excerpt: “History of the Groove, drummer’s tale” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved
1972. Chuck Leavell woke me up in the cabin at Idlewild South, he had just come back from a great meeting with the Allman Brothers and their management. I had arrived the night before on a Trailways bus from California. I was the prodigal son returning, although it felt more like Siddhartha’s journey to me. I had left Coconut Grove a few months earlier after the Bethlehem Asylum’s last gasp in the Everglades concert. I didn’t know Jerry Wexler wanted to sign us to Atlantic, and Columbia records was after us too.
A young guy who was one of our roadies came from California down to Coconut Grove and told me,
“I came all this way to tell you that you are supposed to be in California when the aliens land because they are going to take you with them.” Gee, now I have a purpose in life…
It was just too much for me to overcome the inertia of five distinctly different people. Even my stepfather had an opinion; “You need to have a good singer.” He said in an unusual moment when he actually spoke to me.
I knew that I was tired of the self centered bickering in the asylum. So we ended it without any fanfare. There was no money left. I drove out to California with Bananas and got a glimpse of the Left Coast. I stayed on Roy’s house boat offshore in Sausalito. Bananas flew back to the Grove. Shel Silverstein watched out for me. His big tanker houseboat playboy mansion was situated right in the middle of the boat people community. He came out once in a dingy with two wonderful girls and asked if I was okay. My mother had called him wondering how I was. I thanked him but didn’t take up his offer on the two girls. I just stayed by myself in the middle of San Francisco Bay and tried to decided what to do. Roy’s houseboat was very nice; a forty two foot landing craft, all tricked out. I spent my time in the huge bookstore in Sausalito, reading and drinking tea. There were obscure books that attracted me and this bookstore was the only place I knew of that carried such arcane literature. I tried writing songs, working on my voice. Shel told me once that it had to have a ‘good beat’. He invited me into the recording studio in San Francisco and I witnessed the recording of “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone’ by Dr Hook. I could tell it was a hit. There was a mysterious combination of high frequency sounds in the background that imitated an old fashioned cash register going, “kaching!!” I had heard it before on other hit songs. It was not an intentional part of the mix. It just happened if the song was right. People like songs because there is something in them that they can relate to. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was a huge hit at this time and it was uncomfortably autobiographical for me. I was sitting on the dock of the San Francisco Bay wondering why my life was not a success. I’d had many opportunities to make it successful but my own personality and unseen elements seemed to be getting in the way. The lyrics being sung by Otis Redding were disturbingly accurate to my situation including the part about traveling two thousand miles from Macon, Georgia where he wrote the song. Macon was where I had just been. It was like he had written the song especially for me. But that is what a hit song is supposed to do; make you feel like it is for you. This song, ‘Dock of the Bay’ was too accurate a portrayal of my life to be just a coincidence. It gave me the creeps. The universe was hitting me hard with reality and it hurt. It was just very, very eerie to hear Otis singing me my own story while I gazed at the Golden Gate bridge.
I had been taken care of by grove friends in Sausalito; Kevin and Peggy. Estrella was there too. Gate Five in Sausalito was like Hong Kong with boats tied up to other boats. It was a pirate’s last refuge. I lived on Roy’s deluxe houseboat for about four months off shore. I got a great workout when I wanted to come into civilization. My quiet time in the middle of San Francisco Bay was spent piecing together my life after the Bethlehem Asylum. I decided to go to the Art Institute but first I wanted to go back to Florida, see my mother, and go down to the Grove and see what had changed, what had been left, and what I missed. But first I stopped in Macon and crashed out at Idlewild South, the Allman Brother’s cabin in the woods.
