Before moving to Jacksonville, my family lived on a Naval air base near a tiny farming town in central California, called Lemoore. For a kid who was in love with music, it was strictly Dullsville. The town had one rock band -- The Leftovers, who played school dances.
When I told my friends my family was transferring to NAS Jacksonville, one whose father had already been stationed there told me I'd love the place -- it was "happening." He was right; it was indeed happening.
Get ready for culture shock. Remember the final scene in Easy Rider? That was North Florida. For all practical purposes, Jacksonville was the capital of South Georgia.
The year 1968 was a heady time for a Northern Navy brat to be arriving in cracker country. I still remember the partitions in the bus station that had only a few years before separated blacks from whites.
I was sitting in the bathtub when the news came over the radio that Martin Luther King had been shot. Blacks were already rioting downtown -- I later overheard a group of rednecks excitedly entertaining the idea of forming a vigilante posse to head downtown to teach rioters a lesson.
Despite the turmoil, it was a great time in Jacksonville for pop music and would-be musicians. The music scene was reaching critical mass and was set to explode.
There were bands all over the place. In ‘68, there must have been half a dozen rock groups at Orange Park Senior High alone.
In 1968, just having long hair in Jacksonville was an open invitation to have your ass kicked. There was only one enclave where you could be left alone: Jacksonville’s answer to Greenwich Village, the traditionally-bohemian Riverside district, where rents were low and people were open-minded. Thank God I discovered Riverside. I hated Orange Park.
As part of my instruction in guitar lore, a neighborhood musician named Paul Glass friend brought me to see a Riverside band called The Second Coming. That august outfit included a virtuoso picker by the name of Dickey Betts. The two of us hitch-hiked all over Northeast Florida -- as far as Ravine Gardens in Palatka -- to hear Betts at every possible opportunity.
One night Glass and I set out on a hitch-hiking excursion to one of Jacksonville’s toughest blue-collar neighborhoods. This was a risky proposition for semi-longhairs, but we braved our way to the Woodstock Teen Center on Beaver Street to get our regular dose of Betts’ magic. To us, it was a drug.
On that particular night, The Second Coming had a mystery guest: Betts deferred most of the solos to a diffident young man who looked like the Cowardly Lion and spent most of the performance staring down at his guitar with his stringy hair draped over his face.
"We came to hear Dickey!" we shouted. "Dickey can play circles around this dude!" It would be months before we found out that "that dude" was Duane Allman, and that he was already famous.
Between sessions in Muscle Shoals, Allman made trips to Jacksonville to try to snag bassist Berry Oakley out of the Second Coming. Finally realizing he could not pry the staunchly loyal Oakley from Betts’ band, Allman decided he had to go with the flow -- he would add Betts as well.
After incorporating the foundations, the format (including much of the repertoire) and the fan base of The Second Coming, Allman summoned his younger brother, Gregg, from Los Angeles.
Three days later, the revamped lineup played a previously-scheduled Second Coming show at the Jacksonville Beach Coliseum. Second Coming fans had no inkling that this was actually the debut of The Allman Brothers band.
Later that same year, another wannabe musician friend and I were browsing at Hoyt Hi-Fi in Roosevelt Mall (right next to site of the old Scene) when I looked up at an album on display and noticed a figure that looked like Oakley doing his best Jesus imitation. Here he was in a dark robe, standing with his arms out, as if he were blessing a group of sinners below him -- most of whom looked familiar.
"Is that -- ?" I stammered as I pointed to the album. The store clerk, who had obviously already been asked this question many times, interjected, "It sure is!"
As far as we were could see, The Second Coming had simply added some new members and changed its name to The Allman Brothers Band. The biggest surprise, though, was that they now had an album out on a major label.
Our necks snapped as we shot looks at each other. Suddenly, anything was possible. Success in the music biz for local dudes suddenly became a reality, not just a pipe dream -- as our parents had said. As usual, our parents were wrong. Many would follow in the ABB’s wake.
My buddy, Leon Wilkeson of Lynyrd Skynyrd [who died of a heart attack this July] once said, "The Allman Brothers showed us that it would work, that it was worth pursuing: you know, putting your head on the chopping block."
Neither Glass nor I ever made the big-time.
To be successful, musicians must be nomads -- ready to travel whenever and wherever the siren of success beckons. Glass and I both elected to stay in Jacksonville, where "the living is easy."