Sunday, December 3, 2017

Atlantic Records: From R&B to Rock’n’Roll (1947 -1955)

Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun grew up in Washington and their father was the Turkish Ambassador to the United States in the 1940s. Their mother Hayrunisa Rustem was a talented musician and dancer and brought her sons up to appreciate music. The boys soon had an ear for ‘black music’ and loved jazz. Ahmet grew up knowing he would work in the record industry. At first, the Ertegun brothers staged concerts and soon were arranging venues for the likes of Lester Young, Sidney Bechet and other jazz giants.

Ahmet trained to become a dentist and helped pay his tuition fees by working part-time. He befriended Max Silverman who owned the Quality Radio Repair Shop. Silverman sold new and used radios and records for 10 cents each or three for a quarter but Max dropped the radio repair to concentrate on selling records. The shop was renamed Waxie Maxie and Ahmet quickly picked up the record business from working with Max Silverman. At college Ahmet’s buddy was Herb Abramson who happened to be A&R man for National Records. The pair decided to start a label together with Max Silverstein as financial backer in 1946. They had two labels: Jubilee for Gospel; and Quality for jazz and R&B but business was so slow at first Silverman dropped out to be replaced by a family friend called Vahdi Sabit (a dentist) as the financier. Once Herb Abramson sold Jubilee Records to raise the money the Atlantic Recording Corporation) was formed in 1947. There was an impending recording strike for early 1948 and Atlantic set to recording as much material as possible. First off the rank was the Harlemaires with their debut "The Rose of the Rio Grande." Interested to improve their record sales outside NY, Ahmet and arranger Jess Stone travelled through the Southern States to New Orleans. They noticed with some alarm the Atlantic beat was incompatible with the local dance crazes. Despite their stable of jazz session musicians they were unable to recreate the New Orleans Sound. Piano playing Professor Longhair (aka Henry Roeland Byrd, also known as Roy "Bald Head" Byrd and as Fess) was signed to the label and helped develop the boogie based, sax-led band arrangements which would became the "Atlantic Sound." The first release in the new genre was a Brownie McGhee composition for his brother Stick McGhee entitled "Drinkin' Wine Sop-Dee-O-Dee in 1949 which became a massive hit.

In 1949 Atlantic released a 10 inch long play record (33 1/3 rpm) of poetry by Walter Benton entitled ‘This Is My Beloved”. The works were narrated by John Dall and Vernon Duke provided the background music. Others followed by Joe Bushkin and Erroll Garner in 1950.

A year later the first 12 inch LP was issued and was a recording of scenes from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" performed by Eva LaGallienne and Richard Waring. Atlantic continued to raise most of its revenue from the rhythm and blues recordings and when they released Laurie Tate and Joe Morris' "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" it went to the number one position on the R&B charts.

More success followed with "Don't You Know I Love You" (written by Ahmet) and recorded by the Clovers. It too went to number #1 in R&B charts and the hat trick was complete when Ruth Brown notched their third #1 R&B hit with "5-10-15 Hours" in 1952. Ruth Brown was similar singer to Dinah Washington and her pop blues style had crossover appeal.

The same year they signed Ray Charles from the Swingtime label. His first record was titled "Roll With My Baby" but the real breakthrough came several years later when Jerry Wrexler produced "I Got A Woman." The song totally encapsulated all the elements of r&b and gospel and gave Ray Charles his first major hit in 1955. During his time with Atlantic (he left in 1958), Charles recorded both R&B and Country Western.

Jerry Wexler had joined Atlantic as a partner in 1953. Until then Atlantic had been a three person operation. Herb Abramson (President), Ahmet Ertegun (Vice President), and Herb's wife, Miriam (Vice President) who kept the accounts, paid the bills, and managed the office. When Herb Abramson was drafted into the Army he stayed on full salary and kept his title as President of the company but additional help was provided by new partner, Jerry Wexler. Wexler had been a journalist with Billboard magazine and introduced the term "Rhythm and Blues" as a replacement for the term "Race Music" in referring to black music. Jerry Wexler had one remit to produce rhythm and blues music specifically for sale to the black population. Jerry Wexler started with R&B singer LaVern Baker and produced the hit with "Tweedle Dee"; he quickly repeated the success with "Sh-Boom" by the Chords.

Ahmet Ertegun meantime signed Clyde McPhatter (formerly lead singer with Billy Ward and the Dominoes). McPhatter had been fired by Billy Ward and was rehearsing with a new group, which Ertegun also signed. The group sang under the new name of the Drifters and their first release on Atlantic, “Money Honey “ (by Jess Stone) was a huge success in 1953. The vocal harmony groups at Atlantic gave the genre a new edge which had crossover appeal.

From 1953 until 1955 more and more white artists were covering Atlantic songs which sold well enough to enter the charts. Their versions were far less soulful and smoother than the originals but the appeal to the wider white audiences was very apparent. Ahmet and Jerry saw a window of opportunity. Big Joe Turner hit the sweat spot with "Shake, Rattle and Roll" which was another Jess Stone (aka Charles Calhoun) composition. Country group Bill Haley and the Comets were desperate to cover "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and when they did it was enormous heralding the start of the Rock and Roll era.

The Cat label was started in 1954 and a year later when Herb Abramson returned from military service and Jerry Wexler was running his position but because things were strained between Herb and his wife Miriam the decision was taken to start Atlas Records. However there were copyright problems with the name and it was changed to Atco (ATlantict). In the same year Spark Records was acquired and Leiber and Stoller co owners of the company were given an independent production deal. Lester Sill the other owner continued in a sales capacity. The main act with Spark Records was a black group called the Robins (later to become the Coasters). Atlantic were interested in acquiring Elvis Presley when Sun Records (Sam Phillips) decided to sell his contract in 1955, An estimated $25,000- $30,000 offer was rejected and Elvis Presley was signed to RCA ($40,000). By the mid fifties however Atlantic and associates had an impressive array of musicians and singers. The company had gained a reputation in the industry as honest employers and their business practice allowed them to hire the best musicians because they were likely to receive payment. Their policy of fairness and payment paid off handsomely and their independence meant they made decisions based on musical merit which resulted in some of the best music around.

Worth a listen
The Harlemaires
The Rose of the Rio Grande (1947)

Stick McGhee
Drinkin' Wine Sop-Dee-O-Dee (1949)

Professor Longhair
Bald Head (1950)
Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Laurie Tate and the Joe Morris Band
Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (1951)
Don't Take Your Love From Me (1952)

The Clovers
Don't You Know I Love You (1951)
One Mint Julep (1951)
Fool Fool Fool (1951)

Ruth Brown
So Long (1949)
Teardrops from My Eyes (1950)
5-10-15 Hours (1952)
(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean (1953)

Ray Charles
Mess Around (1953)
It Should Have Been Me (1953)
A fool for you (1955)
I Got A Woman (1955)

LaVern Baker
Tweedle Dee (1955)
Jim Dandy (1956)

The Chords
Sh-Boom (1954)

The Drifters
Money Honey (1953)

Big Joe Turner
Shake, Rattle and Roll (1954)

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