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Atlantic Records: The Story Of How One Record Label Changed The World
In Depth

Atlantic Records: The Story Of How One Record Label Changed The World

For 75 years, Atlantic Records has been home to an array of artists and landmark albums. It is one of the most influential labels in history.


A certain snobbery surrounds record companies: the story goes that small is creative and big kills creativity. But major labels have to be creative to thrive, otherwise they would always be outsmarted by younger, leaner companies able to react to every nuanced development in music. Besides, most major record labels did not start out as highly monetised enterprises. At the very least, they began with a founder who was interested in music. And the best of them were launched by people obsessed by music, who prized it above all other forms of art. These corporations are highly creative because it’s in their DNA from the get-go. Their success is built on sound, not a fetish for dollars. And the greatest of these labels is Atlantic Records, which has enjoyed – yes, enjoyed – a 75-year history of making hits from music its founding fathers loved and would continue to love, were they still around. Great music? Atlantic made it. Atlantic got it. Atlantic gave it to the world. And its legacy and influence continues to loom large over the industry today.

Delivering the music that matters: Atlantic Records’ legacy

Atlantic Records was highly creative from the start. Where it led, many followed. Motown, Island, Virgin – all were built on trying to get the music right above all else, because if you achieved that, success would ensue. They were following, consciously or otherwise, Atlantic’s blueprint, and that plan turned a one-room business run by a couple of music nuts into a major company. While other aspirants have faded, Atlantic thrives, with a roster the envy of other labels, and an awe-inspiring back catalogue. Atlantic Records is where Bruno Mars rubs shoulders with Aretha Franklin, where Solomon Burke shakes hands with Cardi B, Cream meets Kream, and Lizzo stands with LaVern Baker.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Three quarters of a century in such a volatile business could never pass without incident. Atlantic has had its share of shocks: major artists leaving; the deaths of its founders; its musical focus falling from fashion; scandals, legal issues and all the rest. But the label has been nimble and flexible. It moved from jazz music to R&B, practically invented soul music, embraced the rock revolution it helped inspire, made disco matter and gave contemporary R&B an outlet – practically coming full circle in the process. Atlantic delivers the music that matters, and always has.

This ought to be on record: Atlantic launches in New York City

Atlantic Records started with love. Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun were the sons of Turkey’s first Ambassador to the United States and as hip as could be in the 40s. They were obsessed with jazz, the music of the era. Ahmet studied music at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, and both brothers collected records. Their collection amounted to a vast 15,000 jazz and blues releases accumulated in a period when the average record collection was a small stack of scratchy shellac discs stashed in a cupboard. Ahmet spent his evenings soaking up the sounds of the capital’s jazz scene and decided to have a shot at the music business: the amazing music he was hearing in the clubs ought to be on record.

Ahmet persuaded his dentist to invest $10,000 in a record label, then asked Herb Abramson, a student who’d already dipped his toe in the industry, to join him. This was a crucial move. Abramson had seen some success with a label he co-owned, Jubilee, but money was not his driver. He wanted to run a label where great music was its raison d’être. So did Ahmet Ertegun. Abramson sold his shares in Jubilee and put $2,500 into Atlantic. The label now had some experience on board – experience motivated by art. In October 1947, Atlantic Records launched in Manhattan, in New York City, initially operating out of hotel rooms. This tiny company would go on to change the face of music. It sold contemporary Black music to white America like no label before it, but there was more than brilliant marketing in its eventual success: Atlantic Records changed the substance of the music itself and helped make the rock revolution possible.

A new youth music: early years and first hit records

Rock’s revolution was some way off when Atlantic released its first records, in January 1948: half of Led Zeppelin were not yet born and Mick Jagger hadn’t started school. The fledgling label employed Herb Abramson’s wife, Miriam, to run its publishing company – a smart engagement, as she proved a fierce protector of the company’s limited budget. At night, the two co-founders trawled New York City’s nightlife, a continuous A&R exercise that led to studio sessions by an array of jazz talent that included Johnny Hodges, Tiny Grimes and Errol Garner. Nobody was getting rich. Atlantic remained a shoestring operation, not all that different from numerous tiny labels struggling for a foothold in North America’s recording business.

But there were promising developments. Ahmet Ertegun proved an able songwriter, credited as A Nugetre, his family name reversed. A tip-off from a DJ led to a major talent in Ruth Brown. She would prove to be Atlantic’s first star, but her path to fame was not smooth: a car crash nixed her audition, so the enterprising label had her sign a contract in her hospital bed. The label also scored an early smash with Stick McGhee’s re-recording of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. This raucous R&B gem was heading for hit status, but McGhee’s original record label went bust before it could capitalise on the song, so Atlantic snapped it up. The hit kept Atlantic in ready cash and enabled it to release numerous records before Ruth Brown began to fulfil her mighty potential.

Brown had sung with big bands and tended towards heartbroken ballads. Her first hit, So Long (1949), was a touching slowie with a cry in her voice. The title of her second hit, Teardrops From My Eyes (1950), suggested more of the same, but Ahmet Ertegun had persuaded Brown to try something more rocking, and this R&B gem with sad lyrics shook the so-called “race” chart, holding down the No.1 spot for weeks on end. Brown’s voice, gorgeous yet raucous when necessary, scored 21 chart hits – including her first pop crossover, (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean – and, for a while, Atlantic Records became known as “The House That Ruth Built”. Brown also helped construct a new youth music: her debut album was called Rock & Roll, though she was an R&B singer, a term which had not been invented when she started. It was the invention of Jerry Wexler, a journalist who soon became another key figure at Atlantic.

The company’s next major star was an unlikely candidate. Ray Robinson was a blind piano player who’d plied his workmanlike trade across the US, from Tampa, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, and beyond. He’d scored a few minor hits under various names, including Ray Charles. In 1951-52, Charles hit more heavily with Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand, for the Swing Time label, but when that imprint ran into financial trouble, it sold Charles’ contract to Atlantic. Many of the best Ray Charles songs followed, helping the Atlantic Records rise in status: Mess Around (1953) did well, and I Got A Woman (1954) made No.1 in the R&B chart, as did A Fool For You (1955), Drown In My Own Tears and Mary Ann (both 1956). Charles began to tickle white America’s imagination as the 50s wore on, and finally had a Top 10 smash with What’d I Say (Part 1) (1959), a song that some cite as the birth of soul music. It certainly inspired a generation of rock’n’rollers, from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Beatles. Brother Ray was marketed as “The Genius” by Atlantic, and few took exception to that epithet.

Comfortable in a crown: Atlantic’s reign begins

By the mid-50s Atlantic Records was thriving. Its key staff included engineer and producer Tom Dowd and Vice President Jerry Wexler. Ahmet Ertegun’s brother Neshui was head of A&R and controlled the label’s roster. Together, they oversaw an expansion that included Cat Records, which was focused on doo-wop and the growing rock’n’roll scene, and Atco, which found huge success with the swinging pop singer Bobby Darin. But Atlantic hadn’t overlooked R&B. It signed The Drifters, a vocal group fronted by the crisply appealing voice of Clyde McPhatter, another soul music pioneer. Atlantic also scored with The Coasters, a Black rock’n’roll outfit produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who in turn brought producer-songwriter Phil Spector to the label. However, this abrasive character’s time at Atlantic was limited and he found his metier elsewhere.

The company hadn’t neglected its jazz roots, and released some of the edgiest, most progressive music of the late 50s and early 60s. This included albums by some of the best jazz saxophonists in history: John Coltrane’s groundbreaking Giant Steps and Ornette Coleman’s defiant Change Of The Century (both 1960). No less experimental, but with an intellectual approach some called “chamber jazz”, Atlantic Records made stars of The Modern Jazz Quartet and supported the folk-jazz meanderings of clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre. The label even shipped millions of albums by a cosmopolitan-minded flute player called Herbie Mann, and gave free rein to some of the jazz world’s most idiosyncratic talents, including Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk. Atlantic remained a highly creative entity.

The label landed a gem in 1960 when it signed a former child preacher from West Philadelphia who had a penchant for capes and royal regalia. Solomon Burke may have been from the North, but he sang like a Southern soul man. He released more than 30 singles for Atlantic in eight years. Some, such as Everybody Needs Somebody To Love and Cry To Me, became foundation stones of soul music. Burke was declared “The King Of Rock And Soul” in 1963, and seemed comfortable in a crown, but soul music remained a novelty to middle America back then, and the bulk of his smashes hit the R&B chart, not the pop listings.

Atlantic had no such problem charting The Drifters, a far smoother group, first with Clyde

McPhatter, then Ben E King as lead singers. Both eventually went solo, and King in particular made a heavy impact with the songs Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me, while The Drifters continued to chart with Johnny Moore and Rudy Lewis out front. But disaster struck for Atlantic when two of its major acts, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, were lured away to other labels, in 1959 and 1962, respectively. Both would, however, eventually return to the label with which they’d enjoyed their commercial prime.

Artists of the highest order: soul music for body and mind

Atlantic had other, less likely, irons in the fire that demonstrated its increasing habit of making great Black music a success with a white audience. A deal with Satellite Records, a tiny independent label in Memphis, led to huge hits when it changed its name to Stax. As a result, Atlantic Records found itself distributing Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Booker T & The MGs and many others. Stax was so hot, Atlantic sent its own artists to record at its studio, such as dynamite duo Sam And Dave and the wicked Wilson Pickett. Atlantic went on to use American Sound Studio, also in Memphis, and FAME, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to capture the true soul feeling.

The greatest singer sent south to find hits was a phenomenally gifted musician who’d been recording for a decade before she signed to Atlantic. Everybody in soul music knew Aretha Franklin had the potential to be a powerhouse, but across ten albums for other companies, none had made the US Top 50. It wasn’t Franklin’s fault: it was down to poor A&R and ho-hum production. Her albums had been erratic, ill-conceived (she was at times given unsuitable supper-club material) or just plain ordinary. Nobody seemed to know what to do with her. When Franklin was out of contract, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler convinced the Detroit dynamo to sign to the label, and set about returning her to her almighty gospel roots within a secular context – soul music. Wexler took Franklin south to FAME and, though the sessions were peppered with arguments, the results were dynamite. Lending its name to her first album for Atlantic, the song I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), was a No.9 US smash and the first of more than three dozen hits Franklin cut for the label. Across albums such as Lady Soul, Spirit In The Dark, Young, Gifted And Black and Amazing Grace, Franklin became a phenomenon, held up as a representative of Black female liberation, and finally recognised as an artist of the highest order.

Taking risks and creating legends: from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Led Zeppelin

In 1967, big changes were afoot behind the scenes at Atlantic. The company’s independence was never in question, but many of its rivals in the first ten years of its existence had collapsed; few indie labels which specialised in Black music became permanent fixtures on the music scene. Jerry Wexler in particular was concerned that the same fate might befall Atlantic Records, and, at his prompting, the company was sold to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. This secured the company’s financial basis while guaranteeing its artistic and commercial independence, but it produced unexpected problems when its deal with Stax foundered the following year. Ironically, the new

structure meant Jerry Wexler no longer had so much sway over the company, and he decided to focus on record production while Ahmet Ertegun oversaw the business. Among its new ventures was Cotillion, a new label which would become a home for talents as diverse as Sister Sledge, The Velvet Underground and Emerson, Lake And Palmer.

The latter two were indicative of the route Atlantic was increasingly taking. The late-60s rock revolution was in full effect, and the label welcomed it. Initially, this occurred more on its Atco subsidiary, already pop-friendly thanks to the likes of Sonny And Cher and British proto-punks The Troggs. In 1966, Atco signed Buffalo Springfield, who featured two key figures in what would become alternative rock, Steven Stills and Neil Young. The following year, Atco helped launch heavy metal through Vanilla Fudge (called The Pigeons until Ahmet Ertegun intervened) and Iron Butterfly.

From Iron Butterfly, it was a short flit to Led Zeppelin, who joined Atlantic in 1968, when their enterprising manager, Peter Grant, touted tapes of this British four-piece around New York. It was an audacious move by Grant, but increasingly in step with what Ahmet Ertegun wanted: having missed out on the British Invasion bands in 1964 (perhaps because they were playing arguably dilute versions of the music he knew inside out), Ertegun was alert to the possibilities of a further wave of British rockers. By the time Led Zeppelin had issued two albums – their self-titled debut album and Led Zeppelin II – they were already one of the most influential bands of all time.

Mining a reach seam of emerging British talent, Atlantic also signed blue-eyed soul singer Dusty Springfield and flew her to Memphis to record, and became the US outlet for the ultimate British power trio, Cream. The label also took on a US threesome of equal import to the rock generation, though its power did not emanate from Marshall stacks, but from the power to move hearts: Crosby, Stills & Nash, later joined by Neil Young. It was no accident that Led Zeppelin and CSNY were among the most important artists of the era: from its years as a soul, jazz and R&B company, Atlantic Records knew how to market music that was beyond pop’s mainstream.

