Most years, Johnny Sandlin’s birthday celebrations were quiet and family-oriented. He dined with his relatives and caught up on the phone with other family members who lived further away.
This year, Sandlin’s birthday is going to be loud. Known for recording and producing some of Southern rock’s most iconic music, Sandlin died in 2017 at the age of 72. On his birthday this year, April 16, he will be honored with a tribute concert called Southbound, a nod to an Allman song. Brother’s only number one album, 1973’s “Brothers and Sisters”, which Sandlin produced. The tribute will take place at the Princess Theater, address 112 2nd Ave. NE in Decatur, Alabama, Sandlin’s hometown. Start time is 7am. Tickets start at $30 plus fees through ovationtix.com.
The tribute lineup includes Jimmy Hall, frontman of funky Southern rockers Wet Willie and guitar god touring singer Jeff Beck. Also in attendance is Hall’s sister and Wet Willie’s background vocalist, Donna Hall. So did Melody Trucks, daughter of the late great Allmans drummer Butch Trucks, and Tim Tucker, a local rock singer/songwriter whose music was featured on Showtime and once jammed with Prince.
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Sandlin’s grandchildren, Gray Cauthen, an Allmans-meets-Jason-Isbell type singer/guitarist, Ella Cauthen Tidwell, a talented singer, will also perform. So did guitarist Zach Graham, son-in-law of Sandlin’s daughter, Leigh Ellen Sandlin-Cauthen, who started Southbound.
Initially, Southbound was going to be an arts and music festival honoring Johnny Sandlin. “And then COVID hit and everything went wrong for everyone,” says Leigh Ellen. The money was already invested. They had already signed Jimmy Hall and Melody Trucks. This year, Leigh Ellen decided to revive the idea as a tribute concert. “I wanted to do it on his birthday,” she says. “He will have been out for five years this year, and I think it’s just time to continue some things in his honour.”
Even though Johnny helped make music that touched generations of music fans, for Leigh Ellen and her two sisters he was “just daddy”. The version of “Midnight Rider” from Gregg Allman’s 1973 solo debut album “Laid Back,” which Johnny co-produced with Allman, was her all-time favorite song, before she even knew her father had worked on it. . She has fond memories of musicians like Eddie Kendricks, the legendary singer of the Temptations, who were home and kind to her.
“A lot of things I didn’t realize he was doing when he was doing it,” Leigh Ellen says of Johnny. But his connection to his father’s music only deepened over time. “That first year after her passing,” says Leigh Ellen, “I spent most of my time on the bike paths here in Decatur, and I must have listened to ‘Jessica’ probably 2,000 times,” referring to the magnificent instrumental track by the Allman Brothers. of “Brothers and Sisters”.
Sandlin’s favorite among his own productions? Johnny Jenkins’ 1970 album “Ton-Ton Macoute!”, a bluesy set featuring guitar work by Sandlin’s close friend, Duane Allman, and a cover of Dr. John’s voodoo-rock song ” I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” which alt-rock musician Beck sampled for his 1993 hit “Loser.” The country-rock band Cowboy’s 1971 LP “5′ll Getcha Ten” is another Sandlin staple. He also mixed the Allman Brothers’ classic 1971 studio/live hybrid album “Eat a Peach”.
Sandlin’s studio work is known for its warm natural sound and clarity. And it still grooves. He had a lifelong rhythmic talent and was also the drummer for Allmans precursor band Hour Glass.
The last song Leigh Ellen ever listened to with her father before his death was “Hope The High Road” by Jason Isbell, the folk/rock star who, as a young man, worked at Sandlin’s Duck Tape Studio. The name of the studio is taken from Sandlin’s nickname, The Duck.
Sandlin was the producer of one of Wet Willie’s finest records, “Drippin’ Wet Live,” a 1973 concert album recorded in New Orleans. A few decades later, the Wet Willie frontman and harmonica virtuoso recorded his solo album “Rendezvous with the Blues” at Duck Tape Studio. Attached to the Decatur home of Johnny and his wife Ann Sandlin, Duck Tape was a home in a space the size of a large den or two-car garage. A 36-channel ’80s Westar recording console was the centerpiece of the studio.
“He gave you the freedom to explore your own vision,” Hall said of working with Johnny Sandlin in the studio. “And he didn’t impose his own version of it. He really encouraged you to find your voice or say it the way you wanted to say it, and I really respected that. Hall says there are echoes of Sandlin’s musical spirit in the new album Hall recorded with blues-rock guitar hero Joe Bonamassa.
“He was like a mentor to all of us who worked with him,” Hall says of Sandlin. “He taught us all a lot and he left a great, long and wonderful legacy.” Hall plans to perform a song or two from Bonamassa’s upcoming collaboration during Sandlin’s tribute, including “Ready Now,” a heartfelt, gospel-tinged song about overcoming your demons. And of course, he’ll release “Keep on Smilin'”, Wet Willie’s signature soulful song.
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The tributes to Johnny Sandlin won’t stop after the final note sounded Saturday night at the Princess Theatre. The concert raises money to fund a mural depicting Sandlin and musicians who have recorded in his studio, including jam bands like Widespread Panic and Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The mural will be painted by Steven Teller, who recently painted a fantastic Allman Brothers mural at H&H Restaurant, the iconic soul-food restaurant in Macon, Georgia that the Allmans frequented in their early years. About $30,000 has been budgeted for Sandlin’s mural, which will be painted on a wall outside the downtown Decatur law office where Leigh Ellen’s husband works. Leigh Ellen says they’ve raised around $15,000 for the project so far.
The family also launches the Johnny Sandlin Foundation for Music and the Arts. Leigh Ellen says the foundation will bring music education to local schools, fund music and arts scholarships and similar initiatives. The foundation has already assembled an entire board, with members including Allman Brothers vocalist/guitarist Dickey Betts, Rolling Stones/Allmans keyboardist Chuck Levell, Swampers bassist David Hood, and Sandlin’s studio protege. Jeremy Stephens, according to Leigh Ellen. “Dad felt like music was for everyone,” she says.