The official behind-the-scenes story of the meteroic rise of Rock and Roll by the people who made it history.
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Atlantic Records (1947-1954)
by Greil Marcus
Atlantic Records was formed in New York City in 1947 as a partnership between two dedicated jazz fans: sometime dental student and full-time recordman Herb Abramson (1920-1999) and sometime graduate student in philosophy and would-be-record-man Ahmet Ertegun (1923-), son of the former Turkish ambassador to the United States. A left-wing Jew, an heir to the secular, modernist revolution that took power in Turkey the year he was born, and $10,000 in seed money from one Dr. Vadti Sabit, the Ertegun family dentist -- it was perfect. It was too good to be true. It was America, where you need both money and love to make the world go 'round.
The money was gone overnight. The company was incorporated in October; a musicians' union ban on recording was due to begin on the 1st of January, 1948. The two men recorded anyone who could breathe on a beat, and beat the deadline with over 200 titles in the can. They spent the next year releasing them; none were hits. The all-class, no-cash label went through a long time of try-anything and what-have-we-got-to-loose confusion in the years that followed, with Ertegun leading treks through the South scouting for talent, sometimes recording it on the spot, with hundreds of one-shots on jazz, blues, and emerging rhythm and blues performers -- Sarah Vaughan, Blind Willie McTell, John Lee Hooker, Art Pepper, Bobby Short, Professor Longhair, The Clovers, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Erroll Garner, Leadbelly -- and also Art Safranski's Poll Cats (yes, polka), a full-length version of Romeo and Juliet, and recordings of 256 children's stories. In 1949 the company released 187 records -- and with 'Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee' by Stick McGhee (1918-61) and His Buddies, a fabulous country-blues band's ode to rotgut, and 'So Long', a wistful, only barely cheesy R & B ballad by Ruth Brown (1928-), it began to score.
A reputation, a company personality, began to merge. It was a reputation for hustle disguised as style and cool (courtesy of the jive-talking, Kant-reading, always perfectly dressed Ertegun), fairness (the company, in a practice that scandalised its competitors, be they majors like Columbia or fellow independents like Chess, paid not only the legally-mandated publishing royalties to song publishers, but performance royalties to artists), business sense (courtesy of Miriam "Tokyo Rose" Beinstock, Herb Abramson's wife and Atlantic's intimidating manager), attention to detail (a clear, crisp sound, the recruitment of the best players in New York for sessions with even the least practised singers, the belief that a horn break deserved to be heard as sharply as lead vocal), and perhaps most of all enthusiasm, fans' enthusiasm. It was that and a reputation for hits. On the black charts, of course -- but even as white artists' covers of recordings by black artists soared past the originals on the pop charts, out in the real America the originals sooner or later often piled up more sales. And on jukeboxes, which also paid up, the originals almost always outspun the covers -- especially those of Atlantic. Because they were so carefully made, with air in the sound, it took forever for their sound to go stale. They stayed in the air, and made it fresh.
Now, on the 15th of February, 1954, Atlantic is about to seal this era, to catch it whole and sum it all up; the sound to be made today will also break into the future. In the studio, which is still the office -- 234 West 56th Street, with the desks stacked and the chairs pushed into the hall -- is almost the full complement of the Atlantic team (missing are Miriam Abramson, working out of another office, and Abramson, finishing his Army service; he'll be back, then soon enough gone for good). Present are Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (1917-), a New York Jew and former Billboard writer, now a budding producer and writer who joined the label as a partner in 1953 (he paid $2063.25 for 13 per cent of the company; Ertegun immediately put the money down on a green Cadillac and gave it to Wexler, since Cadillacs were what recordmen had to drive if they expected anyone to take them seriously). There is Jesse Stone (1901-99), a music man with experience far beyond that of anyone else in the room, Atlantic's musical director and chief arranger, songwriter, rhythmist, a man who has been with the label from the very first, but who cut 'Starvation Blues' for Okeh in 1927, who had schooled himself in Bach, Bartok, and Strasvinsky and taken songwriting lessons from Cole Porter -- Jesse Stone, indomitable, dapper, the grandson of a slave, a slave who told his grandson he had owned "the first Cadillac in Kansas". Tom Dowd is there, the whiz-kid engineer -- once a physicist, now one of the first true soundmen -- who will fashion Atlantic recordings for the next thirty years. There are the Blues Kings, with Stone on piano, Mickey "Guitar" Baker (later of Mickey & Sylvia and 'Love Is Strange' fame), Lloyd Trotman on bass, Connie Kay (later of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks') on drums, Wilbur De Paris on trombone, Sam "The Man" Taylor on tenor sax, and Mack Easton on baritone sax.