Moving with the times: prog rock prodigies and disco dancefloors

As progressive rock took hold, a further British band found stardom on Atlantic: Yes. Their highly skilled musicianship with an almost classical bent, combined with fantasy lyrics, proved increasingly popular in the early 70s, thanks to Atlantic’s willingness to nurture artistic development until potential was fulfilled. If Yes’ landmark prog-rock albums (Fragile, Close To The Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans) seemed a long way from Atlantic Records’ roots, bear in mind that these musos learned their trade playing Ray Charles and Otis Redding songs in British clubs, and Atlantic had experience of jazz with a “chamber music” aspect. Everything fitted. Those who favoured rock of a more direct nature were not forgotten, thanks to J Geils Band, MC5 and Cactus.

Atlantic’s ability to move on was reflected by new executive figures. Jerry Greenberg, who’d worked under Jerry Wexler, landed Foreigner. John Kalodner was a former rock photographer and reporter whose taste in rock helped Atlantic prosper

through his publicity and A&R roles. He was key in bringing Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins to the company, though the band that begat them, Genesis, was supposedly too English for Atlantic to turn them into major stars Stateside. However, founding father Ahmet Ertegun had other ideas: he personally remixed Follow You Follow Me, the hit single which launched Genesis into the big league in the US.

Meanwhile, the rising Black middle-class of the 70s sought sophisticated sounds, and Atlantic Records was ready to deliver them. The label made stars of former second-division Motown act The Sinners, releasing 16 soul chart albums by the group, five of which hit the pop Top 20. Ben E King’s career found an impressive second wind in the mid-70s when he returned to Atlantic. Roberta Flack gave soul a whole new meaning with her elegant and thoughtful performances. Billy Cobham delivered progressive fusion and Herbie Mann racked up musical air miles, travelling from reggae to samba to funk with ease. Even a bunch of Scottish soul-funkers, Average White Band, shipped albums by the truckload to Black America.

Atlantic could also be found on the disco dancefloor, but tended towards its classier corner: with songs such as Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and Good Times, Chic mixed deceptively simple lyrics with remarkably adept grooves, and made stars of Sister Sledge, whose career had failed to match its early promise until the group’s bassist, Bernard Edwards and guitarist and sonic architect, Nile Rodgers, took them in hand and gifted them a smash-hit LGBTQ+ anthem: We Are Family. Atlantic also gave an early outlet to Luther Vandross via his group Luther, and his work with the 80s dance outfit Change.

Atlantic continued to be a major presence in the rock world. In 1971, it began distributing Rolling Stones Records in the US, a deal that lasted 13 years. It was a logical move, because so many of Atlantic’s soul and R&B artists had inspired the British rock legends. A very different, though equally magical artist, chose to link her label to Atlantic when the corporation began distributing Modern, Stevie Nicks’ recording outlet. But Atlantic had legends of its own to make. In 1976, the label’s London-based Vice President, Phil Carson, signed an outfit soon to became one of the biggest hard rock bands on the planet: AC/DC. Highway To Hell, Back In Black, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)… all wore Atlantic’s logo.

Putting creativity first: Atlantic Records in the modern era

Naturally, Atlantic Records has had a hand in some of the greatest pop music in all its iterations down the decades, from ABBA to Bruno Mars to Coldplay. The label particularly connects with music that owes something to its soulful legacy, be that Hall & Oates, The Blues Brothers or the unstoppable phenomenon that is Ed Sheeran.

Atlantic was a touch tardy when hip-hop emerged, but it was hot on the new flavour of R&B that first flourished in the 80s, scoring heavily with the likes of En Vogue (the Funky Divas album was a No.1 hit on the Top Black Albums chart), Brandy (the R&B star’s Never Say Never album was a late-90s smash) and Gnarls Barkley (Crazy was a ubiquitous hit that remains one of the best 2000s songs). It then secured deals with some of the most important rap acts of the 90s and beyond in Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim. The label that brought Don Covay and Donny Hathaway to the world continues to celebrate Black inventiveness under the guidance of Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman: as a former club DJ, he’s a figure the Erteguns would have understood. Atlantic is proud to boast Lizzo, Janelle Monáe, Cardi B, Lil James and Youngboy Never Broke Again among its current soulful roster.

Silk Sonic, Burna Boy, Kelly Clarkson… the Atlantic catalogue grows on a daily basis. Little wonder when a deep dive offers vast inspiration for each generation, whether that comes from Betty Wright, Sam Dees or The Rascals. That’s why contemporary artists and future stars want the Atlantic Records logo on their releases. It’s a sign of quality, of musical awareness, of being part of something worthwhile. If you join Atlantic, you are joining a company that puts creativity first, and you are part of its remarkable tradition.

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