The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

24 April 2006

A moderately major mogul

Record producer/executive Phil Walden has died at his Georgia home at the age of 66.

Walden graduated from Mercer in 1962, and set up shop as a booking agent, finding some success with Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. Jenkins was a guitar man; vocals were handled by a young fellow named Otis Redding. When Jenkins' demo session at Stax didn't produce anything noteworthy and there was still half an hour to go, Otis stepped forward and cut two sides, which were released on Stax' nascent Volt label when Jim Stewart was assured of getting half the publishing.

But Volt 103, "Hey Hey Baby," didn't go anywhere, and wouldn't until John Richbourg at Nashville's WLAC — the legendary John R — flipped it over and found "These Arms of Mine." Otis had a hit, albeit a small one, and he returned to Stax, emboldened by his success and now managed by Phil Walden, who had turned his booking agency over to his brother Alan. Walden continued to oversee Redding's affairs until that awful plane crash in 1967.

In 1969, Walden, with the help of Atlantic's Jerry Wexler, set up Capricorn Records as an Atlantic custom label. The first Capricorn release to chart was "Revival," a track from Idlewild South by another Walden client, the Allman Brothers Band. It was not a big hit — #92 in Billboard — but Walden persevered, and the Allmans broke through with the double-LP Live at Fillmore East. Shortly thereafter, Capricorn switched its distribution to Warner Bros., where it would remain for most of the Seventies; with the demise of Southern rock in general, Capricorn went broke in 1980, and Walden retreated long enough to dry out and straighten up. By 1991, Capricorn had been revived in Nashville; in 1996, Walden sold half the company to Polygram, who already owned the masters from the label's first incarnation. Consolidation at Polygram, which was merging with Universal, spelled the end of Capricorn; in 2001, Walden and his family were setting up a new label in Atlanta, called Velocette.

Walden was always at least somewhat controversial. A white man managing a black man didn't always go over well in Otis' home town of Macon; there were rumors at one time that Walden had some sort of Mob connections; there were many lawsuits during the various unravelings Capricorn endured. But scarcely anyone will dispute this: Phil Walden was one of the last of the great Record Men, and if a firm grip on the brass ring always seemed just slightly out of his reach, the records he oversaw still speak more clearly than the stories he inspired.

Posted at 6:41 PM to Tongue and Groove