Phil Walden: 1940 to 2006
Southern music lost a legendary figure with the passing of Phil Walden in Atlanta on April 23. After a long bout with cancer, the Capricorn Records founder, who discovered such icons as Otis Redding and Duane Allman, died at his home at age 66.
In a business where executives sometimes achieve iconic status, Walden was something of an anomaly. Unlike, say, Jerry Wexler’s or Ahmet Ertegun’s, Walden’s achievements occurred without lots of fanfare. But consider: During Capricorn’s glory years in the 1970s, nine of its albums went platinum and seventeen went gold, with five gold singles as well. The artists who garnered these sales — the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band and others — helped father “southern rock” and provided Walden with enough cache to stage fundraisers that helped put Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, and raised in Macon, Georgia, Walden got his start in music at Mercer College, where he booked bands for local fraternity events. As a fledgling manager, he handled mostly rhythm & blues artists, among them Clarence Carter, Joe Simon, and, most notably, Redding. After Redding died in a 1967 plane crash, Walden shifted his focus to rock ‘n’ roll, albeit rock rooted deeply in southern black music. He established Capricorn in 1969.
With the Allman Brothers Band serving as its cornerstone, Capricorn achieved immense success during the ’70s. According to Allman Brothers biographer Scott Freeman, by 1974 Walden’s estimated net worth was $5 million. Rival labels embarked on searches for bands that exemplified the “southern” sound, with groups such as ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd rising to prominence.
Plagued by difficulties triggered in part by the breakup on the Allman Brothers, Walden made some misguided business decisions that culminated in the label’s bankruptcy in 1979.
Following a drug-addled spiral, he moved to Nashville in the mid-’80s and became manager for the late comic actor Jim Varney. In 1990, Warner Bros. executive Mo Ostin helped him revive Capricorn (now Nashville-based), and in August 1991, Widespread Panic released the resurrected label’s first album.
Buoyed by young bands such as Cake and 311, Capricorn again took flight, only to come crashing down again at the end of the decade. Walden sold the rights to the Capricorn catalog in 2000, and since then had been working with his children at the Atlanta-based independent label Velocette Records.
In an interview I conducted with Walden in 1998, he told me: “What has made my life and career interesting has been my relationships with people. I don’t play an instrument and I don’t write songs, but I enjoy what I do. I’ve got the best job of anybody in the whole world.”