What band is the movie almost famous based on
This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the 20th anniversary of almost famous.
one of them jumped from a hotel balcony into a swimming pool. another almost missed a ride on the tour bus after getting sidetracked to an after-show party. they met groupies and participated in their share of the party along the way, with a newspaper headline declaring that the gang “runs deep”.
if you think that sounds like stillwater, the fictional band of almost famous, you’re right. But those tales also apply to a real-life group of the same name that existed during the same period, but were obscure enough that even Cameron Crowe doesn’t remember much about them. The real Still Water didn’t travel in a private plane and never did the rolling stone cover, like Crowe’s fake road dogs did. But during the 1970s, they achieved minor chart success and released two albums on the same label as other southern rockers like the Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker’s Band.
and like his hollywood namesake, stillwater turned to rock & roll the fame, but never got there. “We were almost famous,” says guitarist Mike Causey. “so I guess that’s the similarity.”
by the standards of rock & of the seventies; roll, the still water should have left more of an impression. Most of the members grew up in and around Warner Robins, Georgia, a small town outside of Macon best known as the home of Robin Air Force Base. They got their start in rock and soul bands and worshiped The Doors, Eric Clapton and all the classic rockers whose music impacted that generation. Lead singer Jimmy Hall listened to Joe Cocker and decided that was what he wanted to do for a living.
In 1972, Causey met guitarist Bobby Golden at the University of Georgia. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to retire and start a band, in which they were joined by Hall; drummer and sometimes singer Sebie Lacey; keyboardist bob spearman; and, eventually, bassist allison “al” scarborough. many in the band had known each other, or of each other, since their high school days. Inspired in part by the name of Golden’s previous band, Coldwater Army, Causey suggested calling them Stillwater. “We were sitting in my kitchen and I threw it away, and everyone thought it was good, so we just stuck with it,” Causey says. “I took it off the air.”
share a house in the vicinity of kathleen, stillwater paid textbook rock & installment roll. They played local bars, going to concerts at Lacey’s Pontiac, and eventually became the house band at Uncle Sam, a prominent club in Macon. They couldn’t have picked a better time and place to start. Southern fried rock, with its guitar solos, tousled hair, and proudly regional swagger, was at its height, and Macon-based Capricorn Records was the center of the music.
one night in 1974 at uncle sam’s house, producer tom dowd, who had worked with allmans and eric clapton, met stillwater; people around him literally begged him to record one of his demos. dowd got them into the studio early one morning, before a session by other local stars, wet willie, even though that meant the musicians had to wake up at an ungodly hour.
Nothing came of the demo, but stillwater soon added another guitarist, german-born rob walker, to make them a brawny three-guitar army in the style of lynyrd skynyrd and the outlaws. Gradually, renowned locals began to take notice. “His songs weren’t just your typical southern rock or blues,” says Jimmy Hall (no relation) of Wet Willie. “and the way they presented the guitars really put them together with us, the marshall tucker band and the allman brothers. but they were different in a cool way.”
In a later nationally syndicated newspaper article, plaintively headlined “Stillwater Rock Band Begins To Make Waves,” Golden argued that the band’s music “is not the staple Southern boogie that people associate with cowboy hats and drinking beer and making a fuss.” The writer agreed, calling them “somewhere between a hard blues sound and heavy metal.” The same story claimed that Crowe had once made a joke about still water, saying they should have been nicknamed the “Damp Tucker Brothers.” in light of those similarities. (Crowe doesn’t remember the comment and has said that he based his stillwater on several bands he interviewed in the 1970s, including led zeppelin and the allmans).
every summer, capricorn would host a barbecue that became one of rock’s favorite events. In any given year, you could see Allmans or Elvin Bishop on stage, partake of free weed handed out in plastic bags, and gawk at visitors from Andy Warhol to Bette Midler. At Uncle Sam over the holidays in 1976, the BBC filmed Quietwater for its Old Gray Whistle Test series, broadcasting its triple guitar rock to the world. By then, Capricorn’s boss, Phil Walden, was managing Stillwater, along with Golden’s father, and Walden signed them to his label. The band was paired with producer Buddy Buie, who would rack up hits with the Atlanta rhythm section (“So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover”) and had co-written the 1960s hits “Spooky” and “Stormy.” >
At the end of one session, Buie suggested to Walker that they write a song about a talking guitar that would use the “talk box” effect then in vogue thanks to Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh. “I didn’t know what to think,” Walker says of the idea. “It was nice out there.” the two men quickly penned “mind bender,” a cocky blues with some of the strangest lyrics ever heard on a pop single. “I wasn’t high or drinking/when I heard that talking guitar say,” the song goes, followed by a voice sung through a dialogue box: “my dad was a gibson/my mom was a fender/that’s why call me mind bender.”
In July 1977, Capricorn released Stillwater, which included not only “Mind Bender,” but also songs that showcased his other influences: acoustic fingerpicking on “April Love,” a bit of boz scaggs r&b on “universal fool” and a dash of ars-style pop on “rock-n-roll loser.” The nearly 10-minute “Sam’s Jam,” inspired by his dues-paying nights at that club, showed his penchant for extremely long guitar solos.
Later that year, the Allmans collapsed and Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered a plane crash that killed several of its members. perhaps, some thought, still waters could fill the void. Their booking agency, Paragon, arranged for them to open for Foreigner, the Charlie Daniels Band and other big headliners of the day, though few thought they’d open for long. “they are going to be stars,” announced the atlanta journal-constitution. catch them while you can.
even before stillwater took their rock-smorgasbord sound on the road, they had their share of adventures, like the night in florida when lacey had time to kill before a show and decided to take a dip in the hotel pool, one floor at a time. “I kept climbing and jumping,” she recalls. “I went up to the third floor and thank God I jumped into the pool. I broke the whole butt of my pants.” Lacey is well aware that the moment echoes the “golden god” scene in Almost Famous. “People say, ‘Now which one were you?'” she says. “I say, ‘Well, that guy who jumped in the pool. I was young and crazy.” he only stopped after a distraught maiden begged him not to jump any farther, fearing that he would seriously injure himself.
Promoting their first album, they toured the country in a movie-style tour bus and say the almost famous‘s portrayals of life on and off stage were true to their experience . “I don’t remember thinking the press was the enemy, but all that behind-the-scenes stuff was real,” Walker says. “The movie really hit the nail on the head: the dynamic of a band, the worldly quality of some of them, everyone traveling together, the scenes on the bus. it was all pretty accurate.” (However, there was no “little ballerina” singing; Walker identifies the song as “really poppy”).
To play their best, Stillwater made a pact to party only after shows. Other bands thought the oath was “just weird,” Scarborough says, but Stillwater was determined to stick to it, even though they enjoyed the perks of their job once their gigs were over. in 1977, a tampa tribune reporter who was with them backstage noted that “a friendly woman reappeared, who had earlier invited everyone to a party at a nearby lodging. the band members, anonymous for their own protection, made farewell sounds. ‘There are some perks to being on tour,’ one member said.” One night on the way home, Stillwater sneaked up on a car of young female fans in the next lane and ended up stopping, sharing some beer, then following them to New Orleans, arriving in Georgia much later than the planned. so did stillwater have their own version of penny lane? “Well,” Lacey drawls, “we had many versions of things.”
but just like manufactured still water, the real thing didn’t achieve stardom. “Mind Bender” began to make noise on the charts, nearly breaking into the top 40. But a few days into his first tour, opening for the Outlaws, a truck containing all of his gear was stolen in Chicago. all that was left was a dirty pair of sneakers belonging to a member of the band. After a depressed trip back home to Georgia, Stillwater had to wait about a month before new funding and equipment arrived. “It was kind of messy,” Scarborough says. “We had a hit record and we couldn’t take it.”
To make things more infuriating, Capricorn Records found a new distributor shortly after the release of stillwater. during that business change, copies of the album were hard to find, and promotional efforts briefly halted. “We were playing somewhere,” recalls Golden, “and a rep [from the first distributor] came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I got a call today to have my flat water chilled.’” it wasn’t like that either. It helps that some of the “mind bender” promo singles were accidentally pressed as “stillwater art” after someone at the label misread “artist: stillwater.” “Capricorn was very good to us,” Walker says, “but this was just one example of a spinal tap moment we experienced.”
In a more positive development, a six-flag amusement park in Atlanta unveiled “the world’s only triple loop roller coaster” and called it a mindbender. stillwater were invited to put on a show in the park and take a launch ride. “In fact, we were allowed to get on the master of the mind before the performance,” Walker remembers fondly, even if the scene also had spinal tap overtones. “we were the only ones in it.”
stillwater turned up the volume on their second album, 1978’s i reserve the right. the title track with a skynyrd nod and “keep me alive” downplayed southern influences in favor of A more conventional hard rock sound, and Yate’s slow, rocky beat “Mujeres (Beautiful Women)”, sung sincerely by Lacey, struck them as a potential hit. “That’s when disco started to appear,” says Scarborough. “We tried to be a bit more synth-oriented. we were trying to mix rock & roll and soul and disco.” But as they opened for cars in Boston, they began to realize their style was on the wane. The fans were polite, Dorados remembers, but not much more: “they were waiting for the cars. I don’t know if they were our fans.”
