HITS Daily Double


After graduating from New York City’s Hunter College with an economics degree in 1966, Queens native Katz arrived in Knoxville and began working toward a law degree at the University of Tennessee. In order to help with his college expenses, he got a part-time job in the college library and a fulltime job as a night clerk at a nearby Holiday Inn, working from 6pm till 6am, six days a week. That meant he was only getting a couple hours sleep, and he frequently arrived late for his first class, the study of contracts.

His professor, Joel told an interviewer from UT’s Tennessee Law magazine in 2016, “was a very prim and proper military guy, and he had a rule that if you were late three times, you got an automatic F.” After his third tardiness, the prof asked him about the cause of his lateness, and Joel told him about the all-night hotel job. “He said to me, ‘You’re not going to get an F in my class, son. You want to be a lawyer more than anybody else in this damn law school. You’re going to be a great lawyer, so I’m not going to flunk you out.’”

Three years later, sporting a law degree and a full head of hair, Katz headed to Atlanta, simultaneously taking jobs at HUD, then-brand-new Georgia State University and a small law firm before hanging out his own shingle, renting a one-room office and sharing a secretary with three other lawyers. “I opened my office with no clients,” he recalled. “The first week, there were no calls. The second week, no calls except from my wife. The third week, no calls.” On the fourth week, he got a call from the banker of a prominent Georgian, putting his career in motion.

“Strangely enough,” Katz noted, “my first client in my whole career as a lawyer was James Brown, who I represented off-and-on for about 40 years until he died. Securing him as a client was a story of insanity and silliness, but he and I became very close friends. He always used to tell people, ‘I started Joel Katz off. I was his first client.’”

Katz’s first job for Brown was negotiating a record deal with PolyGram in 1971. “He said he wanted a $5 million advance against royalties, he wanted a jet plane and he wanted to own the master recordings and the publishing rights,” Katz explained. “I went through the list with the [PolyGram lawyer], and he looks at me and says, ‘Are you completely out of your mind? This is the stupidest, craziest, most egregious list of things I’ve ever heard in my career.’ I knew at that moment why Mr. Brown—I always called him that, never James—had hired me: because no lawyer who knew anything about this business would ever go in and ask for the things he wanted.”

They negotiated nonetheless and agreed on the terms of a deal. “We got use of a plane and less than $5 million, but it was in the millions,” Katz told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “That was a lot of money back then. James was amazed.

“At the end of the press conference announcing that the record company had just signed James, he said, ‘I want to thank my lawyer from Atlanta, Joel Katz, who is the best lawyer in the entertainment business and just did one of the best contracts that has ever been done in the business.’ Afterward, he gave me an envelope with $50,000. It was three times more than I had ever made in a year. I’m thinking this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

“Three days after the press conference, I got a call from Austin, Texas, from a guy wanting to know if I was the ‘Godfather of Soul’s lawyer.’ It was Willie Nelson, and he wanted me to represent him. I’m thinking, wow! I went to meet with him and he introduced me in one night to George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Willie said to them, ‘This guy is going to be your lawyer.’”

Check out the entire profile of Joel here.