Music industry insider memoirs should always be enjoyed with a gimlet eye. One must expect spin at the very least, exaggeration, perhaps some score settling, and -- always -- some not-crystal-clear recollections.
When they are assembled like “Southern Man, Music and Mayhem In the American South” by Alan Walden, as a series of anecdotes, loosely chronological, and rendered more as a story told leaning on a bar than a precise recounting of events -- they move from ‘definitive history’ to what should be more accurately referred to as ‘source material.’ But Walden was right there from the early rock ‘n’ roll days on up through the early 80s heyday of “Southern Rock” and shares some flavor of what it was like from the business side. Maybe not a strict documentary account, but barroom tales are always more fun anyway.
In Alan Walden’s telling, with S.E. Feinberg, there is a tale of success, tragedy, glorious comeback and yet more tragedy. There is also the very odd fact that Macon, Georgia, an astonishingly racist place in that time, was a creative nexus in the transformation of chitlin’ circuit ‘race music’ into the apotheosis of modern American popular music -- this country’s greatest contribution to world culture.
And, in a very important way, Macon, and its hometown artists and talent managers, helped to bring about the civil rights movement and greater cultural integration than ever before. These early days are the most compelling part of this book. Nothing against The Outlaws, whose success is detailed later in the book, but they’re not even in the same universe as Otis Redding.
Alan’s brother Phil was the genius behind the artist management and production businesses they built together and apart, and Phil managed Otis Redding. Alan readily and repeatedly acknowledges his brother’s leadership in the book. But he also makes it clear he felt his own contributions were never acknowledged as they should have been, leading to the perception of bitterness -- justified probably -- and also the reader’s sense he may not be an entirely reliable narrator. Shocking, I know.
Phil Walden produced, managed, and was a business partner with his childhood friend, Otis Redding. He had built a sizable operation by the time he was drafted into the Army. While he was away, his brother Alan managed the business and became a skilled talent manager himself. From there followed decades of ups and downs together and apart -- and exactly who did what to whom and when is not settled in this book. But there was undoubtedly a bright shining moment in the early 1960s when Phil Walden Artist Management represented the greatest group of American popular music talent, barnstorming the country with now-iconic black artists playing rhythm and blues.
The death of Otis Redding at age 26 was a major turning point in both men’s careers, as was the forming of Capricorn Records in 1970. Alan was involved in the early days of Capricorn but left to start his own label. There he ultimately found and developed Lynyrd Skynyrd and oversaw their first two albums. He describes their eventual parting of ways as part of the generally unsavory aspects of the music business, and blames the plane crash that killed most of the band on their new management.
There is some insight in this book on the business of music -- keep the books correctly, always take the percentage over the upfront money, and keep an eye on the promoter. But mostly it’s just personal reflections and remembrances. Reflections from a person who was attacked by both white and black mobs in the Jim Crow south should have more insight into the racism of the era. He provides his own non-racist and anti-racist bona fides -- but seems to implicitly accept the virulent racism of Macon as the way things are -- and though he did his part to bring black music to any audience he could -- it is clear he did so as a businessman. Racially integrated audiences contributed to changing attitudes in the country, which was nice, but the real point was the bottom line.
The subtitle of this book is, “Music and Mayhem in the American South.” The violence is remarkable -- fistfights are typical, brutal beatings occur, guns are carried, pulled, and fired. There are firebombings, gang assaults and all kinds of craziness. There are quite a few pages in this book that rhapsodize about the hospitable and friendly south, and the lazy days by the fishing hole -- which may well be -- but that is interspersed with a whole lot of punching, stabbing, shooting, burning, and pistol-whipping.
Without his brother, the author’s greatest claim to fame is the discovery and development of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- a genuinely monster band with a tremendous influence. The whiplash of going from managing a saintly (the book makes clear) avatar of racial progress -- to drunken confederate flag waving rednecks (the author’s pejorative, not mine) is pretty stunning. But it is also clear that a manager or producer finds acts, develops them and sells them to an audience who wants to see them. The deeper meanings are for others to figure out. Once again, the bottom line is what is important.
Of course, after two huge albums, Skynyrd fires the author -- though he still retains some financial interest. That may be why the author describes Ronnie Van Zant as essentially a psychotic, violent, drunk. A musical phenom but not a nice person. Since we will never get the other side of the story, it all has to be taken with a grain of salt. Towards the end of the book he somewhat sarcastically thanks the Outlaws and Skynrd for making him “wealthy man.”
This book might be of interest to the completist who is into Otis Redding, or Skynyrd. But probably wouldn’t end up on the shelf of a Stax or Muscle Shoals history, where his brother figured much more prominently and the younger Walden had no discernable impact. He booked bands and got them to gigs and got them paid.
But he was there, no doubt, at a time in the south when a white man with a whole lot of black friends could be in some serious trouble. And the author is clearly not a racist in his personal dealings -- but he also seems to regard racism, and the brutalization it results in, as a sort of inevitability -- good ol’ boys doin’ what good ol’ boys do -- just the way things are. It strikes a jarring note.
By way of a stunning example: Percy Sledge was a top artist under the management of the Walden brothers whose home was burned to the ground by racists when he tried to move to Macon. Says Walden, “A lot of black acts came through and visited Macon because of the friendly hospitality there. Many of them moved to Macon. Of course, Percy Sledge got burned out, but that was more the exception than the rule. Macon had pretty good race relations. It wasn’t perfect, but it was okay.”
Describing a town where a black man was firebombed out of his home as having “pretty good race relations” shows where the bar was set in Macon.
It’s an interesting oral history of an important corner of the pop music story. But like many tales told at the bar, there’s a feeling there might be some exaggeration. But better not argue, you could get punched in the face.