Phil Walden: Flip Side
There’s a theory that Southern rock “n” roll never really died. We just stopped making it. Now the music and the man are back from the brink.
Atlanta Magazine | August 1993
Phil Walden never killed anyone. He never was arrested. He never sold any drugs. And for a man inclined to Armani suits and smooth Mercedes comfort, it remains of some importance that he never did sleep in a gutter; although he says that by the time he finally sobered up, he had begun to notice those people, looking for a friend.
So, all in all, Phil Walden considers himself lucky. He feels fortunate to still have a family, to be working again at the only job he has ever loved, and to have escaped final notation in the annals of American music as the Southern record label president who once stood tall as a Georgia pine, and then fell forever between the quickly turning pages of rock ’n’ roll history. Blessed, he says, to have ever been a part of that history at all.
Since his college days at Mercer University in Macon, Walden had ridden the tail fins of skyrocket personalities. As a freshman, he founded his first company, Phil Walden Artists & Promotions, and in a matter of years, it became the largest independent booker of R&B and soul musicians and singers in the world. By the time he was 30, Walden had founded the South’s premier label, Capricorn Records. He had discovered pivotal talents in American music, most notably Otis Redding and Duane Allman. As record label president, his musical pedigree included 19 gold, 10 platinum, and six multiple-platinum album awards, 12 gold single awards, artistic collaboration with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and entry into Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World. At 35, Walden even played a role in getting a Georgia governor elected president. By then, Walden was certain he, too, was a man of destiny.
But by the time people began to call Phil Walden a living legend, he had fallen from being the recording industry’s bulletproof comer to an estranged and despondent man, sitting alone on the edge of his bed and fondling a revolver.
In the gun’s dead weight lay his own burden of lost opportunity, misfigured decisions, screwed-up family relations and fading glory. Very sad, everyone said. Broken down in his early 40s. Well, Phil Walden would show them, he thought. Phil Walden was about showing people things. But as a thousand tiny nerve endings in his forehead tingled at the barrel’s presence, he just sat there, too strung out on cocaine and cognac to show anybody anything anymore, and too scared to pull the trigger.
AFTER ONE OF THE gloomiest winters in memory, Music City, U.S.A., is finally in bloom. Phil Walden has folded back the ragtop on his Mercedes 380SL, one of two in the garage of his turn-of-the-century, white-columned home. The iron security gate at the end of his driveway is standing open, and he motors into this God-sent Tennessee afternoon a 53-year-old Southerner of refinement and modest luxury, with both hands on the wheel.
He wears newfound success as easily as a stylish summer blazer and, in fact, is driving over to his clothier of choice to browse among the Rene Lezard and Armani threads. The stylish clothes, the home, the car—all are reminders of his mid-’70s heyday as president of the original Capricorn Records in Macon. He had a grand house stuffed with Dalis, Picassos and Wyeths; five Siberian huskies stood sentinel. There were trips to Europe and the Caribbean, gigs at New York’s Fillmore East and the great music festivals of Monterey and Watkins Glen. And oh, Lord, the parties. Walden’s annual Capricorn Barbecue & Summer Games extravaganza on the banks of Lake Sinclair was one of the hottest tickets in the entertainment world, a down-home bacchanalia covered by the BBC and Japanese film crews that attracted big shots of The Business by the hundreds, and luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Don King, Bette Midler and Jimmy Carter.
“You know,” he comments above the quiet whir of the Benz, “there’s a theory that Southern rock ’n’ roll never really died. We just stopped making it.”
Rock ’n’ roll has always been a series of revolutions and revivals. Accordingly, Phil Walden represents a bit of both. As a manager of black musicians and singers in the segregated South of the mid-’60s, he and artists such as Redding played crusading roles in the history of music as one of society’s great integrating forces. And as president of the original Capricorn Records in Macon, which filed Chapter 11 in 1979, Walden was a raucous paradigm of a transitional American decade, one that spun out musical genres as diverse as Southern rock and disco, and gave us societal indicators as disparate as cocaine and the cornpone presidency.
Until now, no major record label has ever returned from bankruptcy. And in reviving Capricorn, Walden is staking his own musical resurrection partly on the belief that rock ’n’ roll’s historical Southern ports of Macon, Shreveport, Memphis and Muscle Shoals are today Atlanta, Athens and Nashville. But more important is his instinct that after a decade of musical contrivances in the ’80s, real music—real rock ’n’ roll—might just be starting to mean something again.
Phil Walden should know. He was rock ’n’ roll’s first target audience, a teenager immersed in the music of early R&B and soul performers—race music, it was called back then. While still in high school, he was scanning the “black section” of The Macon Telegraph for entertainment news, and on Sundays, while his Lanier High peers were shuffling off to Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y to soak up good Christian values, Walden was sneaking across the street to Municipal Auditorium for concerts by fellow Maconite Little Richard.
In 1955, the few whites who attended such performances sat in the orchestra as a mascaraed and lipsticked Little Richard pounded the keys and sweated onstage, shouting profanities and flaunting his homosexuality between operatic vocals, whipping orgiastic responses out of his audience. It was rock ’n’ roll in embryo, and Phil Walden, who would soon be known around town as “the little white boy who loves black music,” was hooked.
Walden began managing a local R&B act called the Heartbreakers, which consisted of two carhops and a bus station employee. He rehearsed the Heartbreakers in the baggage room of the bus station and entered them in weekly live music contests at a local theater. Macon’s strict segregation laws forced Walden to sit outside and listen to the contest on his car radio.
He listened in awe as the Heartbreakers were regularly outsung by a man calling himself “Rockhouse.” Eventually, Walden met the singer after a performance at a local amusement park. The two became friends, and shortly thereafter Walden opened up Phil Walden Artists & Promotions with a $300 loan. He signed the young man to a management contract. His name was Otis “Rockhouse” Redding, and he helped paint the office.
Walden’s clientele eventually consisted of some of the greatest talents of soul and R&B, including Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave, Al Green, Joe Tex and Clarence Carter, with Redding as his brightest star and closest friend. By 1967, Redding was breaking down walls between black entertainers and white audiences by performing in Europe, where he was virtually canonized, and here in America at university shows and at Monterey. But just as Redding was set to seize the throne of popular music, it was snatched away en route to a December concert at the University of Wisconsin. On his plane’s second approach to the runway, the wings iced up and the 26-year-old star fell like a meteorite into a Northern lake. Redding had recorded his premonitory “Dock of the Bay” just two and a half weeks earlier.
Through his management of Otis Redding, Phil Walden had formed a relationship with Atlantic Records Executive Vice President Jerry Wexler, who subsequently advanced Walden $85,000 to open his own label.
Initially, he had planned to distribute R&B singles, but after Otis Redding’s death, the whole music scene that he had represented, the raw sound of rural black music as distinguished from the urbane and polished Motown artists, had lost its appeal.
During a meeting with another Atlantic producer, Walden heard a tape of Wilson Pickett performing “Hey Jude.” He asked who was the guitarist behind Pickett and was told, “Some longhaired hippie guy down in Muscle Shoals.”
Walden traveled to Muscle Shoals, Ala., and discovered a frail, 22-year-old session artist wearing muttonchops and long reddish hair that drifted down his back. He was called “Sky Man” for his cosmic riffs. But the music world would soon know him as guitar virtuoso Duane Allman.
Three years later Duane Allman flipped his motorcycle off a Macon street and died underneath the wrecked chassis. A year after that, Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley crashed his motorcycle into a bus in nearly the same spot.
Once again, Walden was devastated, but he recalls, “Duane had always told me ‘Don’t count on me. I won’t be around long enough for retirement.’ ”
The band held together, and in fact went on to achieve a popularity that in the mid-’70s rivaled The Grateful Dead’s. At its peak, Capricorn had 26 other acts and was one of the largest independent labels in the country, with a roster that included Livingston Taylor, Razzy Bailey and even comedian Martin Mull. Its strongest image, however, was as a Southern rock ’n’ roll label. With such acts as The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Wet Willie and The Dixie Dregs, it virtually defined the genre.
Capricorn also represented a burgeoning trend in the music industry of the mid-’70s: fast growth and rapid expansion, rivaled only by Walden’s increasing aggressiveness.
“I’m one of the best screamers there ever was, verbally right up there with Muhammad Ali,” says Walden, who had developed an especially pugnacious business style as a white manager of black acts in the segregated South. He’d grabbed deadbeat club owners by the shirt collar; he’d seen guns flashed. His parents, in Macon, got phone calls threatening that “communist, nigger-loving son of yours.”
“And then he gets a future president to look toward rock ‘n’ roll acts to help get him elected,” says Harry Warner, assistant vice president of Nashville’s BMI and a close friend of Walden’s. “If that’s not aggressive… ”
Walden threw Jimmy Carter a series of benefit concerts at a time when the then-governor’s campaign funds were desperately low. In return, the president acknowledged Walden’s keen interest in art and architecture by naming him to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.
But four years later, Carter’s homespun popularity had shriveled like a sun-rotted peach. Southern rock ’n’ roll was falling out of favor, too. Rock music in general, driven by the maturation of ultra-competitive FM radio programming, had fragmented across the dial into punk rock, art rock, glitter rock, Southern rock, acid rock, standard rock, and was about to enter the early ’80s wasteland of just plain bad rock.
“I used to go stand in front of the vanity, night after night, late into the morning. I’d look at myself and say, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to get sober,’ ”
And, oh yes, the entertainment industry had discovered cocaine—one of the reasons, Walden speculates, that music went sour and sitcoms stopped being funny, and the deciding factor in his loss of a company, a family and nearly his sanity.
UNTIL ABOUT 1976 or ’77, music had been the stepchild of Wall Street, compared to movies and television. But with the emergence of disco music and “super” acts like The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and scores of incredibly marketable “hair bands,” the music business was suddenly less an outlet for artistic intent and more a rush to stampede the cash cows.
In 1976, Capricorn’s distribution contract, which had passed from Atlantic to Warner Bros., was up for renegotiation. Warner Bros, offered to buy Capricorn, perhaps with the intent of grooming Phil Walden for an executive slot. But Warner’s rival company, PolyGram, romanced Capricorn with big numbers and fast talk. And Phil Walden—the golden boy of rock ’n’ roll—snubbed Warner Bros.’ conservative offer.
“I relished the tough reputation, the image of the tough negotiator,” says Walden, as he punches his fist in the air. “. . . And I had a very high opinion of my executive worth.”
But the switch to PolyGram proved to be tough primarily on Phil Walden. “[PolyGram] was a bunch of slick-talking Northern businessmen with thick suits and even thicker accents. I’d go to meetings, and all they’d ever talk about was billing and payments and five-year plans. I never went to a single meeting where they talked about music.”
He took their money anyway, loan after loan to expand Capricorn’s staff and shipping volume, spurred by the industrywide euphoria.
“No one ever thought the bottom would fall out. The problem was, there was no bottom. It was a manufactured economy, all speculative,” says Capricorn publicist Mark Pucci, who was also with the original Capricorn. Eventually, there came to be a saying: A record shipped platinum and returned gold.
Capricorn trucked out ton after ton of vinyl. The vinyl sat on the shelves for a while and eventually returned, still in the shrink-wrap. In desperation, PolyGram called in its loans. Capricorn could not settle up and, in late 1979, filed Chapter 11. The heyday was over, to be followed by seven years of hell.
“A STAINED SOUL cringes at the small details in the mirror of embarrassment.”
—From Col. Bruce Hampton’s latest release, on Capricorn.
“I used to go stand in front of the vanity, night after night, late into the morning. I’d look at myself and say, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to get sober,’ ” says Walden. “I wouldn’t drink or buy coke for a while, but then there was always the weekend.”
