07 February 2007

Atlantic Records (Part One)

Aretha Franklin

Stuffed Animal presents
The Atlantic Records Story
How Ahmet Ertegun Created
The World's Greatest Rock and Soul Label
by Don Charles Hampton
There were numerous independent record labels that were important to the development of Rock 'n' Roll. There was Art Rupe's Specialty Records, which exposed the world to the explosive sounds of Little Richard; the Chess Records group, run by brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, which unleashed Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Etta James on the music scene; Bernie Lowe's Cameo-Parkway Records, which sparked an international dance craze on the strength of Twist singles by Chubby Checker; Lew Chudd's Imperial Records, home of classic hits by Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson; Bob Keene's Del-Fi Records, the label from which Ritchie Valens hailed; and of course, Sam Phillips's Sun Records, the label that gave birth to Rockabilly and introduced a quartet of Rock and Country music legends: Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley. As celebrated as these labels may be, there's another independent company that arguably stands head and shoulders above them in terms of historical significance. That label is Atlantic Records. Can anyone imagine the Rock and Soul canon without essential recordings like "What'd I Say?", "Save The Last Dance For Me," "Searchin'", "Dream Lover", "The Beat Goes On", "Good Lovin'', "Respect," "There Goes My Baby", "When A Man Loves A Woman", "Shake, Rattle And Roll" and "Stand By Me" in it? Would Rock still be Rock without the contributions of seminal Atlantic artists like The Coasters, The Drifters, La Vern Baker, Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter and Ray Charles? Would it have become the commercial phenomenon it is today without Atlantic supergroups like Led Zeppelin, Derek and The Dominoes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Crosby, Stills and Nash blazing the trail? Would Soul music be even half as memorable without the Atlantic waxings of Aretha Franklin? Surely not.

Several people were involved in the founding and development of Atlantic Records, but the central figure was the late Ahmet Ertegun. His music industry peers, including such notables as Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, George Goldner, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector, called him "the coolest guy in the record business." "Ahmet Ertegun is the stuff of myth," wrote his longtime business partner Jerry Wexler in 1993. "He was and is the chief architect of Atlantic Records . . . over six murderously competitive decades, from the '40s through the '90s, he has proven himself to be the savviest and suavest executive in the history of American recorded music." Suave was definitely the word that described Ertegun best. A Turkish immigrant whose father was a globetrotting ambassador, Ahmet spent his teens in the rarefied world of Washington, DC diplomatic circles. By the age of thirteen, he was dressing like a Gentleman's Quarterly model, speaking Turkish, French and English with perfect fluency, and exhibiting a sophistication that belied his youth. One would have thought this young man's taste in music ran toward obscure European classical composers. Au contraire. Ahmet Ertegun favored raunchy Blues records and swinging Jazz bands; the more raunchy and swinging, the better. "I can honestly say that, from the age of about five, I fell in love with Jazz music," wrote Ertgegun in What'd I Say, a lavish pictorial history of Atlantic Records. "My brother Neshuhi introduced me to a wide array of Jazz artists . . . when my father announced that we were moving to Washington, DC . . . I said, 'Oh, thank God! I'm going to the land of cowboys, indians, Chicago gangsters, beautiful brown-skinned women and Jazz."

Ahmet Ertegun's first interactions with Jazz musicians occurred in the late 1930s. He and his brother Nesuhi defied the Capitol's strict segregation laws and began inviting members of touring African-American Jazz bands to lunch at the Turkish embassy. This evolved into a series of lunchtime jam sessions that became famous around Washington, DC. Among the Jazz greats the Ertegun brothers entertained were Benny Carter, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson and Sidney Bechet. By the early 1940s, the brothers were actively promoting Jazz and Blues concerts in the Capitol, featuring artists like Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton and future Atlantic Records hitmaker Big Joe Turner. This experience led directly to Ahmet producing his first record in 1943. With a pickup band, he cut several sides with an itinerant Blues singer known as Little Miss Cornshucks. These recordings never saw commercial release, but the same year, a wealthy friend put up the money for Ahmet to hire the Boyd Raeburn band and cut sessions with Jazz stylist Ginny Powell. Several years later, the Powell/Raeburn sides would number among Atlantic Records' first disc releases. At this early stage, Ahmet had no ambitions to start his own record label, but once World War II was over, the idea began to intrigue him.

"By the end of the war," he later remembered, "a great explosion was happening made up of wonderful (Black) artists wanting to get their work onto record . . . and there was a whole network of newly-formed, small, independent record companies providing the opportunity that the war and the (racist) policy of the major companies had denied to this wealth of talent." He observed the activities of a few of these independent label owners up close and came away less than impressed with their level of expertise. "I was struck by the fact that so many of these owners seemed to be accidentally in the record business because there was a void," he wrote. "Very few of these people (knew) too much about (a) the musicians, (b) the music, or (c) the taste of the public. So it occurred to me that I could probably do better . . ."

By the time Ahmet Ertegun moved from Washington, DC to New York City in the late 1940s, his mind was set on doing just that. Partnering with Herb and Miriam Abramson, two old friends from his days promoting Jazz concerts, he founded two labels, Quality and Jubilee. Naturally, he intended these labels to serve as an outlet for the recordings of Jazz and Gospel acts. Initial backing for this venture came from Max "Waxie Maxie" Silverman, a record store owner. Within a very short time, both labels failed (although Jubilee later thrived after Herb Abramson sold it to entrepreneur Jerry Blaine). Undaunted, the partners were ready to try again, but a wary Waxie Maxie declined to fund their second venture. Ahmet somehow convinced his dentist, Vahdi Sabit, to put up $10,000 in seed money for the label that came to be known as Atlantic Records.

Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun produced the first Atlantic recording sessions in November of 1947. Among the label's earliest artists were forgotten names like Melrose Colbert, The Poll Cats, The Harlemaires, Tiny Grimes and the Joe Morris Band. Atlantic's first group of studio regulars included Mickey Baker on guitar, Lloyd Troutman on bass, Harry Van Walls on piano, Connie Kay on drums and Sam "The Man" Taylor and Ben Webster on saxophones. Atlantic's preferred background vocal group was The Cues, a five-man unit that included songwriter Robie Kirk (under the pseudonym Winfield Scott, Kirk later wrote "Tweedle-Dee", "Many Tears Ago," "Return To Sender" and several other fondly-remembered novelty hits of the '50s and early '60s). After 1955, The Cookies (who, in later years, would wax Girl Group hits for Dimension Records) signed on to provide female vocal backing; members of The Cookies would become the first group of Raelettes to tour with Ray Charles.

Unlike most other producers who recorded Black artists, Abramson and Ertegun believed in using formal musical arrangements. Jesse Stone (also known as songwriter Charles Calhoun) became Atlantic's unofficial in-house arranger/conductor, but the label also employed the talents of Leroy Lovett, Reggie Obrecht, Howard Biggs, Buddy Johnson, Ray Ellis and other arrangers during its early years of operation. In 1953, Herb Abramson was drafted into the US military. In his absence, Ahmet brought ex-Billboard journalist and song plugger Jerry Wexler into the company as a partner. At the time, he was an A & R novice who was eager to get his feet wet in production work. He'd go on to produce dozens of top artists and be recognized as one of the greatest record men of the 20th century. Wexler's relentless drive and energy lit a fire under Ahmet and helped power his fledgling label through the Eisenhower decade.

Ertegun and Wexler functioned as combination record executives and talent scouts. They scoured the country in search of hitmaking acts. As a result, they recorded artists not only in New York City, but also in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and various other locales. Sometimes, recording options were catch-as-catch-can; if they happened to find a new artist somewhere out in the boonies and were in a hurry to get him on wax, a radio station soundbooth might have to serve as a substitute recording studio. Fortunately, that didn't happen too often. Bunny Robyn engineered many of their Hollywood dates at his Master Recorders studio; the Chess Brothers allowed Atlantic to book dates at their Chicago facility, where Mal Chisholm would man the controls; and in the Big Easy, Cosimo Matassa would do the honors at his popular self-named studio. Back home in New York, their favorite sound engineer was Tom Dowd, who worked intermittently on Atlantic record dates between 1948 and 1954.

At this time, most sessions were cut right inside the Atlantic office suite at 234 West 56th Street. Many years later, Dowd described the dubious setup: "We'd roll the chairs out onto the stairwell and push the two desks into a corner, one on top of the other. Then I'd start setting up microphones . . . the musicians would walk in and say, 'whose desks are those?' and we'd explain, 'well, it's an office when you're not recording.' So they'd look at you like you were crazy!" The office studio was obviously a cost-saving measure. It may not have been ideal for recording purposes, but many classic R & B sides came out of that room. This wasn't so much a result of great acoustics as it was a reflection of Dowd's exceptional technical skill. By 1954, Ertegun and Wexler finally understood what an irreplaceable asset he was to the company and hired him full-time.

