Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Label formed in New York City in October 1947 by Herb Abramson (d 9 November 1999 aged 82), formerly recording director for National Records, and his wife Miriam (later Miriam Bienstock, d 21 March 2015 aged 92), and Ahmet Ertegun (b 31 July 1923; d 14 December 2006), son of a Turkish ambassador to the USA. Their initial jazz releases (Erroll Garner, Tiny Grimes, etc) gave way to R&B after the label’s first hit by Stick McGhee ('Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee', no. 3 '49), and Atlantic became the most important R&B label in the 1950s, with Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, LaVerne Baker, Chuck Willis, the Clovers, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, Little Esther, etc. Engineer Tom Dowd and arranger/ producer Jesse Stone made Atlantic unique in the days when the label had only one or two rooms, shoving desks against the wall to make a studio.

Abramson was bought out when he returned from US Army service; Jerry Wexler joined as producer/ talent scout in 1953. At Billboard Wexler had been instrumental in getting the name of the race chart changed to 'Rhythm & Blues' in 1949; then he was a song plugger for MGM's publishing arm, allegedly placing 'Tennessee Waltz' with Patti Page, 'Cry' with Johnny Ray and Hank Williams songs with Tony Bennett and others at Columbia. According to Wexler, there are three kinds of producer: Phil Spector started with a preconceived idea of how the record would sound, and the result is a Phil Spector record; Leonard Chess was a documentarian, bringing Muddy Waters in simply to record what he did in clubs and taverns. The likes of Wexler, the Erteguns and John Hammond made a third category, 'basically fans, collectors of jazz and blues records, and we brought this knowledge to our productions'. They were a generation whose love of the music and whose willingness to allow the artists to become part of the record-making process combined with better recording technology to create unique bodies of work. Another ace producer who was best known for his work at Atlantic was Arif Mardin (b 15 March 1932, d 25 June 2006) who, like the Erteguns, was of Turkish descent, born in Istanbul.

Ahmet's brother Nesuhi Ertegun (d 15 July 1989 NYC, aged 71), formerly a lecturer in jazz/folk at UCLA, set up a jazz division in 1956, signing the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk, Mose Allison and others. Also in 1956, Leiber and Stoller signed the industry's first independent songwriting/ production deal on the strength of crossover hits for the Coasters. Having a distribution deal with the Memphis-based Stax label '60, Wexler sent stars to record there and to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals, then distributed the Fame label; thus the Atlantic group was at the forefront of soul, the roster including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Don Covay, Joe Tex, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley, etc. Bobby Darin on Atco had been the only big Atlantic success with a white act in the 1950s, but in the '60s the group signed Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly, the Rascals, later Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Eric Clapton etc and became second only to giant Columbia in the pop music of the decade.

But an era was already coming to an end, for economic, racial and political reasons (see Soul Music): Atlantic could be small or big in the new record industry, but not both. Having evolved from specialist independent to major, Atlantic sold out in 1968 to Warner Communications to become part of Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (see WEA). They signed a distribution deal with the Rolling Stone label early '70s; issued the first LPs on a major label by the Art Ensemble of Chicago; continued with pop/ soul successes including Roberta Flack, Chic, Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler, Sister Sledge. Other subsidiary companies included the Cat, Clean, and East-West labels, and Progressive Music in publishing. By the 21st century the Atlantic we knew and loved had long since disappeared into the multi-national wilderness, but the vault and the memories remain.

Meanwhile, in about 1983, lawyer Howard Begle met Ruth Brown, who was working as a domestic; he had been a fan of hers since childhood. Her records were still selling, but she had not had a royalty statement for years. Begle began investigating lousy contracts and sloppy bookkeeping, and WEA/Atlantic began to own up and pay up. For that story, see Ruth Brown.