Southern Producer, Engineer and Musician
by Michael Buffalo Smith
You can find his name in the credits of most any Capricorn Records release from the 1970s. Johnny Sandlin, the remarkable producer, engineer and musician who worked on many of the classic Allman Brothers Band releases, as well as countless others. We spoke with Johnny in this Gritz exclusive about his band The Hour Glass, working for Capricorn Records, and what he has been up to lately.
How did you first get into The Hourglass with Gregg and Duane?
Well, I was in a band called The Five Men-its with Eddie Hinton, Paul Hornsby, and I think at the time Fred Styles was playing bass. Anyway, we were playing and we had heard of them-I guess at the time everyone in Florida had heard of them through the grapevine. We were doing a gig at this little place kind of out of the way and right off the beach. It was a little Spanish village with a patio outside and a club inside. They had booked The Allman Joys for the patio which usually attracted more kids. We were playing mainly for the sailors because Pensacola is mainly a navy town. That was the first place that I met them. We kind of kept in touch with them after that because they were the best guitar player and singer that I had ever heard. I had met Bob Keller who was the bass player. But anyway, we all stayed in touch. Eddie Hinton decided to leave the band and go to Muscle Shoals and do session work and that left us without a guitar player and singer. Eddie was both in our band. We called Gregg and them to see if they would help us find some people. In the interim they sent Pete Carr up here and we were going to start a band with him but we never found a singer that worked out for us. We later got a call from them saying that their band had broken up and let’s get together and jam and see what we could come up with. So they came up here to Decatur. We got together and rehearsed in our garage.So that’s how we got together.
Were you in The Hourglass the whole time they were together?
Didn’t they have another bass player called “The Wolf”?
Yes. Mabron McKinney, and we called him The Wolf because of his beard. I did leave one thing out, Fred Styles our bass player dropped out of our band The Men-its and I am leaving lots of stuff out. Lots of things happened. When The Men-its came up here to rehearse before going out on the road, Fred left and went on to film school and we hired Mabron for the band. When we talked with Gregg later about joining forces, it was Paul, and me and Mabron joining with Gregg and Duane.
It was later on that Mabron left and Pete came in on bass, right?
Well, when Mabron first left, Bob Keller came back and he played bass for awhile. I don’t remember how long, maybe for several months and then he left on very sudden notice or without any notice actually. He just didn’t show up for a gig. We were playing at the Whiskey which was one of our big main shows out there (in Los Angeles). Pete had been hanging with Duane and staying with Duane. Pete was the guitar player. But he had to change over to bass for awhile. After Bob Keller left, Pete played with us until the band broke up.
Now, that clarifies something for me because two or three years ago I did an interview with Wolf and he had said that a lot of people had said that he was the one that left y’all quickly one night, but it was not him it was the other guy.
Yeah, it was Bob Keller. We were thinking he might have killed himself or something, just to be blunt. We lived right across the street from where that HOLLYWOOD sign is.You see it in all the movies. We could go up behind the huge letters and look out over the city and we thought he may have gone up there and jumped or something. I don’t think we actually heard from him for about six months. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead or what.
Did he ever say why he disappeared?
(Laughs) It’s a funny thing because I was sitting in my apartment one day and the phone rings and it’s Bob Keller saying, “hey man, what are you doing?” (Laughs) Well, we are still waiting for you Bob. You missed a date didn’t you? At that time I wanted him to be okay and I was angry that he had left us. I thought he was my friend and didn’t know if he was dead or what. Anyway, that’s my Bob Keller story. Things just didn’t work out with him.
I wanted to ask you if there was any single story about The Hourglass that sticks out in your mind as far as the things that you guys did. You got to play at the Fillmore didn’t you?
Oh, yeah, we opened for Buffalo Springfield, and actually played on a show with The Doors and at the Whiskey, Janis sat in with us. Eric Burdon and Paul Butterfield too. Anyone that heard the band fell in love with Duane and Gregg both and they thought that they were great. Which they certainly should have.
I am jumping all over the board here in this interview...
(Laughs), well I am pretty disjointed so just go ahead....
I feel like anything before today is fair game. I wanted to ask you about Capricorn and how you came to hook up with them in the beginning.
Well, before I was at Capricorn I had a job in Miami and there was this studio there owned by Henry Stone. It was just a small, very small four track studio upstairs above one of the warehouses. Tone was a huge record distributor in Miami. They were extremely large. That was where the record stores got their albums. I played drums on demos and Eddie helped me get that job. He introduced me to Steve Alamo who was one of the people in charge along with Henry Stone and Brad Shapiro, the producer. I think that my very first session was playing on a single that was Betty Wright and Steve Alamo doing a duet. And at that time was a risky thing, black and white artists performing together. It was a neat thing. Anyway, while I was down there Phil had meanwhile started his studio in Georgia. That was in late 1969. He wanted to hire a studio band and do a Stax thing. That was my whole idea, you put a rhythm section together and work everyday and get tight and put a distinctive sound together for your studio and your artists. That is exactly what I wanted to do and Phil called me while I was working at Tone and asked if I was interested in working up there. I thought about it but I felt like I was doing okay and I liked my job there. In the meantime, The Allman Brothers had gone up there and signed a contract and Duane called and asked me to come up and said that we could all do music together again. I took a trip up there and when I was going home through Macon it just felt right. I loved the town and it is one of the few towns I get around in easily without getting lost. So I came home and went from being out of work for six months to being offered about 3-4 jobs at one time. I was fortunate. I went back to Tone and put in my notice and moved up to Macon.
Did you start out at Capricorn straight away as a producer, engineer, or a musician?
My deal with Phil was that I wanted to produce and play on records and we had agreed that I could produce and play the drums. I reserved the right to produce at a future date. Some of the first things that we worked on were demos with Jackie Avery. We did that for awhile and then Phil wanted to cut a record with Johnny Jenkins. Before that I guess the first thing was that I played on some Swamp Dogg stuff that I love to this day. Then I got to do a couple of singles with Arthur Conelly who was someone that Phil managed at the time. Another reason that Macon appealed to me was I was a huge Otis Redding fan and I loved everything he did. I had every record and even had worn them out. I knew that Phil had managed him and a lot of the acts. Phil was involved heavily with acts from Muscle Shoals.
One person I have been thinking about a lot lately is Tom Dowd. I did an interview with him just before he died and I saw his documentary that is coming out and it is absolutely awesome. I wanted to ask you as someone that had worked with him if you could tell me a little about him?
I knew a lot about Tom before I met him. He was always the man you wanted to see and I knew a lot about Atlantic Records. I had bought every record that they had put out since I was teenager. You see the names on records and credits, and I knew who he was. Then when I got involved with sessions I knew who Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd were. He was the ultimate engineer in blues and rock and roll. I met him for the first time when the Brothers began work on Idlewild South record. I had done demos on them for most of those songs. He came to Macon to re-record some things and I thought that I was supposed to be a part of that session. This was actually my most embarrassing moment. I guess as old as I am it’s okay to tell this. (Laughs) Phil and Frank at Capricorn told me that they wanted me to produce the second Allman Brothers album. Prior to this I had done production on the Johnny Jenkins album and been a critical success and sold records, but it didn’t get lots of record sales. Then I did an Alex Taylor record. I had some demos on all or most of all the songs “Statesboro Blues,” “Elizabeth Reed” and lots of songs on that album. So they wanted me to do it and then felt like they needed Tom to come in and oversee it because he had more experience. We would do it together. That’s how it was put to me, and it was never put that way to Tom. So when Tom came in to produce the album, in my head I was there to co-produce the album with him. I didn’t know until the end of the first day when I was trying to discuss things with him, which you would do if you were a co-producer but you wouldn’t do it as a bystander. He didn’t seem interested in what I had to say. I felt like it was strange. Then at the end of the session I think it was Gregg who said that Phil had decided that Tom should do the record and I felt like the biggest ass in the whole world. I had never been told that I would not be involved in it until I had made a fool of myself. Here was my first introduction. You could imagine, here is my hero and he felt like I was an asshole, but I had not done anything that I really knew was wrong. That was the story.
Did you do anything else together with him?
I did play on some sessions for him and I mixed a lot of stuff for him. Then I did a Cowboy album and when I produced it I took it to Miami and he mixed it for me and I was able to watch and learn a lot from him. Then on the Eat A Peach album when they had finished recording it or just about finished it, Tom had another project and I went in and mixed and did some of the overdubs on it. So we worked together, apart.
You know when you go down to Macon now, it is hard for me to imagine seeing all of my heroes hanging out and eating at Mama Louise’s and recording at Capricorn. Could tell me a little bit about what it was like to work in the studio down there in the heyday?
Every day you never knew what would happen, and it was usually something wonderful. It seemed like as the days passed more and more people were getting interested in the music and it was getting more recognition. One of my favorite things was when Jeff Beck came in there and he was looking to put a band together, and I think that was where he hooked up with Jimmy Hall. Jimmy ended up on some of Jeff’s records. I was down there to record the rehearsals for several days. We would go see bands at night. When The Brothers were home they would be at Grant’s Lounge or sitting in somewhere or there would be a bunch of us going out to jam. Boz Scaggs lived there for a while, and Barry Oakley. I would go out and jam at clubs. There was always something happening and we could get into all kinds of trouble.
I guess I have most of the Capricorn albums that came out at that time and I love reading the liner notes and credits. I love the camaraderie and brotherhood of those musicians playing on each other’s albums.
It was wonderful, because Duane would just stop by and ask if we needed him to play on anything. He would just drive by and he would stay if there was something going on. The studio was sort of a meeting place or hang out for a lot of people, it was so centrally located, and we had a lounge area up there where people could sit and stuff. It was a good-sized studio.
Dick Cooper said that there were astrological charts cast for recording in Muscle Shoals at times. Did you ever see any of that going on in Capricorn studio?
No, I think that we were interested in astrology but I don’t remember it being used in reference to recording times.
Why did they name the label Capricorn?
It was because Jerry Wexler and Phil Walden were both Capricorns.
Now, can you give me a few words on some of these people in your life?
He was one of the most interesting, exciting and alive people that I ever knew. He was one of the most intelligent as well. Most of the time he was great to be around and he was so dedicated to music and it was a central thing in our lives. It was that way with Berry too. Whenever anyone played with Duane he would bring out the best in them. Not that it was a competition, but he was an inspiration. He was one of the best that there ever was.
What about brother Gregg?
I love Gregg very much. I enjoyed working with him at times and then there were times that I would have never put myself through if I had known what it was gonna be like. I hear that he is doing well now and I sure am glad. I do love him to death and I have known him since we were 17-18 years old. He sings as well as anyone when he is on and he has a huge voice. He always did. When we were rehearsing with the Hourglass we did a bunch of blues based stuff and his voice was as good as it ever got. It was strong, convincing and real. He is not a prolific writer, but when he writes he is talented. One classic song is better than 50 that don’t get out there. (Laughs)
How about Bonnie Bramlett?
She is the best white female singer out there and the best that there ever was. The first time I saw her live was at that thing at A&R Studios in New York where Duane was playing with Bonnie and Delaney. That was such a great performance for them. When that was over I went back there and told Phil to please sign Bonnie Bramlett because I wanted to produce her and work with her. Finally, it came about that he did and I thought the world of her then and she has gotten even better today. I can’t say enough about her. I love her to death.
He was a buddy of mine from way back in The Five Men-its and we both loved the Stax music and got along so well. We both loved Otis and it is obvious because of the way Eddie ended up singing. We kind of both came to love Otis from different directions, and the love of that and Muscle Shoals and the music coming out of there was just “our music.” I loved being on the road with him. He was crazy as hell at times. We used to take two cars and a trailer and no one would drive with him because he would be driving in the winter in Illinois with the windows rolled down. He would screaming to rough up his voice so it would have that growl to it. (Laughs) I could hear him screaming or singing when I drove up beside him. He was also the best producer that I have ever seen and he knew how to work with musicians in the studio. He had lots of ideas and brought the best out of the other players. He was just a great singer and songwriter and guitar player. He did a version of “Sha na Boom Boom” that was one of the finest records that has ever been done.
Here’s one out of left field for you. Didn’t you produce the Gregg and Cher album? Tell me a little bit about Cher.
I felt kind of strange going out there because she has this reputation of being a big movie star and there was all this controversy around the disputes of her and Gregg through the tabloids. She was as nice as she could be to me. I really enjoyed working with her. It was a crazy time and Gregg doesn’t like studios. I don’t think he gets along with them real well. They were having their good and bad days and their bad days were bad for everyone. Gregg would end up disappearing and I would end up taking her home after the sessions and dropping her off at her place and stuff and she was always super nice and good to work with. I was proud that I got to meet her. Then a few years later when I was on the road with Delbert (McClinton) I would run into her again. She was always super nice to me and treated everyone around her very well.
Lots of people wondered if that album would be a good match between Gregg and Cher. If you listen to it you find out it is a pretty good record, you know?
There are some things on it that are good. I will have to get that out and hear it again soon. A funny story that Bill Stewart told me because he was playing in the band- they were preparing to go to Japan and Cher came in and wanted Gregg to learn a Doobie Brothers song to sing with her. I just thought that was so funny. I don’t even have a comment on it and don’t really know what it means but it struck me as very funny.
(Laughs) Well, it wouldn’t be the first time Gregg did a doobie. How about Colonel Bruce Hampton?
I just talked to him a few nights ago.
He is a fun guy to talk to. We love him.
I didn’t get to know him real well until 1991, before the Rescue Unit album and it was about the time when I was doing Widespread Panic. I met him way back in ‘69 and in Chastain Park in Atlanta he was playing with the Grease Band, and to be honest with you at that time he scared me a little bit. A lot of it is not true but you heard lots of shocking stuff about him, kind of like Ozzy biting off the bat’s head, not quite to that extent, but things that were shocking for that time. I never got to know him very well then, but in ‘91 we got to know each other and he is a great guy. His heart is with the music. He knows what is good and who is good. That band, The Aquarium Rescue Unit would not be who they were without Bruce.
Anybody that Bruce gets together with ends up being extremely good. Like The Codetalkers, who he is with now, they are just awesome. Before that Derek Trucks was one of the guys he worked with, and Oteil, and of course Jimmy Herring is in The Dead now.
Yeah, he keeps them real. The Aquarian Rescue Unit was as good a band as has ever been. They had the joy of the music and spread the good feelings around. Every one of them were great and Bruce kept them from going off the edge, you know, into stuff only musicians and Martians could understand. (Laughs)
I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina around Marshall Tucker Band and I wanted to know if you had any dealings at all with Toy or any of those guys?
Of course, I went to see them when they first came to audition with Phil and they played at Grant’s Lounge and they would come in there and say Mr. Walden and Mr. Sandlin (Laughs) and I don’t know if anybody had ever called me that before. They were just such nice and decent guys. I did some demos with them and then Paul (Hornsby) did some better demos with them that got them signed. Toy was great. I used to love when we were doing some of the Cowboy albums -and there were several that he played steel on- he was just great to work with. Most of my dealings were with him. I remember going skeet shooting with him one day and he was right handed and left eyed. They had this weird shotgun that had a cutaway stock and he could put the gun up to his right shoulder and move his head through where he was looking down the barrel with his left eye. It was a weird situation. (Laughs) He was a good player. Great guy.
One of my best all time favorite albums was Highway Call. Tell me a little bit about that album and what it was like working with Dickey and Vassar Clements and everybody?
I loved working on that album because it was slightly offbeat from what we were doing up until then. Dickey had written all these great songs for it and I got to know him well over this album because we would sit around in my office after recording sessions and play stuff. I had just gotten turned on to Billy Joe Shaver. He had the Honky Tonk Heroes album and we would listen to it almost every night. When we finished sessions at 2-3 in the morning, we would go listen to music and strum guitars all the rest of the night until daylight. I loved doing it and having the band with Vassar, John Hughey, and Dickey, and of course Chuck Leavell. There was a lot of soul in that band.
What a group of people. Some of the sessions were real quick. We met the Rambos and they were great singers.
Oh yeah, Dottie Rambo. Back in those days I was a gospel DJ and used to play them on the radio, you know Southern gospel musicians, mostly the Rambos and the Happy Goodmans.
They were such good singers. It was a whole different vibe back then, a really warm feeling. Dickey was happy and his singing was very happy.
Wasn’t that around the time Brothers and Sisters came out?
I remember them both being on the charts at the same time and I think it was a little bit later. Dickey’s album didn’t come out until later, after Gregg’s Laid Back, but I am not positive. (Laughs).
How would you compare the music of today with the music of the late 60’s and early 70’s?
Which music of today?
The popular music that the kids are all listening to now.
Britney Spears stuff?
Yeah, Britney, Fifty Cent, etc.
I don’t think that there is much of anything musically offered to anybody anymore. All of that is made to sell CD’s, and I read something in an interview recently and the guy said something about how the major labels are pimping our children and doing records that are made to sort of bring out the worst in our kids instead of any values. Now, I am not a big moralist or a prude of any sort, but there is nothing of musical value to what is coming out now. I don’t see any use for it. Rap music is something I have no use for either. All of my influences were black artists and they knew how to write, arrange, and were great players and singers. Now the stuff is all electronic and just pushing buttons. Not with everyone, but the majority. Every one is talking about the demise of record companies and unless they do something they need to be demised. I am not sure that is phrased very well but it is true. It’s sad but true. I just watched a biography on Sam Phillips of Sun Records and he would not sell Sun Records out to the majors until 20-30 years after it was done with. Unfortunately most of them are selling out bigger and bigger and they will not develop or support budding artists but instead bring their talent down to the lowest denominator and sell it to 12 year olds.
Yeah, you have pretty much summed it up. I feel that way.
That’s where it has all come to. Music should be uplifting to the human condition. Another thing that I saw recently was Martin Scorcese’s Blues and they were talking about in the very oldest days of the blues, the blues gave people something to hope for in the hardest of times when they were so oppressed. People always want something to hope for and to have something more for themselves. It certainly can do that because it did that for me.
What are your thoughts on Widespread Panic, now that they are huge.
Yeah, they are huge. It was fun to do those records with them. It was when Phil had first put Capricorn back together and I remember the Georgia Theatre in Athens was where I first saw them. I was so impressed with their strong rhythm section. John Bell is one of the finest rock and roll singers that has ever been, too. He has this huge scary voice. Mikey had this totally unique way of playing, approaching music and writing and singing. He had a great voice. He didn’t sing all that many songs, but he and John sounded great singing together. It was a joy to work with them in the studio and they would come in and work until we found something that grooved and felt good for everyone. Dave is a fine bass player. The first album had T. Lavitz playing keyboards on it and he was a hoot to work with. (Laughs) Then Jo Jo came in for the second album. Their music was a little different. Jamming to them is a little different than when I came up. It is a whole different approach to it. But it was certainly a good approach and absolutely as valid. It was just different. I loved working with them and wish I was still working with them. I think that they are working with John King now and obviously they are doing well there.
Another friend of mine that I would like you to elaborate on is Microwave Dave.
Oh yeah, Dave did his first album in the mid-'90s with very little budget, but we pulled it off. I loved working with Dave. We did some with Roger Hawkins and David Stewart playing. Then we felt like we had something that might do something. We didn’t think it would be a huge hit record, but that it would sell well. Anyway, the record companies hated it and held onto it for a year and wouldn’t release it. Then they would not sell it back to us for what they had paid for it. What a situation (Laughs), they said they didn’t like it but would not sell it back or put it out. Eventually they did put it out and sold it as a blues album and it did sell well. He went to Europe several times with it and it was amazing that it did pretty well. Dave is a true blues man and he is into it and knows who did what. And he is a great player and very talented. He is an extremely intelligent guy and has been schooled very well as a musician. He can be stubborn sometimes, but I love him to death. (Laughs) We don’t agree on some things sometimes, but we have always managed to resolve those things and I would not take anything for his friendship. He lives close by in Huntsville and is a great disc jockey as well. He has a college blues show that is very good. When he is on they play good stuff. The sound of the station is good.
There are two other guys that I wanted to ask you about. I was a big fan of Cowboy and I wanted to see if you could tell me about what Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton are up to these days.
Sure, Scott is living in the Shoals area and lived in Decatur for a while. In the late 80’s we put a band together called The Decoys and Scott was the guitar player and singer and Brian Wheeler was in the band, who died recently. He was a good friend and great drummer who went on to the band in the sky. Scott is writing lots of songs and we had one song that he co-wrote with his partner and Donnie Fritz. We had a country cut on called “24-7 365.” This was one that Gregg cut on the album that was done in ‘95. Chuck did one of his songs on his Christmas album. I see Scott often. In fact he was over here two days ago and someone was talking about using a Cowboy song on a movie and we were making a CD of it. Tommy, I am working with now on an album. He is living in Atlanta and is writing and working some during the day. We have had about eight tracks cut and four songs demoed that we are trying to get some interest in. And we have some good people playing on it. Folks like Bill Stewart, Brian Owens and a bunch of bass players, from Oteil to David to me and Charlie Hayward came down and played on three songs. We did an album called T. Talton, B. Stewart, and J. Sandlin for Capricorn back in ‘75 or ‘76 and it was sort of a continuation of that but thrashed out a little bit.
That’s one I don’t have, I will have to get on e-Bay.
Happy To Be Alive was the title of it. Lucky, would be more appropriate, (Laughs).
What are you working on currently?
I have been doing some jazz albums with The Waters Brothers, Ken and Harry Waters’ band. Ken plays trumpet and Harry trombone and there are usually 4-5 pieces with upright bass and drums, and guitars and piano -or guitars without piano. I have been real lucky that all four albums have made the jazz charts and one of them was in the Top 25 on the jazz charts. That one was called Water’s Brothers Three. I love working with them and they are very good players. Doing this thing with Tommy is interesting and The Skeeters are working on their second album. I was telling you about Billy Joe Shaver coming down and playing on that album. For the moment that is all I have been doing, but you never know what will be coming tomorrow.
UPDATE: Johnny Sandlin, along with Paul Hornsby, Scott Boyer, Tommy Talton and the rest of the gang from Capricorn reunited as The Capricorn Rhythm Section and are playing select dates, sometimes with guests Gregg Allman and Bonnie Bramlett.