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Ramblin' clan 

Phil Walden rose to the top of the music world with Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers. He's fallen and rebounded a couple of times since. With the demise of Capricorn Records and the birth of Velocette, his family's music empire attempts to rise again

By all rights, Velocette Records has no business operating out of the upscale downtown address it calls home. Any other record label that has only four unproven bands on its roster couldn't afford to commandeer three floors of a renovated 1916 building it owns in Atlanta's hip Fairlie-Poplar district. Other indie labels can hardly afford postage stamps and wrapping tape, much less the spacious offices, the folk art, the minimalist decorating touch.

Any other indie record label, though, doesn't have the muscle of Phil Walden behind it.

In a career that spans more than 40 years, Walden has introduced the world to Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band and, in a bizarre twist, Jim "Hey Vern" Varney; moved from mansions to hovels; endured the deaths of his brightest stars; kicked a near-fatal drug habit; weathered lawsuits; suffered knee-bending depression; and made and lost fortunes.

It's a story better fit for VH-1's "Behind the Music" than Meatloaf's ever was. It even has the obligatory comeback coda: With the demise last year of his legendary label Capricorn Records -- the one that not long ago boasted arena rockers Widespread Panic and platinum-selling acts 311 and Cake in its lineup -- Walden has formed a new record company. Velocette Records -- whose debut release, an EP by Athens indie-rock duo Jucifer, arrives next week -- is largely a family affair, with Walden's two children and nephew managing day-to-day operations (along with five other employees, all Capricorn holdovers). At 61, Walden himself seems content to serve as part-time executive, leveraging his contacts in the music business to give his fledgling label a boost.

"None of us here are plugged-in music industry veterans. We don't have a hotline to MTV or Hits magazine," admits Philip Walden Jr., Velocette's 38-year-old executive vice president. "It's more just a group of people who share a similar musical taste, and think it would be cool to try and get this thing going again. ... We certainly hope it can become profitable, mainly so we can continue doing it. Because this is a great job, you know."

Still, any label's success -- whatever its pedigree -- depends on how well its artists sell. With record sales down across the industry and corporate merges shutting out small start-ups, the climate in which Velocette arrives is more brutal than ever. Its bands have won critical acclaim, but without big-time promotional dollars and corporate backing, what hope is there to produce the breakout hit that will keep Velocette a going concern?

Still, old friends are confident the great record mogul of the South is on the rise again. "He's a true legend," says Harvey Schwartz, a former Capricorn staffer. "Being in the South has kept him from being one of the admired New York/L.A. guys, but I think he's on par ... with Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun and Mo Ostin. Don't bet against the man. The guy's a survivor, and he knows how to win."

Doing so, in part, involves rising above the demons that still haunt Walden. Stung by public struggles in the past -- and with a current legal skirmish threatening to expose more recent dirty laundry -- the Waldens seem more sensitive to criticism than ever. After learning that CL had asked former Capricorn employees about controversial accusations, Phil Walden declined repeated requests to comment for this story and his company later withdrew its cooperation entirely.

But two assets remain unchanged since the start. First, there's the family, which in the music-biz hinterlands of Georgia means the continuity of brothers, fathers, children, cousins and anyone else loyal enough to trust as kin. Second, there's Walden himself, the unsinkable force who has made a career of coming back from ruin. Those constants suggest why the family would bother to give it another go.

Amantha Walden, 28, who now co-owns the company with her brother and father, says, "He's given us this, and we're ready to try and take it somewhere new and keep it up. I think that's what keeps us close -- just sharing this common passion with one another. It's been our whole lives we've been around it, and now we finally get an opportunity to share in it."

"I was a brat, I'm sure," says Philip Walden Jr., sitting behind his desk at Velocette Records. Philip is remembering growing up in Macon during Capricorn Records' heyday of the 1970s. He started working in the mailroom at 13 and rose to executive vice president. "All the secretaries were 18, 19 years old, good-looking hippie chicks. It was wonderful. I had a blast. And of course, I was too young to really get into any serious trouble. I was 13, 14, 15 years old. It's probably good I wasn't 19 or 20. I may not have survived. I wasn't up there snorting coke, having martinis for lunch. I was a fairly innocent kid, more interested in copping a feel off one of the secretaries than the other things that were going on."

