Monday, April 24, 2006
Phil Walden R.I.P.
"With the passing of Phil Walden, the music business has lost an eminent producer of great American music," Neil Portnow, president of the industry's Recording Academy, stated today. "One of the most influential creators of the Southern rock sound of the 1970s, Walden founded Capricorn Records and launched the careers of Otis Redding and Allman Brothers Band. We mourn his loss along with all of those who had the pleasure of knowing him."
I had the pleasure of knowing Phil Walden. In 1995 and again in 1998, Capricorn released two albums that benefited NORML, Hempilation and Hempilation 2. I created the concept and co-produced both albums, which raised more than $150,000 for NORML. When High Times and NORML began seeking a record-company partner, we looked no further once Capricorn made a generous offer. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Capricorn, named after Walden's zodiac sign, was launched in 1969 shortly after Walden discovered the Allman Brothers. Prior to then, Walden, who was born and raised in Macon, GA, managed Macon's R&B sensation Otis Redding and later - along with his younger brother Alan - Al Green, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge and other soul stars. But Redding's death in an airplane crash in 1967 devastated the Waldens, and Phil soon decided to follow another musical path.
Capricorn would become to Southern rock what Motown was to soul music, with Phil Walden its Berry Gordy. In addition to the Allmans, the label signed Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, the Dixie Dregs, Bonnie Bramlett and many more. But it was the Allmans who defined the label, and in 1976, at the urging of Walden, would help fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter get elected president by staging a number of concerts in the then-governor's behalf.
The label closed its doors in the '80s and then revived in the '90s, with the help of bands like Widespread Panic, Cake and 311. A small, family-run company, Capricorn was the perfect partner for the Hempilation project. Located in Nashville at first, I traveled there in 1995 to meet the staff and work out the first album's details. Phil, always dressed sharply and quite the Southern gentleman, greeted me warmly, as did the rest of the employees. His son Philip, the company's legal counsel, and I became particlularly friendly and remain close to this day.
After the success of Hempilation: Freedom is NORML, we agreed to produce a sequel, Hempilation 2: Free the Weed. By 1998, Capricorn had moved to Atlanta and jumped from one distributor (RED) to another (Polygram). However, Polygram was soon purchased by Universal, which proved to be the death knell for this incarnation of Capricorn. By 2000, the company was sold and the Waldens started a new label, Velocette, that never really got off the ground.
Over the last few years, Phil became sick with a variety of cancers that spread throughout his body. I contacted Philip a month ago and asked how Phil was doing and if I could pay a visit. "Let me know when you'd like to come down and I'll run it by Phil," Philip wrote back. "He's pretty frail right now, but he would probably love to see you."
Like everyone else, I was hoping that Phil would kick cancer' ass, but alas it bit him hard and he never recovered.
I'll follow this up with comments from some of my friends from Capricorn in the next few days. But for now, cue up an Allman Brothers cd - or better yet, vinyl - and think about the man who started it all.