Atlanta’s Unusual Trio: Fiddlin’ John Carson, Major Lance and Jimmy Buffett

This is such an Atlanta Story. Some smart guys wanting to make a lot of money sweep right in, announce a grand new business venture causing Atlanta to lose another piece of its history. There’s precedent of the recent kind: Arthur Blank needed land for his new football stadium. Two historic African-American churches, one built in 1895, stood in the way of progress. Money was found, like it seldom is for sidewalks or schools, and the churches were persuaded to move elsewhere. Enter the demolition crews. Make way for another playhouse, one that may stand for at least 25 years, just like the one it replaced. It’s the Atlanta way.

Fast forward to now. Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who owes much of his early success to dozens of gigs in Atlanta clubs and concert halls, wants to invest in Atlanta. Big time. A part of downtown that people used to walk blocks out of their way to avoid is the site for a Margaritaville Resort, owned by Buffett’s holding company. 21 stories, 292,000 square feet, frozen concoctions and no worries about a lost shaker of salt.

Although to some a Margaritaville Resort conveys images of where aging frat boys go to die, it does sound like a fun place to drop in now and then. It’s another step in the march of Atlanta’s progress, except, once again, a historic building gets in the way. And the history should resonate with Buffett, who knows his way around a good country song.

The historic building is at 152 Nassau Street in the vicinity of Centennial Olympic Park, a major attraction with museums to the left and museums to the right. A nod to history in the city too busy to preserve. At 152 Nassau Street in 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled” for Okeh Records. It was the first hit record in country music, eventually selling over 500,000 copies. Perhaps another museum could be opened at the site to celebrate Atlanta’s music heritage, but no, not in this town. Margaritaville needs room for a driveway that will allow access to grease pits and  dumpsters. Parrotheads create a lot of waste so the demolition was on. Interior demolition was already under way as the wrecking balls commenced on the exterior. Thankfully, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge called time-out on the demolition-related activities. The temporary restraining order is in place until August 29 when the court will be asked to consider a permanent injunction against the demolition.

 

We’ve not heard a word from Jimmy Buffett regarding his oncoming collision with music history. That’s disappointing. He’s known as a good guy and his recordings in the early to mid ’70s are still highly regarded. Count Bob Dylan among Buffett’s admirers. But the Margaritaville chain of resorts and restaurants seems an unstoppable force. Buffett can just sit back and say he’s only the head of the holding company and can’t do anything about it. But Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, could have gotten in front of the issue. There’s actually a very personal and sentimental attachment for Mayor Bottoms. Her father, Major Lance, recorded for Okeh Records in the ’60s.

No longer recording in Atlanta and focusing on rhythm and blues since 1953, Okeh Records spun gold in the ’60s with a team of “Chicago Soul” artists including Major Lance. Writing most of the hit material was Curtis Mayfield of the Impressions. The records by Lance were top-drawer. His recording of Mayfield’s “The Monkey Time” went all the way to number 8 on the pop charts and number two on the rhythm and blues charts. It was Okeh’s first hit in ten years. The next year, Mayfield and Lance combined their talents again with “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” which peaked at number 5 on the US pop charts.

Among Lance’s biggest fans were The Beatles, who made no secret of their love for American soul music. In a 1964 photo, we see John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison waving to their fans. Underneath McCartney’s left arm is a Major Lance album.

Keisha Lance Bottoms was born in 1970, the same year the Beatles broke up. By then Lance’s career was on the skids, although he did tour England in the late ’60s with a back-up band called Bluesology, which featured Reggie Dwight on piano. Around that time Dwight changed his name to Elton John and went on to dominate popular music for much of the ’70s.

The ’70s were not so rewarding for Lance, however. In 1970 he released a couple of singles on Mayfield’s Curtom label which did well enough on the US rhythm and blues charts but failed to cross over to the pop market. His other ’70s recordings fared even worse. Then there was a cocaine bust in 1978 that got him four years behind bars. Upon his release from prison he played the beach music market, mostly along the Carolina coast, but then there were serious health issues. A heart attack in 1987 and then glaucoma, which left him nearly blind. He played the Chicago Blues Festival (a great lineup including Jimmy Rogers and Pinetop Perkins) in June of 1994 but three months after that career highlight he passed away at the age of 55.

Major Lance did not connect with American music lovers in the same way rhythm and blues artists such as Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye did, but he was a vibrant part of the scene with his warm and effervescent voice. His recordings, especially when he worked with Mayfield, were works of swinging soul. He emerged around the time millions of American young people were starting to tune in to pop radio. They’d hear The Beatles with their multitude of hits, Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” and dozens of other great songs, including Lance’s “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um.” It was a special time and Major Lance made it sound even better.

Although her dad never recorded at 152 Nassau Street, it would’ve been great if Keisha Lance Bottoms had acknowledged the Okeh connection and advocated saving a building important to America’s musical history. Make Atlanta known for preserving history. What a change that would be. Some might call it nepotism but Mayor Bottoms would be doing the right thing.