I’ve been listening to The Atlantic Records Story, a BBC Radio 6 documentary series narrated by Johnnie Walker that tells the story of the Atlantic Records label (just one example of the gems you can discover via the updated iPlayer Radio app which now allows you to download programmes to your phone, where they remain until they self-destruct, usually after 28 days).
It must have been some time in 1959 or 1960 when, just in my teens, I began listening to Radio Luxembourg, ‘the station of the stars’, on nightly basis, because among the first singles I remember hearing were The Drifters’ ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ and Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’. In the next few years I would hear some of the greatest singles ever recorded – many of them for Atlantic Records, though the label was unknown to me at the time, since Atlantic was too small to launch its own label in the UK. Instead they were released on a subsidiary of Decca, London American.
The shows on Radio Luxembourg were sponsored by the UK record companies who used them to promote their latest single releases. Every night Decca had their own show (I can still hear the ringing intro: the letters D-E-C-C-A spelt out dramatically, followed by an echoed ‘Decca…Decca’. With my radio dial tuned to 208 on medium wave, there is where I must have heard the Atlantic hits as I lay under the bedclothes, the old radio valves glowing and the radio signal fading in and out.
Ben E King: Spanish Harlem
It was thanks to Radio Luxembourg (the BBC wouldn’t go near this stuff for several more years) that I first heard classic Atlantic productions such as Ben E King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘Stand by Me’, and The Drifters’ great New York trilogy comprising ‘Up on the Roof’, ‘On Broadway’ and ‘Under the Boardwalk’. But it would be years later, in the 1970s, that I really began to understand the significance of the Atlantic label. Then, in 1987, I persuaded Liverpool record library to purchase the newly-released vinyl box set, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues: 1947-1974 – seven double LPs that documented the entire history of the label’s golden years. For years I listened to the tapes I made of the set, until it was released on CD in an updated form in the 1990s.
Through this set I was able to explore the back-story to the pop, r&b and soul hits of the fifties and sixties, and to discover how many songs I had known in white cover versions had originally been released by black artists.
The broad outlines of the Atlantic story were familiar to me, but in 13 superbly-crafted one-hour episodes the Radio 6 documentary series offered not just lots of great music, but also fascinating details of the growth of the company recalled by recording artists and those who produced the records – most notably the company’s two founders, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi, who built up the jazz side of the label, and Jerry Wexler, who became a partner in 1953 and went on to produce many of Atlantic’s classic singles in the fifties and sixties.
The label was established in December 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun, the son of the Turkish ambassador to the United States. Born in Istanbul in 1923, Ahmet dreamed of travelling to America, ‘the land of cowboys, Indians, Chicago gangsters, beautiful brown-skinned women and jazz’. He and his older brother Nesuhi had been crazy about jazz since their teens, and after the family’s move to Washington DC the brothers turned the Turkish Embassy on Sunday afternoons into an open house where visiting jazz musicians would jam together.
As Ahmet recalled, his father soon began receiving letters from outraged Southern senators, one of whom wrote, ‘It has been brought to my attention, sir, that a person of colour was seen entering your house by the front door. I have to inform you that in our country, this is not a practice to be encouraged. His father replied: ‘In my home, friends enter by the front door – however, we can arrange for you to enter from the back.’
The two brothers built up an amazing collection of around 15,000 78 rpm jazz and rhythm & blues records, mostly obtained from second-hand record shops and during expeditions in which they went from door to door asking Afro-Americans if they had any old discs they would like to sell. Ahmet soon decided he wanted to start his own record label. With little experience of the business side of music, Ertegun convinced the family dentist to invest $10,000 and recruited as a partner Herb Abramson, a dentistry student with some experience of the music business.
In April 1949 Atlantic had its first hit with Stick McGhee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’, followed later in the year by ‘So Long’ sung by Ahmet’s first major signing, Ruth Brown. He had seen her perform at the Crystal Caverns club in Washington and had been mightily impressed. He offered her a contract, but immediately after she was in a car accident and broke both her legs. Ahmet brought her a contract to sign in her hospital bed, paid her hospital bills, and encouraged her to learn to sight-read music and jot down lyrics while she recovered. ‘Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean’ and other hits followed in succession once she had recovered.
Joe Turner: Chains of Love
On another occasion, Ahmet saw Big Joe Turner perform at the Apollo Theatre. Turner was thought to be past his prime, struggling as the vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra. After the show, unhappy with his performance, Turner disappeared. Ahmet later found him drowning his sorrows in a nearby bar, and eventually persuaded him to sign with Atlantic, assuring him that all he needed was new material. Ahmet then wrote ‘Chains of Love’ for Turner, which was a big R&B hit.
In 1952, Ahmet signed the artist who would come to define Atlantic: Ray Charles. Up to that point, Charles had been playing in the smooth style of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, but Ahmet wanted to steer Charles toward a grittier sound. Again it was one of Ahmet’s compositions – ‘Mess Around’ that proved to be a winner.
