Pin It

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

Page 3 of 7

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.

  • Pin It


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story


Search Events

Recent Comments

© 2014 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation