The Voices at 535 Cotton Avenue: Capricorn Record’s Business Office condemned, near destruction

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The Voices at 535 Cotton Avenue: Capricorn Record’s Business Office condemned, near destruction

Nicholas Wooten

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“I like to say in Macon that, if our walls could talk, they would definitely sing,” said Jessica Walden, co-owner of Rock Candy Tours, a Macon music history tour company, and daughter of Capricorn Records co-founder Alan Walden.

However, the voices coming from 535 Cotton Ave. are in danger of being silenced forever.

Walden and her husband were preparing for their Saturday Rock n’ Roll stroll when they noticed orange barrels in an alley that the company uses.  They began to investigate. When she saw the orange condemned notice plastered on the glass front doors, Walden knew that the building was in imminent danger.

“The only thing we knew to do at that point is just bring it to public attention,” she said. A social media movement to save the building blossomed following the appearance of Walden’s article “Farewell to 535 Cotton Ave., birthplace of Macon’s music business” in the Sept. 19 edition of “The Telegraph.” John L. Wilson, a resident of Pittsboro, N.C. and life-long Southern Rock fan, started a Facebook event titled “Save the Capricorn Records Building in Macon, GA” after reading Walden’s article.

“I messaged (Jessica Walden) and asked her, ‘Is this real? Is this actually happening?’” Wilson said. The page currently has 1,700 members who are attending.

However, the rising tide of activism may have come too late to save the building. The building was never in good shape for as long as Walden can remember.

Before Capricorn Records called 535 Cotton Ave. home, chickens were plucked at the property. “My dad vividly remembers sweeping chicken heads out into the street trying to get the building ready for renovations,” Walden said.

Phil Walden began booking R&B artists for fraternity shows while he was president of Phi Delta Theta fraternity at Mercer University. Eventually, Phil and his brother Alan formed a booking agency and developed a relationship with “The Big O” Otis Redding.

From humble origins, the business grew. They originally rented property on Mulberry Street and quickly expanded. As the company grew, Redding and the Waldens knew that they needed a bigger facility.

However, racial segregation divided the city, and the inter-racial partnership was not welcomed. “They specifically chose Cotton Avenue because it’s where the majority of African American business owners owned property at the time” Walden said.

Following the move, RedWal Music Company became a conglomerate of management, booking and music publishing companies. It was one of the largest black booking agencies in the world.

“It was actually bigger than Motown (Records) at one time,” Walden said.

Percy Sledge, Etta James and Ike and Tina Turner came through Macon and worked directly with RedWal. “My dad likes to tell the story about how Joe Fraizer, the heavyweight boxer, came to Macon just to sit in that office,” Walden said. “He wanted to sit in the same space where Otis Redding came to work every day.”

Two years after purchasing the property, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash at the age of 26. The Waldens were back at square one. “They lost their star, their business partner, and their best friend,” Walden said.

The Waldens re-branded, and the façade of the building was re-done.  “That’s when Capricorn Records was born,” Walden said.

With the Waldens and Frank Fenter at the helm, Capricorn Records blossomed.

535 Cotton Ave. became their executive headquarters as the company continued to purchase property. “They pretty much took over the whole block,” said Walden. The company had their own executive suites and park. The fan clubs of Southern rock bands such as Wet Willie and the Marshall Tucker Band set up on Cotton Avenue and received fan mail from around the world.

Those who called 535 Cotton Ave. home even managed to influence the presidential election of 1976 when the record label’s premier act, The Allman Brothers, and co-founder Phil Walden threw their support behind then Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

In BBC 4’s documentary “Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga”, filmmakers stated that Carter announced he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination at a Capricorn Records-hosted picnic.  Following the announcement, the Allman Brothers would go on to play massive fundraising events for the Carter campaign.

“Without Capricorn Records, we wouldn’t have had a peanut farmer in the White House,” said Wilson.

However, during the 1980s, Southern rock underwent an evolution that left Capricorn behind. Capricorn Records filed for bankruptcy in 1982, and the building was auctioned off.

It has not been occupied since.

A slow water leak was present when the building was sold, and it was never fixed. “That leak has just decimated a good bit of the building,” said Walden.

Over the years, plans to do something with the property have been proposed but always seem to fall through.

“There was an attempt by my uncle (Phil Walden) to look at the property in the 90s when Capricorn Records had come back to life,” said Walden, “but it was not financially feasible.”

Now, the building sits in disrepair. The former Capricorn property cannot be accessed from the front doors because of the unstable nature of the floor.

Ethiel Garlington, Executive Director of Historic Macon, said that a buyer is being lined up for the property. The best case scenario involves “gutting” the inside of the building and reinforcing the outer structure from the inside with steel, which would keep the historic façade intact. “We hope the buildings will be stabilized so they aren’t a public safety hazard and eventually reused,” said Garlington in a message.

However, partial demolition is still an option.

“I do hope out of the outcry that some kind of proposal is put together… to preserve some of its historical structure that would help tell the story of what it once was,” Walden said.

The pending destruction has given the last visible piece of Capricorn’s magical music dynasty more attention over the past few weeks than it has in the past 32 years.

Walden hopes that the troubles at 535 Cotton Ave. will serve as an example of what not to do with Macon’s other historic sites. “This one… this is the ultimate one. This one shows you what years of neglect will do and sometimes we don’t realize what we have until it’s almost too late.”

 

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