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RnB 02/09/2001

Atlantic Records: A label with soul (Book celebrates 50 years of hits)

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(CNN) - At their best, record labels can conjure a sound as surely as a needle on a phonograph. Chess Records and late '50s gutbucket blues. The Motown Sound of 1960s vocal groups. Stiff Records and the late '70s British New Wave.

When it comes to Atlantic Records, however, not just one sound will do. The company was founded as a jazz label in 1947, turned to rhythm and blues in the 1950s, became celebrated as the home of soul stars such as Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, and then harvested some of the best of the 1960s and '70s rock and roll acts, from Buffalo Springfield to Led Zeppelin. Even today, the distinctive red-and-black label of Atlantic stands out among the many nameplates of the giant WEA empire. (The WEA family of labels, which includes Atlantic, Warner Bros. and Elektra, is owned by AOL Time Warner, the corporate parent of CNN.)

The history of the label has been celebrated in " 'What'd I Say': The Atlantic Story" (A Publishing, distributed in the U.S. by Welcome Rain), by label founder Ahmet Ertegun, compiled and edited by Perry Richardson and designed by Marc Balet. The book, a coffee-table slab of photographs, oral history, and essays by the likes of music writers Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Nat Hentoff, Lenny Kaye and others, traces the label from its independent beginnings to its current standing as the home of Stone Temple Pilots, Kid Rock, and Collective Soul.

"(Atlantic) has had an amazing ability to adapt with the changing times while keeping a standard of artistic excellence," says Kaye, known for his guitar work with the Patti Smith Group as well as his critical efforts. "If you look at any moment in Atlantic history, they're at the forefront with the sound of that moment."

'Obsessed with the boogie disease'

The label began as an outlet for Ertegun, his brother Nesuhi, and their friend Herb Abramson, music lovers all. The Ertegun brothers were the sons of a diplomat who became the Turkish ambassador to the United States; in order to keep afloat after the family returned to Turkey, the two sold their 15,000- strong record collection.

Ahmet Ertegun
Ahmet Ertegun co-founded Atlantic in 1947, and is still involved with it today  

Legendary music executive Jerry Wexler, who later joined the group as a partner and produced some of the label's finest records, remembers the Erteguns as part of a band of mutual jazz collectors that included himself, Columbia Records scout and producer John Hammond, and several others, almost all of whom went into the music business.

"We were obsessed with the boogie disease," he says in a phone interview. "You'd describe us as obsessed groupies minus the sex."

Atlantic never abandoned jazz, though by the early '50s it had developed into a leading R&B label. Its acts included Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and a certain pianist named Ray Charles, who revolutionized popular music by bringing the call-and-response of the black church into the hard-nosed rumble of R&B. Some critics credit Charles with inventing what came to be known as soul music; almost all cite him as one of the pop music's primary innovators.

"He's the one artist (that required) very little ... oversight and production," says Wexler in admiration.

<a style=Ray Charles" WIDTH="220" HEIGHT="170" BORDER="0" HSPACE="0">
The legendary Ray Charles is credited by some with inventing soul music  

Charles' success, along with that of artists like the Drifters, Bobby Darin and the Coasters, made Atlantic a major independent at a time when the dominant labels -- the old-line corporate outposts such as Columbia, RCA and Decca -- were waging an uneasy battle with the independent, rock 'n' roll-supplying upstarts that had taken over the Top Forty. The label managed to broaden its audience and remain true to its roots at the same time.

For Kaye, who wrote "The Atlantic Story"'s essay on this 1954-1962 era, those years may have been his favorite.

"It was the first time Atlantic went for the pop market," he says. "Before they were an R&B label with an eye to the pop market. ... (The label) had become itself."

Among the songs Atlantic released during this era were the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby" (the first R&B song with a string section), "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "This Magic Moment"; Charles' "What'd I Say"; the Coasters' "Charlie Brown"; and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me."

A 'level of excitement'

In the '60s, Atlantic became the center of soul music. The label entered into a partnership with Memphis, Tennessee-based Stax Records and used Stax house band Booker T. and the MGs behind such artists as Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. The label also signed an artist who had been mismanaged by Columbia Records, a gospel-trained belter named Aretha Franklin.

"I (had been) watching her for years," recalls Wexler.

book cover

He backed her with the crack R&B house band at a Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio, letting her return to the musical roots she had formed in the choirs and congregations of her native Detroit, Michigan. The result was a string of hits -- "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," "Respect," "Chain of Fools" -- and the title "the Queen of Soul."

Atlantic had also started signing more rock and pop artists, such as the white-soul band the Young Rascals, Cream and Buffalo Springfield. In 1969 the label released the first album by Led Zeppelin; in 1971 it signed the Rolling Stones to a deal, which created Rolling Stones Records.

By that time, though, Atlantic was no longer independent. In 1967 Ertegun sold the label for $17.5 million. Atlantic had become part of the mainstream.

Wexler has no regrets. "If Atlantic had not grown and developed, it probably would have died," he says. "All the labels we started with are extinct. ... Rock added a huge dimension to the label. R&B alone is not enough to sustain a (large) company."

Kaye also dismisses the idea that Atlantic became just another label. "Atlantic kept up their level of excitement. ... Artists like John Coltrane -- these are mythical artists, and Atlantic had more than its share."

As Robert Christgau points out in his essay on the 1967-72 era, the label's range was both wide and deep. Moreover, with monster sellers like Zeppelin and the Stones, it became more successful than ever.

Atlantic has had its share of flops, and in a cutthroat industry, Ertegun and Wexler have been known to play hardball. But Atlantic has succeeded, says Kaye, because its founders are also fans.

"They love music. They had to be businessmen in a tough industry (to make it), but they loved music," he says.

Given its forays into jazz, R&B, soul, and all flavors of rock, finding a way to sum up 50 years of Atlantic history is difficult. What will the label be remembered for?

Wexler dismisses the question.

"I don't know about legacies," he says. "The notion of a legacy suggests a death. Atlantic's not done yet."

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