Idlewild South was the remote Allman Brothers country cabin sitting on a lake in the south Georgia pine woods. This was their secret retreat. You could sit in a rocking chair on the back porch and fish in the lake at the same time. I envied them this simplicity of life. I knew how busy it was getting for them, and I missed the excitement of having a great band but there was something else calling out to me that was different than all of that rock star stuff. I wished I could do that; just drum with a great band, but it didn’t happen for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it so I just kept looking for signs and clues to tell me what I should do. It had something to do with energy in the soul; reading Dr. Wilhelm Reich’s lab reports in Coconut Grove had planted a seed in my head and my heart about the esoteric uses of music in relieving stress and mental illness. I had watched Christian talk to troubled young kids and it straightened them out. He didn’t mince words with them. His wisdom was real and he would not suffer fools lightly. He was after all a Brahmin but he was also an experienced jazz musician and a generally heavy dude. I learned a lot of spiritual/psychic information from him and it was swimming around in my head. All of this esoteric knowledge was not really compatible with the way the music business was going; the industry was dumbing down the music. The repressive corporate controls were starting to be felt and the music was turning into a formulaic, status quo type of pablum that resembled the raucous dangerous music of the sixties but did not have the same power of personal conviction and revolutionary spirit. My spiritual journey had taken me across the country and back again to this idyllic cabin in the south Georgia woods where I would have gladly stayed for the rest of my life if I could have done that. But I felt much too complicated in my soul to be a great rhythm and blues drummer like Butch and Jamo in the Allmans. They had attained a special status that few drummers achieve ; they were healthy and happy doing what they wanted and their music was excellent.
“They asked me to join the Allman Brothers” Chuck said
I smiled, “Well, that looks like you are going on to great things. Couldn’t happen to a better guy.” We had the first Macon Capricorn Picnic to celebrate. Venison was marinated in a big galvanized tub on the back porch of the cabin while I slept off the bus trip across the United States. The last thing I remember from the Trailways bus was seeing the sign in the middle of the night, ‘Macon’ .
“Is this Macon, Georgia?” I asked the bleary eyed bus driver as we both stared out into the night.
“Let me out here.”
The two old black men cooking woke me up for a taste test. They served me a slice of meat out of a Folger’s coffee can while I sat up sleepily on the bed by the old round stone fireplace.
“Ain’t that the most tender pork you ever ate?” He smiled at me with what was left of his teeth.
“Yeah!” I said sleepily.
They both laughed at the dumb city kid. “That aint pork, boy! That there’s venison! Road kill, brother! Greg or somebody hit it coming in the other night. We marinated it in our own special ingredients till it’s more tender than pork.”
The party was one of many memorable occasions out in the Georgia woods. Other Capricorn musicians like Wet Willie, Scott Boyer and lots of others all showed up. A good time was had by all. Even Frank, the South African record company exec from Atlantic who was now running Capricorn was laughing. I wanted to stay but I felt the need to continue my odyssey and head on down to Florida. Jamo offered to drive me to the bus station. He wanted to know how come the Bethlehem Asylum broke up and what became of Charlie. We had a long talk driving into Macon. Jamo is a quiet, introspective, very deep individual with a lot of wisdom that comes from the southern way of life. I explained that I had just returned from my first trip to California where I had sat on the dock in San Francisco Bay and listened to Otis sing and whistle the story of my life. Otis’s widow was still working at Capricorn. She was at the party.
Chuck went on to record ‘Layla’, the unplugged version with Eric Clapton. He also toured extensively with the Rolling Stones. I did run into him again in Amsterdam on a big festival tour, when I was playing with Tim Buckley. We tried to get Tim and Greg to sing together but it didn’t happen. Chuck Leavell is one of the greatest and most humble of the greats. He bought up land in Southern Georgia, and replanted trees. If the Governor of Georgia ever needed a good publicity shot, he would come down and see Chuck. Everybody knows and loves Mr. Chuck Leavell. There was a folk art portrait of him in Macon on a piece of plywood covering up a closed factory window, right beside portraits of the other people from Macon; James Brown, Otis Redding, Little Richard, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Jenkins, and Clarence Carter, to name a few. Must be the water.
I talked with Jamo as he drove me to the bus station in Macon, for the next leg of my mystical journey down to Florida to see my mom,
“I’ve always wanted to play like you; that clean rudimental, military style.” He said, which might be the nicest thing I’ve ever heard from another drummer.
“I always wanted to play like you, Jamo.”
excerpt: “History of the Groove, drummer’s tale” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved