The idea of a start-up label doing battle with the likes of Sony or Universal on the Hot 100 is practically out of the question these days. But 50 years ago, independent record makers not only went head to head with the bigs, they dominated the charts as never before. One of those budding entrepreneurs was Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of the greatest rags-to-riches music enterprise in history, Atlantic Records. The man many consider to be the greatest producer in pop music passed away on December 14 at the age of 83 from injuries suffered after falling backstage during a Rolling Stones concert in New York a month earlier. The following is a look back at Ertegun’s early years with Atlantic, including commentary from colleagues Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin (who himself passed away last June).
The events that would shape Ahmet Ertegun’s life were set in motion one day in 1937 when his mother brought home a record-cutting machine; within a year, Ertegun, a major lover of jazz music, was using the unit to add his own lyrics to Duke Ellington compositions. With $10,000 in seed capital obtained from the family dentist, in 1947 Ertegun launched a fledgling label, Atlantic, with partner Herb Abramson, a former National Records a&r man. Two years later, Atlantic had its first hit with Stick McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” Others quickly followed, including “Don’t You Know I Love You” and “Fool, Fool, Fool” for the Clovers (both penned by Ertegun himself under the anagram-pseudonym “Nugetre”).
Ertegun would make some of his greatest acquisitions by frequenting the nightclubs of uptown Manhattan. In 1951, he spotted a down-and-out “Big Joe” Turner in a dive shortly after Turner’s dismissal from National Records. “I told him, ‘I think you’re the greatest blues singer in the world,’” Ertegun later recalled. “I said, ‘All you need is fresh material. Sign with Atlantic - and we’ll make hits.” Before the year was out, Turner had reached the top with “Chains of Love,” the first in a string of Atlantic hits throughout the 1950s.
In 1953, Jerry Wexler, a former Billboard writer who coined the term “rhythm and blues” as a substitute for the lamentable “race label,” joined the Atlantic team as a partner; three years later, Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi, an ardent jazz fan, came aboard and helped recruit jazz luminaries like Erroll Garner, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Unlike typical record execs who knew how to sell but little about what it was they were selling, principals Ertegun and Wexler were both business-savvy and musically astute. And in New York-born Tom Dowd, the label had a top-flight engineer who could capture great ideas on tape every time out. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, any engineer worth his paycheck knew instinctively how to mix as the recording was going down, “and Tommy excelled at that,” says Ertegun. “He was unbelievable. Nowadays you just set up all the microphones, you’ve got unlimited tracks, you can remix for years. But back then, you had to get it right at the point of entry. That’s how Tom became great.”
In director Mark Moormann’s outstanding video biography Tom Dowd & The Language of Music, Ertegun recalled meeting Dowd for the first time at a 1947 session at the Apex Studio on 57th Street in New York. “The studio had this German professor who did the bulk of the engineering,” says Ertegun “He was really difficult to work with, wouldn’t let us turn up the bass, or touch anything, but we were told he was a master, so we put up with him. The next time we were in there, out walks this kid who looked like he was about 15, and tells us, ‘I’m the engineer, the professor can’t make it, my name’s Tommy Dowd.’ And he was running around moving mics, bringing up the drum level?and it all sounded great. And my partner Herb says, ‘Man, I think we’ve got something, this kid knows what he’s doing.’ From that day forward, he recorded every single record we ever did.”
“Tom’s contributions to the development of the company were inestimable,” continues Wexler. “He made it possible for Ahmet and myself to never have to put our hands on the faders.”
Right from the start, Dowd proved that great sounds didn’t necessarily require great equipment. During his first six years on board, Dowd made do with a simple Magnacord tape machine, a miniscule four-input console and a handful of cheap microphones. “When we first got started we didn’t have any really nice equipment like Neumann condensers,” Dowd told writer Blair Jackson. “We were using [RCA] 44s, 77s, Western Electric 633As - the ‘salt shakers’ - Turners. That was about the best variety you could have. Back then a lot of studios were abandoned radio-station rooms - and those were the kinds of mics you found at places like that.”
“In those days, the recording techniques were such that there was a pronounced difference between hearing a live performance in a club and hearing the same song on record,” says Ertegun. Nevertheless, when tape arrived in 1949, a doubting Ertegun told Dowd he wanted to keep the label’s wax-disc cutter active for making back-ups - a request he quickly abandoned after hearing the results of the new medium. Says Dowd, “It was huge. Tape just increased our possibilities.”
Even before the arrival of Atlantic’s first Ampex 300 tape machine, Dowd was already eager to test the parameters of conventional record making. “Back then I was never a one-mic advocate. There was a different intensity between, say, a string bass or an acoustic guitar versus a drum. As a result, I didn’t even need to mic the drums - I’d mic the bass instead, and the drums would come through anyway. And then put a mic on the singer. Then when I got into the control room, I’d selectively increase or decrease the volume. The result was that you could suddenly hear everything, and in detail. People would say, ‘How did he do that?’”
The room Atlantic used to make its earliest recordings was located on the top floor of a wood-framed brownstone above Patsy’s Restaurant at 234 West 56th Street. There wasn’t an actual studio per se; at night, Ertegun, Dowd and Wexler simply pushed all the office furniture to one side and set up to record. Once the revenues began rolling in, Atlantic relocated one block north to 157 West 57th Street, and in 1957 the company become the first label in New York - or practically anywhere, for that matter - to have 8-track capability. “As an independent, Atlantic didn’t always have to deal with a lot of the red-tape constraints that typified larger record companies,” recalled producer-arranger Arif Mardin, who joined the company as a Berklee graduate in the 1960s. “As a result, we got to work with some technically advanced equipment years before anyone else. The Ampex 8-track was a very expensive but totally state-of-the-art machine at the time. It was model #2 - Les Paul, who devised it, had the first, we got the second one, and the third went to the government, because they had to have everything. We’d be recording people like Sonny Stitt and Freddie Hubbard on the eight-track, as well as many of the pop bands that followed. So when the stereo revolution came, all he had to do was mix it again. That’s why those records sound so good today.”
By 1959 the influx of new equipment - coupled with Atlantic’s steamrolling record sales - prompted yet another change of address, this time to 11 W. 60th Street near Columbus Circle. The new space included a tracking room roughly 40 feet long, 50 feet wide with 15-foot ceilings, with a control room spacious enough to house the new Ampex eight-track. A year later, The Drifters’ chart-topping “Save the Last Dance for Me” became the first record to feature Atlantic’s freshly implemented tracking facilities. By then, Atlantic’s quest for musical diversification had moved well beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
For Ertegun, it was just the beginning. In the years that followed, Ertegun, with Wexler, helped revitalize the career of Aretha Franklin and scored hits for numerous other soul artists including Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. At the same time, Ertegun signed major rock acts like Cream, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, rush-releasing timely tracks such as Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” Though he sold his share in Atlantic to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts some 40 years ago, Ertegun - who would later help establish the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in an effort to recognize rock’s most notable figures - remained at the forefront of the industry, a tireless worker who, by his own estimation, spent more time sleeping in trains and planes than in a proper bed. Legend has it that when the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger first met Ertegun at a club to discuss signing with Atlantic, Ertegun, exhausted from a particularly grueling road trip, promptly fell asleep at the table. Though the Stones had been offered much more money from competing labels, Jagger, impressed with Ertegun’s apparent coolness, signed on the spot.