Jimmy Carter is usually the one getting honorary degrees and major awards. But on Saturday in Macon, it was the former president who turned the tables and helped Mercer University award an honorary degree to rocker Gregg Allman.
A video of the event shows Carter, 91, beaming as he helped to drape the white “hood” signifying an honorary doctorate of humanities over the black graduation robe worn by an uncharacteristically shy-looking Allman (see it at www.macon.com). The 68-year-old Allman Brothers Band keyboardist and singer-songwriter periodically fiddled with his long blonde ponytail as Mercer’s president revealed he was only the third musician to receive the honor in the 183-year history of the college.
In fact, president William D. Underwood added, the board of trustees’ vote was unanimous for Allman to follow in the footsteps of Rolling Stones’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell and Macon native Richard Wayne Penniman (aka Little Richard) two years ago.
“You have certainly proven yourself most deserving of this recognition by virtue of your extraordinary career,” Underwood said as the crowd roared its appreciation and Carter shook Allman’s hand.
They know Allman well in Macon, where the seminal “Southern rock” band that took its name from him and his brother, Duane, took up residence not long after forming in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1969. Phil Walden, the legendary head of Macon-based Capricorn Records (and a Mercer graduate himself) had heard Duane Allman’s virtuoso guitar solo on a Wilson Pickett version of “Hey Jude” and signed him to a management and recording contract.
Beginning in January 1970, members of the band, their roadies, friends and families took up residence at a Grand Tudor house on Macon’s Vineville Avenue known as “The Big House.” It’s now the site of the Allman Brothers Band Museum. The biggest bedroom at the front of the house went to Gregg Allman and his then-girlfriend, Candy Oakley (the sister of Berry Oakley, one of the band’s founding members), according to the museum’s website, www.thebighousemuseum.com.
It was while they were living in Macon and recording at Capricorn that the Allman Brothers found international fame — and repeat tragedy. In 1971, the band released “At Fillmore East,” which Rolling Stone magazine ranks No. 49 on its list of the best albums of all time. Four days after the album was certified gold, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident in October 1971.
A year later, Berry Oakley also died in a motorcycle crash. But that was also the year that the band’s classic album, “Eat a Peach,” which included the iconic song, “Melissa,” reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts.
Carter, a Plains native, is a member of the Mercer board of trustees that voted to award Allman the honorary doctorate. But the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s connection to Allman goes well beyond Macon and old school ties. Both are Grammy Award winners, with Carter’s most recent coming earlier this year. And when Carter began his longshot candidacy for the presidency in 1974, the Allman Brothers and other Capricorn artists supplied crucial early funding.
“The Allman Brothers basically put us in the White House,” Carter told the Carter Political Items Collectors last fall during the group’s annual dinner on Plains Peanut Festival weekend.
Indeed, in a video of the event posted online by the Telegraph of Macon, Carter told the commencement audience he might not have been president if the band hadn’t “adopted” him, the Associated Press reported. Drawing laughs from the audience, Carter says the band’s endorsement let people know he “must be qualified to be president of the United States.”
Saturday was the second time in recent months that Carter stepped forward to help honor a music great. Back in November, he and his wife, Rosalynn, spent a long day in Memphis helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house along with their longtime friends, the married country greats Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks. That night, Carter exchanged his hard hat and toolbelt for a tuxedo to present Yearwood with the Voice of Music award at the ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville.