06 February 2007

Atlantic Records (Part Two)

Eric Clapton

Stuffed Animal presents
The Atlantic Records Story
How Ahmet Ertegun Created
The World's Greatest Rock and Soul Label
by Donny Jacobs
Bobby Darin was the first White star that Atlantic successfully marketed (and the first artist Tom Dowd recorded in stereophonic sound on the company's new Ampex eight-track tape console). The brash but charismatic young singer/songwriter was brought to the company by Herb Abramson and signed to Atco Records, a subsidiary label launched upon his return from military service. Abramson initially produced his discovery, but Darin's singles didn't click with the public until Ahmet Ertegun took over supervision of his record dates. The self-penned "Splish Splash" was his Pop and R & B breakthrough in 1958, a ridiculously juvenile dance tune with a bathtub theme. His cha-cha-tinged "Dream Lover", a smash in the summer of 1959, showed far more maturity, but the sophistication of Bobby Darin's next two hits surprised everyone. Both were Big Band covers of European songs. "Mack The Knife", culled from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, and the French ballad "Beyond The Sea" revealed him to be a more-than-competent Jazz singer in the Sinatra mold. The former platter shot to #1 Pop, won a Record of The Year Grammy Award, and was Atlantic's first single to sell in significant quantities to White adults. Darin's Atco albums also broke big in the Adult-Contemporary market; three of them, Darin At The Copa, This Is Darin and That's All, claimed Top Ten berths on Billboard's LP chart listings. The ambitious singer soon defected to Capitol Records and a celebrity's life in Hollywood, but his releases carved out a permanent niche for sophisticated Pop in Atlantic's catalogue. They paved a path for adult-oriented fare like Acker Bilk's million-selling "Stranger On The Shore" and Bent Fabric's "Alley Cat", licensed masters of European origin that the label began marketing regularly in the 1960s.

Bobby Darin

Atlantic Records' most consistent Pop crossover was effected by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two maverick writer/producers from Hollywood. Jerry Wexler called them "a fresh breeze from the West Coast" and acknowledged that their "brilliant productions made an inestimable contribution to Atlantic's success." Nesuhi Ertegun first tapped into their talents in September of 1955, when he chose one of their songs for a Drifters session in Hollywood. "Ruby Baby" scored a major R & B hit, which led to other Atlantic acts like Ruth Brown, La Vern Baker and Big Joe Turner cutting their tunes. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler's interest in acquiring a Leiber and Stoller-produced vocal group called The Robins resulted in an historic business arrangement. "We made a deal with Leiber and Stoller to work as independent producers at Atlantic," Ahmet recalled in What'd I Say. "I believe that was the first time any label had signed independent producers."

The Robins morphed into The Coasters, moved with their producers to New York City, and joined Atco Records' artist roster. A stack of comedic singles followed which included four Gold Records ("Searchin'", "Young Blood", "Yakety Yak" and "Poison Ivy"); Jerry Leiber's sharply ironic lyrics combined with The Coasters' slapstick antics on stage and on vinyl translated into maximum crossover appeal. "The Coasters, of course, had many hits," Ahmet Ertegun confirmed, "and (later) we also got Leiber and Stoller to produce The Drifters and Ben E. King, among others." When they took over production of The Drifters in 1958, Leiber and Stoller decided to juxtapose the group's bluesy vocal stylings with Spanish, Cuban and Brazilian dance rhythms. Beginning with the groundbreakingly symphonic "There Goes My Baby" in 1959 and continuing through such memorable hit records as "Up On The Roof," "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "On Broadway", their Drifters discs moved R & B in an altogether more cosmopolitan direction. They also exerted a heavy influence the sound of Pop music for nearly a decade. "For a while," Mike Stoller would later admit, "(our) rhythm became everybody's idea of what Rock 'n' Roll was." The danceable Habanera Rock sound of Leiber and Stoller pulled Atlantic Records out of a late '50s sales slump and ushered the label triumphantly into the early '60s.

Other young producers came to Atlantic Records in Leiber and Stoller's wake. Bert Berns strode into Jerry Wexler's office, bringing with him a batch of catchy Latin-inflected songs and a knack for producing stellar Pop/Soul sides. He supervised sessions for Blues stylist Solomon Burke and singer/songwriter Barbara Lewis, in addition to taking over The Drifters and ex-Drifters lead singer Ben E. King from Leiber and Stoller after they'd departed Atlantic to launch their own label. Berns' production work includes the Drifters classics "Under The Boardwalk" and "Saturday Night At The Movies," while his song catalogue boasts several Rock standards: "Twist And Shout," "Hang On, Sloopy", "I Want Candy" and "Piece Of My Heart" are some of them. He continued the process of Latinizing R & B that Leiber and Stoller had begun.

Meanwhile, Nesuhi Ertegun brought Arif Mardin and Joel Dorn into the company as production assistants. In later years, both would come into their own as producers. Mardin would find success with such female vocal stars as Aretha Franklin, Lulu and Dusty Springfield, while Dorn would supervise the early hits of Roberta Flack and Bette Midler. Tom Dowd gradually added production work to his engineering duties, often supervising record dates alongside Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin. As the 1960s progressed, Jeff Barry, Sonny Bono, Bob Crewe, Ollie McLaughlin and Syl Johnson would be among the many independent producers who'd log sessions with Atlantic artists. The names of arrangers Stan Applebaum, Klaus Ogermann, Teacho Wiltshire, Gary Sherman and Bert Keyes began to appear regularly on Atlantic and Atco singles. Saxophonist King Curtis, who'd later join the Atco roster, became the unofficial leader of the house band. The Atlantic family was growing, but it also lost one of its key members during this period.. Personality conflicts led Wexler and the Erteguns to buy out Herb Abramson's share of the company. Abramson left to found the short-lived Festival and Blaze labels. His soon-to-be ex-wife Miriam would eventually be bought out, too, but she stayed actively involved with Atlantic for a few more years.

Led first by Ben E. King, and later by Rudy Lewis and Johnny Moore, The Drifters were Atlantic Records' flagship act at the dawn of the '60s. Solomon Burke, Barbara Lewis, brother-and-sister vocal duo Nino Tempo and April Stevens and a solo Ben E. King were the label's other major attractions. Ray Charles and Bobby Darin were gone, and the popularity of Ruth Brown and the label's other 1950s heavyweights was waning fast. Fortunately, a new group of stars was waiting in the wings to replace them.

Based south of the Mason/Dixon line, these artists sang a new kind of Rhythm and Blues called "Soul" music which, appropriately enough, had been pioneered by Ray Charles' revolutionary Atlantic sides. The regional hits of Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla drew Atlantic into a distribution deal with Satellite Records, a Memphis label run by bank clerk Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. The label soon changed its name to Stax, and beginning in 1961 with Carla Thomas's winsome ballad "Gee Whiz", a cornucopia of classic sides emerged from the converted movie theatre Stewart used as a recording studio. Dynamic staff writers Steve Cropper, Issac Hayes and David Porter scored hit after hit for Stax with supremely talented southern Soul acts. Backed by The Memphis Horns and Booker T and The MGs, the label's hot-as-a-pistol house band, Otis Redding, The Bar-Kays, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave, and Rufus and Carla Thomas, as well as the MGs themselves, led the way in revamping the sound of R & B radio. They accomplished this feat with unforgettable sides like "Knock On Wood," "Green Onions," "Walkin' The Dog", "Hold On, I'm Coming," "Soul Finger", "Soul Man", "Sweet Soul Music," "B-A-B-Y", "Who's Makin' Love To Your Old Lady" and "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay." (Due to the terms of its distribution deal, Atlantic Records retained these masters when the realationship with Stax ended in 1968.)

Best-selling Atlantic discs also emerged from Memphis's American Studios, run by a talented writer/producer named Chips Moman; the best known of these is undoubtedly Dusty Springfield's "Son-Of-A-Preacher Man." Yet Memphis wasn't Atlantic's only source of Grade A southern Soul. Producer Rick Hall brought the sizzling music scene of Muscle Shoals, Alabama to Jerry Wexler's attention, along with Blues shouter Percy Sledge, whose incandescent "When A Man Loves A Woman" kicked off a string of classic singles. Nashville producer Buddy Killen brought Texas belter Joe Tex to Atlantic; recording on a subsidiary named Dial Records, Tex would give the label ten years'worth of solid R & B hits. Jerry Wexler became so enamored of southern musicians, he began doing most of his production work in Memphis, Miami and Muscle Shoals; he'd eventually put together his own southern studio band, The Dixie Flyers. In 1965, Wexler took his newest signee, Wilson Pickett, down south with him. Under his supervision, the Wicked One cut gritty sides like "Mustang Sally," "Funky Broadway" and "In The Midnight Hour." Atlantic Soul acts like The Capitols ("Cool Jerk"), Doris Troy ("Just One Look") and Archie Bell and The Drells ("Tighten Up") still did their recording up north, but by the mid-1960s, it was rare for an Atlantic R & B hit not to originate from a recording session held in the Mississippi Delta region.

Otis Redding

While Jerry Wexler was shoring up the label's Soul catalogue, Ahmet Ertegun was moving in another direction. As early as 1955, he'd tried breaking into the (White) Rock 'n' Roll market, attempting unsuccessfully to sign Elvis Presley. Bobby Darin's LP sales gave him a taste of that suburban market, and he hungered for more. Suddenly, in the Spring of 1964, it became impossible for any record executive to ignore the appeal of Rock 'n' Roll. The British Invasion conquered American radio, and the music industry changed overnight. "It would have been difficult not to be aware that (British Rock) was going to be an extremely big influence on American music," Ahmet later reflected. "I wanted to get into that area of music. Jerry, in those days, felt (Rock 'n' Roll) was derivative and not as musically valid." He himself was less critical of the British sound. "(While) I agreed that some of the groups that were popular at that time were not musically great . . . I thought that some of them were terrific!"

Over Wexler's objections, Ahmet began aggressively seeking out Rock acts to diversify the label's artist roster. His first discovery was a Folk/Rock duo comprised of two former Phil Spector session singers. Sonny and Cher's counterculture anthem "I Got You Babe" in 1965 kicked off Atlantic's decade-long transformation into a high-profile Rock label. The next big signing was The Rascals, whose Top Ten Pop hits "Good Lovin'", "Groovin'", "How Can I Be Sure?" and "People Got To Be Free" helped define the "Blue-Eyed Soul" genre. Atlantic's Rock catalogue grew steadily in prestige as Buffalo Springfield, The Bee Gees, Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Crosby, Stills And Nash, The Allman Brothers Band, Delaney and Bonnie and Emerson, Lake and Palmer came on board. Ahmet was especially proud of having discovered Eric Clapton in a London nightclub. He adored Clapton's authentic Blues chops, and after signing him to the label, he shepherded the guitar genius through stints with the bands Cream and Derek and The Dominoes to a hugely successful solo career. Jerry Wexler eventually came around to Ahmet's way of thinking; he signed Led Zeppelin to the label, and got the satisfaction of seeing the band becaome Atlantic's top-selling act of the 1970s.

Yet, true to its heritage, Atlantic Records' biggest and brightest star from both a Rock and Soul standpoint was an African-American artist. Jerry Wexler lured the underrated Aretha Franklin to Atlantic in 1967 following a less-than-stellar tenure at Columbia Records. He recorded her in Miami and Muscle Shoals as well as New York City, but no matter where he booked her sessions, he made sure the Gospel-trained stylist accompanied herself at the piano. That seemingly minor change proved to be the catalyst that unlocked her hidden genius. Her soulful piano-playing and rolling tidal wave of a voice catapulted her singles "Chain Of Fools," "Think," "Since You've Been Gone", "Baby, I Love You", "Share Your Love With Me", "Respect" (written by Otis Redding) and "I Never Loved A Man" up the R & B charts in the late 1960s. Pop crossover was immediate; Aretha's music blanketed American radio. By 1969, she'd bagged three Gold albums and eight Gold singles, and there'd be more to come. The new Rock press christened Aretha "Queen Of Soul" and the music industry showered her with Grammy awards. After she appeared at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium in March of 1971, the hippie counterculture bathed her in adulation. "She didn't think in terms of White or Black tunes, or White or Black rhythms," Jerry Wexler later observed. "She could enjoy and identify with modern Rock, Showtunes and Pop ballads." She insisted on singing those kinds of songs, too. More than any other of Atlantic's acts, Aretha Franklin broke down the barriers between racially exclusive music markets. That said, southern Soul acts certainly did their part. When Otis Redding and other Stax artists brought the house down in concert at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Atlantic Records' transition into a Rock 'n' Roll label was complete. From that point on, both its Black and White artists began selling in large quantities to record buyers of all ethnicities.

