Virtually every architect of rock and roll in the mid-1950s was a Southerner. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and their peers launched a musical revolution that later came to be dominated by British groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. By the time the popularity of the subsequent psychedelic movement began to wane late in the decade, artists such as Bob Dylan, the Band, the Byrds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival turned back to simple Southern influences, opening the door for a new generation of authentic Southern-bred rock and roll revivalists.
• Atlantic Records releases Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” which features scorching lead guitar work by Duane Allman. Following a frustrating stint in Los Angeles where record company executives tried to turn his band, the Hour Glass, into a bland psychedelic pop-rock act, Allman returns to his native South and begins working as a guitarist at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After convincing Pickett to record the song, the 22 year old Allman stretches out on the closing vamp with his guitar pyrotechnics. According to fellow Muscle Shoals musician Jimmy Johnson, “That’s when Duane Allman went bananas and Southern rock was born!”
• Former Otis Redding manager Phil Walden launches Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia. After opening a new recording studio in his hometown of Macon, Walden purchases Duane Allman’s recording contract from FAME’s Rick Hall. He soon partners with Atlantic Records to launch the Capricorn imprint with his brother, Alan, and former Atlantic executive Frank Fenter. Eager to record Allman as his first act, Walden encourages Duane to jam with various players to put together the right group of musicians to form a band.
• The group that would come to be known as the Allman Brothers Band forms in Jacksonville, Florida following a Sunday afternoon jam session. Drummers Jaimoe Johanson and Butch Trucks, bassist Berry Oakley, and guitarist Dickey Betts are present at the initial jam. Duane’s brother, Gregg Allman, soon joins the lineup. Inspired by Betts, who favored Gibson guitars, Duane purchases his first Les Paul, a 1957 Gold Top, later that year.
• Bob Dylan records his Nashville Skyline album in the Tennessee capital with a group of local studio musicians that includes Charlie Daniels . Though Dylan has recorded in Nashville previously, his choice of album title raises the profile of Music City, draws rock artists to the South, and inspires long-time session players to branch out into new territory that blends country and rock.
• The Allman Brothers Band plays a show at the Sitar Lounge in Spartanburg, South Carolina with a local opening act known as the Toy Factory . The name is derived from guitarist and principle songwriter Toy Caldwell, who plays distinctive lead guitar on his Gibson Les Paul using his thumb. Within a short time, the group changes their name to the Marshall Tucker Band and signs with the Capricorn label.
• The permanent three-man lineup of ZZ Top – Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard – plays their first show in Beaumont, Texas. Gibbons’ 1959 Sunburst Les Paul, known as “Pearly Gates,” becomes nearly as iconic at the guitarist himself. He uses the instrument so frequently that when he employs a different guitar for an instrumental track on 1972’s Rio Grande Mud LP he titles the song “Apologies to Pearly.”
• Using his 1957 Les Paul Gold Top, Duane Allman plays slide guitar with Eric Clapton on Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Serving as a de-facto member of the band on most of the album’s tracks, the LP further elevates Duane Allman’s status as a rock guitar hero and draws increased attention to the burgeoning Southern rock movement.
• The Allman Brothers appear at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, alongside artists including Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King. With a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Allmans cement their reputation as the visionaries of a growing home-grown musical revolution.
• Alan Walden resigns from Capricorn Records, launching his own publishing and management firm, Hustler’s Inc. The first act he signs is a scruffy band of rough-and-tumble rockers from Jacksonville, Florida known as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Under the leadership of captivating frontman Ronnie Van Zant, the band earns a reputation as a regional force to be reckoned with.
• Wet Willie, featuring lead singer Jimmy Hall, releases their self-titled debut album on Capricorn Records. Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, they combine blue-eyed soul with rock and roll swagger, going on to score a Top 10 hit in 1974 with “Keep On Smilin’.”
