As chair of the global entertainment and media practice at Greenberg Traurig, Joel Katz is an international legal powerhouse with thousands of A-list names in his Rolodex. As the prominent lawyer closed deal after high-powered deal over the decades, he amassed a voluminous collection of unique music memorabilia.
He recently donated a slew of items to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Now patients headed for appointments or people spending time with ill loved ones will have a fascinating and carefully displayed attraction to visit. A large and prominent group of friends crowded into a Winship hallway the night the exhibit was dedicated earlier this month.
“What a great way to commemorate a great career,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presented Katz with a framed proclamation in his honor. “You are a legend and an inspiration.”
Others in attendance included former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, broadcasters Frank Ski and Monica Pearson, Kennesaw University President Dan Papp and Atlanta Grammy chapter senior executive director Michele Rhea Caplinger, Legendary Events founder Tony Conway and former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell.
The celebration coincided with the announcement by the T.J. Martell Foundation of the Joel A. Katz Music is Medicine Fund, which supports cancer research at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Katz has been a key and avid supporter of the T.J. Martell Foundation, which raises money to fund leukemia, cancer and AIDS research.
“I was Tony’s lawyer during his career at CBS Records, which is now Sony Records,” Katz said. “I remember the day he decided he was going to start this foundation in honor of his son, who passed away from cancer.”
Over the past 40 years, the foundation has raised more than $270 million for cancer research with events held in various spots across the country. The local event, the annual Atlanta’s Best Cellars Dinner, has benefited Winship.
“I’ve made it my mission to introduce my Atlanta friends to the T.J. Martell Foundation so we could help Winship,” Katz said.
His personal story is as compelling as the artists he has represented, as he shared during the 2014 commencement address at Kennesaw State University, home of the Joel A. Katz Music and Entertainment Business Program.
“I started with absolutely nothing,” said Katz, a New York native who got through law school at the University of Tennessee thanks to a scholarship and a six-day-a-week job working 6 p.m.-6 a.m as a Holiday Inn night clerk. Graduation in 1969 brought him to a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta and a teaching job at Georgia State University.
In 1971, he opened a law practice. He had a tiny office, a secretary he shared with other lawyers and one big problem: “I had no clients.”
One afternoon, the telephone blessedly rang. A banker on the line had taken Katz’s course at Georgia State and enjoyed it. Now he needed to help a client locate a good entertainment lawyer.
“Do you know anything about entertainment law?” the banker asked. Katz pondered that for a second. “I was honest: ‘No, I know nothing.’”
This, somehow, was the right answer. The next day, he was ushered into the penthouse suite at the Omni where the mystery client — James Brown — was getting his hair done. After a 10-minute discussion, the Godfather of Soul decided this untested lawyer was his man and stroked a retainer check for $2,500. The next day, they headed for New York, where Katz’s job was to negotiate a huge recording contract.
After sealing the deal, Brown publicly thanked Katz at a news conference, and his formerly silent phone started ringing off the hook.
“If you’re good enough for the Godfather, you’re good enough for me,” Katz recalled his next client saying. “Willie Nelson went on to be a superstar, too.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.