America's Band comes to Macon
A venerable Middle Georgia landmark recently hosted one of the nation’s most legendary bands and—once again—Macon’s musical history comes alive.
Story and photos by Hank Segars
It has been a long time since I attended a concert in Macon’s City Auditorium, an iconic edifice featured on the National Register of Historic Places. The aged building continues to operate as a popular venue for concerts and special events.
My memories of long-ago visits to the auditorium are mostly nostalgic—energetic rhythm and blues concerts, sweaty crowds, and Georgia high school state basketball championship games back in the 1960s. Certainly an exciting era for pioneering rock and roll music, a time when the west coast sounds of The Beach Boys flooded airwaves with one hit after another.
Often referred to as “America’s Band,”The Beach Boys are enshrined in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their six-decade journey in the music industry ranges through the genres of surf, rock, psychedelia, and pop. Founded in 1961 by brothers Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, along with cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, the California group became renowned for inventive vocal harmonies, song creativity, and a long string of hit records. The Beach Boys’ catalogue includes 37 charted singles, several No. 1 hits, numerous best-selling albums, and over 10 million records sold. And their shows continue to draw large audiences of diverse age groups.
Lineups have changed due to original members Brian Wilson’s and Al Jardine’s absences from touring, and the untimely deaths of drummer Dennis Wilson and lead guitarist Carl Wilson. The early addition of keyboardist Bruce Johnston added much to the band’s famed sound; and today, a cadre of younger musicians continues the tradition of excellence in performing the band’s original hits.
The question for current fans would be to determine if lead singer Mike Love, keyboardist Bruce Johnston, and the current Beach Boys line-up would be capable of rocking Macon’s City Auditorium, in the town renowned for the Allman Brothers, Capricorn Records, and Otis Redding.
Built in 1925, the Macon City Auditorium resembles a Roman temple with a stately Doric-styled limestone colonnade and copper roof said to be the largest in the world. With floor seating for 1,700 fans and a cantilevered balcony that holds 988, the old building still has good acoustics and works well as a concert hall. An imposing mural depicting Macon’s early history painted by Atlantans Don Carlos Dubois and Wilbur Kurtz in the 1930s remains above the stage.
Throngs of Middle Georgia fans have begun to line up for entry into the evening concert. Larry Massey, of Madison, has graciously arranged a pre-concert backstage meeting with his Beach Boy brother, Bruce Johnston, for my wife, Marie, and me. As a fan, I am thrilled.
I knew that Bruce joined The Beach Boys in their early years as a replacement for Bryan Wilson, the band’s co-founder, and he provided vocals on the smash hit “California Girls” in his first recording session with the group. Earlier, Bruce had worked as a performer, musician, and songwriter for other bands to include the Rip Chords, and collaborated with Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
Quickly moving backstage into the coliseum’s “green room,” our trio from Lake Country waited for Bruce. While waiting, I first noticed the small, neatly arranged tables holding soft drinks, small bottles of wine, snacks, and a few bowls of fruit. A reasonable spread for the band’s break and most appropriate, I thought, for seasoned musicians with a lifetime of accomplishments and nothing left to prove. Not the arrogant, outrageous rock-star contract demands that we sometimes read about.
The door to the green room opened and Bruce, dressed in casual shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, burst through with a big smile, warm greetings, and humorous banter. The room lit up and our trio spoke with the famous musician about the band’s history and current touring schedule which, by the way, is extensive.
We learned that immediately after the Macon concert, the band would return to Atlanta by motorcoach and then perform in Hiawassee the following evening. In July, nine concerts are scheduled in California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Jersey, and New York. And during August, the band will appear in 20 performances in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Washington, and Idaho. A lot of flights, bus rides, and miles.
Bruce was interested in our Lakelife magazine and had familiarity with Lake Country and Middle Georgia. Over the years, the group has played in Macon several times and he seemed quite interested in the lakes of our area, and especially about the popularity of wave runners. He mentioned more than once that he would like to see an increase in wave runners in our region and the East Coast.
At one point I had to ask, “Since you are involved with the beach sounds of the West Coast,” are you familiar with Carolina Beach music? “Yes,” Bruce replied then mentioned “Chairmen of the Board,” a recording group he remembered. We also talked briefly about the Platters and he knew Sonny Turner, the lead singer, from Las Vegas appearances.
“Bruce, what music do you currently listen to?” I asked the burning question inside me.
“Currently, I listen to a lot of SiriusXM, to big band music stations . . . the classics I heard in my home while growing up,” he answered.
Incidentally, Bruce won a Grammy Award for his composition of “I Write the Songs” as recorded by Barry Manilow. When this was mentioned, he made a profound statement, “What most people don’t know is that I was writing that song for God.”
Bruce also spoke about playing The Beach Boys’ innovative album “Pet Sounds” for Paul McCartney and John Lennon in London. He also wanted to know about our lives and, several times, asked if we would like something to eat from the available tables. This was humbling but we politely declined as time was passing quickly.
Overall, I found this legendary musician to be humorous, gracious, and genuinely kind. He seemed to sincerely enjoy the conversation and especially being with his brother, Larry. With only minutes left before showtime, Larry finally said, “Bruce, you had better get dressed, it’s about time for the concert!”
Bruce smiled and quipped, “Oh, don’t worry about that!” We knew time was past due for us to locate our seats. As my wife and I were leaving the green room, Bruce kindly invited us to come back during the band’s intermission. We thanked him but had to decline, knowing full well that others would be visiting him during the band’s intermission.
Leaving backstage, I felt compelled to say, “Bruce, I must give you the highest compliment that I can give — you are truly down to earth.”
“Well, that’s better than being under the earth!” he quickly responded, and our small group laughed loudly. It was an amazing encounter.
Arriving at our seats on the main floor, we were surrounded by a bevy of excited Beach Boy fans; and, truthfully, it is hard for me to adequately describe the concert. Energetic. Outstanding musicianship. Professional renditions of familiar hits. Authentic in every way—a performance that was all that any fan could ever hope for.
The Beach Boys played numerous hits from their extensive catalogue including, “Surfin’ USA,” “Little Surfer Girl,” “Be True to Your School,” “I Get Around,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Little Deuce Coup,” “Do You Wanna’ Dance?” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “Good Vibrations” along with other recognizable songs. The room resonated with lively audience response, especially with the opening notes of songs such as “Help Me Rhonda,” “California Girls,” and “Kokomo.”
To fully appreciate the music and the professionalism of the performance, you would really need to be there. As for putting this experience into words, what else could be added to the countless articles and books already published about The Beach Boys?
Let’s just say that The Beach Boys blew the roof off the Macon City Auditorium.
To see a portion of the Macon concert, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=-h-Mdmw8dAM
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This story appeared in Lakelife magazine, Volume 17, Issue 4 and is the property of Smith Communications, Inc. No portions of the story or photos may be copied or used without written consent from the publisher.