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Nashville's RCA Studio A a sound model for Macon's Capricorn project

Capricorn Records studio in Macon has long history

Jessica Walden, whose father Alan Walden and uncle, Phil Walden were involved with the Capricorn studio, and Jim Daws, with Sierra Development Group, give a tour Feb. 20,2016, of the historic building in Macon.
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Jessica Walden, whose father Alan Walden and uncle, Phil Walden were involved with the Capricorn studio, and Jim Daws, with Sierra Development Group, give a tour Feb. 20,2016, of the historic building in Macon.

Two recording studios separated by more than 300 miles have a lot in common.

As efforts get rolling to bring life and the sounds of music back to Macon's Capricorn Records studio, planners will look to the revival of the legendary RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee, for guidance.

"I'm just anxious to see the studio preserved," said Jessica Walden, whose father, Alan Walden, and uncle, Phil Walden, were deeply involved with Capricorn. She spent some of her childhood in the downtown Macon building, watching various musical artists come and go.

"When I walk in there, I smell the whiskey, cigarettes and shag carpet."

Nine years ago, the Capricorn Records studio building made the Georgia Trust For Historic Preservation's 10 Places in Peril list. Plans in 2008 to renovate the building for a minimuseum and café never panned out. A year later it was in foreclosure, and a bank took it over when no buyer came forward at an auction. NewTown Macon bought the building in 2011 with a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation and stabilized it. But it still sat empty.

Fourteen months ago, the famous RCA Studio A on Music Row in Nashville was set for demolition to make way for condominiums and a restaurant. The building wasn't vacant, but it wasn't being used to its full potential and needed some TLC. The historic structure wasn't protected by any preservation group.

Philanthropist Aubrey Preston stepped up just days before the wrecking ball was set to knock down the building and bought it for $5.6 million. He was quickly joined by preservationists Mike Curb and Chuck Elcan in a joint ownership group. Seven months later, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

If the walls in these studio buildings could sing, they would create a sound like no other.

The Capricorn building was purchased as studio space for the legendary Otis Redding, and it is considered to be one of the key spots in the birth of the Southern rock musical genre. Groups such as The Allman Brothers Band, The Charlie Daniels Band and The Marshall Tucker Band cut albums there during the 1970s.

The RCA Studio A building has the largest "purpose built" studio in Nashville. It was built for a 100-piece orchestra to produce what was called the Nashville Sound. Eddie Arnold, Dolly Parton and The Monkees recorded there.

Grammy winner Chris Stapleton took home a trophy earlier this month for "Traveller," the Best Country Album, which was produced at Studio A by Savannah native Dave Cobb.

CAPRICORN IS CENTERPIECE

In December, plans to revitalize the Capricorn studio and the area around it were announced.

A proposed $25 million multifamily development called Lofts at Capricorn would be built around the Capricorn Records building -- which would be returned to its original use -- in the 500 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Plum and Poplar streets.

Sierra Development Group and Southern Pines Plantation, in partnership with NewTown Macon and others, plan to build a mixed-use development with 137 apartments, offices and retail stores that will occupy most of the block, Jim Daws, Sierra's president, said then.

It was important to Daws to return the studio building back to its roots.

"There were a lot of (former) plans that were going to preserve the building but not preserve the legacy," he said.

Daws and his partners are donating the Capricorn building to Mercer University and contributing "a significant amount of money for the restoration of the building," he said. Mercer has committed to raise an additional $1 million to complete the renovation.

The university is planning to operate the Capricorn Records facility "as a music venue that pays homage to its historic use and incubates recent talent in central Georgia," Daws said.

Pianist and keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has played with The Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Lee Ann Womack, among others, said during the announcement that he'd had a lot of fun in the building.

"We made a lot of great music," he said, adding that it was "amazing" to think that music would be played there once again.

Mercer has an agreement with NewTown Macon for it to lead renovation of the building, which will be called Mercer Music at Capricorn, said Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff.

A date hasn't been set to reach the $1 million goal, but it will be "as soon as possible. ... We are currently in the process of identifying prospects to solicit gifts for that project."

Plans -- still fluid -- call for a performance venue on the first floor and nearly a dozen rehearsal spaces of various sizes on the second floor.

NewTown President/CEO Josh Rogers said any concerns he may have had about being able to attract people to rent space at Capricorn have been allayed.

He's been encouraged by the experience of Andrew Eck, a Mercer student who retrofitted space in the old Tubman Museum building into nine recording studios and has leased all of them to bands. The building is for sale, but Eck's been allowed to use the space until it's sold, Rogers said.

"People telling you they want space like this and then getting them to actually sign leases could be two different things," he said. "But Andrew filled up in two weeks with people who are paying rents comparable to what we were going to charge at Capricorn. So I don't think it's insane to hope we can have a big impact like that."

Rogers and Brumley said separately that they are interested in learning more about what happened in Nashville.

"Some people have told us there are some parallels between what they did and what we are looking to do with Capricorn," Brumley said. "Yes, that is on our radar."

Preston said he is eager to help.

"I applaud the leaders to put it back into studio condition," he said. "I thinks it's going to prove to be a really, really wise investment for the community. ... When you get the project right, people open their checkbooks."

THE REBIRTH OF STUDIO A

Preston grew up with a passion for music. As he got older, he learned more about the history of music and then wanted to help others in the community learn about its history.

Studio A had always been a functioning studio, but it was fairly private. More people knew about Studio B, which had been mothballed in 1977 and then later turned into a tourist attraction.

Then, in 2014, a developer bought the Studio A building "for the tear-down value," Preston said. Less than six months later, Preston bought the building to save it.

"They were very determined to tear it down. We just felt we needed to jump in and do something," he said. "Kind of like a car wreck on the side of the road. You might not be a doctor, but you want to jump out and do something."

The significance of Studio A is hard to measure. Any artist signed to RCA between 1965 and 1979 probably recorded there, according to the Save Studio A website. The list runs the gamut, from Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson to Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett, Neil Diamond and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Studio A building, which Preston called "ground zero of Music Row," has one huge studio and 30 offices, including where Elvis' longtime producer, Atlanta native Felton Jarvis, had an office.

When Preston and his partners bought the building, it was structurally sound.

"It basically just need kind of a little bit of love," he said. "It obviously needed mostly cosmetic, aesthetic kinds of things."

The offices also serve as studios, so sometimes they are used for business and sometimes for song writing.

"And with the latest technology, there are people making master records," he said.

Earlier this month, the last available space was rented to Atlantic Records' rock 'n' roll division in New York, he said. "And Atlantic Records is the real cornerstone of the Capricorn thing."

Phil Walden purchased Duane Allman's contract from Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records in the 1960s with the idea of fulfilling his dream to own a label, according to New Georgia Encyclopedia. "In 1969, Wexler, along with Walden and co-founder Frank Fenter, established the Capricorn Record Series," it said.

Preston is expanding his interest in preserving the history of American music. Last year, he launched a new music tourism initiative called the Americana Music Triangle to highlight music born in the U.S. such as country, blues, jazz, soul, rock 'n' roll and bluegrass. It links cities such as Nashville; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and New Orleans, Louisiana. But it's also designed to highlight smaller cities that contribute to American music.

"We build side trips off of the road trips," Preston said. "When people get to Nashville, we could recommend a side trip to Macon. It's just a matter of getting together with the community there and figuring out the best way to do it."

Macon is an important link in music's history -- and its future, he said.

"It's all connected to Macon if Macon wants to be connected, and I think they will," he said. "We just want to do whatever we can do to support holding Macon up. The music history there is actually kind of a sleeping giant in terms of tourism, because I think the legend of Macon's music contribution is a lot less known than it deserves to be.

"We're excited about connecting it to (the Americana Music Triangle). We are really excited about joining it into the family just so we can kind of help each other. We don't have all the answers on how to do any of this. We're learning it as we go. But we learn from every community, and maybe we can share the things we've learned."

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223 or follow her on Twitter@MidGaBiz.

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