Born into rock 'n' roll royalty, Jessica Walden (B.A. '00) is using her hometown's rich music history to preserve its legacy.
H&H Restaurant is a downtown Macon, Ga., landmark that’s easy to miss.
Tucked into the ground floor of a squat, red-brick cube at the corner of Forsyth and New streets, the breakfast and lunch spot is marked only by a white painted-over Coca-Cola light-box sign hanging above the door. The swinging glass door and a small front window let in the sun and eyes of passersby. Since it opened back in 1959, locals have sought out the hidden lunch and breakfast gem for its soul food — pork chops, collard greens, succotash and some of the best fried chicken in the South.
Inside, however, the greasy spoon is a time capsule from the 1970s. The servers wear tie-dye T-shirts. Southern rock jams over the bare-bones sound system and framed posters, playbills and autographed photos cover the walls. Molly Hatchet. The Marshall Tucker Band. And of course, Macon’s own Allman Brothers Band. The only thing missing is a plaque or sign explaining the connection.
Enter Jessica Walden, a petite blonde stepping out of a sun-drenched Wednesday afternoon into H&H wearing sunglasses, a cheetah-print faux fur coat and jeans, purple knee-high boots clacking on the concrete floor. The waitress knows Walden by sight and brings her iced tea in a to-go cup. Not only is Walden a Macon native and a regular customer, but H&H is the meeting spot and the first stop on Walden’s weekly rock ‘n’ roll stroll tour — a two-and-a-half-hour walk through in-town and downtown Macon featuring the famous, not-so-famous and altogether forgotten scenes of musical events that changed the world. These are the celebrated homes and haunts of legends such as Little Richard, Otis Redding and Capricorn Records. But also dives and street corners where lesser-known artists were forged, such as blues pioneer Lucille Hegamin and gospel street performer the Rev. Pearly Brown, and places where little-known moments of pop culture history took place. (“Greg Allman proposed to Cher in that alleyway,” Walden points out along the tour.)
Walden and her husband Jamie Weatherford, a local candy manufacturer, started Rock Candy Tours in summer 2011 when the Georgia Music Hall of Fame closed its downtown doors because of low attendance and reduced funding.
“Macon’s music history doesn’t have to live in a museum,” says Walden. “It’s on the streets and in these buildings. If these walls could talk, they’d sing.”
The cinderblock walls of H&H have a particularly melodious ballad, she says, pointing to the shrine of Southern rock signage. She starts spinning the yarn of one day in the early 1970s when two skinny, longhaired guys walked in and asked owner Mama Louise for help. They were musicians leaving on tour, and they had no money.
“They looked so hungry,” Walden says, building drama. Mama Louise gave them two plates of food. The men left and quickly returned with the band and crew. They promised to repay Mama Louise when they returned from the road. That was the Allman Brothers Band. They eventually repaid their outstanding tab, and even hired “Their Mama” to cook for them on tour, making her and H&H famous.
“Now,” says Walden, “you have to eat here as part of the pilgrimage.”
Walden will be the first to tell you she’s not a historian. Nor is she a musician. She doesn’t even claim to be a music buff. She graduated from Georgia State in 2000 with a degree in journalism and has worked mostly in communication and public relations. But she’s more than just a tour guide. Walden is a living stop on her own tour.
As she leaves H&H, having forgotten her iced tea, Walden heads east on DT Walton Sr. Way, formerly Cotton Avenue. She points out Hutchings Funeral Home where Otis Redding’s wake was held in 1967.
“Imagine 10,000 people lined up along this sidewalk, waiting to see his body,” she says, not missing a beat as she strides through crosswalks, barely noticing the stoplights, as if she has internalized the ebb and flow of traffic. She stops only when she reaches a windowless concrete façade behind a black wooden barricade, the structure’s crumbling white paint streaked with dirt and rain. By the tinted front door, one can see the shadows of lettering that have been removed, stains that time has almost completely wiped away. They faintly read: “Capricorn Records, Phil Walden & Assoc.”
“Macon’s music history doesn’t have to live in a museum. It’s on the streets and in these buildings. If these walls could talk, they’d sing.”
Phil Walden was Jessica’s uncle, a Macon native who had fallen hopelessly in love with the blues, R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll that had sprung up in Macon’s black community in the 1950s. In the late 1950s, as a student booking bands for his fraternity at nearby Mercer University, Phil convinced budding local soul singer Otis Redding to let him become his manager. Phil’s younger brother Alan, Jessica’s father, came aboard a few years later and the three formed RedWal Music in 1965. Through Redding, the Walden boys would meet and manage a number of other acts, including Percy Sledge, who gave their agency its first No. 1 hit with 1966’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” followed by Redding’s own “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” in 1968. Redding died in a plane crash before the record was released. Two years later, the Walden brothers regrouped and started Capricorn Records, future home of The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop and, of course, The Allman Brothers Band, in this very building.
Alan split off into his own publishing and management company in 1970. The first band he signed was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that, along with the Allmans, would define Southern rock over the next decade. And it was into this world that Jessica Walden was born.
