The first time I saw The Allman Brothers Band should’ve been when I was 13.
I had just negotiated the master exploit of my burgeoning adolescence – securing my mother’s permission to leave Camp Carolina, a bucolic summer camp for privileged Southern boys nestled into an old orchard and bottom farmland in Brevard, North Carolina. My plan was to join a half million hippies gathering at the Atlanta International Pop Festival featuring mythic bands such as Spirit, Johnny Winter, Ten Years After and an obscure Georgia-based group that had released its first album the previous November.
I didn’t make it.
An impressionable teenager in the summer of 1970, I suppose I was somewhere on the spectrum of ordinary. At camp, I was just starting to grow my hair a little longer and sported what I thought were cool amber aviators – my entry-level protests against the entrenched Vietnam War and the May 4th shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University. On May 5th, my friend Charles Driebe and I wore black armbands down the eighth grade hallway at Westminster to show our solidarity with the college students protesting and shutting down colleges that week. Within an hour our principal pulled us into his office. “Take ’em off,” he demanded. We did.
Six weeks later, when I walked into Cabin Five to meet my counselor at Camp Carolina, overlooking a cool mountainside lake, I recognized soon enough that he – West Oehmig of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee – was no ordinary counselor. West was a 20-year-old University of Virginia student with an infectious persona, husky voice, and penchant for poetry, Pabst Blue Ribbons and local mountain girls. Most important – he brought a guitar, a record player and box of Rock ’n’ Roll albums.
West was the camp’s popular golf instructor. He came by it naturally. His dad, “Sweet Lew,” named for his golf swing and demeanor, had been a member of the legendary 1938 University of Virginia golf team, a Walker Cup captain, Bobby Jones award winner and USGA champion at the age of 69, a record. In Georgia, golfers stood on the tee and told stories about Bobby Jones; in Tennessee, they talked about Lew Oehmig. At Camp Carolina, where owners had carved the bottom farmland into an economical golf course, replete with all-sand “greens,” fledgling golfers talked about West Oehmig. He had not only inherited his dad’s sweet swing, West shared his mechanical and spiritual love of the game with a venerable Lookout Mountain accent that commanded respect from reverential boys.
My cabin mates had very different personalities – some strong and proud – yet all dimmed in West’s glow. With his ability to connect with anyone he met, West soon became kindred spirits with each of us through various subjects. Some days, while we pretended to lie on our beds during the mandatory post-lunch rest hour, West would regale us with stories of college girls, glorious endless beer parties, Motown bands and Southern guitar players. Some days, we’d sit around listening to records while he sat on our front porch, memorizing verse. One day, he opened the 865-word “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” reciting it to us an hour later as we walked to the first tee.
Three weeks into my four weeks at Camp Carolina, I opened a letter from my brother Mike, who’d returned home a month earlier after protesting, shutting down classes and reportedly, engaging in a bit of mass streaking at Princeton. Near the end of his letter, he mentioned that it was too bad I’d have to miss the Atlanta International Pop Festival that was scheduled July 4th weekend in Byron, GA, outside Macon. There, a few days after I opened his letter, Jimi Hendrix would perform before the largest audience of his short lifetime … and I’d be stuck five hours north … canoeing, swimming, fashioning crafts, riding horses and playing golf at camp.
After reading the letter at lunch, I immediately showed it to West. He said I’d need parental permission to go. So I phoned my mom back in Atlanta and somehow cajoled her into letting me go to the music festival – if I could get a ride there. I ran back to my cabin and told West, who gave me a wink and said to follow him to a meeting with M.B. Chafin, a University of Florida tennis coach who was camp program director and enforcer of all camp rules and regulations. West stood silently a few feet behind me as I pleaded my case to M.B. who, by the look on his wrinkled, tanned face, had never faced such a bizarre request as a camper needing to leave to attend a rock ’n’ roll festival. He listened as I recalled my brother’s letter, my mom’s granting of permission and my intense desire to witness musical history.
He thought for a moment, then asked, “You have no way to get there from here and I’m sure your mom had that in mind when she said ‘yes.’ ”
At that moment, West cleared his throat.
“Sir, I’ve been thinking about this and since the boy’s mama wants him to go to this rock ’n’ roll festival, I’d be happy to volunteer to drive him there. I’ve got my old station wagon here.”
“That’s it,” M.B. said, losing his patience. “Nobody is leaving camp early to go to a music festival in Georgia.”