• Barefoot Jerry releases their second album, A Trip in the Country, which is nominated for a Grammy. Several of the studio musicians who had recorded with Bob Dylan initially formed the group Area Code 615. The band eventually morphs into the more exploratory Southern rock-influenced sound of Barefoot Jerry.
• Capricorn Records has its first hit album when the Allman Brothers double LP At Fillmore East is certified Gold. Setting a new standard for live rock albums, the band’s series of shows at the hallowed venue ultimately reach near-mythical status. Using his 1958 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul that he acquired earlier that year, Duane Allman’s slide guitar work is explosive.
• Duane Allman is killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia. The early Southern rock movement loses its guiding light, but the Allman Brothers Band stays together and achieves even greater commercial success under the leadership of Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts with the Platinum-selling albums Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters.
• The Atlanta Rhythm Section appears on the scene with their self-titled debut. Comprised of former members of the Classics IV and Roy Orbison's Candymen, the band adds a new dimension to the increasingly popular Southern rock sound by rounding off the edges and incorporating layered production techniques. Though known for their smooth hits “So Into You” and “Imaginary Lover,” the band often stretches out with extended Southern rock jams in their live show and on recordings such as the Red Tape LP. The album cover prominently features a Gold Top Les Paul, a sign that Les Pauls are becoming a symbol for the Southern rock sound.
• Capricorn Records launches the annual Capricorn Barbecue and Summer Games in Macon, Georgia . Music industry luminaries, rock critics, A-listers, and cultural tastemakers ranging from Don King to Andy Warhol flock to the event each summer for chicken, beer, music, and revelry. “The party would go on for two or three days,” the Marshall Tucker Band’s Doug Gray recounted, “and the headaches would go on for weeks. It was the party of a lifetime each year.”
• Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley dies from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Emotionally devastated by the loss of his bandmate Duane Allman the previous year, Oakley is killed in an eerily similar set of circumstances only three blocks from where Allman’s accident occurred. Both men were only 24 years old when they died.
• The Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, and Elvin Bishop close out the year with a New Year’s Eve concert at the Warehouse in New Orleans. Capricorn releases Wet Willie’s set as the Drippin’ Wet LP the following year. It is the first recording to truly capture the energy of the band’s live swagger and is the first of their releases to appear on the Billboard album chart.
• Lynyrd Skynyrd records their first album after signing with producer Al Kooper’s fledgling Sounds of the South label in Atlanta. After the sessions conclude, former bassist Leon Wilkeson returns to the group, and Ed King shifts to guitar, comprising the band’s first “three guitar army” of King, Gary Rossington, and Allen Collins. On the first day of rehearsals with the altered lineup, they write the classic “Sweet Home Alabama.”
• ZZ Top releases their commercial breakthrough album, Tres Hombres. Featuring the crunchy Southern rock anthem “La Grange,” the LP becomes the group’s first Top 10, and the first to be certified Gold.
• Charlie Daniels scores his first major hit as an artist with “Uneasy Rider.” After experiencing commercial success, Daniels purchases his first Les Paul. “It was like stepping into the driver’s seat of a Cadillac,” he muses. Later that year, he records with the Marshall Tucker Band for the first time, guesting on the song “24 Hours at a Time.” Daniels will become a frequent guest on future Marshall Tucker Band albums and shows for years to come.
• Former Allman Brothers Band roadie Joe Dan Petty forms Grinderswitch in Macon, Georgia. Landing a deal with Capricorn Records, the group’s debut features guitar work by Dickey Betts and establishes the band as a favorite of Southern rock fans on the touring circuit. Guitarists Drum Lombar and Larry Howard appear frequently onstage with their Tobacco Sunburst and Gold Top Les Pauls.
• Gregg Allman appears on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine for a feature story on the band written by Cameron Crowe. By the end of the 1970s the Allmans are not only the kings of Southern rock, but are becoming one of the biggest American rock bands of the decade.
