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The LIfe and TImes of Chank

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BY CANDICE DYER

PHOTOS COURTESY THE BIG HOUSE MUSEUM & GILBERT LEE

I’m not a musician,” he says. “I can’t play, sing, or write songs. I was just a friend who got entwined and ended up on this ride, and I’m still on it because we were always more like brothers than friends.”   

He was shining shoes, “trying to make a quarter,” at a barbershop when he first glimpsed members of the newly-formed Allman Brothers Band, trailing their long, cornsilk hair behind them, in the spring of 1969.

“That was the first anybody ’round here had seen of hippies, and all the brothers in the barbershop started running to the window and staring, yelling, ‘Look at the hippies!’” says Hewell Middleton Jr., wincing at the memory. “I didn’t go look. I figured if they were hippies in Macon, Georgia, they’d run into enough trouble and embarrassment without me gawking at ’em.”

           Middleton — better known as “Chank” — was right. These shaggy rockers who had ridden into town on some sort of rented mule from Florida were not welcomed.“Those guys would walk down two blocks lined by solid, hard-core rednecks at the pool halls and liquor stores,” he says, “and the rednecks would yell in high voices, ‘Hey, baby, what’s happening?’ Making fun of them ’cause they had that long hair, like they were women.”

           As it turned out, the invading hippies were loping directly toward Chank. That barbershop was fortuitously located next to a building owned by impresario Phil Walden, who had successfully promoted Otis Redding before his fatal plane crash, and now was chasing after a new sound and talking about starting a record company. Chank, who was just out of Ballard-Hudson high school, was a thoughtful young man, “heavy into jazz – Coltrane, Monk, Cannonball Adderley, those cats,” he says. So he shrugged at the newcomers.

“Phil was converting an upholstery shop into a studio, and it didn’t have air conditioning or Coke machines,” Chank says. “Our shop did, so the band would come to our place, and we’d talk, laugh, bullshit. For weeks, Duane kept inviting me to listen to them rehearse; I wasn’t sure if he was serious about wanting me there. But one day, after he insisted, I finally went, and when I opened that thick-ass door, they were playing ‘Whipping Post.’ It was a sound I’d never heard before. I said to myself: ‘These white boys are playing this shit?!’  Wasn’t nobody anywhere in the world making that kind of music. I fell in love with that sound. From then on, whenever somebody needed shoes shined, I had to be dragged away from my spot in the studio.”

It is a testament to the virtuosic, insinuating,  and abiding power of the Allman Brothers Band that many of us have heard those spiraling, physics-defying jams (and their many imitations) so many times that we no longer even notice the music, or recognize how shatteringly original it was at the time. While those “rednecks” were making catcalls at the “hippies,” this young African-American man enjoyed a front-row seat at the birth of Southern Rock at Capricorn Records. Chank was reeling from other revelatory dynamics, too, though, that moved him at least as much as the music.

“They had a black drummer,” he says, referring to Jaimoe Johnson. “What I really liked about them was – you have to know how prejudiced Macon was then – they took this black guy into their fold, and it was so obvious they loved him like a brother. I thought, ‘These are not your regular white guys.’”

In fact, during that divisive era, when Jim Crow laws still lingered like the smell of cordite, the Brothers sincerely revered the brothers. Their charismatic leader, Duane Allman, had been bending notes in the relatively colorblind Muscle Shoals studio, and the fair-haired younger one, Gregory Lenoir Allman, around 21 at the time and looking like a fallen angel – a Botticelli by way of Daytona Beach — would eat pork-lubed country cooking to lend “soul” to his vocals.

 “Pretty soon, all that bad feeling passed about the band and hippies and black and white,” Chank says, “and Macon and the rest of the world opened their arms to the Allman Brothers and other things. Between the Allman Brothers and the Byron Pop Festival, things changed. The band shook ’em all to the core, and things changed.”

Chank laces his long, coffee-colored fingers together, and nods, conveying a world of meaning – things changed for the band, the town, the country, for all of us. They changed for some of the reasons that he became a fan, and eventually one of the most enduring, and endearing, insiders in the tumultuous group’s inner circle. “Chank is an unusual kind of person,” says Newton Collier, who played horns for Sam & Dave. “He’s always been the glue that holds everybody together.” And it’s no secret that the Allman Brothers have required plenty of adhesive. Over the years, Chank has served as muse, crisis responder, aide-de-camp, valet, wing-man, and confidante, and today he cites his occupation as “personal assistant” to Gregg Allman – “G.A” to other members of the entourage, but the more formal “Gregory” to Chank.

“I’m not a musician,” he says. “I can’t play, sing, or write songs. I was just a friend who got entwined and ended up on this ride, and I’m still on it because we were always more like brothers than friends.”

Hewell, pronounced “Hugh-ELL,” Middleton, 63, was born in the Bellevue neighborhood, where he still resides today, into a large and ambitious family (His sister is politico Terri Tripp.) “My granddad on my dad’s side is white, and my great-grandma was full-blooded Cherokee, and that’s a helluva mixture.” This lineage gave him vaguely Asian-looking facial features. “My paternal grandmother starting calling me ‘Chank’ because I look Chinese,” he says.

