THE BIG HOUSE HISTORY
By Kirsten West

Macon, Georgia is a place of history – old houses, big churches, shaded streets, a downtown that is a reflection of the past rather than the future. That sentence is how I started my first Big House Update column for Hittin’ the Note in the summer of 1993. I wrote a long piece on the history of the house and our dream of creating a permanent place to house the growing Allman Brothers Band Archives that was the passion of my husband, Kirk West.

Macon is a charming place. There are moments when I am struck with wonder at the beauty of this small southern town. The people of Macon have a reverence for history and protect it voraciously. There are several historic districts in Macon established to preserve the fine architecture and neighbor hoods. The Big House is in the Vineville Historic District and has a prominent position as a gateway to this wonderful area of beautiful homes.

We bought the house in the summer of 1993 and have lived in it and opened our doors, our lives and our hearts to the fans of this great band. We have added to the history of the house but it was the history of the Allman Brothers Band and their impact on the music of their time that has captured the imagination and attention of legions of fans over the years and brought them to our doorstep.

The Big House is at 2321 Vineville Avenue, Macon, GA 31204. For ten years it has been our home and home to the Allman Brothers Band Archives. In 1969 it was for rent and by January 1970 it became the house where many of the band, their roadies, friends and families lived in Macon until 1973. It was the focal point of gathering in those early years when the magic that is the Allman Brothers Band was just taking shape and radiating from this sleepy Southern town.

In January of 1970 Linda Oakley rented the house for Berry and her to live in while the band worked and recorded in Macon at Capricorn Records. The first to live there were Berry, Linda, and their daughter Brittany, Duane Allman, his lady Donna and their daughter Galladrielle, Berry’s sister Candy Oakley and Gregg Allman. Others came and went but eventually the “Big House” was a place that was touched by all those who were part of the extended family of the Allman Brothers Band.

I interviewed Linda Oakley for that first piece that I wrote in 1993. She was so eloquent in describing the years spent in this house. Her words were like brush strokes lovingly applied to a precious picture and she took me back with her to this special time and place. Linda remembers the house well and saw it still in her dreams as she walked the hallways and wandered the rooms that were a magical part of her life then and her memories now.

Linda and Berry and their baby daughter were living in Macon in a one-bedroom apartment over the apartment of Butch Trucks. Candy was living with them, using the couch in the living room as a bed. It was obvious they needed more space. The band was on their first road trip out West when Linda began looking for a place. Berry had given his OK and there was a little money coming in, so they could afford to move into something bigger.

Linda, Candy, and Donna saw the ad for the house on Vineville and went over there to check it out. They were dazzled and enchanted by this large three-story Grand Tudor house with its double lot surrounded by gardens filled with blooming wisteria, and fountains and fishponds in the backyard. It was an elegant majestic home with big sunny rooms filled with light, high ceilings, stained glass windows, fireplaces galore, a crystal chandelier and French doors. It captured their imagination and the three women saw their future in this place and plotted to make it theirs. Linda said that it conjured up three princesses in a castle for them all.

Candy was seeing Gregg Allman at the time, so with three couples chipping in on the rent they figured they could afford the $225 a month that Day Realty was asking for this glorious estate.

In December of 1969 Linda went down to Day Realty and put on her best “little homemaker with child” persona. She painted a picture of domestic bliss and they bought it. So she paid the deposit and the house was to be theirs in January. Before moving in, she and Berry went to Florida to meet the band and visit friends and family. While they were gone, Duane and Donna went ahead and moved in. Day Realty got wind of another couple sharing the house and increased the rent a whopping $10. because more than one family would be living in it! So the price tag was $235 for their dream castle.

Candy got the biggest bedroom in the front of the house for her and Gregg complete with fireplace and private bath. Duane and Donna took the bedroom at the opposite end of the house with the small adjoining room in between used as a nursery for Galladrielle. Berry and Linda took the rooms in the back of the house with a separate room for Brittany, a bathroom and a back room that they turned into a music room.

Linda said she loved this place with its wonderful view of the sunsets and the lush green of the overgrown backyard. She and Berry created the music room and Linda remembered that she hitchhiked to Atlanta to get the stereo. She put Indian prints on the walls and made it a warm and comfortable haven. The three stained glass windows along with Linda’s loving touches made this a special spot for her and Berry. They had a private bathroom between this room and their bedroom and one of the unique features was a huge walk-in shower perfect for a couple or a couple of couples which she mentioned did occur from time to time.