And there is, ultimately, at the centre of it all, Joe Turner, "The Boss of the Blues". Big Joe Turner, who, as Nik Cohn lined it out in Rock Dreams"can tear down walls with his bare hands, can chew pig-iron and spit it out as razor blades, can kill a man with a smile; can holler like a mountain jack, can swallow hogsbacks whole, and make love all night long; can do whatever you can do -- Big Joe can do it better." And that was just what his records sounded like.
He was born in Kansas City, as Joe Tucker -- "Joe Turner" was the name of a feared, racist Nashville sheriff, and also the name of a song from which, Leadbelly once said, all blues came. By means of a moustache Turner drew on his face with pencil, by the age of sixteen he was sneaking into Kansas City's wide-open night-spots, most notably a place called the Backbiters Club. ("It was Prohibition," Jesse Stone would tell Nick Tosches, "and Pendergast," the consummate midwestern political boss, "was running the whole town like an after-hours joint.") On such brilliant records as the 1951 'Honey Hush' (Turner's first for Atlantic, and his first number one) he sounded as if he knew it all and as if he'd seen it all, and even if he never learned to read, by the time he hit twenty he'd seen enough for a bluesman's life time. From club to club in K.C. he ran errands, ran whiskey, bounced drunks, tended bar, and sang his head off. When Pete Johnson, his first pianoman partner, hit a roll, Turner would sing from the bar -- whole numbers, the drinks flying all the while.
He and Johnson played John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1938; that same year he cut his first record, 'Roll 'Em Pete'. He and Ertegun went way back. It was seeing Duke Ellington at the London Palladium in 1933, when he was ten, that changed Ertegun's life, that made him a seeker after sound and glamour; in Washington, D.C., he began to get a feel for what he called the "secret language" of African-American culture, and along with his older brother, Neshui Ertegun (1919-89), he learned it. They became jazz fanatics, amassing over 25,000 78s, attending shows, meeting musicians, and soon enough, in the face of the complete racial segregation that ruled in the nation's capital, putting on integrated shows, on the stage and in the audience, sometimes with their friend Herb Abramson, first in the Turkish Embassy, then at the Jewish Community Centre. Along with Sidney Bechet, Joe Turner was on their first bill. Abramson had produced hits for Turner when he was running the National label in 1945-47. Since then Turner had rattled back and forth across the country on nine different labels; by 1950 he had fifty records out and his career was slipping. Ertegun saw him at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem one night in 1950, ruining himself in front of the Count Basie band; instead of turning away Ertegun went after him, told Turner that he and his cool, hot label could change everything, and signed Turner to a one year contract with two one-year options; in Turner's world, about the same thing as an annuity.
Ertegun had had a little record-making machine as a kid in D.C.; naturally, he recorded himself singing his favourite blues and jazz songs. With Atlantic beginning to sail he took himself to Times Square record-your-own-voice booths and cut the songs he composed in his head; songs like 'Chains of Love', which would be Joe Turner's first record for Atlantic. But it wasn't nostalgia he was working on by signing Turner. He knew he had his hands on wasted talent, something someone else was sure to see soon enough, as this new sound that no one had a real name for yet, what Alan Freed was calling "Rock'n'Roll", what Jerry Wexler wanted to call "Cat Music", what down in Texas they were calling "Western Bop", demanded more and more voices. As Bill Graham would say years later, it was a matter of getting up earlier than the other guy -- or, with Ertegun (who like Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats in The Hustler could go until dawn, drinking, greeting, jiving, listening, drinking some more, without a thread out of place), of never going to bed at all.