That fateful spring when he met the band, he first bonded most intensely with Duane Allman.

“He was such a natural leader, had so much presence that you and everybody else wanted to follow him,” Chank says. “He was always asking me and everybody else to look after his little brother, though. He was all about Gregory, not himself. It was like Duane had this sense that he wouldn’t live that much longer; he told me his days were numbered on this earth, and Gregory has always been so shy and vulnerable.”

Sure enough, Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971. Today, his kid brother still can’t talk about that tragedy without choking up.

“I fell apart,” Gregg Allman says. “Chank was the first person I met outside the studio in Macon, and we hadn’t known each other that long. He was right there for me, when…,” he pauses to collect himself, “I lost my brother. He was there, and I was lucky that he was there.”

About a year later, the band’s bassist, Berry Oakley also was killed on his motorcycle, near the scene of Duane Allman’s wreck.

“There was a lot of weird shit happening,” Chank says, “spooky coincidences. It was a real struggle for all of us.”

In keeping with those hedonistic times and the longstanding proclivities of the music industry, drugs and alcohol were always plentiful, and Chank became addicted to heroin.

 “I got strung out, had that spike in my arm,” “Look, we were all junkies back then, either selling it or buying it. I did both.”

Chank, though, got caught and spent more than a year in prison. “Seven or eight months in South Georgia, on a straight chain-gang, and the rest of the time in Buford.”

His experience inspired the song and album title “Win, Lose or Draw.”

“I’d been out of prison a couple of months in 1974, and ran into Gregory,” Chank says. “He told me to start talking about what I’d been through, so I did, and he started writing, and that song came out of that.”

That would not be the last album he inspired.

“I remember first meeting Chank, when he had this gigantic afro,” says quirky rocker Col. Bruce Hampton, who was part of the Capricorn stable and wrote the tribute song “Give thanks to Chank” – the title track of that album.  “Chank was always wise beyond his years. He’s a cross between Richard Pryor and Mark Twain. I wrote that song about him because he makes me smile — not laugh, but smile.”

 Out of prison, Chank joined Allman for a spree in Los Angeles, where he played another pivotal role for his buddy: Cupid. They were at a nightclub where Etta James was performing when Gregory scribbled a flowery love note and instructed a reluctant Chank to deliver it to Cher’s table. Thus began a whirlwind romance, and an on-again, off-again marriage, that sent tabloids into a frenzy, resulted in a son (Elijah Blue), and brought the glamorous Cher to live for awhile in Macon before she and Allman split up

Around the mid-1970s, the band was unraveling messily amid substance abuse, artistic differences, and legal woes. Chank remained stalwart as always, and Allman rewarded him with a new Corvette. “I asked him years later how he knew I liked ’vettes, and he told me he noticed I would turn my head to look every time I saw one. Gregory pays close attention to everything, more than people realize.”

Nevertheless, Chank, a “homebody,” felt burned out. “The road is not for everybody,” he says. “The ones that it’s for, them people got Gypsy blood or something. Any time you spend that much time away from home, you’re living an abnormal life. I’m like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – ain’t no place like home.”

He checked into detox, and then began using Methadone. He gradually weaned off it, he says, milligram by milligram, until he was clean in 1976. “I said, ‘To hell with that shit!’ I told the people at the clinic, ‘Y’all won’t be seeing me back here again.”

And they did not. Chank settled into a calmer lifestyle and a job in the supply department of Brown & Williamson. Capricorn sound wizard Johnny Sandlin had introduced him to reggae, and he went from afro to dreadlocks and began amassing Bob Marley T-shirts – 300+ and counting. (His only casual-wear minus Marley usually features Nelson Mandela.)

Much to Chank’s surprise, Allman persuaded President Jimmy Carter – whose campaign had benefited from the band’s fund-raising support — to grant his friend a pardon for his drug sentence. “The whole time I was at Brown & Williamson – more than 20 years — Gregory and I talked every month,” he says. “He was always after me to come back on the road with him. I liked being home, though.”

Nevertheless, after taking early retirement from Brown & Williamson, Chank returned to his full-time role as personal assistant to Allman in 2005. “Back in the day, they called me their ‘travel director,’ but that was a sham – we were partying,” Chank says. Today, though, he helps Allman forge through the kind of health issues that come with a graying ponytail and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle — chiefly a liver transplant and its complications.

“The Blade – I call him that because he’s so skinny – is my dearest and oldest friend,” Allman says, over the phone from the Mayo Clinic, where his new organ is under inspection before he and Chank embark on a trip to Australia. “He’s one of those people-treasures you’re lucky to stumble across at just the right time in your life. Recently we were trying to think if we’d ever had an argument in the 45 years we’ve known each other, and we haven’t – nothing important enough to verbalize, anyway. Everybody needs a best friend. He’s mine.”

Adds Chank, “Even in this day and age, some people can’t believe a white man and a black man can be close friends. People call me his ‘driver.’ Shit! I was never his driver. This is not some ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ bullshit. We are friends who’ve been through a lot, and that runs deep.”

After reflecting again on Duane Allman’s long-ago injunction to take care of his little brother, Chank says, “I didn’t realize that Gregory is actually older than I am until his 50th birthday party. I always assumed I was older. Ain’t that some shit?”

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