Atlantic's crowning achievement of the Rock Era was undoubtedly securing the release rights to the 1969 Woodstock concert and documentary. This legendary event, held in upstate New York in August of 1969, featured some of the most important musical acts of the '60s. Taking the stage successively over a stormy weekend were Jimi Hendrix, Sly and The Family Stone, The Who, Country Joe and The Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, Ten Years After, Sha-Na-Na, John Sebastian, Melanie, Ritchie Havens, Joan Baez and, making their first major appearance in concert, Santana. Atlantic stars Crosby, Stills, Nash were on hand as well, with their off-and-on collaborator Neil Young in tow. Released on its Cotillion subsidiary, the soundtrack album ruled the Billboard charts for four weeks in 1970 and went on to sell over two-million copies. Industry watchers probaby thought Atlantic Records couldn't possibly score a greater coup, but they were soon proven wrong. That same year, Ahmet Ertegun added The Rolling Stones to his label's artist roster via a stateside distribution deal for their custom label. The payoff was seventeen Gold and Platinum albums over the next twenty years. Atlantic entered its third decade of existence as an entertainment media powerhouse.

That the little record company Herb and Miriam Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun founded in 1947 had outgrown its independent status became apparent to everyone in October of 1967, when Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun brothers sold Atlantic to the company known today as Time-Warner. "We did very well out of it," Ahmet Ertegun would say when asked about the merger. "(We) managed to accomplish a lot of things which we may not have done had we owned the company . . . (Atlantic Records) grew to the point where we became the #1 record label in America!" A marvelous accomplishment, to be sure, but America was far too small a market for the label's new stockholders.

In 1971, Nesuhi Ertegun was tapped by the corporate bosses to launch a global conglomerate called WEA International; this new entity would handle worldwide operations and distribution for the affiliated Warner, Elektra and Atlantic labels. David Geffen's Asylum Records was added to the group that same year. The corporation is now called Warner Music International and includes many more affiliated labels; Rhino Records, Rykodisc, Sean Combs's Badboy Entertainment, Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records and Madonna's Maverick imprint are a few of them. Running WEA left Nesuhi little time for producing his beloved jazz artists, so he basically retired from studio work. Ahmet all but retired as a producer as well, but in the '70s, he'd occasionally step behind the console to supervise the odd Bette Midler or RB Greaves recording session and, more often than not, score a surprise hit. Jerry Wexler continued his love affair with southern Rock and Soul, cutting more Atlantic sides for Aretha Franklin and supervising studio dates with Willie Nelson, Dr. John, Donny Hathaway and other stars before striking out as an independent producer in 1975. Wexler and Miriam Abramson-Bienstock are the only surviving staff from the label's salad days in the '50s.

Taking its entire 60 year history into account, it's clear that Atlantic Records is the most important record label of the Rock Era. Today, its rich catalogue includes dance club hits by Disco acts Donna Summer, Laura Branigan and Chic, Pop favorites by Abba, Debbie Gibson and En Vogue, R & B best-sellers by The Spinners, Average White Band and Roberta Flack, Country music classics by Willie Nelson, Neal McCoy and John Michael Montgomery, cult items by cabaret artists Manhattan Transfer, Bobby Short and Bette Midler, and million-selling Rock tracks by Phil Collins, Foreigner and Hall and Oates; not to mention a vast treasury of Jazz recordings, and the priceless cache of Blues masters that started it all. If greatness were estimated by commercial success alone, Atlantic would certainly be a contender, but it's the consistently high quality of its artists and repertoire that makes it the world's greatest Rock and Soul label. How can you top Aretha Franklin's sanctified cries on "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman", Dusty Springfield's breezy sensuality on "Son-Of-A-Preacher Man," The Bee Gees' blue-eyed Soul crooning on "To Love Somebody" or Bobby Darin's in-the-pocket timing as he swings out "Beyond The Sea"? Ahmet Ertegun had everything to do with establishing that standard of musical excellence. When he died suddenly in December of 2006, Ahmet went to his Heavenly reward knowing that Atlantic's bold red-and-black label had come to symbolize the very best in Rock, Pop, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues.

Ahmet Ertegun

1923 - 2006

Special thanks to Artie Butler and Jeff Barry.
For more information, read
What'd I Say: The Atlantic Story
published in 2001 by Welcome Rain Books.
Buy it at www.amazon.com

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