country with this guitar. He’d get together, do some recording
projects, then he’d be back in the toilet again.
He got picked up one night by the police in Florida on an
outstanding warrant. He was a kind of mouthy little guy
sometimes and they put the handcuffs on too tight and pinched
nerves, or severed something in his wrist and it stayed that
way. They left the cuffs on him for quite some time and ignored
his pleas to loosen them up and it really did some nerve damage
to his hands. It got worse and worse, and he went to the Mayo
clinic. They said, ”We can fix it but it’s going to cost you
tens of thousands of dollars.” So he had the situation where he
could keep Duane’s guitar and not be able to play it, or he
could sell the guitar and fix his hands. And that’s what he
ended up doing.
So the guy from Gibson in L.A. called me up one day, they had
used a picture of it one time in a Guitar World
centerspread. So they wanted to know the serial numbers on it.
The headstock had been busted off and when they patched it the
serial numbers went away. So I had to verify it and send a
photograph. But Graham Nash’s wife bought it for a Christmas
present for him. The condition was that the guitar could not be
sold to anybody other than back to Gerry, his family or somebody
in the Brother’s organization. Can’t just go to Japan or
Dickey also had one of Berry’s basses and he ended up giving it
back to Berry Jr. (of the group Bloodline, which also features
Robby Krieger’s son, Waylon) the one that has the Guild pickups
in it. They called it the Tractor, because he put that great big
ugly Guild pickup in it (laughs). Berry used to play a Guild
before he got the Fender Jazz bass. One day he just took a
router (laughing) and cut a hole for the pickup.
A special thanks to Kirk and Kirsten West for making me at home
in their home. Although the house is not yet finished, it is
well on the way to being as beautiful as ever. The address is
2321 Vineville, Macon, GA 31204. Keep in mind, this is not
strictly a showplace, it is their home, which they share with
Stella the cat and three dogs; Maggie, Martha and Lizzie. They
are very accommodating, genuinely good people who should be
treated with the same respect you would allow any business. If
you are traveling through south Georgia, I recommend stopping by
to capture some of the magic. Contact the Georgia Music Hall of
Fame at 305 Coliseum Dr., Macon, GA 31202. GABBA can be reached
at P0 Box 6345, Macon, GA 31208.