A Tribute to Phil Walden

A Tribute to Phil Walden

A remembrance of the manager, promoter and son of the Deep South

It was seven years ago this June that I was standing above the River Seine, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral, frustratingly shuffling through boxes of used books sold by vendors lining the sidewalk. Just as I was about to give up and walk away, one of the merchants asked if I was shopping for myself or someone else. “For someone else,” I answered in butchered French. “To say thank you.”

He nodded, now knowing for sure I was an American, and lifted a panel in his booth to reveal a cache of antique books. He handed me a red leather-bound oversized book, a French art and architecture text published in the mid-1800s, containing vivid black and white inked-sketched illustrations guarded over the years by yellowing onion paper. It was the perfect gift for my Uncle Phil, who could rival the passion of any Parisian with his infatuation with art, architecture and history. I handed the man my 250 francs and lugged the cumbersome book back to the U.S. My heart swelled when I gave it to my uncle; he thanked me like an excited child and told me he was putting it on his living room coffee table. My dad later told me he never managed to find his brother a gift that got a reaction like that.

PhilWaldenonBeach

Phil Walden circa 1978

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t just a picture book – perhaps its timeless pages told a bigger story. While the U.S. was struggling with issues of slavery and abolition, another part of the world was celebrating what they deemed beautiful. Nobody understood that paradigm more than Phil Walden. He grew up in a place that was torn enough to assign colors to drinking water. But in the midst of it all, he discovered another place where life went on with its own celebration – and the music that was made, he deemed beautiful.

Rhythm and blues – black music – I can remember the day my older brother returned from Indiana. He had gone to work for an electronics firm after he graduated from college, and it’s like his first trip home and he brought a hi-fi, as they called them in those days, and a stack of 78 [RPM] records. And in these 78s were Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Clovers, the Five Royales, Joe Turner, Little Willie John . . . I sat in this room and played one after another. I had never heard anything like it. I found the music to be like a slap in the face. It wasn’t sugarcoated like the pop babble you heard coming from the radio . . . I was sitting there for hours, playing these records over and over and over again. I just couldn’t believe it.  

I followed the family processional behind my uncle’s coffin down the marble aisle of St. Phillips Cathedral in Atlanta. My eyes welled with tears, acting as blinders from the mass of people who stood all around us. As we approached the altar, there is only one person I recognized in the blur. You could hardly miss him in his sunglasses and sequined collar. When we reached his pew, my father paused and grasped his hand. After a few words, my dad pointed to me. “This is my daughter,” he whispered. My hand is taken and squeezed. And that’s when my tears spilled. The story all began with Little Richard. And here he was to pay his respects as the story comes to a close.

I remember the first package show, as they called them – the first show at the old [Macon] Municipal Auditorium with more than one performer. It was in the eight-grade, I remember that . . . well, I had learned of a show coming to the Auditorium via reading the ‘colored social page’ in the Macon Telegraph and News . . . And there was this show – Amos Milburn and his Chicken-Shakers  – and the opening act was Little Richard and his Upsetters . . . this was pre ‘Tutti Frutti.’ So, I secretly bought a ticket for that . . . I had no idea what the hell I was going to see or what would be done to me, or anything else. I was just this naïve, young kid, about 15, then. I went in and there was a reserved section for whites that were in the balcony, and the floor of the auditorium was filled with black patrons – and they were dancing. And then Little Richard came on. I mean, I had never seen anything like that in my life. And I was like . . . whew . . . it was like I was born again. 

Carolyn Walden with sons Clark, Alan and Phil

Carolyn Walden with sons Clark, Alan and Phil

Philip Michael Walden was the middle son of C.B. and Carolyn Walden. Phil was a pretty baby who never lost his appealing baby face. His older brother, Clark, called “Blue,” was seven years older. His younger brother and my father, Alan, called “Red,” was three years younger. I’ve heard throughout life that my grandmother was especially fond of Phil. While the colors blue and red were given to the other boys, she often referred to Phil as her “Golden Boy.” The family lived on a modest 25-acre homestead on Ayers Road dubbed “Waldens’ Ranch.” An entertainer at heart, he and his little brother would spend hours upon hours rehearsing puppet shows in the garage – Phil acting as writer, director and set designer. Primarily an A-student, he was popular and actively involved in school activities, from the school newspaper to Tri-Hi-Y and later serving as president of his high school and college fraternities. But boys will be boys, and the Walden brothers were. Long before they made a living off rock and roll, life was rocky off the dirt road they lived on. Money was tough. Grandpa had a tendency to drink too much. They learned to smoke unfiltered Camels around the same time they were learning 2 + 2, and their long driveway doubled as a lovers’ lane for parking couples, hence girls and sex-ed also came early. But although trouble was easy to find when you grow up in what-was-then deemed “the country,” Phil had discovered something else that was earning him a different kind of rap.

