One thing I learned while living in Georgia is that Mama Louise always took care of her boys.
The passing of Gregg Allman this month brings back memories of fried chicken, greens and an overpainted Coca-Cola sign in the old downtown district of Macon, Ga. Inside the doorway was the small H&H Restaurant, where Mama Louise, owner of the shotgun-sized restaurant, opened her heart to a penniless and hungry group of musicians trying to make a hit record at the Capricorn Records studio on the next block over.
As The Allman Brothers Band struggled to create a breakout sound in 1970, it stumbled into the nearby restaurant with money to buy two dinners. The band, however, consisted of a half-dozen hungry stomachs.
Mama Louise took pity on the boys. She told them to sit down and eat. They could settle up one day when they made it big. Truth is, she never really expected to be repaid, only to take care of someone in need. Her heart was as heaping as the servings you would find on your plate.
Macon is halfway between Atlanta and Savannah — or close enough to call it so. The H&H Restaurant became a beacon for Allman Brothers’ fans who would be passing through. Located alongside a worn city street, the rusted newspaper rack outside the front door attracted more attention than the small 4-foot by 3-foot Coca-Cola sign hanging outside. I once drove around the block several times before I ever discovered the front door.
Parking was difficult and the hours limited. Until her death, Mama Louise could be found in the kitchen making up the day’s specials for the regulars — none of whom were musicians. Her menu was a classic soul food mix — or “meat and three” as they are known throughout the South. And the fried chicken would stay with your soul long after the city limits had faded in your rearview mirror.
Truth is, I found the H&H closed as many times as it was open. If you were ever going to eat there, you had to make surgical strike plans to arrive during the brief hours of operation. The small sliver of fame never changed the restaurant’s calling — to be open when the locals were hungry for lunch.
Inside, you’d find standard-issue red vinyl chairs, well-worn tables that tilted under your elbow, and possibly the greatest authentic and personal collection of Allman Brothers items in the world.
The band never let the kindness of Mama Louise fade as its fame exploded. I remember staring at gold records on the yellow walls of the restaurant, personally signed to Mama Louise, concert posters and other one-of-a kind items given to her over the years.
And the remarkable thing is, the hangings were in no way presented for any commercial gain. A photo of guitarist Duane Allman hung below a picture of Mary Magdalene and near one of Jesus tending a flock of sheep. The boys were simply another part of Mama Louise’s extended family.
But the kindness from the boys extended beyond wall hangings. The band took care of her the rest of her life. They would fly her to concerts, putting a special chair off stage for her. They even hired Mama Louise as the official cook for their 1972 tour, however, never asking her to raise a spoon.
On one visit, I snuck back to the cramped kitchen to discover Mama Louise sitting in her chair, leaning forward, and focused on peeling vegetables into a bucket. She looked up and smiled and, as quickly, went back to her humble task. Yes, she was personal friends with one of the most celebrated bands of all time, but in 20 minutes hungry souls would be coming through the doors needing something to eat.
There are hundreds of off-the-book tales of how the band kept in touch with Mama Louise — from special birthday parties to visits. But as big as the band became, they never forgot the woman who took them off the streets and into her kitchen. Mama Louise never forgot her boys, and the boys never forgot her kindness.
Mama Louise died in 2007 at the age of 94. She was in the kitchen.