The third floor of the house is a large wide-open space with dormers and window benches and a vaulted ceiling. This was originally used as a ballroom when the house was constructed in 1900. Off of this big room are several small rooms that were locked when everyone first moved in. Shortly after arriving some of the roadies broke into these rooms and found them filled with wonderful antique treasures collected by the owners of the house. Linda mentioned a vintage upright piano and a big claw-foot table as well as many items from the Orient and Middle East. It was learned that the owner was a military man who had done a lot of traveling. He had two daughters who had made this third floor their bedroom and playroom. Many of these pieces found their way into the Allman Brothers Band household and added greatly to the grace of this stately mansion. They also had some wicker furniture that was given to them by Berry’s grandmother along with an old Victorian sofa with heavy brocade upholstery.

The three women and two children were the real permanent residents of this house. Any notions that this was a big hippie crash pad are obviously mistaken. Brittany and Galladrielle had the run of the place. Their tiny footsteps would echo down through the hallways. There was always music in the house. Linda remembered getting up in the morning and putting on Miles Davis and gathering the women and children in the kitchen for a quiet breakfast. It was very idyllic. The band was gone most of the time and the women created a place of beauty and a retreat for their men to return to after their rough times on the road. Linda remarked that the tranquillity of the house and how clean it was always surprised people.

Other people came and stayed as guests. Donna’s sister Joan stayed for awhile, and she was visiting when Willie Perkins was hired by the band to replace Twiggs Lyndon as road manager in June of 1970. I talked briefly to Willie and he recalled that Joan was the only one home when he first arrived that day in June. She greeted him and took him to the kitchen for some iced tea. He remembers her opening the refrigerator seeing two large mason jars filled with tea. One of the jars had silver duct tape around the top. This was to signify that it contained “electric tea.” The idea for the mason jars was no doubt taken from Mama Louise at the H & H who was serving tea in mason jars to the Allman Brothers Band in 1970 and still does today. The idea for the duct tape is an original one that may have been Berry’s as, according to Linda, he was in charge of the “electric tea.”

Willie slept in the living room for the first few months until he and his future wife Sandy found their own apartment a few blocks away. Kim Payne, a roadie for the band, moved in with Candy after she and Gregg ended their relationship. Donna’s sister Joan married Mike Callahan, another Allman Brothers Band roadie, and they stayed there together for awhile.

Willie remembers the first time there was any semblance of a royalty check for the band. He said everyone gathered in the music room to celebrate and decide how to split the check. This sharing was a part of this philosophy. There was always the family and it was a pivotal element to the essence of the band.

The idyllic life was suspended when the band came off the road and the men returned. Linda said it was like a big reunion, a honeymoon for the couples and the party time would start and the band would jam.

On the first floor, past the parlor, through the French doors, what was originally the sunroom suited the purpose perfectly. This was transformed into the music room – Duane put batting on the walls to muffle the sound, and they set up their instruments and equipment and played, practiced and jammed into the night, night after night.

This was the time they would all get together and “hit the note.” Linda used these words. This was Berry’s term. He was the one who organized these parties and gatherings. Berry and Duane shared a vision. Berry called it “hittin’ the note,” but it was a philosophy that transcended the music. It reflected a way of being. And it was this way of being, the great music that was being created and this beautiful place with these earnest young men, their lovely women and children that Linda captured for me in our conversation. I wasn’t there then, but I am now. I can sense it and feel it and have those moments of tranquility myself when I can almost hear the echoes of the guitars resounding through the house. That way of being is what Kirk and I have attempted to maintain here as residents of this place thirty years after the band walked these hallways.

The kitchen was large enough so the Brothers could gather there to write, share dreams and talk about their future. Dickey remembers the kitchen and the quiet backyard as places where he would work on his songs. Dickey wrote “Blue Sky” in the living room and “Ramblin’ Man” in the kitchen. The guys bought a pool table with a red felt top and put it on the third floor where they would play and talk for hours. Linda remembers learning to cook in the kitchen. She laughed as she recalled cooking for twenty and said she had a hard time adjusting to cooking for two or three when these days were over. And they were over all too soon.

You know the rest of the story. They were planning a birthday party for Linda. She said it was supposed to be a surprise. Duane came over to the house (he was now living elsewhere with his new lady Dixie) with a big bouquet of flowers for the party. Linda said everyone was busy fixing Jack O’Lanterns for Halloween and Duane said, “Let me do the eyes, the nose and the mouth.” It was the day he died. He left the house on his motorcycle and never returned.

Dixie came to the house and stayed for a while after Duane died, and in February of 1972, Dixie, Candy, and Linda all went to Jamaica together. When they returned Dixie went back to Atlanta.

Berry tried to keep the vibe going but according to Linda, something died in him with Duane’s death. He told Linda that the hellhounds were on his trail. He began having nightmares and was drawn more and more to the dark blues of Robert Johnson and Elmore James. Then sadly, Berry followed Duane to his grave a little over a year later on a motorcycle on the streets of Macon.