So they are set for 'Shake, Rattle And Roll'. Jesse Stone has written the music and the witty, perfectly balanced blues verses, making a story of domestic lust, lustful impatience, sexual wonder and sex -- grinding -- that at once goes far beyond the salaciousness of the R & B hits of the time is somehow as clean, healthy (and perhaps as dutiful) as hard work. Stone's chorus is a great shout: "And It's Shake! Rattle And Roll! Shake ... " They all had to know it was the hook that would sell the song. "For a fact rock'n'roll ain't no different from the blues," Joe Turner would tell Peter Guralnick years later, "we just pepped it up a lot ... it's all trends." But this song -- or what, that day, all the people in studio, in the office, did with it -- was different. Or it was on the verge of difference, reaching for it, pulling back.
Back in 1949, travelling through the South, Stone and Ertegun were trying to understand why their records -- so well-made, up-to-date, even innovative in their way -- didn't sell. Watching the crowds night after night in the clubs they hit, Stone understood it: people were dancing in a new way, young people especially, and they couldn't dance to the classy, urbane Atlantic beat. So for an instrumental version of Stone's old number 'Sorghum Switch', retitled 'Coleslaw' for honking tenor sax man Frank Culley, Stone, in his words, "designed" a special bassline; he put country blues into the city sound, and it clicked. Now he leads off 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' with a repeating piano line that runs like a clear, beckoning stream. It's light, bouncy, and it pulls your legs out from under you. The horns come in, and they are not jazz, not R & B, they are pure pop -- they are, literally, popping the beat, counting it off like shouts. There are hooks everywhere. You're hooked. And the man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it has made his move.
Joe Turner is a great actor more than a great singer in 'Shake, Rattle And Roll'. You can see everything happen. When he sings the line Jesse Stone got from drummer Baby Lovett -- "I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin' in a seafood store," those still-stunningly outrageous phallic-vaginal metaphors that don't have to sound like anything but what they say they're about -- you can see Turner, all 250 pounds of him, crouching on his knees, peeping through the glass. He is all blues, all roll, but the chorus isn't: sung by Turner with Ertegun, Wexler, and Stone shouting their heads off behind him, it has a flashy, white, drunken frat-boy edge, a feeling not that far from the Swingin' Medallions 1966 'Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)'. The beat jerks; Turner is weary and sly and weary and ready, taking it slow, not rushing anything, and on the chorus you hear a cheerleading squad. The sound doesn't exactly fit, and yet it's wonderful. It's as if the singer, with all of his wisdom, all of his knowledge of the ways of the world, is ready to pass it on, and has welcomed his whole new audience -- the millions of young people, black and white, that Stone knew, and Wexler knew, and Ertegun knew perhaps most of all, was out there somewhere -- onto the record with him. On the black charts, it was number one for eleven weeks.
Today, it seems to matter less that later in 1954 Bill Haley and His Comets, a white country outfit jumping the R & B train, cleaned up with 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' (in two senses: all trace of sex was removed from the lyrics and the record was a huge pop hit) than that in 1955, with a demo cut with the Blue Moon Boys, Elvis Presley, not changing a word, demonstrated just how completely the song -- the idea, the catchphrase, the rhythm, the ethos -- had entered American cultural, making the tune his own, making it personal, making it teenage, making the song about the discovery of sex, not a lifetime of it. Against the Turner-Stone-Ertegun-Wexler original, neither Haley's nor Presley's version may matter at all -- save that royalties from Haley's hit and Presley's later recording of the number on RCA have likely helped ease the travail of Jesse Stone's very long life. Today the first 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' still sounds like a door being flung open. But it doesn't quite sound as if people have made it to the other side.
As it happened, other people had already made it to the other side. In the same office, in the same studio, on the 9th of August, 1953, almost exactly six months before Joe Turner cut 'Shake, Rattle And Roll', Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters had made 'Money Honey', a Jesse Stone composition, an Ertegun-Wexler production -- they had flung open the door, shattered it, only to see it somehow reassemble itself and close once more, but in a flimsier state, so that, next time, one good wolf's breath could blow it down again. You can listen to 'Money Honey' today and hear this event clearly -- but it wasn't clear at the time. That the sighting of a new world should follow and not precede the landing is just one of the paradoxes of a time when no one knew what rock'n'roll was and there were no rules. Rock'n'roll was invented, but it was also discovered; when people discovered it, they didn't necessarily know what they had.
