When you're the lawyer for the Godfather of Soul, you have to be fast on your feet. Among many other things, Joel Katz is just that.
Published in 2004 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 21, 2004
Updated on August 4, 2015
Imagine opening a law practice and having the first — the very first — phone call lead to a meeting with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. That’s precisely what happened to Joel Katz during his first — his very first — month in private practice in 1971. Katz, who had planned on working in the field of securities law, parlayed that serendipitous meeting into a landmark recording contract for Brown. And, in turn, he generated quite a bit of unexpected press for himself as a hot-shot music lawyer.
Now just imagine who his second phone call was from.
But first, it’s good to know that while Joel Katz fully acknowledges having his fair share of charmed moments, he insists that hard work, dedication and constant loyalty to his clients are what brought him to the pinnacle of his profession.
“I learned very early that the worker wins every race,” says Katz while settling into a conversation nook in his office.“You can be the most brilliant human being on earth, but if you’re not willing to do the work, you’re not going to be successful.”
The endless rows of framed gold and platinum records lining the walls leading to this office suggest that, in fact, he has done some pretty hard work already. It’s now 5:30 in the evening and the man with his head resting heavily on his hand looks dog-tired. He’s just spent 90 minutes on the phone trying to talk a client out of firing his manager. He’ll meet another client for dinner in two hours. And there is always another trip to prepare for.
Katz takes more than 50 business trips a year. He makes a point to be in the same room with clients and associates as often as possible. But when he is in his office, he’s on the phone to all points of the globe, fielding more than 100 calls a day.
Comfortably dressed in a brown checkered sport coat and polo shirt, with more hair on his head checking out than staying put, the 59-year-old Katz looks like he should be playing cards — low stakes, mind you — in Atlantic City rather than negotiating multimillion-dollar deals for the country’s top musical talent.
But that is exactly what Katz does as well as, if not better than, any other attorney in the country. Though he accepts not one shred of credit for any of the creative output his clients produce, it’s often his expertise that purchases the freedom for them to excel.
His former law firm, Smith, Katz & Cohen, grew out of that fabled first phone call to become one of the largest entertainment law operations in the country. His roster of clients has included such musical luminaries as B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, Sammy Hagar, Christina Aguilera, Collective Soul, George Strait, Sheryl Crow, Lil’ Kim and a whole gaggle of promoters, producers and other folks behind the music. (His corporate clients include Coca-Cola and Gibson Guitars.) In 1998, looking to expand his resources, Katz merged with the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP, where he is a comanaging shareholder.
It’s the perfect Hollywood story with one notable exception: Katz achieved all this success here in Atlanta.
“Atlanta is not exactly an entertainment mecca, in terms of doing business,” says Katz as the early-evening sunlight touches a statue of a parrot on a 5-foot perch behind him. It’s a gift from Jimmy Buffett. “There are many artists who live here or record here or perform here. But as far as the business of what’s behind all that is concerned, it’s not conducted here.”
That’s precisely why Katz works as hard as he does, travels as much as he does and puts in these 15-hour days. One must stay on top of things in Los Angeles, Nashville, Miami, New York, London, Paris and other places in order to be on top of the music game. But his reward is that he always comes home to Atlanta, his adopted home since 1969.
Hired Because He Knew Nothing
Katz is originally from New York City. After graduating from Hunter College, he accepted a scholarship to the law school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
“I had never been south of Washington,D.C. And as soon as I arrived in Knoxville I loved it,” says Katz. “I loved everything about it. I loved the people. I loved the Smoky Mountains. And I had the best three years of my life there.”
Upon graduation, Katz accepted a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Atlanta, which meant moving to another unfamiliar city. He also took a part-time teaching position at Georgia State University.
“I loved to teach. It was really a lot of fun. I wasn’t doing it for the money, I was doing it really just to meet people,” says Katz.
He eventually made the decision to open his own law firm in 1971, and after a week or so of having no clients and nothing to do but go out for long lunches, his phone finally rang.The teacher must have made quite an impression on someone at GSU because the caller turned out to be a former student, who was now a banker.
“He had a client from the bank who was looking for a new lawyer and he asked what I knew about entertainment law,” says Katz. “When I said ‘nothing’ he replied, ‘You’re perfect.’”
Still a bit confused, Katz arrived for a meeting with the client at the penthouse of the Atlanta Omni Hotel, and there sat James Brown — having his world-famous hair worked on. Brown was about to sign with a new record label and was looking to score a huge, unprecedented contract deal. His ideal lawyer would be someone who didn’t know enough about entertainment law to be intimidated by it. Katz was indeed perfect.
