Big House still rocks

It seems everyone who comes to the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House in Macon has a tale or two to tell. Often, they’re prompted by a photo on the wall or the sight of some memorabilia in one of the display cases.

“That was a heck of a crowd,” Mark Whidden said one recent afternoon, suddenly transported by a poster from the Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Whidden had just driven his Harley-Davidson from his home in Birmingham, listening to Allman Brothers CDs all the way. But now he was traveling back in time to recall a hot July day in 1973, when the Allman Brothers, the Band and the Grateful Dead headlined an outdoor concert at Watkins Glen Raceway in front of 600,000 rock fans.

“I’ve been a fan since 1969,” Whidden said. “I saw them play in Birmingham for the first time that year. I’ve probably seen them 60 times since, but Watkins Glen was a special day.”

Museum director Greg Potter understands. The Lilburn native is president of the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association. Four years ago, Potter became the first person hired by the Big House Foundation, which founded the museum. Most of all though, he’s a lifelong Allman Brothers Band fan, with memories and stories, too.

“Everybody has their own Allman Brothers story,” Potter said. “Some are happy, some are sad, but they’re all fantastic.”

Even before April’s official grand opening christened the museum with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a concert by the current incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band, fans had been coming from as far away as Australia and Japan. And they’d been bringing stuff with them, Potter said.

“We’ve had people drop by and say, ‘Here, this has been in my closet for 30 years, but it needs to be here,’ ” he said. “It’s been amazing, the outpouring we’ve received from fans — posters, photos, things we’d never seen.

“One guy gave us a reel-to-reel tape of ‘Eat a Peach’ that was in much better condition than the one we had. We don’t even know his name.”

The early years

The story of the Big House and how it came to be a museum is intertwined with more than 40 years of Allman Brothers Band history.

Guitarist Duane Allman, drummer Jaimoe, bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist-vocalist Dickey Betts, drummer Butch Trucks and keyboardist-vocalist Gregg Allman got the band together in 1969 in Jacksonville. But from roughly 1970 to 1979, the members called Macon home.

In the the early ’70s, the old Tudor-style mansion at 2321 Vineville Ave., dubbed the Big House, was the communal abode of Oakley and Duane Allman. But it was also the place where the rest of the band rehearsed, relaxed and created. Gregg Allman wrote “Please Call Home” and “Midnight Rider” and Betts wrote “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky” there.

Of course, for all the good times, fans are forever mindful of the twin tragedies the band suffered then. Duane Allman and Oakley died just 13 months apart, in 1971 and 1972, from motorcycle accidents on Macon streets not far from the Big House.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the legacy of the band’s most memorable Macon address faded. But in 1993, Allman Brothers road manager Kirk West and his wife, Kirsten, moved into the Big House and it became the repository for their “stealth museum” collection of band memorabilia. Later, they helped found the Big House Foundation with dreams of one day creating a permanent museum.

The Wests moved out in 2003, sold the house to the foundation and after five years of fundraising and two years of renovations, the museum became a reality.

Collection’s treasures

Three stories, 18 rooms and 6,000 square feet make for a grand, sprawling space. But it can barely contain all the artifacts that are on display at the Big House. And it represents only a tiny fraction of the entire collection, said E.J. Devokaitis, the museum’s curator-archivist.

A recently acquired gem, on loan from a guitar collector, is Duane Allman’s 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, the instrument he played on the first two albums, “Allman Brothers Band” and “Idlewild South,” and with Eric Clapton on the legendary “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” album.

Other prized pieces include the stenciled tour cases that were photographed for the cover of “At Fillmore East”; the acoustic guitar Gregg Allman played when he wrote “Melissa”; Oakley’s beefy “tractor” bass; the first check ever written on the Allman Brothers bank account (written to Duane and signed by Gregg); and even manager and Capricorn Records cofounder Phil Walden’s address book.

Devokaitis said the goal was to preserve and present the archival material in the best possible way, while giving visitors a taste of what life was like in the Big House in the early ’70s.

To that end, the second floor showcases Duane Allman’s bedroom, recently redecorated in all it’s hippie-era glory by Oakley’s wife, Linda. A lounge area down the hall, where the Oakleys often entertained, features low couches, a hookah pipe and a vintage stereo with a turntable and blues records by Junior Wells and John Hammond Jr.

“We wanted people to walk in and feel the kind of warmth and vitality you can’t get from a museum display,” Devokaitis said. “Linda was able to do that because she was there.”

‘Soaking up the vibe’

Guitarist Warren Haynes joined the Allman Brothers Band in 1989, long after the heyday of the Big House. But his connection to the place and its history is unique.

In 1994, not long after the Wests took over the Big House, Haynes formed Gov’t Mule in Macon with bassist Allen Woody, who also was playing with the Allman Brothers Band, and drummer Matt Abts.

“Our first rehearsals were in the Big House,” Haynes said. “When you come through the front door, the room to the left is where the Allman Brothers rehearsed in the old days and that’s where Gov’t Mule got started.

“I slept in Duane’s room and Woody slept in Berry Oakley’s room. We were soaking up the vibe and taking advantage of that Macon energy.”

Haynes was in Macon in April, taking a break from a yearlong Mule tour to play with the Allman Brothers Band at the museum’s grand opening party. It was the first time he’d seen the house since the renovation and was pleased to find a Gov’t Mule exhibit.

“It’s all pretty amazing,” Haynes said. “The Mule display looked great — instruments and amps and drums from the beginning of our career, including that 18-string bass monstrosity that only Woody could play. It brought back a lot of memories.”

In late June, Gregg Allman, who had been suffering from hepatitis C, underwent a liver transplant that his doctors said may cure the disease. But it led many fans to speculate about the future of the Allman Brothers Band.

Haynes said he spoke to Allman recently and there was nothing but good news to report.

“He’s doing really well and surprisingly enough, he’s already talking about getting back out on the road,” Haynes said. “I think the most important thing about the Allman Brothers Band’s status as a touring band is that we walk onstage every night knowing we’re going to break new ground and play at a level we’re all extremely proud of. Since 2001, the chemistry in the band has just gotten better and better. I think that will continue.”

If you go

Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House. 2321 Vineville Ave., Macon. 478-741-5551, www.thebighousemuseum .org .