I tried to appeal, but West grabbed my shoulder, signaling the time for negotiation was done. I was not amused – even less so when, for the remaining week at camp, whenever I’d run into M.B., he’d cock his head to the right, giggle and say, “Rock ’n’ Roll!,” while I’d try not to smile.
Walking back from our meeting with M.B., West tried to cheer me up: “I may have another adventure for you. Have you ever had a beer?”
“No,” I said, excitedly. When we got back to the cabin, he pulled me and a taller cabin-mate aside and whispered to us:
“Late tonight, long after the other boys go to bed, I’ll drive my station wagon up here to the dam and park with my date. That always drives M.B. crazy. I’ll take a little walk with my date and you boys sneak down, open the back door and you’ll find a floor full of empty beer cans. In that mess, you may find one full one. Don’t tell anyone about this …”
We did just as West said and we buried the can behind our cabin. The next afternoon, after dinner, we dug the can out and enjoyed our first taste of a beer. It tasted awful!
As it turned out, the second and final Atlanta International Pop Festival was a legendary musical gathering with nearly 400,000 people attending. A great photographic archive by Earl McGeehee is available online, as are some musical recordings and videos of the event. Showtime two years ago released a documentary of Jimi Hendrix’s performance there, his last American concert before his death.
The event was marred by days of 100-plus degree heat, long concession lines and not enough water. Some who attended said I should be glad I missed it, but I’ve always felt as if I did miss out. I was reminded of this era when Cameron Crowe released the wonderful film “Almost Famous,” about his own 13-year-old adventure following a composite group named Stillwater, based mostly on his following the Allman Brothers around. Years later, Gregg Allman confirmed the famous scene of the band member jumping into a pool from a roof was based on an antic involving his brother Duane Allman that Crowe witnessed. Crowe’s original Rolling Stone article is available here.
I left my final session at Camp Carolina a week following my meeting with West and M.B. I said goodbye to West and all the other campers and returned to Atlanta. The old original cabins have since been moved to a new location further outside Brevard. My lifetime interest in beer, The Allman Brothers and similar activities was just beginning and would only grow throughout my life. While I have previously and perhaps will write again about The Allman Brothers Band in future columns, it was decades until I ever saw my favorite counselor of all time, West Oehmig, again. By then, his legend had only enlarged over time.
Four years following my time at Camp Carolina, I myself was a first-year college student at the University of Virginia and was touring fraternities as part of rush. When I walked in the 1902 neo-federal St. Anthony Hall, I looked at the old black-and-white photos of brothers past that lined the hallway walls. I was stunned to find there, in one photo, the familiar face of West Oehmig, standing in the next to last row of the group photo, looking out from his group of contemporary brothers, seeming as if he was in charge of the house in a previous decade. Legend has it his persona filled the tall, paneled party rooms in a manner few others ever have, before or since. I wasn’t a witness to his holding court during his college years there, but I would join The Hall, as we so preciously called it, four years later.
I don’t believe I was the best student to rush a fraternity as I wasn’t as engaged or outgoing as other candidates. Sometimes, when I’d struggle to find interesting topics to keep brothers at The Hall interested in talking with me, I’d ask if they knew West Oehmig and their interest would suddenly be sparked again.
“He was my counselor and gave me my first beer!” I’d say. If they were still listening, I’d tell the story of how we almost went together to the music festival, trading as best I could on his fine name.
In April 2015, when I attended the 155th reunion at The Hall, I was walking down that same hallway with old photos and heard West’s inimitable voice. There he was, with brother Gilbert Butler, whose time in college overlapped us both.
“West Oehmig!” I said. “You were my counselor at Camp Carolina. Do you remember when …”
“Schroder,” he said, looking off. “Atlanta, right?” I was amazed he remembered me at all.
Two months ago, I was saddened to read a Facebook post by one of my fraternity brothers that West had died. West’s obituary referenced his “daring and occasionally dangerous revelry” at Virginia. I only wished I had known him during those or intervening years. I was out of town for his funeral, but many great stories were told – and I wish I’d been there to add this one.
Great article chris
Great REMINISCENCE….when I saw the inner sleeve photo of the band sans SWIMSUITS from the first ALBUM, I thought for sure you were going to tell The story of the aborted booking of the Allman Bros. At WESTMINSTER for a spring dance. I have always understood ( though scoot dimon can no doubt verify) That we negotiated two 45 minute sets for $2000. This came from the boys school REps. The girls school wanted the o’kasions (one hit wonders with “i’m a girl watcher”). MS.Nonie ( sp?), head of social activities, nixed the ALLMAN BROThers When she came across the above photo of the band in the CREEK ( I wish Phil had been right about the photo being rejected by the LABEL). At any rate, we ended up doing the boogaloo, or some such nonsense, to “girl watcher” which the band played at least three times during the night my junior year in high school.
P.S. I too missed the ATL pop festivsl. in my case it was because I was grounded for staying out past midnight on a week night attending a who concert at the municipal auditorium downtown. Technical problems delayed the show so they announced they would perform “Tommy” from start yo finish to reward the audience’s patience. I got home at 2 a.m. and my permission to go to the festival Was promptly rescinded.
Not Exactly. It Wasn’t THE Girls That Highlighted The ABB INDISCRETION. I’ll Leave It To THE History Gods TO Pass Final Judgement On Whether That WAS One Of THE Most Devastating Disappointments Of Our Young LIVES….AND Who Might Bear The Guilt.
Great story, Chris. At 14, I did attend the AIPF with Jere Wells and his father, a physician who worked the first aid tent. We stayed at an I-75 motel where the pool turned a sickening shade of gray due to about 100 kids bathing in it. In the morning, we drove Dr. Wells’ Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon through the middle of the crowd. I’ll never forget the hollow-eyed stares. I don’t remember much music because Jere and I had to check in with Dr. Wells often and were frankly pretty overwhelmed. Almost all of the many medical problems were drug overdose related. That experience stuck with me!
It is interesting to note in the photo the decline in membership at The Hall because of the social unrest of the period. Thankfully, by the time we got there things had changed a bunch!
Wes was everyhing you’ve described and more . I knew Wes from junior high school on . He was an upper classman at Baylor school wHen i attended but he always treated me fairly . He was bigger than life then and always . He will be sorely missed !
What a wonderful, evocative story, Chris. Thanks for posting. I could feel your pain at missing that concert.
My little brother was in St. A’s at Penn. What a great group of friends he had there. I still correspond with many of them even though my dear brother has been gone for 15 years now.
Loved that article, and as Chris knows, I was lucky enough to make it to that legenda Pop fe Festival…3 amazing days of music!!🐯🍑
I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed your article today. I’m a bit younger than you — Kenyon College ’91 — but was and still am a big Allman Brothers Band fan. As a freshman in college, I was in awe of a couple of the older guys in my fraternity (AD) that were big Allman Bros fans. Somewhat like you described your West Oehmig, those Jrs and Srs were like gods to me. I remember hanging out in their in rooms with tie-dyed tapestries listening to the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, Stones, Yes, and others drinking a lot of beer. Or we would put the speakers in the windows pointing outside — back when stereo speakers were yuuuuge — and play ultimate (frisbee) in the quad… Anyway, your piece was a lot of fun today — thanks for sharing. I wish I had seen the Allmans in concert, and I wish I could have met West…
I’m Tom Dennard from Brunswick, Georgia. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the piece you wrote about the Allman Brothers. I was there for the Atlanta Rock Festival in Byron in 1970. The year before, I was devastated when I’d watched my friends driving away for Woodstock without me, because I had a commitment I couldn’t break. I vowed to never miss another rock festival, and I did hit most of them after that. Byron had the big names like B.B.King, Procul Harem, Rare Earth, Bob Seger, Johnny Winters and a host of others, not to mention Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at midnight on July 4th with all the fireworks. The big names played on the main stage. They had a smaller stage back in the woods for the bands who weren’t ready for prime time. That’s where the Allman Brothers played. A couple of years before (either ’68 or’69) I’d been asked to be a chaperone at a high school dance on Jekyll Island. They said they had a “live band.” I asked them who it was. They said The Allman Brothers. I’d never heard of them. I’ll never forget walking onto the dance floor and hearing those guys playing on stage. I couldn’t believe how good they were. I remember telling those high school boys who asked me to come that this band might one day become famous.
Thanks for a good read.
Founder and Owner of The Hostel in the Forest, Brunswick, Georgia http://www.foresthostel.com
Chris, That is a great story you wrote about West Oehmig! I loved that “Old Cock”. How fortunate to have a camp counselor with such a soul as his. I got to spend an hour with him at the 155th sitting on Sandy Stuart’s porch that Sat afternoon. Alas, the last time I saw him was at King’s funeral wake in ‘nooga and we all were in top form as all good Hall bros were shown where to find the beer, nice and cold. West’s love was larger than his face by far!