Two years earlier, the New York native had moved to Atlanta after getting his law degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the regional counsel’s office and had two other jobs: one at Georgia State University’s business school, where he created a course called “urban law,” and another at an Atlanta law firm where he learned how to write “legally.”
But Katz, now a longtime Buckhead resident, said he “left all of them and opened a small law office sharing an assistant with three other lawyers.”
“I had no clients,” he said of his new job. “I waited for three weeks to get a call. I got a call from Fred Daviss, who as a student, had taken my course at Georgia State. He said, ‘I’m a banker and work at First National Bank of Atlanta downtown. I said, ‘OK.’ Naturally, I was very interested in any client. He said, ‘Do you know anything about entertainment law?’ I said, ‘No.’ Mr. Daviss said, ‘That’s ok,” and Katz went to the Omni Hotel downtown to meet with Daviss and the client.
“I said, ‘Who is this client?’ He said, ‘James Brown.’ At the time, James was one of the biggest stars in the world.”
Brown was about to sign with Polydor Records, a new company formed by Philips and Siemens under parent company PolyGram, and James Brown wanted Katz to go to New York with him to negotiate the contract. Brown met with Katz at the Omni Hotel and gave him a small retainer for expenses for the contemplated transaction.
After flying to New York on a Sunday, the following day Brown and Katz met with Polydor’s president and general counsel. After much discussion, Katz said, the general counsel finally asked him, “What do you want?’ I told him what James Brown wanted [several million dollars, the use of a private jet and other benefits]. He said, ‘Are you insane? We wouldn’t do that.’
Katz said he thought to himself, “This is why James Brown [hired] a guy from Atlanta who knew nothing about the music industry. No self-respecting entertainment lawyer would ever request such outrageous things from a music company.
“I said, ‘Thank you. Mr. Brown and I will just fly back to Atlanta Tuesday.’
But the counsel and president encouraged them to stay, and by Monday night, Katz and the counsel had worked out a deal.
The next morning over breakfast, Katz and the counsel went over each point in the contract with Brown, and Brown said he would sign it after he returned to the city later that week following a concert out of town.
In the contract, Katz said, Brown got almost all of what he had asked for. At a press conference announcing the deal, Katz sat at the end of a long table.
“James had made the last speech, thanking the record company for signing him,” he said. “I just sat there listening to all of this. At the end of his speech, he said, ‘I want to thank my lawyer, the best entertainment lawyer in the world from Atlanta, Joel Katz.’ I felt ridiculous about it.
“I was able to put James Brown on a small retainer monthly. He gave me quite a large fee — more than I had made in my previous two years of work from all three jobs, and I thought this was the best job in the world.” Katz then immediately decided he wanted to be an entertainment lawyer.
Over the course of the next three days, local newspapers from around the country picked up the New York papers’ articles on the James Brown contract.
“The next thing that happens is I get a call from a person who’s saying, ‘You’re the lawyer who did the Godfather [of Soul]’s contract, right?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Do you have anything against country music?’ ‘No,’ I said.
The man on the other end of the line was Willie Nelson, who invited Katz to go to Austin, Texas, to meet with him. Katz went to his room at a hotel.
“This man opens the door of his hotel room wearing a University of Texas T-shirt and he had a pony tail down to his waist,” he said. “and I spent three hours talking to the man. He was a very intelligent person, and James Brown was a very intelligent man, too [Brown died in 2006].”
At the time, Nelson was not famous, but a year later he released the album “Red Headed Stranger,” which would go multi-platinum and cement him as a country music icon. He had brought Katz in to help negotiate a new contract with Columbia Records.
“He said, ‘I want you to negotiate my contract just like you did with James Brown,” Katz said. He later met with the leaders of Columbia Records and ironed out a deal. At the end of their first meeting, Nelson had a question.
“He said, ‘You didn’t ask me for a retainer. All my lawyers do,’” Katz said. “He didn’t look like he would have the money to give me a retainer, and I thought I could get my money after the deal was closed — very similar to the way the James Brown transaction was done.”
Nelson invited Katz to a recording studio in Austin, Texas to meet some of his friends: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. All were then put on retainer since Willie told them to hire Katz,” he said.
“I came back to Atlanta and told my family, I am an entertainment lawyer now.”
Today, Katz is the entertainment lawyer. His clients also include Jimmy Buffet, Kenny Chesney, Julio Iglesias, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Brad Paisley and Justin Timberlake. He also represented Michael Jackson before his death and currently is co-counsel of the Michael Jackson estate.
After starting an Atlanta firm, Katz, Cohen and Smith, in the 1970s, he sold it in 1998 to Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm that now has the world’s largest entertainment law division.
Its Atlanta office, where Katz is a founding shareholder, is in Buckhead.
Katz also represents the Grammy Awards and the Country Music Awards. He has received about two dozen different honors for his work, including induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
But Katz said his job is not just the glamour of attending concerts such as Farm Aid, which he went to last month.
“It’s a lot on the phone; it’s in meetings,” he said. “It’s a 12- to 15-hour day every day.”
Katz said he’s most proud of the fact that he became a successful entertainment lawyer though he did not live in New York or Los Angeles.
“We changed the whole model,” he said.
Music producer Dallas Austin, 41, a Sandy Springs resident, has known Katz since he was 15.
“What really makes him stand out is he cares,” Austin said. “I’ve seen a lot of lawyers and it’s just black and white and paperwork to them. [Katz] really cares and has a big heart. Every one of his clients probably considers him more than that, but as a friend. It’s not just a job to him.”
“He’s like my dad. I can’t imagine being here without Joel. He’s like a guardian angel. … My part about Joel is he’s done so much stuff, it’s hard to pinpoint everything he’s done and everything he’s built, from James Brown being his first client to work with the Grammys and Coca-Cola. I’ve seen the world go through different changes. One of the biggest things he wants to do is help people and have a legacy of more than just being an attorney.”