Above: Capricorn Studios was the breeding ground for many of the biggest names in southern rock. Now, Mercer Music at Capricorn Studios and Museum is ready to receive visitors and musicians. Photo courtesy of Mercer Music at Capricorn.
The lead singer of the 70s southern rock band Wet Willie finished one of the group’s signature songs, “Everything that ‘Cha Do (will come back to you)”, took a bow, wiped sweat from his eyes and told his audience, “They say there ain’t no ham like Birmingham. Well today there ain’t no corn like Capricorn!”
Wet Willie lead vocalist and saxophonist Jimmy Hall and company played a 45-minute set during a sun-splashed outdoor ceremony Dec. 3 that marked the reopening of Macon’s historic Capricorn Studios. It’s the place where bands such as the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels’ bands, Elvin Bishop and, yes, Wet Willie recorded albums that created “Southern Rock” and helped define a decade of music. (Who can forget their 1974 top 10 hit “Keep on Smilin’”?)
“Capricorn became a crucible of southern rock,” Mercer University president William Underwood said at the early December event. “And the Allman Brothers were at its center. And many of you here today made Capricorn what it is.”
The reopening—on the 50th anniversary of Capricorn’s founding—marked the culmination of several years of work on a number of fronts. The formerly dilapidated space was stabilized, cleaned up and refurbished under the umbrella of Mercer University and now bears the somewhat academic-sounding title of “Mercer Music at Capricorn.”
So just how did a nondescript building on downtown Macon’s fringe gain ascendancy as a temple of rock music, years before the Athens music scene and Atlanta’s “Dirty South” hip-hop wave took hold?
The story begins with Mercer University graduate Phil Walden, his brother Alan and soul singer and Macon native Otis Redding forming Redwal Music in 1967, buying the property on what was then Cotton Avenue (now MLK Boulevard) with plans for a sound studio. Redding’s death in a plane crash later that year delayed plans to set up shop until Dec. 3, 1969, under Phil Walden and co-founder Frank Fenter’s auspices. In the meantime, Phil Walden had recruited Duane Allman and, indirectly, Duane’s brother Gregg, to form the nucleus of the Allman Brothers, the label’s flagship artist.
The 70s found the complex a beehive of activity as a broad variety of acts were signed and southern rock and soul incubated in Studio A. Capricorn music peppered the airwaves and record sales soared. But the boom ended quickly, and following the label’s 1979 bankruptcy, the building changed hands a number of times. Parts of the structure eventually teetered on the brink of collapse and, at one time, it was named one of Georgia’s most endangered historic buildings.
“It was either going to be a parking lot or torn down and made into offices or something,” said middle Georgia resident Chuck Leavell, an Allmans’ band member and current musical director for the Rolling Stones. His group Sea Level recorded their debut album at Capricorn Studios in 1977. In a university news release, Leavell said, “It’s a miracle we can walk in and see that it’s the same as it was in the 70s when I first came here.”
After nearby Mercer acquired the space in 2015, restoration efforts gathered momentum as the school established a partnership with a downtown booster group and two developers to bring the complex back to life. The restoration work itself kicked off in recent months, helped along by $2 million in grant money from a pair of non-profit foundations.
The finished $4.3 million refurbishing of the 20,000-square-foot space fits hand-in-glove into Leavell’s recollections. The entire “Mercer at Capricorn” has a 1970s vibe, particularly historic Studio A, which appears almost as it did during its halcyon days.
The original burlap wall coverings, soundproofing and recessed lighting remain—along with acoustics so good that several groups recorded in Studio A over the last few years, even when it had no heat, AC or power. (They had to bring their own power and lighting along with their instruments.)
The school had a custom-built analog sound console of period design installed in the control room for Studio A. A piece of what appears original studio equipment occupies one corner and retro-style signs guide visitors throughout the complex, which features earth and rusty orange tones. Next door, Studio B boasts cutting-edge digital recording and mixing equipment and a space that can accommodate live performances.
“People say the place looks, sounds and even smells like it did in the 1970s,” Mercer spokesman Larry Brumley said.
A climb to the second floor reveals a museum which traces the roots and influences of the label with artifacts ranging from concert tickets and T-shirts for Capricorn artists to copies of contracts for live performances and original notes from recording sessions. One exhibit relates how a Plains peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter partnered up with southern rock acts to help further his quest for the White House. Others are interactive, allowing visitors to pull up and play their favorite artists’ tunes.
The complex also features rehearsal space for Mercer students and music incubator rooms for rent. They’re designed as a place for budding artists to experiment, collaborate and turn out new material. Office, conference and co-working spaces round out the complex.
The Dec. 3 public ceremony and open house attracted many graying beards and ponytails, character lines etched by the decades, hearing aids and canes, but younger performers and music fans plus ordinary folk were also much in evidence.
“I think it’s great to have something like this in Macon,” said one foot-stomping member of the audience during the Wet Willie performance. “I don’t know much about the music, but I do appreciate the history.”
Mercer Music at Capricorn opens to the public on Jan. 2 for tours. The museum will be open Tuesday through Saturday with tours of the studios given between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday. There will be an admission charge for both.
Location: 536 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Macon, Ga. 31201