In most years, Johnny Sandlin’s birthday celebrations have been quiet and family-oriented. He would have dinner with his loved ones, and communicate with the other family on the phone who lived far away.
This year, Sandlin’s birthday is going to get boisterous. Best known for recording and producing some of Southern rock’s most popular music, Sandlin died in 2017 at the age of 72. On his birthday this year, April 16, he will be honored at a tribute party called Southbound, a reference to a song from Allman from Brother’s only number one album, “Brothers and Sisters” (1973), which Sandlin produced. The tribute will take place at Princess Theatre, Address 112 2nd Ave. NE in Decatur, Alabama, Sandlin’s hometown. Start time is 7. Tickets start at $30 plus fees via ovationtix.com.
The list of honors includes Jimmy Hall, number one in the funky southern rock band Wet Willie, and touring guitarist Jeff Beck. Hall’s sister and background singer Wet Willie Donna Hall is also in the mix. As do Melody Trucks, the daughter of the late great drummer Almans, and Tim Tucker, the local rock singer-songwriter whose music was featured on Showtime, and jammed with Prince once.
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Sandlin’s grandsons, Gray Cauthen, Allmans-Meet-Jason-Isbell singer/guitarist, Ella Cauthen Tidwell, a talented singer, will also perform. So is guitarist Zach Graham, son-in-law of Sandlin’s daughter, Lee Ellen Sandlin-Cawthen, who brought Southbound together.
Initially, Southbound was going to be an arts and music festival in honor of Johnny Sandlin. “And then COVID hit and it just all went sideways for everyone,” Ellen tells me. The money has already been invested though. They are already signed to Jimmy Hall and Melody Trucks. This year, Leigh Ellen decided to restart the idea as a tribute party. “I wanted to do it for his birthday,” she says. “He will be gone five years this year, and I think it’s time to continue some things in his honor.”
Although Johnny helped create music that influenced generations of music lovers, to Leigh Ellen and her two sisters, he was “just my dad.” The “Midnight Rider” version of Greg Allman’s 1973 debut single “Laid Back,” which Johnny co-produced with Allman, was her all-time favorite, even before she realized her father was working on it. She has fond memories of musicians like Eddie Kendricks, the legendary singer, being at home and being kind to her.
“A lot of things I didn’t realize he was doing when he was doing it,” Elaine tells me about Johnny. But her connection to her father’s music deepened with time. “In that first year after his death, I spent most of my time on the bike trails here in Decatur, and I must have listened to ‘Jessica’ probably 2,000 times,” Eileen tells me, referring to the German Brothers’ cool automated track from Brothers and Sisters. .
Sandlin’s favorite from his own productions? Johnny Jenkins’ 1970 album “Ton-Ton Macoute!” , a blues group featuring the guitar work of Sandlin’s close friend Duane Allman and a cover of Dr. John’s voodoo-rock “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” alternative rock band Beck sampled from his 1993 hit “Loser”. 1971 titled “5′ll Getcha Ten” is another Sandlin staple. He also mixed the classic Allman Brothers album and live hybrid album Eat a Peach.
Sandlin’s studio works are known for their warm, natural sound and clarity. and always grooved. He had a lifelong talent for rhythm, and was also the drummer for the Allmans’ initial band, Hour Glass.
The last song Lee Ellen listened to with her father before his death was “Hope The High Road” by Jason Ispel, a popular rock star who worked in his youth at Sandlin’s Duck Tape Studio. The studio’s name was taken from Sandlin’s nickname, The Duck.
Sandlin was the producer of one of Wet Willie’s best-selling records, “Drippin’ Wet Live,” a 1973 music album recorded in New Orleans. Two decades later, the outstanding and talented harmonica striker Whit Willie recorded his solo album “A Date with the Blues” at Duck Tape Studio. Adjacent to Johnny and his wife Decatur Anne Sandlin’s home, Duck Tape was a home about the size of a large den or two-car garage. Westar’s 36-channel recording unit from the 1980s was the studio’s focus.
“It gave you the freedom to explore your own vision,” Hall says of working with Johnny Sandlin in the studio. He did not impose his own version of it. He really encouraged you to find your own voice or say how you wanted to say it, and I really respect that.” Hall says there are echoes of Sandlin’s musical spirit on the new album Hall was recording with blues-guitar champ and rocker Joe Bonamassa.
“He was like a mentor to all of us who worked with him,” Hall says of Sandlin. “He taught us all so much and left a wonderful, long and wonderful legacy.” Hall plans to perform a song or two from Bonamassa’s upcoming collaboration at the Sandlin tribute, including “Ready Now,” a lively tune about overcoming demons. And of course, he’ll release “Keep on Smilin,” Whit Willie’s lively tune.
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The salute to Johnny Sandlin will not end after the last note was released Saturday evening at the Princess Theatre. The concert raised money to fund a mural depicting Sandlin and the musicians who recorded in his studio, including jam bands such as Wides Wide Panic, Colonel Bruce Hampton, and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The mural will be painted by Stephen Teller, who recently painted a gorgeous mural of the Allman Brothers at H&H, a popular spiritual food venue in Macon, Georgia that the Allmans frequented in their early years. About $30,000 is budgeted for the Sandlin mural, which will be painted on a wall outside the downtown Decatur law office where Leigh Ellen’s husband works. Leigh Ellen says they have raised about $15,000 for the project so far.
The family also launched the Johnny Sandlin Music and Arts Foundation. Elaine tells me that the foundation will bring music education to local schools, and fund scholarships for music, the arts, and similar endeavours. The foundation has already assembled a board of directors, with members including Allman Brothers singer/guitarist Dickie Bates, Rolling Stones/Allmans keyboardist Chuck Levell, Swampers bassist David Hood, and Sandlin’s student Jeremy Stephens, according to Leigh Ellen. “My dad felt that music was for everyone,” she says.