A long history of musical diversity, from Sidney Lanier to the Allman Brothers, thrives with the grand opening of Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings.
Upon first encounter, Macon’s historic Bell Mansion — with its marble steps and graceful Corinthian columns — is exactly what you would expect of an institute for string instruments. While you might be surprised to learn that a city the size of Macon has an institute for strings (let alone a world-class center referred to as the “Juilliard of the South” led by violin virtuoso and native son Robert McDuffie), even more surprising is that the mansion once served as the backdrop for the cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s self-titled debut album. In fact, the members of the band lived just next door in a two-room apartment lovingly known as “the hippie crash pad.”
At the time, suburban flight had left many of these mansions empty or divided up into apartments before preservationists began restoring them to reflect their turn-of-the-century glory. Another house the Brothers lived in, a Tudor revival mansion they dubbed The Big House, is only a mile down Highway 41 and is now a museum dedicated to the lives and music of the band.
This 2-square mile part of Macon, known as the College Hill Corridor, has been the well from which so many talented and famous musicians have sprung. Beginning with poet and musician Sidney Lanier, the corridor was the birthplace and/or the incubator that developed some of the most iconic sounds of the 20th century. Little Richard Penniman, the self-proclaimed “Architect of Rock and Roll,” was born here in December 1932. Augusta’s James Brown recorded his first single “Please, Please, Please” at the corridor’s WIBB Radio studios when he came to Macon in the 1950s. When young talent manager and booking agent Phil Walden connected with soul singer Otis “Rock House” Redding after hearing him repeatedly win WIBB’s Saturday teenage talent show, their partnership broke barriers as Macon’s first integrated business. During their reign, R&B greats, including Sam & Dave, Etta James, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge and Ike and Tina Turner, were managed out of their College Hill offices. Business boomed for the two until Otis’ untimely 1967 death.
Later, Walden’s Capricorn Records enterprise with Atlantic Records’ former VP Frank Fenter blazed another trail in the music industry. They immediately made famous a new genre — Southern Rock, led by Capricorn’s first client, Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers Band. Other Capricorn acts included The Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, The Outlaws and Dixie Dregs. The band Wet Willie lived in a College Hill apartment, where they wrote “Keep On Smilin’ Through The Rain.” A block away, Great Southern T-Shirt Company rocked the music merchandising world after producing the first-ever licensed concert t-shirts for Capricorn, resulting in royalties paid to the bands. Today, free outdoor concerts connect people and music every month from April through October at the College Hill Corridor Second Sunday Concert Series in historic Washington Park.
Macon’s rich musical history makes next month’s opening of Mercer University’s Robert McDuffie Center for Strings about so much more than classical music. Since Macon’s youth, the area has been a magnet for the creative and cultural. The neighborhood was in decline for a few decades like so many historic neighborhoods in the urban South, but both private and public investment is resurrecting Macon’s musical history in this hip, historic area. These investments are reconnecting Macon with its roots by using its past to advance its future and attract young talent to this part of the state. During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when racial tensions plagued so much of the country, music brought College Hill residents together. Both the first integrated business — Phil Walden Artists and Promotions — and the first integrated Southern Rock band — The Allman Brothers Band — came out of this era. Both black and white rocked out, sang and danced together to the sounds of Macon’s talents of the time.
The following decade saw two friends and former choir boys, named Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie (pictured below), set off on their own musical paths. Mike and their other friend, Bill Berry, went to Athens and formed the band R.E.M. McDuffie attended Juilliard and founded the Rome Chamber Music Festival in Italy. They never forgot their friendship or their Macon musical roots. Recently, Mills completed a long-time dream to compose a piece of music specifically for collaboration with his friend McDuffie: Concerto for Violin and Rock Band. It was recorded in Athens this past October by them, studio musicians and 14 students from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings. (An international tour is being planned for 2016-17).
This rich history and confluence of time and talent is why the February 21 official opening of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings is such an important event. Highlighted by a music and spoken word performance by McDuffie and actress/activist Anna Deavere Smith at Beulahland Baptist Church, it’s something of a musical homecoming for Macon. From the days of Sidney Lanier, through Little Richard, Otis Redding, the birth of Southern rock and the friendship of two rock and classical stars, music has always been the string tying people together in and around Macon’s College Hill Corridor.
Who knew the Architect of Rock and Roll, the King of Soul, the founders of Southern Rock and two kids who grew up to become stars in completely different music genres would ultimately converge in the opening of the new Julliard of the South?
Photo credits, from top: The McDuffie Center for Strings moved into its newly renovated 1855 antebellum mansion the Bell Houseearlier this year, courtesy of Mercer University; Bell House served as the 1969 backdrop for the Allman Brothers Band’s self-titled debut album, courtesy of Capricorn Records & The Allman Brothers Band Museum; Billboard clipping with Otis Redding and brothers Phil and Alan Walden from Billboard Magazine; and violin virtuoso Robert McDuffie and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, courtesy of Mercer University.
Information provided by The College Hill Alliance.