“She grew up with a lot of music around her,” says Alan Walden, now retired. “Although I’m sure she got tired of hearing her daddy’s long stories about Otis, Skynyrd and The Outlaws.”
When she was a child, Jessica got to participate in a few crazy stories of her own when she and her mother would tag along to certain events. One of her earliest memories is of a trip to New York to watch The Outlaws play The Beacon Theatre. Prior to the show, as the opening acts were starting, a dozen or so members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang had stormed the upstairs dressing rooms and blocked the path to the stage. They refused to move unless The Outlaws promised not to play their song called “Angels Hide.”
“They thought that the song was about the Hell’s Angels hiding,” says Alan. “We tried to explain that it wasn’t about them — it was about trees!”
That seemed to calm the bikers, and the show went on. Two-year-old Jessica and her mother were standing right next to Alan as The Outlaws kicked off their set when Alan spotted a gang member just to their left.
“I was petrified,” he says. “I was thinking ahead to whom I would grab first to run away with.”
But when the band launched into the opening chords of “Angels Hide,” the bikers just clapped and yelled. Alan exhaled. Perhaps it was that early memory, or that she really was tired of all her dad’s stories, or maybe it was because her friends’ parents never wanted to let their children play at the house of a guy who looked like Willie Nelson, but when Jessica got to high school, she did what most teenagers do: She rebelled. For Jessica, that meant steering clear of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
“I went to a conservative private school,” she says. “I’d choose reading a book over going to a concert.”
“When she would go out, she would call me religiously,” Alan remembers. “She’d always tell me where she was and ask to stay out a little later. I’d always let her. She was a good kid.”
Youthful rebellion aside, Jessica couldn’t avoid the fact that royalties from songs like “Freebird,” “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama” were going to help put her through Georgia State. And as fate would have it, the year before she started college, her Uncle Phil had moved a second incarnation of Capricorn to Atlanta into the Walton Building just blocks from the Georgia State campus. (The original closed in 1979.) There, she went to work as an office assistant in between classes, helping promote the label’s next generation of musicians such as Widespread Panic, 311 and Cake. She was reconnected with her family history and the music history they made.
Upon graduation, with that Walden rock pedigree and a journalism degree in tow, she was offered a position in public relations and events with the Georgia Music Hall of Fame back home in Macon. She loved Atlanta and was not anxious to move back to the smaller city. Ultimately, the job was too much to pass up.
“I came back kicking and screaming,” she says. “But now I’m in love with it.”
Love notwithstanding, the Macon she returned to was not the music mecca of her childhood. Capricorn was gone. Her dad was retired. Many of the buildings, monuments to Macon and the music that was forged there, were shuttered, neglected and endangered. After four years at the Hall of Fame, two years editing “The 11th Hour,” Macon’s alternative weekly newspaper, Walden took a gig with the College Hill Alliance, working with the city and Mercer University to preserve and enhance the historic neighborhoods on a two-mile stretch of downtown. Her area of expertise was community outreach, and she planned events such as a monthly music series in Washington Park. One of those was the homecoming of sorts for Percy Sledge, her uncle’s first No. 1 performer, that filled the park with more than 5,000 people.
Walden started giving informal music history tours of the College Hill area in 2010. But when the Music Hall of Fame closed in 2011, Walden and her husband were spurred into action. She mined her father and researched interviews of her late uncle for information, and he hit the Internet and the local library to research Macon’s storied musical past. Rock Candy Tours now offers several different types of tours, some weekly, others by appointment only. There’s the Friday night Free Birds and Night Owls Tour that takes advantage of Macon’s open container allowance and features Grant’s Lounge, a dive dripping with magic of the bands that have played there, and where Jessica held her own wedding rehearsal dinner. There are also step-on shuttle and bus tours that go out as far as Rose Hill Cemetery, where Duane Allman is buried.
Rock Candy Tour’s purpose is two-fold: First, its goal is preservation. By awakening people to the stories within those disintegrating walls, Walden brings attention to their beauty and significance. And there has been positive impact. The Capricorn office building has been bought by local investors who are searching for a new function. And closer to the river, the old Capricorn recording studio, which was one of the Georgia Trust’s “Ten Places In Peril,” is set to reopen as an extension for the Mercer music school.
The second aim is awareness: To showcase Macon’s rightful place among the five M’s of American music (Manhattan, Miami, Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Macon). Thus far, the strolls down music memory lane have attracted fans from all over the world.
After a couple hours of walking around downtown, past Grant’s Lounge, past the Macon City Auditorium where Little Richard was pulled onto the stage as a young boy by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, past the Douglass Theatre where Otis won his first talent shows, the tour ends back at H&H. Walden says her goodbyes. Time to go home to her husband and their son — named Walden.
In addition to bringing revitalization and awareness to Walden’s hometown, Rock Candy Tours has a third, if possibly unintended, consequence — it has reconnected Jessica Walden, the once rebellious preppy, with her rock ‘n’ roll birthright.
“I was delighted when she started the tours,” says her father, Alan, the man who first signed Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I learned some things about Macon that even I didn’t know.”
Tony Rehagen’s writing has appeared in Atlanta Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, Men’s Health and the “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”
Photos by Ben Rollins