It opened long ago just a stone’s throw from Lake Country between the Houston County cities of Warner Robins and Centerville. And for a fleeting moment in time, it represented the nexus between good times and good music for wild-eyed Southern boys, honky-tonk angels, and the talented musicians who entertained them.
And as is the case with most things that become wildly popular, the opening of the Duck’s Breath Saloon on Watson Boulevard in February of 1979 was a matter of nearly perfect timing.
For club owners Mike McEver and Robert Hintz, opening a club that catered to music lovers, especially those who gravitated to what was termed “Southern Rock,” seemed almost necessary as the age of Disco wore on. By the late seventies, most of the country seemed to have grown weary of the Disco genre that dominated American culture.
The Disco rejection reached such fervor on July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox offered discounted tickets for fans who brought Disco records to the game, records that would be exploded on the field between games with the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox, who had been averaging about 15,000 fans per game, drew a sell-out crowd of more than 50,000 for the celebration of what promoter Steve Dahl called “the eradication of the musical disease known as Disco.”
Thus, McEver seemed to have his finger on America’s cultural pulse when the saloon opened its doors. “The whole reason the Duck’s Breath Saloon came about was we were anti-disco,” McEver said. “We weren’t going to be a dance club, we were going to be a saloon.”
Without a dance floor, the club’s decor included rough cut barn wood on the walls and cable spools used as tables. A long roll of burlap, looped and tacked on the ceiling the entire length of the bar, and carpet on the floor made a perfect sound booth, so bands used to record off the board because it was like they were in a studio, McEver said.
According to McEver, it was an instant success from the very first band featuring solo artist Tommy Dean. The routine was consistent. The Duck’s Breath opened at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday with live music beginning at 9 p.m. each evening and continuing until 2 a.m.
In its original iteration, the Duck’s Breath Saloon only had 125 seats yet went through 22 kegs of Budweiser each week along with more than 100 cases of Budweiser longnecks, four cases of Jack Daniels, four cases of Crown Royal and eight cases of white liquor.
Anheuser-Busch took notice of the sales and sent a contingent from St. Louis to the club. “They wanted to see what we were doing in little old Warner Robins, Georgia to sell all that product,” McEver said.
The club soon expanded and doubled its capacity. Word spread about the venue and notable musicians began frequenting it, often engaging in impromptu jam sessions that McEver said produced “magical moments” almost every night.
The list of artists who either played in the club or joined in the jam sessions reads like a who’s who of Southern Rock. Bands signed to Capricorn Records in Macon like Stillwater, Doc Holiday, Eric Quincy Tate, and Grinderswitch became frequent headliners, along with other artists like Danny Joe Brown (Molly Hatchet), Chuck Leavell (Allman Brothers Band, Sea Level, the Rolling Jones) Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level), Randall and Bonnie Bramlett, Elvin Bishop, Chris Hicks (formerly of Loose Change but now a member of the Marshall Tucker Band), Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), Jim “Dandy” Mangrum of Black Oak Arkansas and Ronnie Hammond (Atlanta Rhythm Section), Greg Allman, Dickie Betts and Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band).
Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden and his younger brother, Alan (who basically discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd), were also known to drop by.
McEver said the blue-collar crowd regular customers came to expect the unexpected on stage. “You never knew who might step up on that stage,” he noted.
McEver said Tommy Talton of the band Cowboy related a story to him that one night the lights went out on their vehicle and they had to drive back to Macon in reverse. “That may be a tall tale,” McEver said.
Cowboy was intertwined with many of the same musicians already mentioned and served as backup band for Greg Allman during his solo venture, European tour and the “Laid Back” album.
On one occasion, the Allman told McEver he would be on hand to play for McEver’s birthday celebration at the Duck’s Breath. Allman, never known for his punctuality, arrived at 1:20 a.m., with only 40 minutes left before the 2 a.m. mandatory closing time strictly enforced by the local police.
McEver ordered his bouncers to close the doors and not allow anyone in or out during Allman’s performance, which lasted until 4 a.m.
According to McEver, who was also a concert promoter, he had booked Allman at the Macon Coliseum during a difficult period for the Allman Brothers frontman who had testified in a highly publicized trial a few years earlier.
McEver said Allman had received death threats and promoters considered canceling the show, but he let Allman decided.
“Greg said, ‘Mike, I came to town to play, and that’s what intend to do.”
It turned out the threats were made by an ex- girlfriend. Always about Southern Rock, McEver also brought in bands like the Turtles (“Happy Together”), the Guess Who (“American Woman”) and Humble Pie (“Thirty Days in the Hole”) to the Duck’s Breath. Blues Legend John Lee Hooker was also a performer there and sent McEver a Christmas card each year.
“This was a guy the Rolling Stones opened for,” McEver said.
You might imagine an unruly crowd in such a small place that sold such prodigious amounts of alcohol, but the Duck’s Breath had a policy: If you got out of hand and were asked to leave and did, you could come back. If you had to be physically removed, you were banned. And for the local music lovers in middle Georgia, that was the equivalent exile.
It wasn’t just the musicians who helped spread the word about the Duck’s Breath Saloon. Roadies, sound technicians and others who traveled with the groups also told their brethren about the venue. “They would come in there and just loved the place,” McEver said. So, for four years, the little Duck’s Breath Saloon may have been the closest thing to Fillmore South there ever was. But the growth of the club finally outpaced the rural character of its neighborhood.
After World War II, Houston County’s population exploded, increasing the population by almost 70,000 over the next 40 years, according to the U.S. Census. Out in unincorporated Houston County, the infrastructure was limited and a popular club like the Duck’s Breath Saloon needed water and sewerage services that never arrived. Eventually, it had to be shut down.
In 1987, McEver tried again in a new location and the club was packed once again. Unfortunately, a shootout in the parking lot between two men who had not even been inside put a stain on its reputation and government and military officials put pressure on the club. McEver said he decided to close after being on the front page of the Warner Robins Sun eighteen times.
The 72-year-old Warner Robins native went to law school, earned his degree, ventured into the real estate business, and “got completely out of the music business,” he said. But for a little while, the Duck’s Breath Saloon might have been the epicenter of Southern Rock in Georgia.
Story by T. Michael Stone & photos from Capricorn Museum
Published in the July/August 2021 issue of Lakelife magazine.