Greatest hits: the Phil Walden legacy

Family and friends of the late music impresario and Capricorn Records co-founder Phil Walden were at UGA this month to announce the creation of a memorial fund to support the recently-established Music Business Certificate Program.

Philip Walden Jr., an Atlanta lawyer who grew up around Capricorn Records in the 1970s and eventually joined his father there, announced the fund’s creation on behalf of the Walden family while delivering a presentation on the recording industry to students in the music business program.

“We’re thrilled to help out,” said Walden, adding that preliminary plans are in the works for a benefit concert, with proceeds helping to grow the fund.

The announcement was made during the first day of the program’s Music Business core class, and the classroom was packed with students, faculty, staff and music industry professionals.

Growing up in Macon, Ga., Phil Walden got into the music business booking acts while still in high school. He began his career in earnest after graduating from Mercer University in 1962, managing rhythm-and-blues acts like Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Johnny Jenkins, and Sam and Dave, but cemented his place in music history by co-founding Capricorn Records in 1969.

Based in Macon, family-run Capricorn Records became the epicenter of the “southern rock” movement of the 1970s, thanks to a roster of artists that included the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop, Delbert McClinton and the Dixie Dregs.

A series of setbacks resulted in the label’s filing for bankruptcy in 1980. Walden eventually re-launched Capricorn Records in 1990, however, releasing albums by such artists as Widespread Panic, Cake, 311, Col. Bruce Hampton, the Vigilantes of Love, Jack Logan and Kenny Chesney.

Philip booked bands during his undergraduate years at UGA, much like his father had done at Mercer in the ‘60s. He’d grown up around the business in Macon, working for his father in Capricorn’s mailroom. Philip was responsible for getting Widespread Panic signed to Capricorn after hearing them at a Phi Delta Theta fraternity party. By his own admission, he was a “terrible” manager and left the music business to concentrate on finishing his degree.

After going on to finish law school and hiring on to a big Atlanta law firm, however, Philip knew corporate law was not to his taste and decided to return to Capricorn.

The younger Walden came back to Capricorn in 1993 during its second incarnation, just as an unbelievably generous distribution deal with Warner Brothers was ending. He found himself thrown into the role of label lawyer, managing a business with little or no money that had been used to nearly unlimited spending.

“It was always hand-to-mouth,” he said. Luckily, many of the bands Capricorn signed in the early 1990s racked up six-figure sales on each album released, a rare feat he didn’t fully appreciate at the time, he said. Capricorn also kept its bands on tour constantly to generate good word-of-mouth.

“My dad’s philosophy was to give them a BP card, send them on the road and tell them to check back in a year,” he said.

After entering into a joint venture with Mercury Records in 1996, a series of record industry mergers resulted in Capricorn’s exit from the music stage in 2000 after selling most of its assets and back catalog to Zomba Records.

Walden and his family remained in the music business, however, starting Atlanta-based Velocette Records, which handles mostly Georgia-based artists like Vic Chesnutt, Kevin Kinney, the Glands, Jucifer and Brass Castle.

Walden was still involved in the operations of Velocette when he died last April at age 66 following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was posthumously awarded a Doctor of Humanities degree by Mercer University. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1986.