In 1953, Ahmet had invited the music journalist Jerry Wexler to become a partner in the fledgling Atlantic concern (the deal was that Wexler had to invest $2,000 in the company; Ahmet spent the money on a green Cadillac for Wexler so that he would look the part when meeting influential disc jockeys and others in the music business who might need persuading that Atlantic singles were worth playing).
Ray Charles:What’d I Say, parts 1 & 2
Wexler was soon playing a crucial role, not only schmoozing, but also supervising recording sessions that produced classics such as the Drifters’ ‘Money Honey’ (with lead vocal by Clyde McPhatter), Big Joe Turner’s original version of ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, LaVern Baker’s ‘Tweedlee Dee’, and the sessions which yielded ‘I Got a Woman’ and ‘What’d I Say’, in which Ray Charles fused gospel and R&B, paving the way to soul music.
In a later episode of the Radio 6 documentary series, a discussion of how Wexler brought Dr John to Atlantic in 1968 and supervised the recording of his first album Gris-Gris leads to him recalling the night decades earlier when he and Ahmet went in search of an unknown genius named Professor Longhair. They found him playing in a brightly-lit shack in the middle of a field ‘so full of people that they seemed to be falling out of the windows as music blared’. Talking their way past the guy at the door, who assumed they were cops, the pair made their way inside, where Longhair was playing a piano with an attached drumhead that he would hit with his right foot.
Professor Longhair: Tipitina
Ahmet and Jerry could barely contain themselves. An ‘utterly primitive, completely original artist’ was making a kind of music they had never heard before. Rushing up to Longhair after his set was over, they told him they wanted him to sign with Atlantic. ‘I’m sorry,’ Longhair told them; ‘I signed with Mercury last week.’ But, the pianist added, ‘I signed with them as Roeland Byrd. With you, I can be Professor Longhair.’
By 1955, Atlantic had moved to premises at 234 West 56th Street which served as offices by day and recording studio at night. With office furniture pushed to the wall, Ahmet and Jerry would record hits such as ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ by the Drifters. Ahmet recalled how it was:
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 Tom Dowd, who 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.
‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ was penned by the remarkable song writing team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman hired by Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. In The Atlantic Records Story, they recalled how the song came to be written. As usual Mort Shuman had come up with a tune – a Latin melody – and passed it over to Doc Pomus to work on. While playing around with different ideas, Pomus came across a wedding invitation in a box, and this brought back a vivid memory from his wedding. Pomus, who had polio, remembered watching his brother Raoul dance with his new wife while he sat in his wheelchair. Inspired, he stayed up all night writing the words to the song, finally putting down on paper the words that would become the title: ‘Save The Last Dance For Me.’
The Drifters: Save the Last Dance For Me
By now – as the fifties turned into the sixties – I was hearing records produced by Atlantic. The audience for their music was changing – it was no longer largely rural and black, but increasingly teenage and white.Those in charge at Atlantic had begun to realize that their target audience was shifting as early as 1954, when Big Joe Turner’s version of ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was covered by Bill Haley and His Comets. That year, in an article for Cashbox magazine, Ahmet and Jerry wrote that the music for this new white, teenage audience would be ‘up-to-date blues with a beat and infectious catch phrases and danceable rhythms…. It has to have a message for the sharp youngsters who dig it.’ They called it rock and roll.
The Coasters: Shoppin’ For Clothes
And Atlantic became very good at appealing to the new ‘crossover market’, largely due to two genius song-writers. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller developed an art form they called ‘playlets in song’ with the help of a bunch of young vocalists from Los Angeles – the Coasters. Lieber and Stoller wrote and and produced a string of huge hits that employed this formula: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ and ‘Riot in Cell Block Number 9’, ‘Searchin’’, ‘Young Blood’, ‘Along Came Jones’, and ‘Shoppin’ for Clothes’, and ‘Yakety Yak'(Atlantic’s first pop # 1).
One episode of the Radio 6 series was devoted to the jazz recorded on the Atlantic label. Atlantic’s jazz division was overseen by Ahmet’s brother, Nesuhi Ertegun. From 1955 on, Nesuhi oversaw and produced some of the most important jazz recordings of the era: by Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
In an interview used in the episode, Ahmet spoke of Nesuhi’s great knowledge and experience of the jazz world: he had owned a jazz record shop, ran a label dedicated to New Orleans jazz, and gave the first course on the history of jazz at UCLA:
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.
I was entertained by a story that Nesuhi told of how he came to record Ornette Coleman. John Lewis, pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, had recommended that Nesuhi check out Coleman, but warned that he could be a difficult man to track down. Nesuhi flew to LA, and eventually managed to talk to Ornette on the phone. A date was set for an audition, and Ornette gave him an address where they should meet.