• Black Oak Arkansas, featuring outrageous frontman Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, enters the Billboard Top 40 with their recording of “Jim Dandy to the Rescue.” Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas features a three-guitar lineup of Gibson-wielding axe slingers. Stanley Knight’s custom Les Paul is emblazoned with the “stars and bars” - designed to represent the band’s regional background and identification as rock and roll “rebels.”
• ZZ Top’s First Annual Texas Size Rompin’ Stompin’ Barndance and Barbecue is staged at the University of Texas’ Memorial stadium in Austin. More than 80,000 fans show up to see the group’s new stage set, which includes a wagon wheel, hay bales, and live chickens. Billy Gibbons wears a rhinestone-encrusted Nudie suit, and the spectacle eventually morphs into the colossal Worldwide Texas Tour, complete with live rattlesnakes, a longhorn steer, a buffalo, and a trained wolf.
• Charlie Daniels’ first Volunteer Jam concert is held in Nashville. Originally scheduled as an opportunity to record “Orange Blossom Special” and “No Place to Go” in front of a live audience for Daniels’ forthcoming LP, he invites Dickey Betts and members of the Marshall Tucker Band to perform. The event becomes an annual tradition, moving from a 2,200 seat hall in 1974 to a 13,000 seat venue the following year. It is onstage at the second Volunteer Jam where Daniels accepts his first Gold Record. Guests at future jams will include a diverse roster of musicians ranging from Willie Nelson to James Brown.
• The Outlaws, a Florida group boasting the three-guitar lineup of Hughie Thomasson, Billy Jones, and Henry Paul, open for Lynyrd Skynyrd at a club called Mothers in Nashville, Tennessee. Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant helps connect them with management and talks them up to music industry insiders. Clive Davis flies to Columbus, Georgia to watch The Outlaws open for Lynyrd Skynyrd at a later show and signs them as Arista Records’ “first full-tilt rock and roll band.”
• The Charlie Daniels Band releases the Fire on the Mountain LP, which includes the hits “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It.” The latter song becomes an anthem for Southern rock, name-checking the stars of the genre, including Grinderswitch, the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dickey Betts, Elvin Bishop, ZZ Top, Wet Willie, and Barefoot Jerry. The single becomes the rallying cry of a musical revolution.
• Southern Rock gets major television coverage when Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert airs a special called “Saturday Night in Macon,” featuring Wet Willie, the Marshall Tucker Band, and the Allman Brothers Band. Dickey Betts and Toy Caldwell exclusively use their Sunburst Les Pauls for the performance. In addition, The Marshall Tucker Band appears alongside the Charlie Daniels Band on NBC’s The Midnight Special the same year.
• Arista Records releases the Outlaws’ self-titled debut LP, featuring the Top 40 single “There Goes Another Love Song” and the Southern rock anthem “Green Grass and High Tides.” The latter becomes the band’s signature song, eventually appearing as a nearly 21 minute jam on the group’s Bring It Back Alive album.
• Following the release of their third LP, Nuthin’ Fancy, Lynyrd Skynyrd launches a grueling concert schedule that’s come to be known as the “Torture Tour.” Substance abuse, frazzled nerves, fistfights, and various antics become fodder for musical journalists who increasingly characterize the band as unhinged Southern rock wildmen, much to the frustration of Ronnie Van Zant.
• Hank Williams, Jr. fully embraces Southern rock with the completion of his Hank Williams Jr. and Friends album. Though he’d placed nearly 40 songs on the country singles chart, Williams turns to guests Charlie Daniels, the Allman Brothers Band’s Chuck Leavell, and the Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy Caldwell, who wrote two of the songs on the LP, to explore a new sound. Recorded in Macon, Georgia, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the album is not initially a major commercial triumph. As the first successful country artist to fully embrace the Southern rock aesthetic, however, Williams eventually helps usher in an overwhelming Southern rock influence on contemporary country.