Linda went away to Florida for Christmas to be with friends and family and to try to heal. When she returned in January of 1973, there was an eviction notice waiting for her and she was forced to move out of the Big House. Apparently the publicity surrounding the band led to the eviction. Linda moved out to the farm, to Idlewild, and tried to pick up the pieces of her life.

Willie Perkins told me that his strongest memories of the Big House were his first few moments there and then the last moments; the funerals. He said that years later when the band had broken up, the Big House was empty, Capricorn Records was defunct and Great Southern, the T-shirt company, had folded, you could drive around Macon and never know this band had existed, had ever been there.

Well, all that has certainly changed. The Allman Brothers Band reformed as a group in 1989 and it has been a great ride for the band and their fans ever since. Much of this revival has been evident in Macon. Beginning with the four-night series of concerts by the Brothers at the end of 1991and followed by the formation of the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association and its very successful annual fan gatherings, there has been a resurgence of interest in the band and its history in Macon, in Georgia and across the country. The band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame has sealed their place in music history for all time. The purchase and restoration of the Big House has given the fans a permanent place to call their own where they can relax and enjoy the vast array of memorabilia and just relish the experience of being in the place where much of the band lived and created their music.

We bought the Big House in the summer of 1993. The renovation was extensive and expensive. We had hoped to open as a bed and breakfast but we ran out of funds and I ran out of energy. We have allowed all the fans to come and spend time here and view Kirk’s amazing collection. We estimate that we have hosted almost 10,000 people in the ten years we have been here.

The historical significance of the Big House can not be overstated. The body of music that was created here is vast. Gregg wrote “Please Call Home” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Leave My Blues at Home” and “Midnight Rider” at the Big House. The band worked up “Hot ‘Lanta” while rehearsing at the Big House. Dickey wrote “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky” here.

The History of the Big House did not end when the Allman Brothers Band vacated the premises. From the very first week after we moved in we have had an amazing assortment of famous and interesting guests and visitors. Col. Bruce Hampton was actually the first. He drove down from Atlanta just a few days after we arrived and sat at the fishpond and ruminated about his days in Macon and his memories of Duane.

In mid-October Lee Roy Parnell and his band stopped by. At that time we did not know Lee Roy at all and this was the first of many days spent with Lee Roy over the years and the beginning of a deep and wonderful friendship that we have had with him ever since. Bruce came back to the house later that fall and brought his critically acclaimed band, The Aquarium Rescue Unit. There were a couple of younger guys in the band that we met for the first time. You may have heard of them now, Oteil Burbridge and Jimmy Herring. Little did we know what the future held for these budding musical geniuses.

Over the years we had visits from Jack Pearson, Tinsley Ellis, Jimmy Hall, Dave Grissom who came and spent the night and slept in Duane’s room. Jack, Tinsley and Dave were inspired by their time at the house and each of them felt moved to play their slide guitars before they turned off the lights for the night. A couple years ago the North Mississippi Allstars spent a few hours relaxing in the living room before they headed on down the road.

In June of 1994, Warren Haynes, Matt Abts and Allen Woody took up residence at the Big House. They took over the Archive rooms and set up their instruments and equipment and rehearsed for 8 days before they headed out to do their first shows as Gov’t Mule. Every night they played and I cooked. It was a wonderful time and one that I will never forget. Just listening to this new music pouring out of these rooms once again was so inspiring!

Most of the Allman Brothers Band has stayed at the house since we moved in. Gregg came and spent a few days one December while he was performing a solo concert in Macon. It was bittersweet to be back in his old bedroom after over 25 years. Butch Trucks came for an extended stay one fall and Jaimoe spent some time here as well. Derek stayed here when he was just a lad and was interviewed by E J Devokaitis in Duane’s room.

Kirk and I have talked about our time here so often and the one event that stands out more than any other was the memorial service we had for Joe Dan Petty. We thought that we would have about 75 people and over three hundred showed up. It wasn’t the number but the individuals and the memories they shared that were so touching to us. We have often said that this event became a reunion for virtually all of the old friends and associates of the Allman Brothers Band. They came from all over the country and were reunited in this tragic hour. Our house, the Big House became the backdrop for this poignant occasion. Sitting in my sun room were Dickey Betts, Bonnie Bramlett, Chuck Leavell…all talking and sharing stories like no time had separated them. It was very moving to say the least. We have always felt so blessed to have provided the setting for this to happen. It is a day we will never forget.

Our greatest desire is to leave this house to the safekeeping of someone who will respect, cherish and nurture its history and the music that was made here by the Allman Brothers Band. The preservation will continue in the good hands of the Big House Foundation and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. We encourage the fans of the Allman Brothers Band to help make this dream a reality by participating in the Big House Foundation and securing the Big House as a permanent place for everyone to visit and enjoy.