"Here's the sort of record we need to make," Wexler in his autobiography, The Rhythm And The Blues, written with David Ritz, recalls Ertegun telling him early on. "There's a black man living in the outskirts of Opelousas, Louisiana. He works hard for his money; he has to be tight with a dollar. One morning he hears a song on the radio. It's urgent, bluesy, authentic, irresistible. He becomes obsessed. He can't live without this record. He drops everything, jumps in his pick-up, and drives twenty-five miles to the first record store he finds. If we can make that kind of music, we can make it in this business." The imagined audience is bizarrely constricted, still governed, perhaps, by a jazz fan's fantasies -- never mind black and white, there are no young people of any kind, they don't exist -- but the spirit, the will to tap a hidden need like a surgeon might open a vein, is absolutely right. From his own perspective, Wexler puts it somewhat differently: "I dug cross-cultural collaborations and craved commercial success, which is maybe why Ahmet and I got on so well. We could have developed a label along the lines of Blue Note, Prestige, Vanguard, or Folkways, fastidious documentaries of core American music. Bobby Weinstock, Alfred Lion, Moe Asch, Orrin Keepnews, Manny Soloman, and the other keepers of the flame were doing God's work. Ahmet and I, however, didn't feature ourselves as divinely elected. We weren't looking for canonisation; we lusted for hits. Hits were the cash flow, the lifeblood, the heavenly ichor... It may not be God's work, but God sends His rewards! ... the wherewithal of survival. While we couldn't divorce ourselves from our tastes and inclinations, neither could we deny our interest in income. Nor could we stand still; we believed to our souls that the way of the independent label was either growth or death."
There is the urgency that kept Ertegun up all night; there is the perspective that let Wexler know when he needed to go to bed. The result, after the initial dry spell of carefully crafted but generic early R & B pieces, was haphazard than then consistent hit-making -- but, in the slowly forming pop arena, not necessarily great or even interesting music. Ruth Brown kept the label going in the late 1940s and early 50s, but she couldn't wear Dinah Washington's sash and today nearly all of her recordings seem up-ended by limited talent. Her upper register was entrancing; her low register, to which she turned after establishing a theme, to nail the theme, to show she really meant it, is histrionic or lugubrious. The Clovers, a vocal group supplied with great songs from the label ('Devil Or Angel', 'Fool, Fool, Fool', 'Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash', 'One Mint Julep'), were a rehearsal for the long run of Coasters' hits, that along with those of Ray Charles, would in later fifties make Atlantic the most dominant independent label in the history of the American recording industry -- but the group had no emotional depth and no edge. The Cardinals charted high -- especially in 1952 with, of all things, a black group's cover of a white pop hit, Kay Starr's 'Wheels Of Fortune' -- and they were perhaps the worst doo-wop combo ever to cut more than one 45. Nothing was certain; little was known. What did a hit mean? The chance to make another record.
Clyde McPhatter (1932-72) was nothing like Atlantic's previous artists; he was the new world. He was the first Atlantic singer to project as much personality as talent, the first to leap off his records with the irresistible physicality and undeniable individuality of Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom came later. Unlike Joe Turner he was young and he was beautiful. On his best records -- on 'Honey Love', 'Let the Boogie Woogie Roll', 'White Christmas', 'Such A Night', and 'Money Honey' -- when the singers around him let the beat hang in the air and McPhatter let his voice catch in just that way, he was the sexiest thing on earth.
Ertegun bagged McPhatter the night McPhatter was fired as lead singer of Billy Ward and the Dominoes, a vocal group riding high on the string of hits that followed the scandalous 1951 success of 'Sixty-Minute Man'. With the Dominoes, McPhatter was all about the ineffable -- there are no more sublime moments in all of pop music than his reading of 'When the Swallows Come Back to Capristrano', or, even more perfectly, the other-worldly opening bars of 'Don't Leave Me This Way'. In the early spring of 1953 Ertegun was in Birdland, a Manhattan club owned by gangster recordman Morris Levy, there just to see McPhatter do the Dominoes' huge hit 'Have Mercy Baby' -- but McPhatter had broken a band rule and he was gone. Within an hour Ertegun was huddled with the singer, figuring out a new group. After a false start they settled on the Thrasher Wonders -- Bill Pinkney and Andrew Thrasher, tenor, Willie Ferbie, bass, Gerhart Thrasher, baritone -- and with McPhatter in the lead named the whole the Drifters.