Having gone from a staff of nearly a hundred to just a few people in less than a day, what once seemed a harmless perk of the entertainment industry soon became an insidious routine: strong coffee in the morning, three or four beers to settle his stomach, a triple martini lunch, cocaine and more beer in his office while he tried to make phone calls, looking for another record deal; cocaine throughout the afternoon, switching to Remy Martin or cognac by about 9, and often sitting with a bag of dope and a pile of cocaine in front of a muted television, listening to music early into the next morning and wishing he would die.
“I can’t describe the pain, particularly when my contemporaries started cashing in for hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Walden, likening it to an out-of-body experience whenever people described him as a living legend, or whenever he walked into a restaurant and heard the whispers of hushed recognition.
“The influence of cocaine was so powerful that I just imagined any day now someone was going to call me up and say, ‘Phil, we need you back in this business.’ Actually, that did happen a time or two, but I would blow it.”
If Walden’s status as a record man had become legendary, so had his reputation for arrogance. During his breakup with Warner Bros., Walden had burned many bridges, specifically with Warner Bros. Chairman Mo Ostin. “When Phil was doing whatever, he might have told some people to stick it up their ass,” says Harry Warner. “When it came their turn, they did the same.”
So now Phil Walden no longer walked into any office he wanted and took a meeting. He took a number. And waited. And snorted more coke.
NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, perhaps trying to perpetuate the tension-filled environment in which he had once thrived, Walden would come home and start fights with his second wife, Peggy. Their marriage was slowly deteriorating. Additionally, the prodigal father would soon be made painfully aware that he had raised a prodigal son.
Philip Walden Jr. is Phil Walden’s only son by his first marriage. In his wing tips and Brooks Brothers suit, Philip is straitlaced and steadfast at his desk in the high-rise offices of King & Spalding, one of Atlanta’s oldest law firms.
His earliest memory of drugs, he says, is from about 1971, a “Stamp Out Dope” crusade in the third grade, where school officials burned pellets that smelled like pot.
The aroma was familiar.
A straight-A student with nice manners, Philip went home and told his father that one of his employees was smoking dope. “I’m sure he got a big laugh out of that one,” says Philip. “I still can’t smell patchouli today without just a wave of memories coming over me.”
Patchouli is incense, often used to cover the scent of pot smoke. To Philip, incense is the aroma of childhood: running wild backstage at concerts, flying on Otis Redding’s private airplane, going over to his dad’s apartment after the first divorce and seeing Duane Allman picking guitar on the couch, being the son of a wealthy dad who had an incredibly hip job.
“He went off to University of Georgia with a 450SL and a fabulous wardrobe,” says Walden. “I had always wanted him to realize that he had a father who could buy him anything. It was hard for me to see how anybody could be unhappy.”
One day, Phil met with his son at a small park in Macon. They stood near an apple orchard on the banks of a lake, and Phil Walden looked into his son’s eyes. They were red and dilated. “He told me he was doing cocaine,” says Walden. “Of course, I immediately condemned him and told him how stupid he was. I was probably high myself.”
They started screaming at each other. The meeting became a fight, and Philip left the park and went on the road for a about a year.
“I was a real f___up, for lack of a better word,” says Philip. “I had no grades at UGA. From the time I was 19 to about 24… the only reason I wasn’t a street person was because I had friends who would let me sleep on their couch.”
Yet, the fact that Philip had chosen early ’80s Athens to be the down-and-out son of a down-and-out ex—record president could not have proved more fortuitous. Everyone, it seemed, had a guitar and a wow-wow pedal, an act and a cheap place to live. The B-52’s were already happening. R.E.M. had formed locally, setting the stage for an eventual backlash against the synthetic music of the day.
At the time, Phil Sr. had begun to sell off his estimated $5 million to $7 million art collection to support himself and his habit. Likewise, Philip was cashing in wherever he could: selling his guns, guitars, clothes and, later, some Coca-Cola stock.
“I probably would have sold off whatever my dad had, too, if I could have gotten my hands on it,” he says. ‘‘We were both headed full tilt toward disaster.” But there remained one abiding passion in both of their lives: rock ’n’ roll.
One night, in 1986, Philip introduced himself to members of a local Athens act called Widespread Panic, who were playing a fraternity party. “It was sort of ‘Hey, my daddy owns a studio,’ ” recalls Panic vocalist John Bell.
With what Philip did not spend on partying, he tried to help out the band. “Philip was our manager and sugar daddy for about six months,” says Bell, “and he played the role very nicely.”
Philip, however, demurs. “My dad was still having problems and couldn’t get a deal. And really, even if I had found the Stones in a bar I couldn’t have done anything for them.”
In 1986, following a particularly vigorous St. Patrick’s Day episode, Philip, in a desperate attempt to reconnect with himself and his fractured sense of family, traveled back to Macon. He got a studio engineer to let him into the old Capricorn studios, which his father had somehow spared from auction. He laid down on a couch, turned off the lights, and slept for two days. Shortly afterward, Philip entered treatment.
He had sampled rehabilitation before, and tried to quit on his own many times, but this time, he says, “I finally realized that I wasn’t the only one in the process, that other people did love me.”
Philip moved back to Macon and entered Mercer University. In 1992, at age 29, he graduated from Mercer law school at the top of his class, and now specializes in intellectual property and technology, a field that includes musical copyrighting and licensing.
Now sober and drug-free, he is thin and bony, with the drawn countenance of a distance runner. On his sparsely decorated shelves, along with his law books, is a running trophy. On the floor, nine boxes of Girl Scout cookies, unopened.
The shy antithesis of his father, Philip stares out the window like a man who wishes to be somewhere else. The woods, preferably. Somewhere quiet. He has had a longstanding offer to work for his dad, but remains at his desk, imbued with discipline and devotion to his own family, “just trying not to screw up again.”
Every day now, he talks by phone to his father, who later says, “Philip doesn’t want to be seen as being preordained to step in and run Capricorn.”
But if Philip Walden had acquired anything out of his early environment, it was indeed an ear for good, honest rock ’n’ roll. “I owe a great debt to him,” says Phil Walden. “Throughout it all Philip kept telling me, ‘Don’t forget about Widespread Panic.’ ”
THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS at Nashville’s posh Merchants restaurant has circled the table yet again, just to make sure. “No thanks,” says Walden. “They have laws against me drinking.” But he motions go ahead to others at the table. He would not mind, or even be tempted.
“The most frightening thing is to be sober for 60 days and see what a mess you’ve made out of your life.”
In 1984, Walden had moved to Nashville to enter an ill-fated venture called Triad Records. He was still married to his second wife, Peggy, but she was no match for his addiction to cocaine. One night, Walden went out for a pack of cigarettes and did not come home.
He moved in with another woman in an apartment house for a few months. A divorce ensued, and for two more years he lived what he calls an almost subhuman existence. “I can drive by that [apartment] house today and it still makes my skin crawl,” he says.
By Christmas of 1986, Phil Walden was living virtually alone. He had broken off yet another relationship. The outlook for his re-entry into music was bleak. And he had set New Year’s Day as his date to enter Alcoholics Anonymous. At the last moment, however, he decided to go two days early.
“If I had gone through with my plans, I would have shown up with a hangover, and probably needed a little pickup after the meeting. So, for the first time in many years, I outsmarted the drug.”
After just six months of sobriety, Walden copped an unlikely break when Jim Varney, the Ernest P. Worrell character on television and in movies, signed him on as his manager. It was a lucrative move, but more than that, it revitalized Phil Walden’s determination to re-enter music.
“If Phil Walden hadn’t made it in the music industry, he could have been one of the great pro wrestlers of all time. Or a movie actor. Or a novelist. Or a preacher.”
In The Business, however, one can simply not do anything, let alone burn bridges with Warner Bros., and still make enemies.
It was in this restaurant in 1990 that Jim Ed Norman, president of Warner Bros. Nashville, delivered the news to Walden that, after his repeated attempts to negotiate another deal with Warner Bros. Chairman Mo Ostin, he had been turned down. But Walden kept talking.
He had no big act to sell them, no big promises, only a dream. He said that no one had picked up the pieces of the old Capricorn, and that it was critical there be a Southern record label. With the proper support, he was convinced that Capricorn could be stronger and more versatile than ever by tapping into the backlash against ’80s music, as well as the solidifying rock ’n’ roll community in Nashville.
“I was so significantly enthused about Phil’s passion that I felt compelled to go back and urge Mo Ostin that we seriously consider this relationship,” says Norman. “Phil confirmed my own suspicions that something was happening in the South.”
What was happening was the great wealth of rock and alternative acts that have flourished in Atlanta and Athens over the last five years. Bands like the Indigo Girls, R.E.M., The Black Crowes and a number of fast rising hip-hop artists have revived the South as a hotbed of music. And Phil Walden plans to be in the middle of it.
In 1991, after a decade in exile, Walden entered a joint venture with Warner Bros. “I didn’t know how they would react to me wanting to call the label Capricorn again,” he says. “But I had to. I owed it to the company, the South, and anybody who ever made music for Capricorn. There was no reason to penalize others. It was Phil Walden who failed, not Capricorn.”
The first act he signed was the group Philip had once managed, Widespread Panic, now a dues-paying road band averaging more than 200 dates a year for college-age neo-hippie fans hungry for organic grooves. The band’s bluesy, improvisational style is meeting rave reviews, with frequent, but not wholly welcome, references to The Allman Brothers.
“Comparisons are just a cheap way of describing something,” says vocalist John Bell. “I can see the similarities, but the similarities are born out of the process, which is no process. Phil doesn’t come [to the studio] with preset notions about how the music should sound.”
Phil Walden has always known that good music has to come from the artist, not the label president. What he understands best, however, is that the music business has changed during his absence. Today, an artist can sing a song in Los Angeles, bounce it off a satellite, and lay it down on tape in Nashville. The 85 grand Walden used to open his original label would not even get a band into a modern studio. Laser beams read music. Vinyl fills crates in people’s closets. There are fewer pioneers, and more accountants and attorneys.
But in early spring, the Capricorn office, a small colonial building less than a mile from Nashville’s famed Music Row, was abuzz with optimism. Atlanta’s Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s latest album, Mirrors of Embarrassment, was set for release. Widespread Panic and Hampton had sold out the Fox Theatre for a May engagement. Walden’s most bankable star, Hank Williams Jr., was starting a tour. And in an attempt to make the label less dependent on one genre of music, as it once was, Walden had signed country popster Billy Burnette, a metalish alternative act called 311, the Dixie Dregs—again—and was releasing a series of CD boxed sets called Capricorn Records Presents, a collection of old R&B, blues and soul artists—the music Phil Walden grew up with.
He has remarried his second wife, Peggy. Their home of two years, the first they have owned since moving to Nashville nine years ago, is hung with what remains of his art collection. Pomeranians have taken the place of the Siberian huskies. And in late April of this year, Phil Walden received a long-awaited phone call from his son. Philip had given his notice at King & Spalding, and wanted to start working for his father at Capricorn. “Come see me in Nashville in six months,” Philip said after he gave his notice. “You’ll see a different person—no Brooks Brothers suit.”
“IF PHIL WALDEN hadn’t made it in the music industry, he could have been one of the great pro wrestlers of all time. Or a movie actor. Or a novelist. Or a preacher,” says Bruce Hampton.
Standing before the fireplace in his living room, Walden is indeed a frenetic organism of newborn possibilities, holding forth on God and social justice; Nashville, history, art, and architecture; Mo Ostin (“If I can just grasp his sense of fairness!”); Philip and the company; meditation and national literacy; Jimmy Carter, and even a more recent case of Potomac Fever, which Walden survived last fall by canceling a meeting he had scheduled with Clinton’s campaign team.
But mostly, he is talking about music, trying to describe what makes certain music good. But he cannot describe quality. He just knows the right sound when he hears it, such as when he goes to check out an act in concert and the vibes begin to draw him in, sparking a heel-toe rhythm that makes him bob to and fro, slightly at first, until the shimmy becomes a shake, the shake becomes a twist, and he suddenly finds himself rockin’ and rollin’ elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of longhaired, tie-dyed 20-year-olds. ✦