Mixing family with business had been a hallmark of the Waldens' style long before Philip Jr. hit puberty. Following the example set by the family clothing company where his father worked, Phil Walden recruited his younger brother, Alan, to mind his growing music operation when the Army drafted Phil in the early '60s. Though in his early 20s at the time, Phil had been booking bands for years for high school and college parties. Alan also joined on as co-manager of a young, black R&B singer whom Phil had discovered in high school. Otis Redding wasn't just any singer, though, and the Waldens would take him from local talent-show champ to become one of the world's most cherished soul singers.

As Phil and Alan steered other Southern soul acts -- including Sam and Dave and Percy Sledge -- to international success, their father C.B. came to work as Redding's road manager. A few years late, a third brother, Clark "Blue" Walden, signed on as office controller.

"The family operation is what made it successful," says Alan, who went on to manage Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Entertainers in particular love to know they have loyal people representing them. For them to see a family working together meant something to them. It was something that a lot of families don't do."

Redding's death in a 1967 plane crash devastated the Waldens, both personally and professionally. Not only had Redding been maturing as a singer and songwriter, Phil and Alan counted him among their closest friends. Redding was so important to the Waldens, in fact, that four decades later his memory looms as large as ever among family and co-workers. Jucifer's Amber Valentine recalls that on her band's only meeting with Phil Walden, in 1999, he treated them to stories about his breakthrough artist.

It took two years to regain momentum after Redding's death. But Phil Walden struck gold again when he came across a gifted young guitarist named Duane Allman at a Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio. Anxious to rebuild his business around rock 'n' roll, Walden signed Allman, moved him to Macon, helped build a band around him and, with the support of Jerry Wexler's Atlantic Records, founded Capricorn Records so that he could put out records by the newly formed Allman Brothers Band.

Led by Duane and his brother Gregg, Southern boys who had grown up in Florida, the Allman Brothers suited the Walden ethos perfectly. With the two families teamed up at Capricorn, the Allman Brothers would become so huge that even Duane's death, in a 1971 motorcycle accident, didn't derail them. Their success made Macon ground zero of Southern rock. And Capricorn, then operating out of Walden's office downtown, was the genre's signature label. The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, the Dixie Dregs, Wet Willie and others rode the Allmans' coattails to success at Capricorn, and by the mid-'70s, Walden's Macon empire had grown to include the label, the management company, a recording studio, a booking agency, a travel agency, a string of real estate holdings and a private jet.

Even for the 1970s, long before multinational corporations ran the music business, Capricorn's down-home style was unique. The annual Capricorn Picnic in Macon was a reunion of bands, staff, friends and family, and it attracted celebrities from Andy Warhol to boxing promoter Don King to then-governor Jimmy Carter, whose run for president Walden and the Allmans supported with a series of benefit concerts.

Among musicians, Capricorn was appreciated for its laid-back, hands-off approach to music. Phil Walden may have critics who grumble about his business practices, but none say he intruded in the recording studio.

"He loves music, almost romanticizes it," record executive Danny Goldberg says. Now the head of Artemis Records, Goldberg ran Mercury Records in 1996, when it formed a joint venture with Capricorn. "He really cares about developing the artist. He's not someone who very often talks about how much money something's making. He's just always talking about the music."

But as the 1970s came to a close, disco was on the rise and Southern rock on the wane. Capricorn's operating budget remained huge and, at the height of rock's era of excess, spending was rampant. Meanwhile, drug use and infighting were splitting apart Capricorn's bread-and-butter act. When the Allman Brothers' income began falling short of expenses, they looked toward Walden -- who was the Allmans' manager, music publisher and label boss. The band sued Walden and won, the courts ruling that Capricorn had underpaid royalties.

Walden's problems didn't end with the court battle. Capricorn was heavily in debt and didn't have strong prospects of bouncing back. Polygram Records, the company's major-label partner at the time, pulled the plug. Capricorn filed for bankruptcy in 1979.

Through it all, Walden managed to come away from Capricorn's death with his personal fortune at least partly intact. At that point, he might simply have faded into history as a key figure in Southern rock and soul. But Walden had not yet sunk to his deepest depths. And in making his most spectacular comeback, he'd earn an even greater legacy as the Southern-fried Lazarus of the music business.

With his Macon empire in ruins, Walden moved to Nashville in 1984. Things got worse. He separated from his second wife, Peggy, who went to work in a shoe store to help support herself and teenage daughter Amantha. Walden, meanwhile, moved into an efficiency apartment that likely would have fit into the Capricorn jet.

The final indignity came in 1986, when Capricorn Records' assets were sold at a liquidation auction at the Macon Coliseum, site of some of the most seminal Southern rock concerts of the Capricorn era. Gold and platinum records, financial statements from Capricorn concerts, even Walden's custom-made Volkswagen beach buggy -- all of it went to the highest bidder.

Walden himself was miles away, sliding into a pit.

"I'd come in, turn the TV on, turn the sound down, turn on the stereo," Walden told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991. "I'd pull a bag of dope out, get a bottle of cognac, get a pile of cocaine and stare at the screen 'til 4 or 5 in the morning, then stumble into bed, and would literally pray that I would not wake up."

In a 1999 interview, he told the daily, "It was quite an incredible life, and then I chose to darken the room with my alcohol and drug use. I was literally at the point of suicide. There was an era when I would walk into a room and I would hear people whisper about how I used to be somebody. I was an absolute lunatic. By noon, I would be so paranoid that I was crawling around the floor peeking out of blinds."

Somewhere, though, Walden found the strength to bounce back. In 1987, Walden got clean and reunited with Peggy. He also got back into artist management and stumbled upon a major success with the most unlikely of talents. Jim Varney was not a rocker, but rather an actor. He was no Lawrence Olivier. He portrayed a lovable redneck named Ernest P. Worrell, who was gaining attention for his regional "Hey Vern" commercials. Walden's near-miracle -- taking a gawky, middle-aged TV pitchman to become a nationally recognized redneck icon and title character of three Ernest movies -- may seem less glorious than shepherding Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers to stardom. But it proved yet again that Walden's gift for spotting and developing talent was a potent, marketable skill.

By 1991, R.E.M. had broken through into the mainstream and scored their first No. 1 album. The Black Crowes were riding the top of the charts with their debut album, and in Nashville, Garth Brooks was bringing country music to a national audience. The eyes of the music world were on the South once again.

Walden saw an opportunity and sold an old associate, Warner Bros. chairman Mo Ostin, on backing a relaunch of Capricorn. With a joint-venture in place with the industry's most prestigious company and Athens' jam-rockers Widespread Panic as its first signing, Capricorn was poised to re-establish itself as a home for Southern music.

Still, the early years of Capricorn's second coming were rough going. With no big hits, hefty losses and its patron Ostin ousted in a corporate shake-up, Capricorn's three-year deal with Warner Bros. ended in 1994 and was not renewed. By 1996, after two years going it as an independent, Capricorn was still losing money. Deep in debt to its distributor, RED, Capricorn was in jeopardy of folding again, this time without ever having gotten going.

But through the early '90s, Capricorn also was developing a couple of promising bands, including 311, Cake and the steadily climbing Widespread Panic.

Danny Goldberg recognized the potential and, with bankruptcy on the horizon again for Capricorn, inked a new joint-venture between Mercury and Capricorn. The deal offered an influx of cash and distribution through Mercury's parent company, Polygram.

It began paying off almost immediately. By the spring of '96, Walden was once again on a roll. 311 went platinum, with Cake to follow shortly. As he'd long intended, Walden pulled up Nashville stakes and headed back to Georgia. In 1997, Capricorn set up shop in Atlanta, where it joined LaFace Records and producer Brendan O'Brien's 57 Records in what was suddenly a booming music-industry town.

Then, history began to repeat itself. Walden, flush with sales for the first time in two decades, purchased a $2 million-plus house, a 1926 design by noted Atlanta architect Neel Reid, on Buckhead's exclusive Habersham Road and set about an extensive expansion and remodeling. Next came the downtown building, large enough for a staff that swelled to 42 by the end of 1998.

"Buildings were purchased, big moves, all the cars, the house," says Widespread Panic manager Buck Williams, who had worked for Walden in the '70s. "I bet I've said it a 100 times, 'I have seen this movie before. I already know the ending.'"

