Ahmet Ertegun And The History Of Atlantic Records
"WHEN I FIRST started Atlantic Records," reflects the label founder, Ahmet Ertegun, "I intended to make good blues and jazz music, as well as some pop music. My main interest was in jazz and blues."
In the nearly 45 years since Ertegun and his original partner Herb Abramson first got together with this idea (and $10,000 from Ertegun's dentist), Atlantic has become one of the most consistently successful companies in music. So much the paradigm of the post WWII growth of the music business, Charlie Gillett used them for his model in his chronicle, Making Tracks.
"The late 50s were a time of great opportunity," Elektra Records President Bob Krasnow noted at last year's New Music Seminar. "So many people were not doing things, and it left these big, gaping holes. I worked for King Records, which was a competitor of Atlantic Records. There was no industry then. I remember, my parents used to say, 'What are you talking about, "the music business"? What is the music business?' It wasn't really a business. You found the music, you found the money to make the records, and then the other people tried to get paid for selling these records."
"We used to have to sell 60,000 singles a month to meet the nut," a bemused Jerry Wexler recalled of his early days as a general partner in Atlantic, circa 1953, for Record WorldMagazine in 1972, "which was pretty extensive. I came in as a partner. We were three active partners and one silent partner and we all drove big cars, had Diner Club Cards and got decent salaries, so we were enjoying the prerequisites of management instantly, and in order to do that we had to sell those 60,000 singles a month. I remember every week Ahmet and I and Muriel Matenson then, we used to sit with a little hand crank adding machine and figure out if we'd survived that week."
"In those days," Ertegun adds, "you hoped that something would sell enough to keep the doors open. For the first two years, it was all touch and go, and thereafter, the company grew a lot, because we got a large roster of good artists."
These days, business is a bit more involved. Atlantic has grown by keeping the things that work but recognizing what was needed for growth. "We have a big nut," Ertegun boils down the situation at Atlantic today, "and we need to have those hits all the time."
Through college, Ertegun, son of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, supplemented his allowance by making and selling records. He and Abramson set up shop as Atlantic in the latter part of 1947. Their first records, jazz sides by Tiny Grimes and Errol Garner, came out in 1948.
"When Herb Abramson, another music buff, and I decided to start Atlantic Records in 1947," Ertegun recalls. "We did it for one main reason. We wanted to make the kind of records we wanted to buy. First and foremost, we were having great fun, and never imagined we would be able to make a living doing what we loved most. It is out of this kind of atmosphere that traditions are challenged, rules are broken, and new music is generated. The first Atlantic office, was in the now defunct Jefferson hotel. We were only there for about a year and a half or so. Then we moved to an office on Eighth Avenue, and I guess 53rd or 54th St. It was in the same building as Stillman's Gym."
Ertegun and Abramson spent their first year and a half scuffling to get their records out. National distributors felt that Atlantic's jazz and rough R&B was not the stuff that record sales were made of. They changed their tune when Atlantic released Stick McGhee's 'Drinkin' Wine Spo-De-O-Dee' in 1949. That became a major R&B hit, the company's first, and even made inroads onto the pop charts. Distributors could no longer ignore the upstart independent. Atlantic soon had a string of similar hits with Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, The Drifters and Ruth Brown.
"We wanted to record the kind of music we love, mainly jazz and blues," Ertegun explains. "In New York City in the late 1940's, there were very few bluesmen. It was very hard to record blues, because the Delta musicians, who came from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama and so forth, migrated mostly in the beginning to Chicago, and later on to California. Our market was really the black market, which was in large part in the South, and their favorite music was the blues in those days. We had a little bit of a rough time trying to get our artists to do anything resembling the blues. They were more singers like LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown. We managed to sign a great blues singer, Big Joe Turner. But the bands we had were composed of players from the big jazz bands and swing orchestras who had become studio musicians. They were not at all like the kind of musicians who were playing the blues in Chicago, like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and all those people. When we had these musicians try to play in an authentic blues fashion, it didn't work. The result, however, was quite intriguing. What emerged was music with a blues feel, but with a particularly Northern, urban influence. Trying to make groups like the Clovers and the Coasters and so on be more funky, we created a music that was palatable, oddly enough, to a white audience. Much to our amazement, the records were bought by both, black and white kids alike, the first true crossover music. In fact, the music we were making was rock and roll, although it certainly is not what we think of today as rock and roll."
Such crossover was unheard of in the 50s. In a way, Atlantic and companies like Atlantic heralded the early shaking, rattling and rolling of the Civil Rights movement. As New Music Seminar founder Mark Josephson pointed out when he presented the Joel Webber award to Ertegun last summer, "Ertegun's accomplishments in breaking down the racial distinctions that have, for too long plagued our country and other countries around the world, are remarkable in themselves. The fact that they did so while creating records of such lasting aesthetic importance is all the more remarkable."
Not surprisingly, Ertegun sees this in more modest and pragmatic terms. "See, they segregated everything in those days. Certainly the South was fully segregated. But they couldn't segregate the radio dial. So, as we got our records played on radio stations that played black music, the white audience could turn the dial and get that station. A lot of the white kids started to listen to our music, which was really made for a black audience. That was really the beginning of rock and roll, because among those young white kids were people like Elvis Presley, who listened to Ray Charles and Chuck Berry and Little Richard. That was the beginning."
There is a certain amount of magic in those early Atlantic records. It is a quality Ertegun recognizes, even if he can't quantify it. Yet, the string of hits in the early 50s allowed Atlantic to expand from a part time adjunct to graduate school into a full time business. And as they started to get operating capital from these hit records, Ertegun and Abramson started to operate like a business. Yet they never lost track of the magic or the reason they went into business in the first place. Atlantic licensed music by artists like Sidney Bechet, Don Byas and Dizzy Gillespie from Blue Star Records in France. They started to look around for artists who were not necessarily unsigned, but artists on other labels Abramson and Ertegun thought would do well on Atlantic. All in the search and service of this magic.
"Sometimes," Ertegun notes, "when you hear the artist the first time, you hear the magic. You hear there's going to be something. That's what I heard when I first heard a recording by Ray Charles and we went out and bought his contract."
The $2500 that Atlantic spent buying Charles' contract from Swingtime records in 1952 might have been the best investment Ertegun made. Hits like 'What'd I Say', helped keep Atlantic afloat. And while it was a relatively small amount of money, Ertegun had begun to think big.
"We tried to sign Elvis Presley very early in the game," he recollects. "He was a little bit too expensive for us. I offered $25,000. They wanted $45,000. I didn't have $45,000 at that time. Otherwise we would have gotten him."
In 1953, Abramson found himself in the military. This left a void in the admittedly small Atlantic hierarchy. This was filled by Billboard record reviewer Jerry Wexler.
"Ahmet and I co-produced practically all the records from '53 to about '58 or '59," Wexler noted. "And then we had to diverge, and each one handled a separate group of artists because there were too many to handle together. But I went right into the studio with Ahmet and he trained me and showed me what to do. And let's face it: We were all in on a pass, because none of us were musicians, but we… called the sessions and we survived."
"For many years, Atlantic was literally a one room operation," Ertegun adds. "When we moved to an office on 56th St., right next to Patsy's restaurant, that's when we had our first studio. The studio was not a separate studio. It was a room that was shared by me and Jerry Wexler. We had two desks and a grand piano. The two desks were my desk and Jerry's. That was our office. In the evening we piled one desk on top of the other, and move them to a corner. Then we'd have enough room to put an orchestra in there and mic them. We brought out some chairs, and that was our studio. It was a great way to avoid paying for studio time. We put in a little control room and we hired Tommy Dowd, who was a young engineer who worked at various studios here, and later worked for the Voice of America. But he was a part time engineer, recording in that room. Tommy was our first and best engineer. He got a great sound under truly Spartan conditions. We made a lot of hit records in that room."
In addition to the production work that Ertegun and Wexler were doing, Atlantic had hooked up with a team of two talented West Coast writers and producers. Contracted in 1956, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller brought with them their own hit making apparatus.
"I think they were the first independent producers," Ertegun notes. "They had a label on the West Coast with Lester Sill (Spark Records). They had this group who we later called the Coasters. They were called the Robins at the time they were recording for Jerry and Mike's label. We wanted to sign that group, and we also wanted them to continue producing them. So, we signed the group, and we made a production deal with Leiber and Stoller. I guess they were the first so-called independent producers. We had a long series of hits with them."
Indeed, between 1956 and 1960, Atlantic had 84 hits in the Hot 100. Of those, 56 were the product of five Atlantic artists – 15 by the Coasters, 11 by LaVern Baker and ten each by the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter and Bobby Darin.
Yet with all the pop success, Atlantic continued to make those records that they set out to make in the beginning. In 1956, Ahmet's brother Nesuhi joined the company to explore the relatively new LP market, as well as continuing the company's commitment to jazz.
"Nesuhi had been in California," Ahmet says. "He owned Jazz Man Records, and also ran the Crescent label, which was dedicated to New Orleans music. He gave the first course on the history of jazz at UCLA, and also was head of A&R at Contemporary Records where he recorded people like Barney Kessel and Shelly Mann. When Nesuhi joined me at Atlantic, he oversaw our entry into the LP business. But most importantly, he made a series of historic jazz recordings by the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and many others. A true music man, Nesuhi never recorded an artist he didn't like, and throughout his life he was a champion of new music, a huge defender of musicians' rights."
Through the late 50s and early part of the 60s, Atlantic continued to expand their R&B dominance. They also started exploring other areas. In 1958, Abramson had signed a young college drop-out named Bobby Darin. In three tries, however, they were unable to generate a hit. Ertegun decided to take a crack at it. Lightening up on the usual Atlantic approach, he cut a novelty ditty, 'Splish Splash', that went to #3 pop and started both Darin's career and Atlantic's involvement with 'white' rock and roll.
"By then we had already started branching out a little bit into pop music," Ertegun recollects, "with Bobby Darin, who made some historical records with us. I think the first recordings I made with Bobby Darin were very important records. That was a great career. I produced most of those albums. I produced just about everything that came out on Atlantic. And then, we got very lucky with a couple of acts. Nino Tempo and April Stevens (1963), and Sonny and Cher (1965). By this time, I had latched onto Eric Clapton. We recorded a group called Cream, then I got the Bee Gees, and then Led Zeppelin. Then we signed up Buffalo Springfield. I signed them up in California. And suddenly, we're in the new music. In the new white rock and roll syndrome. So we became sort of a well rounded record company, and managed to grow year by year."
While Ertegun skates over this major move, the subtle shift in focus that it represents is notable for many reasons. With the earlier acts, a certain level of integrity leavened the pop songs. Even Sonny and Cher were a notch above a lot of the forgettable pop music that was charting circa 1965. Yet, while Atlantic was working acts like these, other companies had started aggressively working the next big thing in pop music, the British Invasion bands. However, as the list Ertegun offers illustrates, Atlantic hopped that steamship a bit late, catching it on the second wave.
"In the early 60s," Ertegun remonstrates, "it didn't take a genius to see that, first with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, these were very, very new and important openings toward rock and roll. We didn't have those artists. I had to get into that area. We couldn't just sit by. Besides, I love that music. One of the first people I signed up was Eric Clapton, with Robert Stigwood. We heard Clapton together for the first time, and I said, 'Well, that is an artist I want.' And that was the beginning of Cream. Then I signed up Yes, of course Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake and Palmer."
These signings were also remarkable. Led Zeppelin's was, in fact unprecedented. Not only was their advance purported to be the largest ever offered a new band, they were also given total control over everything from record production to merchandising. Similarly, to entice the Rolling Stones Ertegun offered them what amounted to a production and distribution deal for their own label (a deal Zeppelin would echo some years later with their own Swan Song imprint.)
"When I signed the Rolling Stones," Ertegun declares, "the first recordings that we made with them, 'Brown Sugar', and so forth, brought them sales that they never had before."
In the mean time, Atlantic was still a major power in black music, particularly black music that went pop. They developed a working relationship with Memphis based Stax Records and Muscle Shoals, Alabama's Fame Records. In addition to adding to the label's revenue, it added a musical jolt at a time when they were beginning to really need it, especially where two of the label's big soul signings, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, were involved.
"We used arrangements from the beginning," Wexler held forth. "The sound was getting played out. The stink of the studio was upon our records, you know? It became highlighted by a problem that I had with Wilson Pickett. We had signed him, but I just couldn't get off the ground with him. I got the idea of taking him to Memphis. We were getting these great records from Stax. I knew the Stax thing, the rhythm section, Booker T. and the MG's and I was close to the guys. So we did head arrangements, and he got along fantastically with the guys, especially with Cropper. So we came down there and I stayed a few days and we cut 'Midnight Hour' and 'Don't Fight It'. And then I left and they stayed and kept cutting. He came down later and did two more sessions down there. Nothing but winners, all hits: '99 1/2', '6345789', after 'Midnight Hour'. 'Midnight Hour' really changed things around. It was really a seminal record in rock."
Similarly, Aretha Franklin recorded but got nowhere. Everyone knew she had talent and possibly the most expressive voice anyone had ever been gifted. Yet, John Hammond had her for several years at Columbia. Perhaps it was the lingering effects of Columbia's long time anti-rock stance from the Miller years – they couldn't see setting a voice like that in such "crude" music – but for nearly eight years they could just barely buy Franklin a hit. Then she signed with Atlantic.
"We took her out of the traditional large band orchestrations of standards, which is the sort of thing she did at Columbia," Ertegun says. "We recorded her in the Atlantic style of that time, which was very lively rhythm and blues arrangements. We recorded down in Muscle Shoals or Memphis or whatever, with the kind of musicians that excited her, and she excited them. It worked very well. I think that Jerry Wexler made some of the most important recordings of all time with Aretha."
By the time Aretha Franklin was having her first Atlantic hits, and the Rascals and Buffalo Springfield were establishing their places on the roster, the principals at Atlantic sold the company to Warner/Seven Arts. While the principals stayed on, there were now, for the first time, people to answer to.
"These days," Wexler commented in 1972, "when you merge in the industry, there are certain cliche reasons that are always sent up, that are floating like balloons out of cartoon people's mouths. Okay, so official reasons for merging: 1) 'To have global facilities at your disposal.' Okay, that's a cosmic reason. 2) 'To have the wherewithal to continue expansion.' Well, that's good, because the N.A.M. would dig that. It's very American to expand. 3) 'To utilize the technological synergy that will emerge when we put these things together.' But the real reason is capitol gains, the American dream. That's the real reason every time. Every time for everybody. But I guess you're not supposed to say that.
"We never had a recording budget," he added, "an advertising budget or a promotional budget. If Ahmet wanted to make a record, he'd make a record. Same with Nesuhi or I. We would discuss it may times if there was enough money involved, and if somebody really wanted to do something, the others never said no. So we worked without a budget. Of course, this gave a big case of faint hearts to the Warner Brothers' accountants after we merged. That's like saying you're existing without oxygen or something."
While pro forma moves were made to assuage this aspect of the new owners, very little else changed at Atlantic. They kept signing artists, releasing records and getting bigger. It's interesting to note how long many careers lasted on the label. Aretha Franklin recorded for Atlantic for nearly a decade, as did Darin. All the Coaster's hits were for the label, all Led Zeppelin's records. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have been with the label from the git-go, as have Foreigner and Roberta Flack.
"She's been with us ever since my brother signed her up," Ertegun points out. "That was over 20 years ago. Her current album is probably one of the best she ever did. It looks like a very big hit. She's one of the finest singers in American pop history."
Atlantic was powered through a great deal of the seventies on the strength of many acts from the late 60s. Yet with the change of focus in the pop music audience and Atlantic, Wexler estimated that R&B only accounted for only about 15% of the company's business by 1972. Through the 70s, Atlantic developed such current superstars as Genesis (and their drummer, Phil Collins), and such period stars as ABBA (who were responsible for as much of Swedish GNP as Volvo at one time). They were on the dance music tip as it rose out of the underground, with Chic. In turn they were rewarded with their all-time best selling single, 'Dance, Dance, Dance'. They also were able to sign acts with a certain amount of cachet from other bands.
"The same thing that happened with Aretha Franklin," Ertegun postulates, "in a sense, happened when Doug Morris took Stevie Nicks into the studio and gave her the sort of encouragement and guidance that made her a very important, big star. But all these people, of course had huge talent. It becomes easy when you have that sort of outstanding talent."
In addition to having kept Atlantic afloat, the fact that this wealth of talent has been going on for over 40 years gives Atlantic archives that are wide and deep. They have never been loath to exploit them (though sometimes they have been a bit capricious about it). In 1972, Wexler worried out loud about the future, about the off chance that the company would become a source of "great archival records that keep getting reviewed in Creem magazine as classics. That's cool, but there's a responsibility to keep this thing moving." He need not have worried. In addition to keeping on the cutting edge of contemporary music, Atlantic remains second only to Columbia in the depth of it's catalog and the ways they have exploited that depth. As you read this, Atlantic has begun a vast reissue/repackaging campaign. Along with the re-release of the Led Zeppelin boxed set that Jimmy Page remastered last year, release is imminent on a three CD/cassette Ray Charles box, The Birth of Soul – The 20 Complete Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Recordings, 1952 – 1959. This will be accompanied on the racks by single disc retrospectives by Charles' contemporaries like LaVern Baker, The Clovers and Clyde McPhatter. Additional releases will make Chic, shamefully out of print for around six years, available for the first time on CD, as well as two single discs on Bobby Darin, a double disc on the Spinners, a single disc offering of Sonny and Cher and the classic holiday recordSoul Christmas. A dozen classic Stax recordings will be re-released, as well. "We have planned this," Ertegun intimates, "Since last year. We had such great success with the Led Zeppelin box."
Yet, rather than being the company's raison d'etre, projects like the reissue series exist largely on the coattails of contemporary, successful Atlantic artists. As the company has grown, they have hired good ears for what sells. Atlantic garners its share of hits, which they owe to not doing much about changing the signing approach Wexler mentioned earlier. As he and the Ertegun brothers were able to make the records they wanted to make, the same goes today, according to Ertegun.
"We have A&R meetings," Ertegun says of the signing process, "and everybody listens to the stuff that is brought in. The signings are usually a combination of Doug Morris' choices along with mine. Doug Morris, by the way," he adds about his current co-chairman and co-CEO, "I must tell you is the finest record man I ever worked with. He has a great ear. Our tastes are very similar. But, if anybody on our A&R staff is very very strong on any artist, whether we like it or now, we sign it."
This has allowed Atlantic to keep up with developing trends. The last one they missed might well have been the first wave of the British invasion. Recently, with the pop youth movement in full swing, Atlantic led the way with Debbie Gibson. On the cusp of the modern hip-hop girl group revival, they sold two million copies of a record by En Vogue. Unable to crack rap on their own terms, they made deals with First Priority and Luke records. As pop-metal came on, Atlantic made their own kind of heavy metal (i.e. gold and platinum) with groups like Kix, Winger and Skid Row.
"One of most recent important signings is Skid Row," Ertegun notes. "I worked with Jason Flom and Doug in getting that group signed up. It was tough. There were a lot of other companies bidding for the group. Jason originally found the group and asked me to go hear them. We flew out to Allentown, Pennsylvania one night when they played in front of about 25 people, with no applause. I was very very impressed by the band and the lead singer, who has a very formidable presence on stage. It was one of our best signings."
Additionally, Atlantic today seems to have a pretty good sense of artist development. Perhaps this harks back to their heritage. A label that got its start in jazz, after all, has to know that developing artists takes time and patience. It took years for John Coltrane to sell 100,000 albums. Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus might have as much or more to say artistically than Led Zeppelin, but they were never nearly the sellers.
"They weren't," Ertegun concurs, "but we knew that they were classic, classic artists, and eventually people would catch up to them. And we stay with artists fairly long, when we have faith in their talent. Doug Morris who is really on top of all our projects, has immense faith in the talent that he believes in, and he sticks by them."
In one recent case, this manifested itself in making Marc Cohn's Atlantic debut twice. "Doug Morris and I were both very struck by [Marc Cohn's] talent," Ertegun says. "We had problems getting the record produced. Someone in our A&R department took over the project and sent him to California to record with a producer in California that didn't work out very well. So finally, Marc came back to New York and produced it with an engineer friend of his, and they did a terrific job. I think he's going to be a very important artist."
If experience means anything, keep an eye out for Cohn, because Ertegun is about as experienced as they get. One of the few bottles of his vintage still on the rack, as we sit to talk, Ertegun has a cold, is faced with signing a vast amount of paper work and still handles the interview with equanimity. Yet, his brother passed on a couple of years back. Jerry Wexler has retired. Only the tireless Turk remains at the reigns, dealing with the issues, listening to the music, flying to Allentown! Ahmet Ertegun resists the pasture of so many stallions with whom he once raced.
"The people who started it are not there," he sighs. "I guess I'm the only one left of the people from that time who is still in the business.
"You know," he brightens, "from being a small company run by a handful of people, we've now become a fairly large company. We have hundreds of people working here, and we have this big machine that has to be fed. So we make all kinds of music now. But we keep on making the original kind of music that we started with, which is rhythm and blues. I think that's the soul of Atlantic Records. Rhythm and blues, and rock and roll and jazz. And we are very active in all those fields. But again, it reflects not my personal taste, which it did when I first started Atlantic records, but rather the tastes of many people. So that gives us a blend of different styles of music."
© Hank Bordowitz, 1991