The label's first big hit was "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee", a remake of a regional Blues hit by singer/guitarist Stick McGhee. Ahmet tracked down the artist and discovered he wasn't contracted to the company he recorded the song for (not an unusual state of affairs in the early days of R & B). In short order, he signed McGhee and took him into the studio to recut "Drinkin' Wine" with a tighter arrangement. It proved tight enough to send Atlantic's pressing into the Rhythm & Blues Top Five in 1949; the follow-up, a remake of Patti Page's million-selling "Tennessee Waltz", did almost as well. Stick McGhee may have been the label's first hitmaker, but a saucy young woman named Ruth Brown gave Atlantic Records its first hitmaking streak. At the time Ahmet signed her, she fancied herself a Black version of Doris Day, but Abramson and Ertegun steered her toward a pop-oriented Rhythm and Blues style. Billed as Miss Rhythm, she became one of the top R & B stars of the '50s on the strength of chart-toppers like "Mambo Baby," "Five, Ten, Fifteen Hours", "Teardrops From My Eyes" and "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean."


joe turner
BIG JOE TURNER
Big Joe Turner, a Blues singer from Kansas City, Missouri, and a veteran from the Ertegun Brothers' Washington concert series, became Atlantic's next big star. His thundering delivery of Jesse Stone's ribald dance tune "Shake, Rattle And Roll" was one of the 1950s' biggest R & B smashes. Much to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler's chagrin, though, it ended up being little more than a demo for Bill Haley and The Comets' better-known Pop version. "In Bill Haley's cover," Jerry Wexler later wrote, "the sex was stripped off (the song), the lyrics bleached clean. No matter: Joe's reading remains a gem." Another gem was the brooding Blues ballad "Chains Of Love," which earned Turner a Gold Record and also rated a watered-down Pop cover version, this time by Pat Boone. However, Ahmet was perhaps a little less disturbed by the higher sales of the Boone release, since he co-wrote the song with pianist Harry Van Walls.

He began writing songs, not because he had composer ambitions, but simply out of necessity. "Basically," he'd later explain to biographers, "I started writing songs because music publishers wouldn't provide any material to this hole-in-the-wall company called Atlantic . . . I really had no choice but to write the material myself! And in any event, at that time, the publishers didn't have (R & B) songs anyway." In the early 1950s, the man who'd one day rub elbows with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and other members of Rock royalty could be found cutting demos of his compositions in amateur recording booths located in Times Square! Most of his early copyrights were written under the pseudonym "Nugetre" (Ertegun spelled backwards), a moniker you'll find on the labels of many early Atlantic releases. Often, he'd collaborate with Jesse Stone or Jerry Wexler, and those songs appeared under the names "Jesmet" and "Jermet", respectively. Joe Turner's "Chains Of Love" was probably Ahmet Ertegun's most lucrative composition, but it wasn't his first hit. That honor goes to "Fool, Fool, Fool," a tune that topped the R & B charts in the Fall of 1951 for a new Atlantic act called The Clovers. When covered by Kay Starr the following year, Ahmet enjoyed substantial royalty income for the first time. Future bestsellers from the pen of "Nugetre" would include Clyde McPhatter's "Lovey Dovey" and Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song!" Both of the latter have spawned numerous cover versions over the years.

While Ahmet Ertegun was establishing his label in New York City, his brother Nesuhi was busy on the West Coast. The elder Ertegun had also dived into record production, supervising Jazz sessions as a freelancer. In addition, he was pioneering the teaching of Jazz history at UCLA, and struggling to keep two independent Jazz labels afloat on the side. It all proved too much for him to juggle, so in the mid-'50s, Nesuhi accepted Ahmet's invitation to become his partner in Atlantic Records alongside Jerry Wexler and Herb and Miriam Abramson. Atlantic had evolved a strong Rhythm and Blues orientation by then, but Ahmet was determined to build a Jazz catalogue, too. He knew his older brother was just the man to do it. Nesuhi became both the label's chief of Jazz A & R and its primary art director; he launched Atlantic's 33 1/3 album series and supervised all aspects of sleeve design. He brought Shorty Rogers, Joe Mooney, Bobby Short, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Carmen McRae, Nat Adderly, Mose Allson and Ornette Coleman to the label, among others, and produced many critically acclaimed sides with them. He wasn't above producing the occasional R & B session in Hollywood, either, which more or less remained his base of operations. However, as Jerry Wexler correctly observed, "Nesuhi's focus was on the development of superb Jazz . . . extraordinary records . . . the catalogue he amassed . . . reflected not only his taste and discernment, but his understanding of the cataclysmic changes Jazz was undergoing." Without a doubt, Nesuhi Ertegun's addition to the company raised the music industry profile of Atlantic Records considerably.