Clouds began forming in early '99 when Polygram was purchased by Universal Music, another huge conglomerate of record labels. In the process of streamlining the two companies to avoid overlap, thousands of music-industry employees lost their jobs, including Capricorn's patron, Goldberg. Venerable labels such as Geffen, A&M and, eventually, Mercury were shut down.

Though Universal was contractually bound to honor the Capricorn deal it inherited from Mercury, Capricorn's releases were not a priority in terms of promotion and distribution. "The new regime was playing with a totally different kind of economics," Goldberg says. "They were in a heavy cost-cutting mode to satisfy the stock market. And Phil didn't really have the relationship with people there that he did with me. And I just don't think they wanted to be in the joint-venture business. He happened to enter a time when the model he had was out of fashion."

The Waldens were eager to buy back Universal's share of Capricorn and move somewhere else, but their timing couldn't have been worse. Through 1999 and 2000, overall sales were declining as the popularity of the label's biggest act, 311, waned. Meanwhile, the recording contracts of Capricorn's other two big sellers, Cake and Widespread Panic, both were expiring.

As the Waldens tried to find a new corporate benefactor to invest in the label and distribute its records, they found themselves in a Catch-22: To attract an investor, Capricorn had to demonstrate future sales potential by re-signing its top acts. But to re-sign its top acts, it had to convince the bands to forgo offers from larger, more secure companies so they could stay with a label in limbo.

"I knocked on every door in the business trying to do a joint-venture deal with Capricorn, and it was not out there," says Mike Bone, who at that time was the company's general manager. "People didn't want to do a deal with Capricorn."

With Widespread Panic soon signed to Sanctuary Records, and Cake inking with Sony, the possibility of finding a good deal began to dwindle. Then, last August, 311 -- convinced their declining sales reflected something other than the natural arc of the band's popularity -- filed suit against Capricorn to gain release from the label.

Capricorn continued to release albums, including the debuts by Athens bands Jucifer and The Glands, both signed by Phil's nephew Jason Walden, the latest relative to join the company. But with Universal aware of, even encouraging, Capricorn's plans to break away, the larger company had little incentive to push those records into stores, despite excellent critical reception. With no other option, Capricorn began laying off its employees. "We tried to keep things going," Philip Jr. says. "We kept our staff on as long as we could."

The Waldens tried to treat departing employees with the same respect and loyalty they'd given the extended family that attended Capricorn Picnics back in the '70s. As the staff dwindled down to 10 by last fall, workers were sent home with their computers. "We bent over backward to make people leave here feeling good about the way things happened," Phil Jr. says. "In the grand scheme, that computer doesn't mean shit to me, but if you just lost your job, you probably need it."

As they had before, the Waldens as individuals managed to retain the respect of their bands, even when the company failed to deliver. Jack Logan, whose sole Capricorn release in 1999 sold dismally, says, "Of the record companies I've dealt with in the past, Philip [Jr.] is the only guy that didn't strike me as being totally full of shit. He completely told me what he thought about stuff. He came through on the stuff he said he could do, and other stuff he said he couldn't do."

When they could no longer afford to search for an investor to keep the company going, the Waldens found a way out. But the terms of the deal were harsh: For a reported $13 million, Capricorn would transfer most of its assets -- including current contracts and recent back catalog -- to New York-based Volcano Records. What's more, according to Bone, the Waldens agreed not to use the Capricorn name for five years to avoid confusion in the market.

The family retired the Capricorn name, which had been chosen because it's the astrological sign Phil Walden shares with his mentor Jerry Wexler. The family settled instead on Velocette, a somewhat randomly chosen tag the label shares with a vintage brand of British motorcycles and a late-'90s London rock band. With the contracts and catalog releases of multi-platinum acts gone, in came a roster limited to Jucifer, The Glands, Nashville's the Honeyrods and Beulah from California.

Today, Velocette has four principals -- all Waldens. Besides Phil, there's his son, Philip, who joined the business after working as a lawyer for a year at King & Spalding. While Philip clearly prefers running a record label to working at a law firm, the marathon runner and father of three also seems partly out of place in the rock world. That, to some extent, is a result of his paradoxical upbringing.