The album tanked, not helped by the surprisingly rapid decline of Capricorn records. when the music business crashed in 1979, the label fell heavily into debt and was unable to repay a loan to its parent company. Walden and the company filed for bankruptcy. Some from Stillwater attended court hearings and were dismayed by what they saw and heard. “We moved away from that thought, ‘That’s it, we’re done,'” says Hall, who left the band in 1980. His wife was pregnant and he realized he had to earn more than the $100 a week he earned. won. with still water.
The band continued, hiring a new drummer (David Heck) so that Lacey could handle more lead vocals. But his tribulations weren’t over: When another major label approached them with a new deal, they turned it down to consider an offer with another Colorado-based record company, where they briefly relocated. but in the end, neither materialized.
Back home, they found less and less glamorous performances. in 1983, they landed a job in what turned out to be a backwater bar. “He went from clubs to concerts and then back to clubs and bars,” Walker says with a sigh. At that moment, they knew it was all over and it was time, as Scarborough says, to “let it go.”
the members of stillwater made the transition to a new and very different music than rock & roll lives. versus paying bills and supporting families, they variously worked in advertising sales, box making, carpet installation, electrical engineering, and postal service; Walker joined the Air Force Band. “We had to find something else to do,” Causey says. “It was a little disappointing, but you felt like you tried your best. It was, you know, welcome to the real world.”
To maintain his skills and keep the music alive, stillwater met almost every year at a local club. In 1998, they self-released runnin’ free, based largely on songs they had recorded before their breakup but ended 15 years later. the release made up for the fact that the master tapes for their first two albums disappeared along the way and weren’t available in any format for decades.
In the year 2000, Lacey, then (as now) running a successful dry-cleaning business in Warner Robins, was home with her family when the phone rang. On the line was an executive from the multi-tentacled entertainment company Dreamworks. “She said, ‘We’ve been trying to get in touch with the guys from Stillwater,'” she recalls. “I thought someone was kidding me.” When she asked how she found him, she replied that there weren’t many people named Sebie Lacey in Kathleen, Georgia.
What Lacey and her bandmates didn’t know was that while Almost Famous was winding down, Dreamworks had to make sure the rights and permissions were in place. They had gone looking for the real Penny Lane and received approval to use her name, but that investigation also led them to discover that there was also a gang called Stillwater.
The news even surprised Crowe, who had no clear memory of them and says he chose the name for other reasons. “I thought [the name] was a not-so-subtle comment that the band was possibly stuck,” he laughs. “I liked the idea of Russell Hammond taking on a band that had a name that was like, you know, water full of algae. I thought it was funny and ironic.”
dreamworks assured the members of stillwater that the film would not embarrass them, and to prove it, they sent them parts of the script. Fortunately, the band loved the film and found it even more authentic than they imagined. “People were like, ‘Is it based on you guys?'” Causey says. “We said, ‘They just used the name.’ it is funny. you’ve been associated with that your whole life and seeing it [on film] was wild.”
stillwater hoped that some of their recordings would be used on the soundtrack, but were told that the songs (some written by heart’s nancy wilson) were locked. but they asked for and received financial compensation for the use of her name. , though it wasn’t exactly the corporate windfall some might have hoped for: They were paid $5,000, divided into seven parts. “Think about it,” Lacey sighs. “Was I thinking, or what? but we saw it as if she could help us get things back on track, and she did. We get a lot of buzz from that.”
at least, lacey was not wrong about the rumor, which then spread on social media. “You started seeing a lot more of these conversations where people were like, ‘I heard there’s a real band,'” Walker says. “a lot of misinformation, but it was good. It was exciting. people suddenly heard about us for the first time.” they still play an occasional reunion concert in their area, albeit without Lancer, who died of cancer in 2003; Hall survived a bout with cancer and only makes occasional appearances with them.
None of the Stillwater members plan to quit their day jobs, but at least they have their memories: Gregg Allman accidentally spilled a glass of whiskey on one of their speakers and promised to replace it. (the stillwater roadies were finally able to fix it). bo diddley played so loud with them at uncle sam’s that, as lacey puts it, he had to have emergency surgery the next day to remove his appendix (“bo diddley rocked him with that bomp-a-bomp- bomp,” he half-jokes). or the night the crowd went wild for them in san francisco’s winterland, when they were opening for charlie daniels. “i felt like, ‘hey, they’re getting what they we’re trying to do here,'” lacey recalls. “that’s all it is. it didn’t make it all the way to the top, but it worked somewhere.”