• Jimmy Carter campaigns for President with the backing of the Southern rock community. Progressive Georgia Governor and avowed music fan Jimmy Carter befriends Phil Walden, Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and other high profile Southern rockers before attending the Capricorn Barbecue and Summer Games. Charlie Daniels’ “The South’s Gonna Do It” becomes Carter’s official campaign song, and the Allman Brothers Band stages a concert in Rhode Island to raise funds. “There is no question,” Carter will remark not long after, “that the Allmans’ benefit concert for me in Providence kept us in that race.” Walden stages additional concert fundraisers, and Carter remains friends with the Southern rock community after his election the following year.
• Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” hits #3 on the Billboard pop chart. With the exception of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin’ Man” it becomes Capricorn’s highest charting single and firmly establishes Bishop, who first built his reputation as a blues guitarist, as a key figure in the pantheon of Southern rock guitar luminaries.
• The Allman Brothers Band breaks up. Following a tour that found them playing to a capacity crowd of 80,000 at the newly opened Superdome in New Orleans and headlining Madison Square Garden, tensions among band members reach a boiling point. With Gregg embroiled in a highly publicized legal investigation and a tabloid-fueled romance with Cher, the group calls it quits. Allman and Betts pursue solo projects while Chuck Leavell, Jaimoe and bassist Lamar Williams form the band Sea Level.
• Lynyrd Skynyrd records the definitive version of the Southern rock anthem “Freebird.” Following the departure of Ed King, the band had functioned for months with two guitarists. The addition of Steve Gaines reconstitutes the three guitar army and injects new energy into the group, which records a series of shows at the Fox Theater in Atlanta that become the One More From the Road double LP. Anchored by the nearly 14 minute version of “Freebird,” it eventually reaches triple Platinum status and becomes Skynyrd’s best-selling album.
• Ronnie Van Zant refocuses his band. Soon after a triumphant performance before an audience of 120,000 at the Knebworth Fair in England, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins are both involved in serious car accidents over Labor Day weekend. Concerned for his band’s longevity, Ronnie Van Zant pens “That Smell” and launches a campaign to curtail the legendary fights, substance abuse, and wild escapades that marked the Torture Tour. Revitalized, the band continues to set new attendance records at their headlining shows.
• Southern rockers appear on the cover of Guitar Player magazine. Elvin Bishop, Dickey Betts, and Toy Caldwell take turns gracing the cover with their respective Gibson guitars for three out of four consecutive issues. Several months later, Charlie Daniels appears on the Guitar Player cover with his Sunburst Les Paul.
• The Dixie Dregs release their debut album, Free Fall , on Capricorn Records. Like Sea Level before them, the band seeks to incorporate jazz elements into their music to broaden the boundaries of the definition of Southern rock. Guitarist Steve Morse recruits former Allman Brothers Band crew member Twiggs Lyndon to serve as their road manager, and the band soon wins over critics with their virtuosic Southern friend instrumentals.
• The Marshall Tucker Band reaches their commercial peak with the Carolina Dreams album and its “Heard it in a Love Song” single. The album is eventually certified Platinum, while the single becomes the only Marshall Tucker Band song to break the Top 20 on the Billboard chart.
• Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashes, signaling the beginning of the end for the golden era of Southern rock. While flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the band’s plane runs out of fuel, crashing in a Mississippi swamp. Backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, her brother, guitarist Steve Gaines, and lead singer Ronnie Van Zant are killed, along with assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the two pilots. Surviving band members were severely injured, sidelining the band indefinitely.
• Saturday Night Fever is released at the end of the year. Both reflecting and fueling the disco craze, the film is indicative of a changing musical landscape in which Southern rock is beginning to fall out of favor with the general public.
• The Allman Brothers Band reunites. Toward the end of his band Great Southern’s performance in Central Park, Dickey Betts is joined onstage by Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, and Jaimoe Johanson. A week later, they reunite at the 7th Annual Capricorn Barbecue and Summer Games with the full lineup, including Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams. By February of 1979, they make a dramatic comeback with the Tom Dowd-produced Enlightened Rogues LP. The album reaches the Top 10, the single, “Crazy Love” becomes the band’s second Top 40 single, and the song “Pegasus” is nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental performance.