I just had this un-dying interest – I think I quickly earned this reputation as this little white boy who loves black music. I was just infatuated by it. I didn’t listen to anything else. I sort of missed that whole Presley thing. To me, the greatest rock and roll singer of all time, and the one who still possesses the truest, purest rock and roll voice is Little Richard. That is where rock and roll is from. The white performers tapped into what marvelously talented black performers had created.

What some may not know is Phil Walden almost died in the ninth grade. His appendix ruptured and gangrene set in. Their family never forgot the images of Phil lying in a hospital bed with tubes running all through him. But even through it all, dad said Phil never knew the meaning of fear. Their primary family income was a paper route – mornings and afternoons, seven days a week. It was grueling, terrible work. Phil wasn’t fond of the paper route and managed his way out of the work more than the other members of his family. But when it came time to collect from their customers, Phil’s lack of fear sometimes came in handy. If a German Shepherd came after them, Phil turned around and chased the dog. And he wasn’t afraid of work. He had a job as a bag boy at Scott’s Supermarket. He later sold fireworks in the winter across the Bibb County line – his father went to check on him and found him nearly freezing, standing over a meager fire built from old tires. He also worked at Hayes Clothing, his cousin Roy’s men’s boutique. His dad had also done this work. Neither one of them liked it much. Phil was eventually fired. He had to walk from the downtown store back to the country. And it is said that along that long walk home, he swore to himself that he would never work for another Walden again. Ironically, it would be his family that later went to work for him.

When I initially started booking bands, I didn’t even tell my father I was doing it. My mother knew that I was doing it. Quite often, when I had to utilize the family car to load up a band and drive to Auburn, Alabama, and play a fraternity, and then get back, clean the car up and bring it in at wee hours of the morning, pretending that I had been out on some late date, my mother always knew what I had done, but my father didn’t have a clue. Of course, the great thing is he later joined our company and became probably Otis Redding’s best friend – if anything sort of Otis’ kind of surrogate father.

(L-R) Jimmy Hughes, Alan Walden, Phil Walden and Johnnie Taylor. Otis Redding is seated.

(L-R) Jimmy Hughes, Alan Walden, Phil Walden and Johnnie Taylor. Otis Redding is seated.

There is a two-year gap in Phil’s career that is often overlooked. The Army sent him to Germany right around the time Otis’ career was really taking off. Dad and my grandpa were in charge while he was away. While in Germany, Phil organized USO shows with General Truman, Harry Truman’s brother. In a letter to his mother dated February 7, 1965: “72 days to go,” Phil writes, “I have started work on my new and last show! It should be o.k., but I’m not real excited about doing it. You don’t really get much satisfaction from a show in the Army. A couple of pats on the back, etc.” Phil was homesick for his work. My dad said he avoided writing Phil up until the end of his tour of duty because he was first angry at the burden his brother left him to bear. But things kept getting better for Otis, so instead of a letter, Alan and Otis made a tape of the two of them singing “White Christmas” – not Otis’ version he later recorded, but a doo-wap version with Otis as bass and dad singing falsetto – and mailed it to Phil. My uncle cried when he played the tape.

Dad and Phil’s relationship was something like the Duke Boys. When Bo and Luke got pissed at each other, they had a fist fight and then it was over and they were back riding side by side. I don’t think anyone knew that more than two people – Carolyn, Phil’s longtime assistant who doubled as a referee when my uncle and father were locked in choke-holds on the office floor, and Otis, their best friend, business partner and by all accounts, other brother. Part of the family legend is that Phil got his ‘soul’ from breast feeding from a black housekeeper when he was a baby. Ironically, her son was Harold Smith, later known as Otis’ infamous long-legged baritone sax player called Shang-a-lang. But it also took Phil finding a soul mate – in Otis – that the music became like a bug that the entire family caught. And from a 9 x 11 office in the Professional Building on Mulberry Street, Phil Walden Artist and Promotions set out to alter the world.

Phil Walden (at left) and his younger brother, Alan, at the office

Phil Walden (at left) and his younger brother, Alan, at the office

I almost immediately saw that maybe through this music we could help change at least how my fellow Southerners felt about black musicians, and in turn, maybe that would be a step toward understanding black people. I really aspired for Otis to become a community leader. We had plans and hopes that later in his life and career that he would have been active politically, and maybe even run for office. We had a lot of dreams together. It was through Otis that I was able to actually learn about these things . . . It was like the first step to my new education. It was unbelievable to have this opportunity to be a part of another culture and to eventually be considered a part of it, accepted to a large degree of it . . . I got so much more from Otis Redding than just being able to hear him sing in that marvelous, unbelievable way that he could. He really became part of our family . . . I can’t think of an opportunity that I may have had that would have made me pass on going to the Apollo with Otis Redding . . .  Just being there with him and to watch the crowd react and just to watch things develop from such humble beginnings . . . A lot of this hero worship is worthwhile . . . Quite honestly, I promised myself that I would never have that kind of relationship again with an artist. Because I didn’t want to be hurt like that anymore. I don’t know how many times after Otis died, when I was by myself, I would just scream out, ‘Why? My God, of all the people in the world, why my buddy? Why my friend? Why my partner?’ We had worked so hard to get there and then it was over. In one day it was over. The sun disappeared one day. I don’t know whether I’ll ever get over it, to tell the truth.

Soul was never the same for Phil. And neither was rhythm and blues. But we know what happened next. In death, there is always life. And for Phil, the new life was Capricorn Records, a.k.a. Southern Rock. Sleepy Macon was wide awake. Famous people came here on purpose – and often. And like the hand puppets Phil and dad used to entertain themselves by, Phil pulled the strings and made a show of it.

[Macon] was sort of quaint for a while. It was an interesting thing – I guess a few people realize the number of people traipsed to Macon in those days. In a week, there would be somebody from London or Harry Neilson would be down there or Andy Warhol. All of these people were coming in, and I’ve always believed in bringing all different kinds of people together because I like that reaction that results from bringing diverse people in. I like to watch it. And generally, something really good creatively comes out of that. But it was an incredible experience in Macon. We also – we really believed – that we needed to be involved civically, socially, politically as well as musically. I thought all of those elements went together. I was a firm believer that if you didn’t like the status quo then we should do something to change it. If we don’t like whose President of the United States, then let’s get behind somebody and try to elect are own President.

Many of Phil’s obituaries that I’ve read over the last few weeks credit him with Jimmy Carter’s victory in the White House. However, he was surprisingly humble about it. I’ve been told that my mom had a sneaking suspicion she was pregnant with me when she and dad attended Carter’s Inaugural Ball. Maybe that is why this is my favorite part of my uncle’s story. Or maybe it is because I admire him for never sitting back on his laurels and watching the world go by. He knew he could make a difference. Long before MTV launched “Rock the Vote,” Phil had invented it.

Phil Walden (left) and Jimmy Carter (far right) in Macon

Phil Walden (left) and Jimmy Carter (far right) in Macon

If I had to go back and say what really changed my life, it would have to be the Civil Rights legislation. I think it made it very clear for me at the time at what we had to do as Southerners, as part of the burden that we inherited from the white forefathers, families, political leaders that were ahead of us. Because I love the South. I love the South today. I love the South tomorrow. I’m going to die loving the South. I am damned proud of being a Southerner. I’m not proud of what we’ve done, but I think it’s getting better. I think I’ve been lucky to be, hopefully, part of that change. That is what really attracted me initially to Jimmy Carter . . . I was really smitten by him. Immediately. He’s just so sincere. And so smart, and I thought he represented our state and our region so well. He was part of that new South that I wanted the whole South to become part of. He was the kind of guy who had the respect for what was good from our past but a willingness to change what was bad for our region – as unpopular as it may be. I just really believed that that was part of our obligation – to use the success of rock and roll . . . We get far too much credit for Jimmy Carter’s successful run of the presidency. I’d love to lay claim that I elected the President of the United States, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our early involvement when it was critical – when probably more people knew who I was than Jimmy Carter was, and certainly knew who the Allman Brothers were more so . . ..

Like any proud parent, my grandmother wanted one of her sons to grow up to be President of the United States. Phil got close enough. He even made it inside the White House – although it almost didn’t happen because he never traveled with his identification, much to the amusement of the Secret Service. But just like Otis, and later the Allman Brothers, and then the countless others he helped shoot to the moon, Carter couldn’t have found a better ally to take him from peanut farmer to President. With Phil Walden by your side, all things were possible – and it played out like an American dream come true.

