The Atlantic Records Story
How Ahmet Ertegun Created
by Don Charles Hampton
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."
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.
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.
THE DRIFTERS with CLYDE McPHATTER