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Capricorn Records was formed in 1969 in Georgia by brothers Phil and Alan Walden and their friend Frank Fenter, Capricorn Records was the label without which the Southern Rock genre would not exist. But as well as giving the world one awesome band in the Allman Brothers and several other really good ones like the Marshall Tucker Band and Wet Willie, Capricorn Records, in a small way, had a part to play in the civil rights struggle. Here's their story.
Phil managed Otis Reading from 1959 until Reading's death in 1967 and also looked after a roster of R and B acts including Al Green and Percy Sledge. This brought him into contact with Atlantic Records players like Jerry Wexler who, along with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, was well on his way to legendary status.
Reading's death in 1967 was a massive blow to Phil Walden on both a personal and professional level. His close friend's tragic demise in a plane crash was devastating, while the loss of his biggest star was obviously a commercial gut-shot. A couple of years passed, and then Phil met a young guitarist called Duane Allman at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Duane was already a highly accomplished session musician whose star was on the rise for his work on albums like Wilson Pickett's Hey Jude.
Phil immediately saw the potential and urged Duane to form his own band. With brother Greg brought in on vocals and the exciting jazz talent Jaimoe Johanson on drums/percussion, Dickey Betts on guitar, Berry Oakley on bass and Butch Trucks also drumming, they clicked instantly. They moved to Macon, Georgia to be nearer Phil and the nascent Capricorn Records label, which was set up with Jerry Wexler's blessing as an Atlantic subsidiary. They chose the name partly because Jerry and Phil shared that star-sign.
Georgia was not, it seems fair to say, an especially progressive place in the late sixties, so a band with both white and black members was definitely an eyebrow-raiser. The Allmans were a big success, real quickly. Their double album 'At Fillmore East' - which we talk about in more depth later in our series on that legendary venue - is one of rock's great live recordings. Capricorn were not slow to see the commercial potential of mixing blues rock with a little country flavour and they soon had a lucrative set of labelmates for the Allmans.
Capricorn developed and released a variety of bands in a similar vein to the Allman Brothers including South Carolinians The Marshall Tucker Band, Alabama's Wet Willie, Mississippi's Chaz Van Gogh, the Elvin Bishop Band from Oklahoma and local Georgia boys Grinderswitch. The last-named penned 'Pickin' The Blues' - which John Peel used as his radio show theme song for many years.
Even the tragic death of Duane Allman, aged just 24, in a 1971 motorcycle accident scarcely dimmed the Allmans commercial clout, and Capricorn records enjoyed a hugely profitable first half of the seventies. The empire grew and grew - a studio, real estate, booking agencies, a travel agent (!) and the obligatory private jet.
But the Allmans really knew how to enjoy themselves and their massive spending eventually outstripped even their earnings. Once the fashions started to change and disco became the money-maker, Capricorn's banker stopped making money. It all turned a bit ugly, and the band sued the label for underpaid royalties and won. The label was no longer with Atlantic, and, having had a spell under Warners, was a PolyGram subsidiary. But PolyGram wouldn't bail them out and, in 1979, Capricorn was declared bankrupt.
Phil Walden had a titanic battle with drugs for much of the eighties but managed to get clean towards the end of the decade. He had lost none of his flair for a commercial opportunity and launched the career of actor Jim Varney, whose redneck alter ego Ernest P. Worrell became a national star with three successful comic movies. Okay, it wasn't the Allman Brothers, but Phil was back in the game, and soon he was able to persuade Warner Brothers to back him with a relaunched Capricorn Records.
With the massive early nineties popularity of Garth Brooks and other county acts, Phil's flair for marketing Southern, country-tinged rock was once again in demand. Acts like Widespread Panic, 311 and the excellent Cake gave the new Capricorn some success up until the mid-nineties. But Phil rather overspent , and as the popularity of the label's three main acts waned throughout the decade, the new incarnation of Capricorn also folded at the turn of the millennium. Phil Walden died in 2006.
He and Capricorn are remembered fondly as a label that put their artists and the development of the music first, as well as bringing Southern Rock to a wide audience and, of course, showcasing the Allman Brothers.