We were standing there looking at the White House, and I turned to [Carter] and looked at him and said, ‘Were you ever overwhelmed by all of this?’

And he said, “What?” And I said, “President of the United States and all. I mean, you are President of the United States! There have only been 39 people to do that and you are one of them. Jimmy Carter from Georgia, President of the United States.’

And he started laughing and said, ‘I guess I am to a degree. I haven’t really thought about that.’ And he kind of smiled, then said, ‘Lets go inside and see the Oval Office . . . you want to sit behind the desk?’

But as the American dream lived out, Phil was not immune to nightmares. Duane had gotten into trouble with drugs and Phil secretly arranged for him to spend a stint in an Upstate New York drug treatment facility. The accident happened shortly after he returned home to Macon. The last time Phil saw him alive was inside the Big House, where Duane was sitting, strumming an acoustic guitar.

I said, ‘Damn Duane. You’re just so good. You’re just a great player.’  And he said, ‘You know, that’s what concerns me. I don’t know if I can get any better . . . it scares me the thought that I might not be able to play any better than I am playing now. Because that’s what I think this music is all about.’

Phil was on a family vacation on a secluded tropical island when he got the call from Carolyn.

I went down to the beach and just cried . . . it just didn’t seem fair. But Duane had often told me, ‘Don’t count on me being here for the long haul because man, I’m going to live every damn day. I am not going to count on growing old.’

There was never a discussion on ‘if’ the Allman Brothers would continue. But Phil would later admit that heroin almost destroyed the band. He credits the genius of Tom Dowd in the studio and the love of the road in keeping the Allman Brothers alive. But then Berry had his accident.

Berry had never been the same after Duane died. He could never accept that. Berry Oakley really believed in this mystical brotherhood. It was very real to him. And he was, after Duane, the real keeper of the flame. And as I heard Red Dog say after the funeral, ‘Well man, it’s real simple to figure out, you know, Duane needed his bass player and Berry wanted to go with him . . .’

 

Before my uncle died, the last time he was featured on a front-page article in our local paper was during the bankruptcy. I have vague memories of this time, being a small child and having someone at school tell me, “My mom said your uncle is going to the poor house.” I also remember my dad frantically trying to salvage some of his brother’s property that was being auctioned off. Just like every dramatic turn of events, there were several factors leading up to his infamous, yet temporary, demise. Unlike the friendlier atmosphere found in his former distributor Warner Brothers, Polygram wanted its money back – all six million. Phil had also invested himself in political obligations that often took him outside the office. And he was the first to admit that he had let his guard down – he was no longer the eager, fresh-faced white cat working in another man’s world as he was in the beginning. He had made his own world by then, and it was facing an apocalypse.

To be very candid, I started to get a little bored. And I don’t doubt that my ego was in full force. I was hearing all these unbelievable things about myself – a lot of them I probably said myself or my publicist said for me. But I held myself in a real high regard. I thought I commanded ownership of all the good taste . . . I was pretty full of myself. And I was living very well and I was a very wealthy young man with tremendous power and tremendous influence. And I probably didn’t handle it all very well. I certainly can look back and view mistakes I made . . . The business itself had become very self-indulgent. I wasn’t the only self-indulgent son of a bitch out there. I mean, I was in good company. I just like to think I had a lot more flair to it . . . I’ll tell you how much it meant to me for us to not to go through bankruptcy. I offered to give all my stock – all my ownership in this company – to work for nothing for five years and to pledge property that I owned in excess of five million. That’s how hell bent and determined they were to close it down – no deal . . . I was embarrassed. Here was the golden boy was suddenly a tarnished angel. The guy who could make no mistakes was just about to blow his brains out. And there was no way out.

My dad likes to tell the story of him and Phil waiting for the school bus on a cold winter morning. It was so frigid that dad’s teeth were chattering furiously. Phil, wearing a long overcoat, noticed how cold his baby brother was, so he opened the coat and said, “Come on in and get warm.” Phil stood behind dad, holding the coat around the both of them, and together they huddled, waiting for the school bus. After the bankruptcy, Phil moved to Nashville and faced failure again with Triad Records. A dark cloud in his life had set in. My dad made a trip to see him. When he found his brother, dad opened his overcoat and said, “Big brother, come on in and get warm.”

