Almost 20 years after he retired – and nigh onto 60 years after his older brother Phil drafted him into Phil’s music promotion company – you might think Alan Walden’s recollection of his decades managing acts across the South and beyond would have gotten a bit hazy. Reading Walden’s new memoir Southern Man: Music and Mayhem in the American South, it’s a delight to discover that his memory of events is crystal clear. Walden’s story is well-told and one gets the feeling that it could have turned out otherwise, in any number of ways.
Southern Man opens with not one but two introductions. The first, written from Walden’s point of view, teases the main themes of the life story that will follow. His sentences are short and inelegant, and he winds his way through more than one aborted tangent before reaching his intended anecdote. The second intro comes from co-author S.E. Feinberg, who previously co-wrote singer-songwriter P.F. Sloan’s 2014 memoir, What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? This one offers a vivid setting, over which the author relates a compelling story of how he came to find himself at the front door of this legendary figure from behind the curtain of American music history. Feinberg’s introduction moves with a facility and a sophistication that Walden’s lacks.
Reading these introductions back-to-back, I’m given to wonder if there were times during the duo’s collaboration when Feinberg was tempted to hijack the narrative, to take Walden’s dozens of tales about this soul singer or that Southern rock band, to tweak them into something more concise. But while I might wonder, I don’t regret Feinberg’s restraint. Past the introduction, Southern Man’s voice reverts to Walden’s, and while the result has a tendency to meander, with prose that’s less than soaring, Walden’s natural warmth and enthusiasm easily shine through without the aid of rhetorical tricks.
“Alan’s ‘voice’ was the most important element,” Feinberg relays via email. He describes the painstaking task of transcribing and editing down 500 pages worth of recorded interviews with Walden. “Writers will often put too much of themselves into the narrative and I wanted to make sure it was Alan’s story as told to us by Alan. This process took about six months.”
The process pays off. Telling the story of a life begun in the segregated Georgia town of Macon, chronicling a career that oversaw the rise of multiple music legends, Southern Man has the feel of stumbling upon an old-timer holding court in the corner of a bar. Keep an open mind, give them enough time, and these folks will often surprise you with a story or two that you never could have predicted about their past. Feinberg agrees, “I was going after a sort of ‘sitting on the porch on a warm afternoon’ feel. I pictured the reader sitting on the steps and maybe Alan in a rocking chair, telling these amazing stories.” With Walden, those stories just keep coming, from the moment he joins Phil Walden Artists and begins building a music management empire from their home base in Macon – an empire that owes much of its early rise to the success of fellow Maconite Otis Redding.
While generally running in chronological order, Walden’s narrative ducks down alleyways from time to time. References to more obscure figures come up. As with any barroom oration, wherein the speaker assumes too much familiarity, it’s best not to interrupt – there’s no need to stop and google any names. As Feinberg tells me, “The challenge was always to remember to keep it conversational and not get caught up in the weeds.” Indeed, Walden’s lesser-known associates serve just fine as a supporting cast in the dozens of episodes he chronicles. You wouldn’t stop the stranger in the bar to make sure you had all your names straight. The payoffs to these stories are just as rewarding to the newcomer as they are to the insider.
The Waldens’ early soul-singing roster – Redding included – are a surprisingly rough-and-tumble bunch, in contrast to their staider public image. Before the ’60 are over, Walden himself will get into gunfights, battle crooked promoters and law enforcement, and even be dangled out of a seventh-story window by an intoxicated Johnnie Taylor and Sam Moore and Dave Prater of Sam & Dave. “I had no idea about how dangerous and rough those early days were—performing inside, while the car was being torched outside,” says Feinberg
In keeping with its title, Southern Man maintains a strong sense of place throughout. Walden’s asides about the racist culture of the time are frank and sometimes chilling, e.g., of the local county sheriff where Redding’s Big ‘O’ Ranch stood: “It was rumored he had a noose hanging over his desk to intimidate African Americans.” By the same token, his descriptions of that surroundings are lovingly evocative. For example, while Redding and Walden are out hunting one day, the beauty of the ranch prompts Redding into some poignant philosophical musings.
“I have been a simple man all my life,” Walden declares in Southern Man, adding in a few lines from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man’ for emphasis. And in simple terms, he explains the honest philosophy that governed his dealings with musicians. “We tried to ensure that the wonderful talents got what they deserved,” he tells us. It doesn’t take too many more pages to illustrate just how exceptional such a credo is in Walden’s line of work.
The Waldens’ business, however, is about more than simply doling out honest earnings to a stable of Black entertainers. Often the brothers act as a team on equal footing with the African American performers. Their work with Redding goes beyond even that already extraordinary (for its time) partnership. “When Phil and Otis and me sat down for a meeting,” Walden asserts, “we had a triangular brain.” The Walden-Redding trio expands from a performer-promoter team into music publishing with the Redwal company, and Walden even ends up co-writing half a dozen Redding songs.
The most incredible accomplishment Redding and the Waldens can claim is also the book’s most touching moment. Walden describes with evident gratification his father’s evolution away from the typical white racism of the time – a change he credits to Redding. Walden doesn’t always maintain the saintly aura of Redding’s mythology, but in this instance, the singer is every bit the inspirational figure of public legend.
Otis Redding had an infectious, optimistic personality, and it opened my father’s eyes. He loved Otis so much that he slowly became aware of how he was being treated by some white people, and that made him feel bad and remorseful—then renewed his spirit. Otis turned him. Otis softened his heart. He got into seeing how all Black people were treated and saw how it affected Otis. That’s when he really began to question the morality of segregation of any kind, and to understand integration.– Alan Walden
Though the Waldens start off with a stable of soul and R&B artists, booking them first at frat parties and then into more mainstream venues, their musical taste is, if you will, “colorblind”. Not long after Redding’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1967 (an event that Walden revisits in heartbreaking detail), the brothers’ roster begins to diversify. First comes the Allman Brothers Band, the mostly-white rock band whose guitarist Duane Allman had recorded with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin at Muscle Shoals’s FAME Studios. Later, after breaking with his brother and striking out on his own, Alan travels the South in search of new talent and quickly hits paydirt with the three-guitar Florida powerhouse Lynyrd Skynyrd.
For readers who’ve come looking for stories of sainted Otis Redding, who hear soul music in the righteous context of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, Walden’s pivot to a white rock band that displayed Confederate flags at their concerts might come as a jarring development. Walden corrects this perception of divided loyalties:
Soul Music just happens to be the music of the time when Civil Rights was an issue. I, myself changed my thoughts about the difference of the races after working with Otis Redding. He and I both were peacemakers during those rough years.
Time after time I was faced with being in places the average white guy would not go. For instance I was walking the smoldering streets after different riots. My thoughts immediately go back to being in New Jersey after a riot. I remember walking down the street with $6k, mostly in ones [single dollar bills], in my coat pocket and hoping that I would not be robbed before I could get money orders.
Thank goodness I went into a drugstore and the pharmacist even let me go behind his counter when he found out I had that much cash. He did this for my protection. I was loyal to all of my artists no matter what nationality, religion, or color they were. I treated all people equally.
Walden’s focus is on the music he hears, his search is for acts who deliver the goods, and though he harbors political ideals (he dislikes ’60s Georgia’s segregationist culture, and laments that he never got to share a meal with Redding in one of Macon’s white restaurants), as a music businessman he is pragmatic. “A lot of people used to ask me what it was like going from working with a liberal Black man to a redneck, wild, street-gang fighting band,” he writes in Southern Man. “It was easy. All I had to do was get a pickup, stock a cooler full of beer, and work my ass off.”
Besides, as his book’s title points out, Walden is a son of the South. When Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant plays him a new track called ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, he hears past the politically sensitive lyrics of its middle verse, tapping into the greater theme of the song. This is in much the same way that he looks past the culture of racism that mars his home region (and indeed, the entire country), into the hearts of his fellow Southerners. He finds the commonalities that have kept him connected to the area his entire life.
Walden’s words (with Feinberg’s help) work as a tribute to the American South and its people, Black and white. Moreover, Southern Man serves to document Walden’s contribution to the region’s famed storytelling tradition. The Nashvillian storytelling proponent Clark Akers has said of our changing times, “Air conditioning drove [storytelling] away. Older homes still have front porches, but nobody sits outside to cool off anymore. Those used to be the gathering places where people would drop by and visit. Then they told stories. Particularly among older people, that’s how they shared information.”
With that in mind, it’s a boon for the art form that Feinberg came to Walden’s front porch, and that Walden stepped out to greet him.