The place turned out to be a garage attached to a property in a run-down part of town. When Nesuhi arrived he found that Coleman had quickly brought together a group of friends to play with him – trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden. Amazing! Nesuhi described how this group of then unknown musicians played for him for nearly four hours as children and family friends listened and drank cola.
Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman from The Shape of Jazz to Come
The session that came out of that meeting was released as The Shape of Jazz to Come, a record that baffled many listeners when it first appeared, though its harmonic freedom (‘I play pure emotion’, said Coleman) sounds much more approachable today.
John Coltrane: My Favourite Things
That was just one of the classic jazz albums produced by Nesuhi Ertegun which include: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and My Favourite Things, John Coltrane and Don Cherry’s The Avant-Garde, Roland Kirk’s The Inflated Tear, as well as albums by Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus and Mose Allison.
Wilson Pickett: In the Midnight Hour
Three episodes or so were required to tell the story of Atlantic’s great soul recordings. We heard how, in partnership with Stax Records of Memphis and Fame Records of Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Atlantic began releasing music recorded there by Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler. In 1962, Atlantic released ‘These Arms of Mine’, Otis Redding’s first hit single, which was soon followed by big hits from the Mar-Keys, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, and Joe Tex.
We were getting these great records from Stax. I knew the Stax thing, the rhythm section, Booker T and the MG’s [ Booker T Jones (organ and piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass), and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums)] and I was close to the guys. So we took Wilson Pickett down there, and he got along fantastically with the guys, especially with Cropper. He did two sessions down there. Nothing but winners, all hits: ‘634-5789’, and ‘Midnight Hour’. ‘Midnight Hour’ really changed things around. It was really a seminal record in rock.
Another artist whose career was transformed by recording in Muscle Shoals was Aretha Franklin. She had been recording traditional large band orchestrations of standards for several years at Columbia, but going nowhere. Then, in 1967, Jerry Wexler took Aretha to record in the studio at Muscle Shoals. The first session yielded ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’, and was soon followed by some the greatest soul music ever recorded: ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Chain of Fools’, and ‘Think’.
Aretha Franklin: Respect
Later episodes in the Radio 6 series documented how in the late sixties and 1970s Atlantic conquered white rock, recording bands such as Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers with phenomenal success. As Ahmet Ertegun recalled:
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 in 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.
The Allman Brothers Band: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed (At Fillmore East, 1971)
The first recording that Atlantic made with the Rolling Stones was ‘Brown Sugar’ in 1970, after their contract with Decca had expired. This provoked another amusing memory: intent on signing the band, Ahmet flew to Los Angeles to meet with Mick Jagger at the Whisky a Go Go, where Chuck Berry was performing.
By the time he got there, Ahmet was jet-lagged and had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol. When Jagger arrived, several toasts were drunk. As Jagger expressed the Stones’ interest in a contract with Atlantic, he realised that Ahmet had fallen asleep at the table. ‘I couldn’t keep my eyes open,’ he said. ‘Mick thought it was hilarious.’
Cream: Sunshine Of Your Love
Although I found the last two or three episodes of the series less interesting, overall The Atlantic Records Story offered fascinating personal recollections – and a great opportunity to hear classic tracks once again.
Nesuhi Ertegun died in 1989, while Ahmet continued to play an active role at Atlantic until his death in October 2006. Jerry Wexler died in 2008.
Ivory Joe Hunter: Since I Met You Baby
Here’s a selection of my favourite Atlantic singles:
- Stick McGhee ‘Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee’
- Ruth Brown ‘(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean’
- Ray Charles ‘Mess Around’, ‘What’d I Say’, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’
- Big Joe Turner ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’
- The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’
- Ivory Joe Hunter ‘Since I Met You Baby’
- The Coasters ‘Young Blood’, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Along Came Jones’, ‘Shoppin’ for Clothes’
- Ben E King ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Stand by Me’
- Eddie Harris & Les McCann ‘Compared to What’
- Solomon Burke ‘Cry To Me’
- Booker T & The MGs ‘Green Onions’
- The Drifters ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’, ‘Up on the Roof’, ‘On Broadway’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’
- Chris Kenner ‘Land of 1000 Dances’
- Rufus Thomas ‘Walking the Dog’
- Don Covay ‘Mercy Mercy’
- Otis Redding ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’
- Percy Sledge ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’
- Wilson Pickett ‘634-5789’, ‘Mustang Sally’, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’
- Sam & Dave ‘Hold On! I’m Comin’, ‘Soul Man’
- Arthur Conley ‘Sweet Soul Music’
- Aretha Franklin ‘Do Right Woman Do Right Man’, ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Chain of Fools’, ‘Think’
- Brook Benton ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’
Brook Benton: Rainy Night in Georgia
25 Years: A History of Atlantic Records
- Jerry Wexler: The Man Who Invented Rhythm & Blues (Rolling Stone)
- Wex on Wax: Twenty Essential Jerry Wexler Productions (Rolling Stone)