Phil Walden (left) and his brother Alan Walden

Phil Walden (left) and his brother Alan Walden

I love the music. And I love the business of music. It’s an intoxicating potion for me. It makes me euphoric. I mean, there is nothing else . . . I am so emotionally attached to this business. You see, I think we’re doing something that’s very important. I think it’s culturally important to the South, and hence it’s important to the rest of the world to be aware of what we as Southerners are capable of creating and the influence of Southern music. I think that’s one of my responsibilities. It’s certainly not just to see how much money I can make. I would have chosen a different path than the one I am going now.

Phil never left the business he loved. Capricorn made a come-back with Widespread Panic – I read once that Phil wept when he held their first record on his label. The company continued to gain momentum and eventually bands like 311 and Cake had platinum records on Capricorn’s office walls. But the music business had taken a dramatic change at the time of Capricorn’s revival. Phil feared for the future of the business – as well as the artist – and was frustrated by the standards of popular music and radio formats.

This business of music desperately needs an independent voice. There’re some wonderful record companies out there, but they are all owned large conglomerates. If you take the independent entrepreneur out of the system, we’ll be a world of Michael Boltons. Nobody will take chances. They’ll make safe records. Rock and roll was created to take chances. I mean, you are supposed to pick it up and throw it every time. It’s all of nothing – that’s the way it’s supposed to be. This is supposed to be the music of rebellion! I mean, my god, not the music of some long-haired guy trying to sing like a black soul singer, singing other people’s songs and saying he wrote them. I mean, come on! Let’s get away from that.

Phil Walden and Gregg Allman

Phil Walden and Gregg Allman

I worked part-time at Capricorn Records while in college. During that time, Phil’s children, Philip and Amantha, and his nephews, G. Scott and Jason, were part of the label’s staff. Today, the entire family continues to have their hands in music. On my desk lays a copy of a 1980 Esquire article titled “Will Phil Walden Rise Again?” The answer was yes, time and time again. And with the legacy he left behind through my cousins, there is no doubt he can do it yet again.

We’ve got a second generation of my family in this thing . . . the possibility that this may be passed to the next generation, that it goes on, and that maybe it can be passed to the generation after that and they could carry this company into the future – it’s just, just . . . it would be the most the rewarding thing.

When Carolyn called to tell me that my uncle wasn’t going to make it, she said they had a long talk and although he didn’t think it was his time to go, he was prepared to do so. Through all of cancer’s pain and robbery, Phil Walden died a fulfilled man. “Lucky” is the way he described it. My first memory of my uncle is going to his office on Cotton Avenue. I vividly remember the hot tub in it. And I can still remember him lifting me up and planting a wet one my cheek – and being the tiny child I was, I used my fist to wipe it off. The week before he passed away, I got to see my uncle for the last time. Although I’m sure it wasn’t easy, he lifted his head and gently kissed my cheek. This time, I didn’t wipe it off. I don’t question how different all of our lives would have been if Phil Walden hadn’t made a lucky left turn. Col. Bruce Hampton told Atlanta Magazine in 1983, “If Phil Walden hadn’t made it in the music industry, he could have been one of the great pro-wrestlers of all time. Or a movie actor. Or a novelist. Or a preacher.” I’ve heard numerous times that he lived a life of a great Southern novel. But even Faulkner couldn’t have told it better than the way Phil went about living it.

Phil Walden

Phil Walden (January 11, 1940 – April 23, 2006)

I think the South always speaks of a hope and concern and love and protective about their culture. We used to be very proud of these things . . . to be a part . . . you can’t imagine . . . (Here, my uncle sighs and his voice slightly quivers) . . . how it feels when someone comes up to you and tells you what a certain song by a certain artist that you had something to do with meant to them at some very important part of their life. That’s wild. I’m sure glad I didn’t go to law school now. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer. Nothing wrong with selling used cars or life insurance, but it’s not quite the same thing as I do. I’m hoping that what we are doing is going to be a part of some legacy, and with that legacy comes a lot of responsibility because I want to make sure that everybody in my company and particularly those that carry it forward understand that we are music-driven and we are artist-oriented. If there is ever a fuzzy point about the artist rights and the company rights, side with the artist. These are the people creating the music . . . we don’t actually make this music. But we bear the awesome responsibility of taking care of it . . . the reward is when you see something start from very humble beginnings and go to this – I mean, wow, there is nothing like it. I don’t know; it just gives you a real special feeling. I am delighted to say that I’ve had that real special feeling on a lot of occasions. I’ve just been a lucky guy.

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