Atlantic Records has introduced the world to some of the most influential musicians this planet has ever produced; Jazz icons such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, and rock giants like Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Yes and Bad Company.
But Atlantic will always be primarily associated with the urban sound of black America.
The birth of Atlantic Records was the result of an unlikely liaison between an erudite diplomat’s son and a Jewish New Yorker studying dentistry.
It was their mutual passion for jazz that brought Ahmet Ertegun (pictured at right) – the son of the Turkish ambassador to the US – and Herb Abramson together in 1947.
Given their limited business experience, friends and family doubted the ability of the two men to succeed in the record industry and were reluctant to part with their cash to help them start the company.
Ertegun finally persuaded his dentist and long-time family friend, Dr Vahdi Sabit, to put up $10,000, which he did by mortgaging his home. Ertegun eventually bought Dr Sabit out in the late 50s for between $2.4 million and $3 million. Sabit quit dentistry and moved to the South of France.
And so, in 1947, Atlantic Records was born – operating out of a tiny suite on the ground floor of the broken-down Jefferson Hotel on 56th Street in Manhattan. The company’s first significant signing was Ruth Brown who had aspirations to become a black Doris Day – but Atlantic had other ideas and supplied her with rowdy R&B songs which earned her the nickname ‘Miss Rhythm’.
Ruth actually signed her contract with Atlantic from a hospital bed while recovering from a car accident in which she broke both her legs. She achieved her first US chart topper a year later, and for over 10 years she dominated the R&B charts and was the company’s best-selling artist of the 1950s.
Big Joe Turner also gave Atlantic some substantial hits in its formative years, including Shake, Rattle & Roll which topped the R&B chart in 1954, but became an even bigger hit a few months later when Bill Haley and The Comets covered the tune.
Other Atlantic artists that enjoyed hits in the 1950s included LaVern Baker, The Clovers, The Coasters, Chuck “The Sheik of the Blues” Willis and a vocalist named Clyde McPhatter, who went on to become lead vocalist for The Drifters.
When the Army called Herb Abramson up in 1953 to serve in Germany during the Korean War, Ahmet brought in the Billboard writer who had coined the term “rhythm & blues”.
Jerry Wexler (pictured centre left between Ahmet Ertegun and Big Joe Turner) – an intense, brilliant former street kid from Manhattan’s Washington Heights section, became a partner in Atlantic Records for $2,063.25. Ahmet Ertegun took Wexler’s money and bought him a green Cadillac El Dorado.
By the time Abramson returned from the Army in 1955, Wexler had taken over his role at the company.
Aiming to expand its market by gaining a foothold in America’s South, Atlantic became the manufacturer and distributor for a Memphis-based label called Stax in 1960. The records produced at Stax epitomised the emergent Southern Soul sound.
They were driven by a funky backbeat, punchy horns and a truly awe-inspiring house band – Booker T and The MGs. The band struck chart gold of their own in 1963 with the mesmeric organ-led instrumental, Green Onions.
In 1965 Atlantic released Wilson Pickett‘s signature tune, In The Midnight Hour, topping the R&B charts.
This was followed a year later with Land of 1000 Dances and Mustang Sally, both of which made the UK Top 30. Pickett recorded many of his songs at Muscle Shoals, Alabama; the same place where a hospital porter called Percy Sledge recorded When A Man Loves A Woman in 1966. This heart-rending ballad reached Number 1 in the US (earning Atlantic their first gold record) and catapulted Sledge into the limelight in both the US and UK.
Without doubt, Atlantic’s most successful female singer of the 1960s was the prodigiously gifted Aretha Franklin, who joined the label in 1966 after a relatively fruitless six-year period at Columbia. Under the aegis of wily producer Jerry Wexler, the gospel-reared singer experienced a truly meteoric rise to fame.
The key to that success lay to some extent with Wexler, who placed her with a funky Muscle Shoals rhythm section and built the arrangements around her churchy piano licks. With a rapid succession of hits under her belt – including her explosive revamp of Otis Redding‘s Respect – Franklin soon earned the sobriquet “The Queen of Soul”.
In 1967, Wexler told Ahmet and his brother, Nesuhi (the third shareholder of Atlantic), that he wanted to sell Atlantic Records to the highest bidder. When Nesuhi sided with Wexler, Ahmet had no choice but to comply. Atlantic Records was sold in October 1967 to Warner-Seven Arts for $17.5 million, split among Ahmet, Nesuhi and Wexler.
In 1969, Warner-Seven Arts was acquired by Kinney National Service, a conglomerate of parking lots, funeral homes and rental cars, whose chairman Steve Ross knew virtually nothing about music. Ahmet announced that he, Nesuhi and Wexler were leaving the company, but faced with the impending loss of the entire Atlantic management team, Ross and Warner CEO Ted Ashley promised Ahmet whatever he wanted to stay.
Ahmet immediately set about seducing and signing The Rolling Stones. Landing the world’s greatest rock & roll band confirmed that Atlantic was now the pre-eminent record label in America.
With the advent of the 1970s Atlantic achieved great success with other rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The company was still home, however, to plenty of top quality soul acts – Their first Number 1 in the new decade was the atmospheric ballad A Rainy Night in Georgia by velvet-voiced crooner Brook Benton.
But by far the most successful Atlantic vocal group of the 70s was The Spinners. The Detroit quintet had spent eight relatively quiet years at Motown prior to signing with Atlantic, where they racked up a phenomenal 32 R&B smashes between 1972 and 1984. Two of the group’s biggest hits were I’ll Be Around and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love – both produced by renowned Philly producer, Thom Bell.
Atlantic’s In-house producer from 1963 to 2001 was Istanbul-born Arif Mardin. Mardin helped shape the sound of modern music and was responsible for more than 40 platinum albums by artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to David Bowie. He died of cancer on 25 June 2006.
Jerry Wexler left Atlantic in 1975, feeling he was no longer involved in decision making at the label. In 1983, Ahmet Ertegun was the driving force behind the establishment of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The first Hall of Fame intake – which included James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry – was inducted in 1986. The museum in Cleveland opened nine years later. Ahmet himself was inducted in 1987.
Nesuhi Ertegun died on 15 July 1989, in New York, after a battle with cancer. He was 71.
In 1997, the Atlantic Group (consisting of Atlantic, Rhino and Curb Records) was the number one label in America, with annual global sales rising to $750 million.
Ahmet Ertegun died on 14 December 2006, at the age of 83, six weeks after injuring himself in a backstage fall at a Rolling Stones concert at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. Rolling Stone supremo Jann Wenner accompanied his body home to Istanbul along with his wife Mica and some of his close friends.