Ahmet Ertegun always felt that he chose to get into the music business at exactly the right time. In 1947, conditions were optimal for what he wanted to do. "We were one of the last independents to come into the picture, so a distribution network had already been set up, (it was) ready-made for us to plug into," he wrote in 2001. "Even so, the competition was very tough, and we'd spend hours on the telephone selling records to our distributors, then go to see disc jockeys to try to get our records on the air. I got thrown out of so many stations!" Still, he managed to convince several key deejays to spin Atlantic product, among them such giants of broadcasting as Los Angeles-based Hunter Hancock, Shreveport, Louisiana's Wolfman Jack, Nashville's Gene Nobles and Hoss Allen, Atlanta's Daddy Sears, and Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll pioneer, Alan Freed.

Ray Charles
RAY CHARLES
The days of getting thrown out of radio stations were numbered once Ahmet and Herb Abramson signed Ray Charles. The blind pianist came to Atlantic in 1952 from a West Coast label named Swing Time. He'd scored two Top Ten R & B hits for that label, but was experiencing a lull in chart fortunes; Abramson and Ertegun felt sure they could jump start his commercial appeal and bought out his Swing Time contract. At first, it seemed like they'd made a huge mistake. For two years, no new hits were forthcoming. Charles struggled to find his own distinctive style, but once he found it, there was no stopping him. He began penning his own material and, in crafting his songs, borrowed freely from Gospel music tradition. This move ignited a controversy in African-American religious circles that would dog him throughout his career, but it made Ray Charles singles sell faster than flapjacks hot off the griddle. His first chart-topper was "I Got A Woman" in late 1954, and from that initial triumph he spun a string of golden discs for Atlantic. These included the instant R & B standards "Drown In My Own Tears," "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "This Little Girl Of Mine" and "Night Time Is The Right Time", and culminated with the immortal "What'd I Say?" in 1959. That's the same year Charles was lured away from Atlantic by ABC-Paramount Records executives with promises of big money. He'd go on to have many more hits, of course, but many Rock historians agree that his work on Atlantic Records was never bettered.

Atlantic never had a bigger R & B act than Ray Charles during the 1950s, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying to find one. In the process, the label corralled several solid hitmakers. Its roster of stars during that era included Ivory Joe Hunter ("Since I Met You, Baby"), Chuck Willis ("See See Rider"), The Clovers ("One Mint Julep"), The Bobbettes ("Mr. Lee"), The Cookies ("In Paradise"), La Vern Baker, and The Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter. La Vern Baker was an old-fashioned Blues belter that Ahmet Ertegun called "(one of) the truly great voices" of urban music. Her catalogue overflows with blazing performances (on her first waxing, 1953's "How Can You Leave A Man Like This?" La Vern roars like a lioness in heat), but she's best known for bouncy novelty hits on the order of "Jim Dandy," "Tweedle-Dee" and "Bop! Ting-A-Ling." Slow-burning ballads like "I Waited Too Long" and "My Happiness Forever" got Ms. Baker lots of attention, too. She was the first Black female artist of the Rock era to win a significant following among White teenagers.

Ahmet brought Clyde McPhatter to the label after a successful stint with Billy Ward's Dominoes. Jerry Wexler built a five-man group around McPhatter's chrome-plated tenor voice and Jesse Stone wrote a dynamite stick of debut single for the group called "Money Honey." Powered by Clyde's vocal histrionics, it rocketed to the top of the charts and stayed there for eleven unbelievable weeks. The Drifters quickly entered the ranks of R & B royalty; between 1953 and 1956, not one of their releases missed the Top Ten. Clyde McPhatter's departure for a solo career in 1955 hardly slowed them down in commercial terms. Popular discs by McPhatter, The Drifters, La Vern Baker, Big Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Hunter, The Clovers and The Chords (whose hit "Sh'Boom" was marketed on a short-lived subsidiary called Cat Records) spearheaded Atlantic's initial crossover into the Pop market. Their brisk sales funded the company's move uptown to more spacious offices at 157 West 57th Street.

Drifters
THE DRIFTERS with CLYDE McPHATTER
The Atlantic Records Story continues with Part Two.

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 Don Charles Hampton
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
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
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
AHMET MUNIR 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