“I knew nothing about entertainment law. In fact, very few lawyers then knew anything about entertainment law. There were probably 10 entertainment lawyers in the whole country at the time,” says Katz.
He studied the subject as best he could before flying to New York City for the contract negotiation. “And the deal went down. It happened,” recalls Katz, still with a bit of awe in his voice. “We asked for some of the craziest things in the world — like a jet plane — and we got a lot of them. It was exciting.”
But Katz is quick to add that his role was minimal in the process.
“Don’t give me too much credit. James was very knowledgeable and very prepared. I was basically the spokesperson — and I worked very hard on the paperwork.” As proud as he was about doing a good job for Brown, when Katz returned to Atlanta he assumed that the experience was a one-time event, which at best generated some cash for his start-up business. But there had been enough media attention from the deal to grab some headlines.
Which brings us back to that second phone call.
After reading a newspaper article about Brown and Katz, a Texas-based singer-songwriter named Willie Nelson decided he could use a bit of that kind of scratch, so he gave Katz a call.
“It may be unbelievable, but it’s true,” Katz says. “But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. It wasn’t Willie Nelson like you know Willie Nelson. It was a younger Willie Nelson. He was just getting rolling.” Had Katz even heard of Willie Nelson? Nope. This was 1971, four years before Red Headed Stranger, and seven years before Stardust.
But he accepted the offer, and that second negotiating session — absent any demands for aircraft — went smoothly. “I knew what I was doing to a better extent than the first time. At least I knew the terms,” says Katz. “And that’s really how I got started.”
Katz and Nelson have remained business associates as well as close friends to this very hour.The significance of Nelson’s phone call is twofold.First, Nelson was satisfied enough with the deal Katz put together to direct more clients in his direction — clients like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.
More important, Katz accepted that entertainment law was his future. George Jones,Tammy Wynette and other performers saw it that way too.They hired Katz for their contracts and other business interests, and the ball kept rolling along. With each new artist, with each new head-tohead with the record companies, Katz helped write new verses of this burgeoning field of law.
“Everything we know today as a body of entertainment law was not around then,” says Katz. “Nobody knew anything. There were no American Bar Association forums; there were no Practising Law Institute seminars — none of this was around.”
Through the years, during countless mergers of music companies, with good clients and bad, he says no matter what he attempted to accomplish, his thoughts centered around a central tenet: “Artists deal with a whole bunch of big companies that want to own the rights to what they create. And someone has to sit down and negotiate and protect the interest of that creative person.”
And the longer he stays with a client, the more difficult the job gets. “It all depends on what stage of life they’re in. Some artists want money; some artists want ownership and control. For me, it becomes about getting more for them — because you don’t know how long they have left creatively. So the framework is different because of their age.”
For this Georgia lawyer, the best way to protect those rights is to get to know the artist as a person. Katz prides his lengthy association with music’s most durable performers — Nelson, Buffett, Brown and King, among others — on strong personal relationships. When he speaks of his clients, he’s speaking of his friends.
So while he often consults for Sony and other labels on some of their marketing campaigns, Katz won’t negotiate for them against an artist. “It’s not an ethical thing,” he says. “I’m just not comfortable doing it.That’s my line.”
He has other lines, too, that he decided long ago which side to stay on.
“Always tell the truth. The truth sets you free. No one can argue with you if you tell the truth.They may not like it, but they can’t argue with it,” says Katz.
There’s something else that can’t be argued with: Katz’s hard work has paid off. His greatest hits, those accomplishments he’s most proud of, would fill a box set. He was the first attorney inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame; he’s serves as chairman of the American Bar Association’s Entertainment & Sports Law Forum; he’s negotiated every Farm Aid concert; he was appointed executive entertainment counsel to the Recording Academy; and he was chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which produces the Grammy Awards.
Perhaps most dear to Katz, though, was when the University of Tennessee unveiled the Joel A. Katz Law Library in 1999 after he presented them with a generous contribution. Since then, Katz has funded a scholarship program and has donated his personal collection of gold and platinum records to the school.
And he’s done it all from Atlanta.
“I love living here. I have a great life with my beautiful wife, Kane,” he says while looking at an autographed photo of the two of them with Bill Clinton. And then the tired and immeasurably humble lawyer looks around his office, crammed with guitars, Grammys and memorabilia from three decades of successful practice, and he finally allows himself a moment of guilt-free perspective.
“I’ve done just about every transaction you can do and I’ve met just about every kind of person you can meet in this business. And I’ve survived. I’ve built a very good business and I’ve done a lot of good, too.”
But that’s all for tonight, because right now Joel Katz has to make a phone call.