THE MONKEY PALACE AND OTHER ITEMS FROM GEORGIA
By Oxford American
Dept. of Georgia Music discoveries
In the history of weird and disreputable South Georgia nightlife, no place is more legendary or unsettling than a bar in Albany called the Monkey Palace. Or so I learned last month. Though I was born and raised in Albany, a city about two hours north of Tallahassee, I’d never heard of this place, and for a while I wasn’t convinced it was real. But research confirms it: From 1977 through the mid-nineties, the Monkey Palace—known colloquially as the Baboon Saloon—was a dark, shabby bar lined with glass enclosures featuring live monkeys. Rhesus monkeys. Safe in their glass habitats, the monkeys lived and ate and matured and gave birth there, while locals drank and shouted and fought until 4 A.M. each night. Sure, there were occasional protests from animal rights groups. Once they even conspired to have an animal control officer from the local zoo, Chehaw Park, come investigate the monkeys’ living conditions. But this plan backfired. As a former waitress told the local newspaper, “The folks at Chehaw were so impressed, they ended up donating two more monkeys.”
There are plenty of reasons why the Monkey Palace finally closed, really good reasons—even aside from the obvious. For one thing, one of the bartenders probably murdered someone. (“I didn’t kill her intentionally if I did kill her,” he says in the affidavit.) Still, it bothered me that nobody had ever told me about it. When I’d learned enough, I reached out to my parents and asked for an explanation. There was a long, palpable, nervous pause on their end of the text message chain. Those dots, the ones that signal the other person is typing, appeared and then vanished. “Every parent has secrets,” my father finally responded, cryptically. “Must’ve slipped my mind,” said my mother. I got the sense this was a conversation they’d long dreaded, but must have figured was inevitable.
Jimi Hendrix has never graced an Oxford American Southern Music issue CD. He was, after all, from our region’s geographical inverse: the Pacific Northwest. But if ever we had the chance to claim Hendrix for the South, it was in our latest music issue on Georgia. He had family in Macon. (In fact, three of his grandparents were from around the region: Georgia, Virginia, and Arkansas.) During his adolescence, Hendrix visited Macon and, so the legend goes, there he met the great Johnny Jenkins, a flashy, left-handed, black blues guitarist just a few years his senior. Years later, in 1963–64, Jimmy (not yet Jimi) was based in Atlanta while working with artists hailing from the city: Gorgeous George, the Tams, and Little Richard. In an interview published in the OA’s Georgia Music issue, Atlanta legend Col. Bruce Hampton remembers seeing him around, and then meeting Hendrix in 1970: “All he wanted to know about was Blind Willie McTell. He was obsessed.” Well, this makes a lot of sense. Though Hendrix’s sound was otherworldly, it was steeped in tradition; he was as much a student of the acoustic blues as Dylan, Clapton, Jagger, or Page.
So we could have easily granted Hendrix a nonnative pardon, though there’s still the question of what song we would have chosen to represent him and his “Georgia” blues. It’s actually not so hard as it would seem: In a 1969 session in New York, Hendrix and his friend Lonnie Youngblood, a saxophonist from Augusta, recorded, among other songs, an original tune named “Georgia Blues.” It wouldn’t be released until 2003, on a Hendrix compilation companion to the PBS documentary series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. The song was probably written by Youngblood, who also sang it—and he sued over its unsanctioned release, noting the biographical opening lines—but Hendrix is on form here, working in his preferred forum, the loose blues jam. The album is out of print and not available digitally, but thanks to someone in Russia, you can listen to the track here—eight minutes that would’ve felt at home on our Georgia Music issue CD, maybe between OutKast’s “Aquemini” and Bobby Grant’s “Lonesome Atlanta Blues.”
One final connection of note: the largest domestic crowd Hendrix played before in his short career was at the Atlanta International Pop Festival in held Byron, Georgia, in 1970, a kind of follow-up to Woodstock. He died in London two months later.
By now, we hope you’ve heard the stunning closing track to our Georgia Music issue CD: the iconic “Moon River,” performed by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, around 1961. It was long believed that the pair never actually recorded the famous song they wrote together, but—as noted in the magazine—in 2014, Chris Mancini found an acetate demo in a box of his father’s things in the attic: Mancini and Mercer, piano and vocals. The recording was beautiful, although not without a noticeable crackle, inevitable after decades of neglect. Still, the force of the moment—Mancini and Mercer!—transcended the distraction and we wrote off the imperfections as character and sent it to mastering.
It took our Grammy Award–winning engineer, Michael Graves of Osiris Studio in Atlanta, but one listen to determine he could improve the recording’s quality. Michael bid Chris Mancini to send him the original disc and what Mike got from it is like magic, or alchemy. Gone are the spittle, pops, and hiss, and almost any audible perception of the stylus in the aged grooves. In their place is Mercer’s glorious vibrato, which had been drowned out on the original transfer, and the deep echoes of Mancini’s piano. Listening to the new transfer for the first time, our office fell silent in awe: it sounds like the very moment when a classic American melody was crystalized. And this is what you hear on the Georgia CD. For the audiophiles, Mike described the process and posted a comparison on his blog in December.
Even as we approach deadline for our Spring 2016 issue, we feel we still have one foot back in Georgia, where we spent so much time and energy producing our music issue last year. Thankfully, there’s a new podcast devoted to “the past, present, and future of Atlanta hip-hop” to keep Georgia close in our hearts and tabs. 5 Points is hosted by a trio of Atlanta music writers: Gavin Godfrey, Christina Lee, and OA contributor Rodney Carmichael. Delightfully casual, unpretentious, and uncut—a bottle of Knob Creek is the unofficial fourth anchor—5 Points has the spirit of a conversation overheard at a house party. We consider it validating that their second episode is devoted to the hip-hop coverage in the Oxford American’s Georgia Music issue.
For the occasion they brought on contributors Austin L. Ray and Regina Bradley to discuss the creation of their OA pieces. Ray talks about what it was like spending time with Killer Mike at the rapper’s Old Fourth Ward barber shop and Bradley ranges from the finer points of Field Mob’s catalog to the broader themes of Southern hip-hop and her admiration for Kiese Laymon, whose writing she teaches. The episode is an inside look at how OA writers approach their subjects. Listen, if for no other reason, to hear Regina’s definitive lesson on how to pronounce her hometown “Albany.”