• Blackfoot releases the Strikes album, featuring the Top 30 singles “Highway Song” and “Train, Train.” Though the roots of the band can be traced as far back as 1969, the Jacksonville band – including Rickey Medlocke, Charlie Hargrett, Greg T. Walker, and Jakson Spires - went through two label deals before signing with Atco for the Strikes LP. The album is eventually certified Platinum, and “Train, Train” is nominated for a Grammy. Medlocke eventually returns to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that he and Blackfoot bandmate Greg T. Walker were a part of in the group’s very early days.
• Molly Hatchet releases the Flirtin’ With Disaster album, which becomes a multi-platinum seller. Adding a touch of heavy metal attitude to the Southern rock aesthetic, the Jacksonville band begins to move away from the more blatantly Southern rock influences of their first album (with songs like “Gator Country” and a cover of Gregg Allman’s “Dreams”) toward a harder-edged sound that still features the distinctive three-guitar lineup of Dave Hlubek, Duane Roland, and Steve Holland.
• Capricorn Records declares bankruptcy. Following a slump in sales, unsuccessful business alliances, and shifting public tastes, Phil Walden’s home for Southern rock was forced the shut its doors. The Allman Brothers Band signed with Arista, the Marshall Tucker Band inked a deal with Warner Bros., and Wet Willie joined the roster at Epic, but none of them would recapture the sales of their Capricorn heyday. Coupled with the loss of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the shuttering of Capricorn dealt a major blow to the Southern rock genre.
• The Charlie Daniels Band appears in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy performing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which they had released the previous year. Daniels goes on to win a Grammy for the song. The album on which it appears, Million Mile Reflections, is certified triple Platinum. The single reaches the Top 5 on both the pop and country charts, and marks Daniels’ transition from Southern rock to country. Though the sound of his music was largely unchanged, his embrace by country audiences was indicative of a shift in the 1980s when Southern rock was largely absorbed into the country mainstream.
• 38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely” climbs to #3 on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Tracks chart and helps propel the Wide-Eyed Southern Boys album to Platinum status. While the Jacksonville band, co-founded by Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Donnie, had released three prior albums, it wasn’t until they embraced their melodic pop sensibilities that they found major success. By the end of the decade they’d racked up a Gold album, three Platinum albums, and a dozen Top 10 singles on the Mainstream Rock chart.
• ZZ Top records their Eliminator album, which goes on to sell over ten million units and become one of the best-selling albums in history. Propelled by the flashy music videos for the hits “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” the band reaches stratospheric heights of popularity. Like 38 Special, ZZ Top is one of the few bands to emerge from the Southern rock scene of the 1970s to achieve greater stardom as a radio-friendly rock band with wide appeal.
• In 1982, after two frustrating albums for the Arista label, the Allman Brothers Band calls it quits. Following a performance on Saturday Night Live, the band splintered for the second time, with Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts continuing to pursue solo efforts. For many, the second breakup of the band signals the end of the classic era of Southern rock.
While the Southern rock sound was unpopular for much of the 1980s, it came roaring back to life at the end of the decade. The Atlanta-based Georgia Satellites hit #2 on the chart with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” in 1987, ushering in a new era of guitar-driven rock bands from the South. That same year, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam with Ronnie Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, covering lead vocal duties. By 1989 Mercury Records released a wildly popular Allman Brothers Band box set, which lead to the surviving members of the original group reuniting as the 1990s dawned. By 1991, Phil Walden re-launched Capricorn Records, signing Widespread Panic as the label’s first act. By the middle of the decade, the Allmans were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd following them in the mid-2000s. Though Southern rock’s golden era was the 1970s, its enduring legacy continues to reverberate just as powerfully today.