"In Macon, there were two worlds. My mother was sort of conservative. My dad is not. So I had both of those things going on. I went to a private school -- there's a picture of me in, like, fourth grade, and I've got on these double-knit slacks with an embroidered shirt, and a turquoise bracelet with long hair. So I was just confused about the whole thing."

Philip's half-sister, Amantha, never thought she'd end up in the family business. Too young to have enjoyed Capricorn's first heyday, she saw firsthand the toll that period took on her father later. "It wasn't that I didn't have a passion for music, just that it was Dad's business, and I wanted to do my own thing. I was kind of denying it forever -- saying, 'No, yuck, I don't want to work there' -- even at first while I was here. But it changed for me and it all seemed to make sense -- I was like, 'Whoa, what am I doing? This comes very naturally to me, this is definitely my thing.'"

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Amantha spent three years in Capricorn's art department, and in 1999 moved into artist development. Having grown up away from her brother and cousins while in Nashville, she has reconnected to her family through her time with the company.

"Amantha, she's like the sister I never had," says Velocette's head of A&R Jason Walden, 31, whose father, Blue, and older brother, G. Scott, both did stints with Capricorn. On business trips and nights out to see bands in clubs, Amantha and Jason often can be seen side by side.

"There's common ground," Amantha says. "A lot of people don't get a chance to work in something they really love and Dad's a huge inspiration to us. We want to continue that, and that has a lot to do with it."

For the Waldens, however, family has long meant more than a last name. From the beginning of Capricorn's relaunch a decade ago, Phil Walden's desire to surround himself with old loyals and fellow Southerners was family oriented to the point of seeming patriarchal. Phil rehired employees who had been with him at the original Capricorn, including top executives and his secretary, Carolyn Killen, with him since the '60s. Walden also recruited expatriate Georgians Michelle Roche, current head of publicity, and Mike Bone, who both returned to the state from music-industry jobs in Los Angeles.

Family businesses, however, aren't always smooth sailing. Amantha acknowledges that family ties can help ease and open communication in a business, but says, "The bad side of the family thing is that people do sometimes bring in family feelings that really aren't a part of business, but end up playing out in."

Recalls Pinky Mangold, who worked as an office assistant in the late '90s: "What was typically said is, 'The best part about Capricorn is it's like a family; the worst part about Capricorn is it's like a family.' It was a great support system when people needed someone for bad times in their lives, and it was bad in that some people took things personally."

Sometimes, acrimonious breakups led to lawsuits, like when Don Schmitzerlee, a '70s staffer brought back as general manager in the early '90s, sued for wrongful discharge. He was fired in 1996 and he settled out of court.

But it was the most recent lawsuit -- filed last March, after the company effectively ceased to exist -- that continues to sting Phil Walden and his family worst of all.

Mike Bone's first encounter with Phil Walden came in 1967, outside a tailor shop in Macon. "I walked out and there on the curb was this tangerine-colored Cadillac and Otis Redding was sitting in it. And there was this white guy sitting in the front seat. You know, I was a high-school kid, and I went over to Otis Redding because he was the biggest thing, ever. A god. And this white guy was like, 'Come on, Otis, we gotta go.' And so they drove off. Otis was very kind, but I said to my friend, 'Who's that asshole with Otis Redding?'

"And that was the first time I met Phil Walden."

The paths of Bone and Walden wouldn't cross in any significant way for another 30 years. Bone, though, was climbing up the music business ladder. In the '70s, he worked for Atlanta promoter Alex Cooley. A succession of big label gigs followed -- Mercury, Arista, Elektra, Chrysalis, Island, then back to Mercury in 1990 as president.

In 1997, he came to Capricorn, where he would become general manager, the highest-ranking non-Walden, with a salary of $275,000. Part of his employment agreement specifies he would receive 5 percent of the net proceeds if the company was sold during his tenure. Given the $13 million sale price minus Capricorn's debts, Bone figures he's owed around $400,000.

In March, when the sale to Volcano came and went without a payment, Bone filed a lawsuit in California, demanding he be paid. What seems to have bothered the Waldens more is that he used the lawsuit as a public forum to embarrass Phil and Philip Jr., alleging improprieties that ranged from misuse of funds to creating "an unproductive and hostile work environment at Capricorn by engaging in an extra-marital affair."

While many former employees dispute there was ever a hostile environment, it's shaken the Waldens' sense of equanimity. Sources close to Phil Walden say he's extremely hurt by what he sees as a Macon boy's betrayal of one of his own.

"It's sort of a family here," Philip Jr. says, "and anybody who's had an intimate relationship with people for three or four years is going to hear things, people are going to talk about things, you're going to come to them with personal problems, and for advice. Then, to take that information and somehow couch it into a lawsuit so you can stick it in the newspaper. I think any normal person can look at that and form their own conclusions of the type of person who does that thing. ... And the only reason Mike Bone knew about any of that stuff was because we considered him a friend and a part of our family."

Bone remains undeterred.

"They are so image-conscious," Bone says of the Waldens, "and this is the only way I can get to that. As much as I love Phil Walden, he's out to hurt me so I'm out to hurt him. I've said that I would take a bullet for this man, he's one of my heroes, but he's not going to screw my family. ... They picked the wrong guy to fuck with, plainly put."

As it happens, the Waldens had anticipated Bone's lawsuit, filing their own a day earlier in Georgia courts. The Waldens' suit asks the judge to rule that an exact figure for the net proceeds of the sale cannot be determined as yet, and therefore Bone will need to wait until a full accounting of the company's liabilities can be made. Alternately, it suggests that Bone is not owed a sales bonus at all because he violated his confidentiality agreement when he discussed details of the sale with others, including CL.

In an amended complaint filed in June, the Waldens accuse Bone of invasion of privacy and slander stemming from "false statements made by [Bone] regarding [the Waldens'] professional and business behavior."

Meanwhile, Velocette kicks off with Jucifer's release Aug. 7. The younger generation of Waldens is busy doing the legwork, while Phil pushes ahead with an eye on other goals. He's exploring the possibility of producing films, and has optioned a screenplay of Mississippi writer Larry Brown's novel, Joe. He also continues to develop an Otis Redding film that's been in the works for years.

Philip Jr. isn't putting all his chips in Velocette's basket either. With law partner Leon Jones and a legal assistant setting up shop in a spare office at the label, Philip has started his own law firm.

Jason Walden grew up in Macon with his mom and his brother, somewhat splintered from the clan after his parents divorced and his father, Blue, died in 1977. After high school, Jason made his way to Athens, a self-described "frustrated musician" who never joined a band and who worked as a bus boy and in landscaping. While it probably didn't prepare him for life as a Capricorn executive, his admittedly slack existence may have been an ideal place to develop the musical sensibilities he brings to Velocette.

Now 31, he's probably the most musically informed, and musically obsessed, of the younger Waldens, though he didn't come to work for the company until two years ago. "I wanted to be asked to be involved," he says. "I didn't like the nepotistic line of it. I wanted it to be on my merit."

As a former director of A&R at Capricorn, and now as Velocette's head of A&R, Jason is responsible for signing three of the four bands on the current roster: Jucifer, The Glands and Beulah. "There's not so much a direction, as just, you know, bands that I really dug," he says of his signings. "Bands that had a lot of integrity, and a certain marketability. I just think that they're three kick-ass bands."

At a time when prefab pop, hip-hop and rap-metal rule the charts, arranging a label around a group of bands because they're "kick ass" may sound like a dubious marketing strategy. But with Jason's good taste and enthusiasm -- and with his last name -- you just never know.

"I would never count them out," says Adam Raspler, 311's manager. "They've done it before, they can do it again. I think that's the Walden way."

And if Phil Walden's latest new beginning doesn't rise to the level of previous heights, at least it managed to keep a family close together for a little while longer.

"I'm just very grateful that Phil met Otis Redding," Jason says, in his spare, desk-free office at Velocette.

"We just know we have a great thing, and it's in our blood. The sense of camaraderie, the fact that we're family and we have this common goal. We know we have this special thing. It's like the Mafia say, 'This thing we have.' That's almost what we the Waldens have. We have the common bond, that music works for us. And that's a big factor in the closeness. We feel like we're special."

RONI.SARIG@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

 

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