Phil Walden, the Capricorn Records founder who launched the careers of Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers Band while helping pioneer the Southern rock sound of the 1970s, has died after a long battle with cancer, a family spokesman said Monday. He was 66.
Walden died at his home Sunday, said Leon Jones, law partner of Walden’s son, Philip Walden Jr.
The Macon-based record label, founded in 1969, was influential in bringing together rock, country and blues artists who crafted a new style exemplified by groups like the Allmans, the Charlie Daniels Band and Wet Willie – other Capricorn acts discovered by Walden.
“Phil was a visionary,” said Chuck Leavell, who joined the Allman Brothers on keyboards in 1972 and now plays with the Rolling Stones. “He just had a great vision and a true, deep passion for the music.”
Walden’s long career began when he was a college student at Mercer University in Macon, where he helped break down racial barriers in the Deep South by booking predominantly black bands for white college and high school parties. He went on to manage rhythm and blues artists including Redding, Al Green, Percy Sledge and Sam and Dave.
He saw Capricorn through financial ups and downs into the early 2000s, recording and promoting alternative rock acts like Cake, Widespread Panic and 311, who signed to Capricorn after he revived the label.
“Phil always knew how to recognize trends and he knew how to recognize talent within those trends,” Leavell said.
Over the years, Walden endured and overcame some rocky times at Capricorn, including bankruptcy proceedings and a late ’70s lawsuit by the Allmans, in which the courts ruled the band had been underpaid for album sales.
After selling the rights to Capricorn’s contracts and music catalogue, Walden recently had been working with Velocette Records, a small, Atlanta-based independent label run largely by his children. Leavell said Walden spoke to him as recently as this year about wanting to again return to Macon and revive Capricorn as an outlet for young artists.
“He was a giant of Southern music,” said author Mark Kemp, whose 2004 book “Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South,” chronicles, in part, Walden’s early days at Capricorn. “He had a deep love for these people – for these musicians he worked with – and I think you could see it and you could hear it.”
Walden’s two most famous artists, Redding and guitarist Duane Allman, both died tragically; Redding in a plane crash in 1967 at 26 and Allman in a motorcycle accident in 1971 at age 24.
Walden met Redding in Macon in the 1950s, when both were teenagers. Redding became a top rhythm and blues star in the 1960s and was on the brink of wider acclaim when he died.
He had recorded his “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” just days earlier. It became a smash hit in 1968.
“Starting with Otis has really been the story of my career in this industry,” Walden told the AP in a 1997 interview. “I don’t sing, I don’t write, I don’t perform, I don’t produce. But I’ve had these incredible associations over some 40 years in this industry with some of the most incredibly talented people.”
Redding and Walden’s close friendship made them outcasts in the segregated South, Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, recalled in 1997. She said Walden’s passion for black music made him “the little white boy who everybody was wanting to beat up on.”
During the 1970s, Walden was an early backer of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s upstart run for the White House. He helped Carter financially, as did the Allmans and other Capricorn groups, who played benefit shows.
Carter said Monday in a statement that he and wife Rosalynn were sad to hear of Walden’s death.
“Phil was one of the pre-eminent producers of great music in America,” Carter said. “His many performing partners, including Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers, helped to put Macon and Georgia on the musical map of the world.”
In recent years, Walden talked openly about his past struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Friends and family say he had been sober since the 1990s. In 1997, Walden said, “I’m a big Episcopalian. After I get my cup of coffee in the morning, the first 40 minutes to an hour this is what I do: prayer. I’m searching my soul, trying to find out who the hell I am. Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?”
A funeral service will be held 2 PM Wednesday (April 26) at Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Walden will be buried the following day in Macon.
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