During the 1970s, Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records made Macon a haven for southern music, specifically for a genre known as “southern rock.” Capricorn’s successes and failures can be directly attributed to the relationship between Phil Walden and the members of the Allman Brothers Band, particularly Duane Allman. Other Capricorn recording artists included Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Bramlett, Cowboy, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Dixie Dregs, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie.
As a college student in Macon at Mercer University, from which he graduated in 1962, Walden started his career in the music industry. He began by booking bands for high schools and colleges and then, along with his brother Alan, managed a number of rhythm and blues performers, including Clarence Carter, Arthur Conley, Al Green, Johnny Jenkins, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Percy Sledge. Walden hoped to establish a record label with Redding, a very promising performer, but Redding’s death in a 1967 plane crash ended that dream.
As a manager, Walden worked closely during the 1960s with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, which was known for its rhythm-and-blues focus. The relationship led Walden to discover the session guitarist Duane Allman, who was under contract with Atlantic. Allman played on sessions for numerous Atlantic artists, including those in Walden’s stable. Walden, however, saw more than a session guitarist in Allman; he saw a star and convinced Allman to move from Florida to Macon. Walden then purchased Allman’s contract from Wexler with the idea of fulfilling his dream to own a label.
In 1969 Wexler, along with Walden and cofounder Frank Fenter, established the Capricorn Record Series, which was named for Wexler and Walden’s astrological sign, on the Atlantic imprint ATCO. Although Capricorn was not yet its own label, it was a start in the right direction for Walden, who also wanted a recording studio, with its own studio musicians and songwriters, that would be similar to those of Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Allman, Bonnie Bramlett, and Johnny Jenkins were signed as Capricorn’s first artists.
Walden credited Capricorn’s eventual success to Duane Allman, who recruited his brother, Gregg, to form the Allman Brothers Band. The brothers’ first album, The Allman Brothers Band, was released in 1969 and sold just 33,000 copies. The band’s second album, Idlewild South, did little better. In addition to the Allman Brothers Band, Capricorn released albums by Cowboy, Johnny Jenkins, Livingston Taylor, Wet Willie, and others, and finally became its own label, initially distributed by ATCO, in 1971.
Both Walden and the Allman Brothers Band believed that the band was at its best in concert and not in the recording studio. The point was reinforced when Capricorn and the Allman Brothers finally hit the big time upon the release of the double album At Fillmore East (1971), which has been praised by rock critics as one of the best live rock albums ever made. Rolling Stone magazine called it “the finest live rock performance ever committed to vinyl.” Despite this success, Walden believed that Atlantic was holding Capricorn back, so he moved the label to Warner Brothers in 1972.
Capricorn’s successes and failures were tied closely to the Allman Brothers Band, which was dramatically and negatively affected by the accidental motorcycle deaths of Duane Allman in 1971 and bassist Berry Oakley in 1972. The band played on, but there were creative differences and personal riffs that ultimately led to the group’s breakup in 1976. Some of the members formed another group called Sea Level, a jazz-influenced ensemble that also recorded for Capricorn. The Allman Brothers Band eventually regrouped in 1978 and recorded several poorly received albums.
Walden once again moved Capricorn distribution, this time to PolyGram Records, but in 1979, during the disco-dominated era, PolyGram eliminated the Capricorn label. Walden filed for bankruptcy in 1980, and the Capricorn label remained defunct until 1990, when Walden resurrected it in Nashville, Tennessee. Capricorn rejoined Warner Records and in 1991 released the first album by Widespread Panic, a band from Athens. A few years later, in 1995, Capricorn released an album by Brute, a band formed by Widespread Panic and Athens musician Vic Chesnutt. The next year, Walden moved Capricorn to Atlanta and sold half interest in the company to PolyGram/Mercury. Because PolyGram/Mercury, which was acquired by Universal Music in 1998, owned the master tapes from Capricorn’s first incarnation, the deal prompted the reissue of many of the label’s earlier recordings—led, naturally, by the Allman Brothers Band.
Walden died in Atlanta of cancer in April 2006. Later that year, a memorial fund was established in his name at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business to support the school’s Interdisciplinary Certificate in Music Business program.