McPhatter's Drifters had a short run. He was drafted in May of 1954, and when he returned he went solo; he lost his music and never found it again. He died a forgotten drunk. But in his one short year of greatness he became a dynamo unlike anything pop music had seen before. He came out of himself, he soared, he ran wild with his own songs, and Stone's, and Ertegun's and Wexler's -- even Irving Berlin's. As you listen now, a new man appears before you when McPhatter sings; a whole story tells itself. The slyest smile in the music communicates the notion that the singer is getting away with the greatest prank in history while the whole world watches, the whole world asking -- "Who was that masked man?" -- when the record ends, then playing it again and again as if by doing so the world could find out. The man before you is charming, urbane, utterly cool, yet at any moment a sense of weightlessness, of pure fun, can break out and engulf the entirety of the performance. The man is a trickster, for 'White Christmas' (which would hit the R & B Top Ten in 1954, '55 and '56, and remains on Christmas time radio to this day), the other Drifters begin respectfully, with a straight arrangement patterned after that of the Ravens, who hit the black charts with the tune in 1948. They finish a verse -- and then the Imp of the Perverse arrives, singing like Rumpelstiltskin promising to spin straw into gold, leaving the nation dumb-founded with his whirling falsetto, open-mouthed in the face of a reversal of the country's shared cultural symbolism that in pop music would not be matched until Jimi Hendrix played 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock in 1969. ("I mistakenly feared Irving Berlin's people would never approve it," Wexler writes. "They loved it.")
'Money Honey' is comic, though humour was hardly all Jesse Stone was writing -- his 'Losin' Hand', an early Ray Charles side for Atlantic, is as chilling a blues song as anyone needs to hear. But here the humour is all in the bottled-up urgency McPhatter gives Stone's lines, and the humour is deadly serious. "Without love, there is nothing," McPhatter would sing softly on one of his solo hits; the message here is that without money there's no love. But there is the thrill of the chase. Part of the thrill of the record is in waiting to see if each next verse can top the one before it, tell a better story, and every time it does. The real thrill is in the fact that with 'Money Honey' you are hearing pure, complete, finished, fully realised rock'n'roll, and with the special energy that only comes when people sense that they are putting something new into the world, something that will leave that world not quite as it was.
As always the desks are piled up, the chairs shoved out, and somehow there is room for the five singers, for the band Ertegun and Wexler have assembled, for them and Stone and Dowd. "Ah-Ooooom," the singers begin, low and comic and ominous, and then, singing very high, McPhatter begins the quest that will occupy him for the rest of the song: the quest for his rent. He takes the first verse full of enthusiasm; there's a stumble on the drums going into the chorus, as there will be on every verse, but he leaps over it. The second verse is congenial -- hey, he's trying to get the money from his girlfriend -- but on the third verse she takes over, McPhatter bears down, almost scared, and everything tightens, goes hard and mean. McPhatter shouts for the break, Sam "The Man" Taylor comes in for his solo -- but then he burns it, rocketing the music out of anything it's prepared you for, the beat now rushing upstream with too much power, and then McPhatter screams.
There's nothing like this scream -- not in McPhatter's music, nor in any of the music to follow his, as the enormous impact he would have on Jackie Wilson, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and countless others filtered down over the years to the hundred and thousands of singers who wouldn't recognise his name. It's a scream of surprise; it's the scream of a man watching the door blow out, the scream of a man who's made it to the other side and is ready to pull everyone over.
Almost half a century later, you can hear this event as it happened. In 1953, it wasn't plain that it had. Nevertheless the music was abroad in the land; like so many other records made in the late 1940s and early fifties by Atlantic, or Sun, Chess, King, Alladin, Imperial, or Specialty, 'Money Honey' would sneak through the cracks in the official media curtain that shrouded the country, and it would change the country in its own way.
Soon enough, Ertegun and Wexler would buy out Herb Abramson and Miriam Abramson, and Dr Sabit, too: his $10,000 had bought him half of the company. Neshui Ertegun would join as a third partner. Jesse Stone -- realising he would never be permitted to realise his wish for a piece of the business, which as one who was present at the creation he always thought he deserved-began to drift away, and by 1958 he was gone. But by then the stage was set and the crowd that had assembled for the first performance refused to leave.
Copyright © 2001, Published by A Publishing Company Limited, distributed through Welcome Rain
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