For Its Birthday, Atlantic Records Erases Part of Its Own History
Atlantic Records is throwing a year-long 75th birthday celebration for itself, and few labels better deserve a pat on their own back.
Atlantic went into business in October 1947, the passion project of Ahmet Ertegun. He was the son of Turkey’s first ambassador to the U.S., and when his father returned home, Ahmet and his brother Neshui stayed in the States. Ahmet had fallen in love with American jazz and he convinced a fellow music lover, Herb Abramson, to join him in founding a label that would record the kind of music they liked.
That’s not a unique story. Atlantic was one of hundreds of independent labels that sprang up after World War II to record the kind of fresh music — rhythm and blues, country, folk, small combo jazz, etc. — to which the dominant major labels like RCA and Columbia were not paying enough attention.
The independents, including Atlantic, often were run on budgets that could barely cover a shoeshine, never mind a shoestring. But they were in the street and they were nimble. They heard and captured music the majors considered ephemeral or unworthy, and they fed the fire that became, among other things, rock ’n’ roll.
Their collective history was a ragged, fascinating crazy quilt of golden ears, hustlers, mobsters and impassioned music lovers who in the end found and preserved a big chunk of the 20th century’s finest music.
In the end, almost all the independents faded away or were folded into larger labels. Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. in 1967, over the objections of Ahmet Ertegun. But unlike many other indies, Atlantic retained both a presence and its own relevance. Seventy-five years is an amazing run in the record biz, and one of Atlantic’s celebrations this year is the release on vinyl of 90 classic and “special edition” albums.
While vinyl is niche stuff these days, that’s admirable.
There’s only one problem.
The official press release on the “Atlantic 75” vinyl series applauds its 90 albums for “spanning the entire history of the company, from its earliest days until the present.”
They don’t. They don’t start spanning until they reach the 1960s, a dozen years after Atlantic was founded and had released some of its best and most influential music.
If you say you’re spanning “the entire history of the company” without a note from Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Joe Morris, Gatortail Jackson, Joe Turner, the Clovers, Chuck Willis, Carla Thomas, Stick McGhee, Solomon Burke or the Coasters, you have flunked history.
Those artists, and others in those veins, like Tiny Grimes or the Cardinals, made some of Atlantic’s best music. And oh yeah, they also kept Atlantic alive so it could eventually record Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin, John Prine, Kelly Clarkson, Trey Songz, Phil Collins, Cardi B, Lizzo, Janelle Monae and several dozen other artists whose albums are part of the vinyl release series.
I’m guessing the earlier artists were omitted from this series partly because they recorded in the pre-album era, where singles were what mattered and albums were often a slapdash afterthought. The earliest albums being re-released in this series, reflecting the time frame in which more albums were being conceived as a coherent whole, are The Genius of Ray Charles from 1960 and Ole Coltrane from 1961.
If you were celebrating the history of Atlantic albums, that would be a fair place to start. But if you’re celebrating the history of Atlantic music, which presumably is the overarching goal here, maybe you get a little creative and you expand your “special editions” to imagine and compile the great albums that Ruth Brown or the Drifters never made.
Craig Kallman, the current CEO and chairman of Atlantic, knows all about Atlantic’s early music, In the tradition of Ertegun, he’s a music guy, not an accountant.
But somewhere in the planning process for this series, someone clearly carried the day with the argument that starting the “entire history” of the company in 1960 was no big deal. Let’s not bet against the point also being made that there’s a lot more market for an Ed Sheeran vinyl reissue than for a Joe Turner vinyl reissue.
That’s undoubtedly true. It’s equally true that if Stick McGhee hadn’t cut “Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” and Ruth Brown hadn’t cut “So Long” 75 years ago, there might have been no label left to cut Wiz Khalifa’s “Rolling Papers.”
Atlantic has had a roller coast relationship with its early artists over the decades. Ertegun made Atlantic one of the first companies to pay artists royalties instead of a flat per-side fee, which cost him an early deal with Columbia because Columbia wanted nothing to do with royalties.
Some 20 years later, Atlantic said it closed the books on almost all of its early artists, paying them nothing because the company said their recording studio and other expenses far exceeded anything their dwindling record sales could ever cover.
Some 20 years after that, when much of that early music was being re-released on CD, many of those artists revolted, and thanks to some bulldog lawyers like the late Howell Begle, Atlantic (and other companies) agreed to pay some back royalties.
It wasn’t a fortune, but for artists like Brown, it gave them enough income so they qualified for AFTRA health coverage — a godsend to artists who were now aging and often were not in great health.
Ertegun also donated the $1.5 million that seeded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a nonprofit that for years gave out Pioneer Awards plus a cash grant to early R&B performers. Some artists said they didn’t want charity, just what they had earned, but the money was not nothing.
And history is not nothing. The fact Atlantic feels its serious album history started in 1960 doesn’t mean this part of its well-deserved birthday celebration should ignore the fact its serious music history began 12 years earlier.