Ahmet's Atlantic: Shake, Rattle and Roll

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun will be 78 on Tuesday. I don't know who'll be attending his party, but I know who could sing "Happy Birthday": Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Robert Plant, Bette Midler, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Cher, Phil Collins, Roberta Flack, the Bee Gees, Tori Amos, and whatever members of the Coasters and the Drifters are still prowling the oldies shows. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller could rewrite the anthem, give it a bluesy feel. Let Phil Spector produce the tune, with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page on guitar. And in the heavenly choir: Clyde McPhatter, Big Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Bobby Darin, Chuck Willis, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Greg Allman and Dusty Springfield.

These are just some of the rock and pop luminaries signed by Atlantic Records, the label Ertegun founded with Herb Abramson in 1947 and headed for most of the next half-century. In the '50s, with Charles and Darin, he juggled and helped merge black and white music. In the '60s, Atlantic was the top exponent of both Brill Building pop and Muscle Shoals soul. The company kept finding and promoting good sounds, and in 1987, on the outfit's 40th anniversary, Ertegun and his longtime partner Jerry Wexler were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Our text, for this week and next, is "'What'd I Say:' The Atlantic Story 50 Years of Music" (Welcome Rain Press, $75, but available from Amazon.com for $52.50 plus shipping) by Ertegun and a slew of veteran writers on rock. It's a gorgeous picture book that weighs in at eight pounds — if only some behemoth like Turner were around to hold it for you while you flip ecstatically through its pages — and it's laden with sharp memories from most of the creators and performers who made the label an organism with its own dynamic personality. For full enjoyment, read it while sampling the eight-CD box set, "Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-74" (WEA-Atlantic), a treasure chest of 203 singles from the label's pioneering and preternatural years. That should give you a sight-and-sound introduction to the achievements of the man Otis Redding would address as "Omelet," because that's what he thought Ertegun's first name was.

It happens that this distinguished gent was a minor hero of my rock 'n roll youth. As an early fan of Ray Charles, and a collector of his LPs, I noticed that a few Charles songs — like "Mess Around" with its barrelhouse piano signatures and neck-snapping back beat — were written by one A. Nugetre. That was Ahmet's pen name: Ertegun spelled backwards. (Reverse spelling seems to have been a running in-joke at the company: the liner notes for Charles' debut album were by "Guy Remark," the pseudoplume or nom-de-nym for Atlantic jazz producer Gary Kramer.)

In the mid-'50s I started paying attention to record labels — the handsomely garish orange-and-black Atlantic and the yellowjacket cheerfulness of its baby- sibling label Atco — and gradually a corporate image of the Ertegun operation took shape in my young mind. I thought of it as a cool place, more a night club than an office, perfumed with reefer smoke. In this kid's cartoon of hipness, Charles and some jazz cats lounged on couches, telling obscure jokes, while the Coasters ran around like the black Ritz Brothers, and Darin, the one white guy I knew of at the company, served drinks. What I couldn't have known, until I read it in the "What'd I Say" book, was that Ertegun himself was an inveterate night- clubber. For decades he prowled the dives, looking for action and good music. In some sense, he was an aristocrat for whom slumming was transcendence.

Born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Ahmet was the son of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States. In 1936 President Ataturk ordained that all Turks must have surnames; Ahmet's father chose "Ertegun," which translates as "living in a hopeful future." Always a music fanatic, Ahmet attended jazz and rhythm and blues concerts. He befriended Jelly Roll Morton just before his death. With his brother Nesuhi, Ahmet would go from door to door in the poor neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., offering to buy any old 78s the residents had. Soon they had 15,000 records, including rarities by Fats Waller, Enrico Caruso and black singers both urban and rural.

As John Hammond proved in his four decades as American music's greatest talent scout, rich kids with a passion can do anything. Ahmet and Nesuhi invited white musicians (Joe Marsala and his group) to play with blacks (from the Ellington band) at the Turkish Embassy. They produced what may have been the first integrated concert in that racially segregated, defiantly Southern town. It would be Ahmet's mission to get the black folks and the white folks together: as performers, producers and consumers. And that is exactly what Atlantic Records did.

Three record labels dominated American music through World War II: RCA Victor, Columbia and Decca. (Johnny Mercer's Capitol was the wartime upstart.) In the heartland, indie companies like King (Cincinnati), Vee-Jay (Chicago), Dot (Nashville), Swingtime (Los Angeles) and Peacock (Houston) scratched for leftover; they made country tunes and "race records" to appeal to regional and ethnic audiences. In 1946 the Erteguns joined this ragtag gang of music pushers. With Herb Abramson they formed two small labels, Jubilee for gospel and Quality for R&B. The following year Ahmet and Herb moved to New York and started Atlantic; the first song they issued, on November 21, 1947, was "Rose of the Rio Grande" by the Harlemaires.

Not to disparage the men (all men, and all of them white) who ran the other indies — and not to suggest that Atlantic was ever run as a charitable foundation — but Ertegun founded a record company because he loved music. That love trained his ear and honed his respect for the creators. As Greil Marcus writes in the Atlantic book: "The company, in a practice that scandalized 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." His bluesophilia made Ertegun a shrewd discoverer of talent — he knew what to listen for.

I admit that, when I listened to the first Atlantic records on the box set, I kept wondering when recognizable forebears of the rock 'n roll I grew up with would emerge. The best early examples are from Stick McGhee, the brother of blues guitarist Brownie McGhee. In the Army, Stick had heard a bawdy barracks song, which he euphemized into "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee"; the "spo-dee-o- dee" was originally "muthafucka," a phrase that today even Eminem might shy from putting in a song title. Stick's rendition is a vigorous cocktail of the corny old (a guitar intro that sounds like the vamp of a '20s ukulele, the singer's occasional cries of Alexander Graham Bell's "Hoy hoy") and the modern — it's early clues to Chuck Berry's chugging rhythm and Fats Domino's intonations. McGhee's "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" is even more Dominesque, and a nice jammy listen.

Ertegun's first big catch was not a singer or group but the black songwriter-arranger Jesse Stone. Born in 1901, Stone had already done time in minstrel shows, created some of the first jazz orchestrations and fronted his own Kansas City band (where Coleman Hawkins had a chair). Among his compositions were "Sorghum Switch" for Jimmy Dorsey, the Benny Goodman "Idaho" and Joe Williams' theme song "Smack Dab in the Middle." Stone's energetic life would nearly span the century; he died two years ago, at 97.

At Atlantic, Stone, using the name Charles Calhoun, wrote songs that helped define not only the label's sound but the fetal heartbeat of early rock. "Money Honey," in 1953, was the Drifters' very first song, with McPhatter and his rollicking tenor in the lead. The song kicks in with the saxes sliding into an almost bagpipely "uh-huh" (Bobby Day would use the same trope on his 1958 hit "Over and Over"). McPhatter — at 20 already a master of swingin' enunciation, of vocal personality — sings a chain of verses that passes a sensible obsession with ready cash from a landlord to the singer to his girl friend to her new beau. The moral: If you've got money, you'll get honey. If you're broke, you're a joke.

Stone would turn out other hits for Atlantic: LaVern Baker's "Soul on Fire," the Clovers' "Your Cash Ain't Nuthin' But Trash," Ray Charles' "Losin' Hand" and "It Should Have Been Me." But the earthshaker was the 1954 "Shake, Rattle and Roll," sung by Big Joe Turner. Like "Money Honey," this is a lament made jovial by the fast tempo and the sassy delivery of the hand-clapping, call-and-response chorus. The song is also mildly raunchy, with references to a male organ ("a one-eyed cat") sniffing around its female counterpart ("a seafood store").

In the original lyric, a male chastises his female for her indolence and sex appeal. Indeed, the Turner rendition gives off a whiff of incest; it suggests that the singer's "baby" is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, that the man is both a stern father and a frustrated lover. The scene is early morning, with the man telling his child-bride to get out of the sack and into the kitchen to "make some noise with the pots and pans." The directions to "shake, rattle and roll" could refer to exertions made in either the kitchen or the bedroom. Attend the lyrics of the next three verses:

Well, you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through,
I can't believe my eyes, all of this belongs to you.
I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store,
Well, I can look at you and tell you ain't no child no more.
I believe to my soul you're a devil in nylon hose,
Well, the harder I work, the faster my money goes.

The song did well for Atlantic's Big Joe Turner but was a national smash for the white band Billy Haley and the Comets. (This was a year or two before pop music was as welcoming to blacks as to whites. In 1953, Atlantic had a pretty little hit with The Chords' "Sh-Boom"; within weeks it was anemically covered by The Crew Cuts, who monopolized all pop-chart action.) "We stay clear of anything suggestive," Haley said of the original lyrics, and the offending lyrics are softened into this generic plaint:

Well you wear those dresses, your hair done up so nice
Well you look so warm but your heart is cold as ice.
I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store,
I can look at you, tell you don't love me no more.

The following summer, Haley's pressing of "Rock Around the Clock" would usher in the rock era. A year after that, blacks like Fats Domino and Little Richard would be nudging their white rivals for room at the top of the charts. And soon after, Atlantic's investment in Ray Charles, who had recorded for them since 1953, would pay off. The label would have its first million-selling record, "What'd I Say," from its first superstar — its first "genius."

Suddenly we're into the music we all know, either from when we were young or from the oldies stations' play lists. Music that had been limited to blacks, or their enthusiastic fellow travelers, was finally, and still is, America's music. Even the old Atlantic obscurities from the Age Before Rock are now widely known: "Flip Flop Fly," the Stone and Turner's brisker follow-up to "Shake, Rattle and Roll," didn't move many 45s when it was issued in early 1955, but last year it showed up as the big barnyard dance number in the animated movie hit "Chicken Run." Of course it's the artists who deserve our primary gratitude. But Ertegun and his colleagues did more than help move the merchandise. If brilliant performers like Charles and Domino and Little Richard were the collective Jackie Robinson of mid-century music, visionary entrepreneurs like Ertegun were their Branch Rickey.

Next week I'll write about what I consider the great period of Atlantic music, from 1955 to '65: the early maturity of Ray Charles; the bridging of rock, Broadway-style pop and European balladry by Bobby Darin; and the work of producers Leiber and Stoller as masterminds of the Coasters' and Drifters' songbooks. This music is my favorite partly because it displayed these artists in their glorious prime; and partly because when I first heard the music, I was in something like my prime.

The one thing all the Atlantic eras have in common is Ahmet Ertegun. The most impressive thing about his career is that the performers he brought to the label through the '70s and '80s had the same impact on other listeners that the Atlanticians of the first and second generations did for me. For 50 years he had good taste — often daring taste — that proved to be popular taste. Which makes this son of a Turk a virtual deity of music in the American century. Perhaps, instead of "Happy Birthday," or even "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the revelers at his party should sing a hymn. All together now:

For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory,