The Atlantic Records Story
Atlantic was formed in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in New York City. Atco and Cotillion were subsidiary labels and Clarion was a budget label. Atlantic recorded rhythm and blues, jazz, blues, country and western, rock and roll, gospel, and comedy.
Ahmet Ertegun was born in 1923 in Turkey, and came to the United States at the age of 11 when his father was appointed the Turkish Ambassador to the United States. Ahmet fell in love with the United States, particularly the music. He and his older brother Nesuhi (born 1918) collected over 15,000 jazz and blues 78s. Ahmet went to St. Johns College to study philosophy, and did post graduate work at Georgetown in Washington, DC. During this period, Ahmet and Nesuhi hired halls and staged concerts by Lester Young, Sidney Bechet and other jazz giants. When Ahmet's father died in 1944, his mother and sister returned to Turkey, and Nesuhi went to California. Ahmet stayed in Washington and hung around the Waxie Maxie (Max Silverman's) Quality Music Shop to learn as much as he could about the record business. Ahmet had an aspiration to make records.
Herb Abramson was born in 1917, went to high school in Brooklyn, and was also a jazz and blues record collector. During World War II he promoted jazz concerts, some of them in association with the Ertegun brothers. In 1944, he became a part time record producer for National Records while attending New York University, where he was studying to become a dentist. Because of his jazz background, Herb started producing artists like Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. He signed Billy Eckstine to the National label and produced two big hits, "Prisoner of Love" and "Cottage for Sale" with him. He also produced a big hit with black comedian Dusty Fletcher called "Open the Door Richard". After a couple of years with National, in May, 1946, Abramson started the Jubilee Record label. Shortly afterwards, Jerry Blaine was brought into Jubilee as a partner. The original intention was to record jazz and gospel music, and Abramson did produce one record by gospel singer Ernestine Washington, but Jerry Blaine started making very successful Jewish comedy records which were of no interest to Herb. He asked Blaine to buy him out in September, 1947.
When Ahmet Ertegun decided to go into the record business, he knew he needed to collaborate with someone with a solid background in record production. He thought of Herb Abramson. Ahmet went to New York and stayed with Herb and his wife Miriam. In October, 1947, Ahmet and Herb formed Atlantic Records with financial backing from a Turkish Dentist, Dr. Vahdi Sabit. Herb Abramson was President and Ahmet Ertegun was Vice President of the new company.
From the beginning, Atlantic was different from other independent record companies. Their financier/dentist did not put pressure on them for immediate return on his investment, so Herb and Ahmet were free to make decisions based on their own good musical judgment. They did not cheat performers, as many of the other independent labels did. They gained a reputation for being honest, and that reputation as much as anything was the foundation for the success of the company. Many talented performers were willing to sign long term contracts with Atlantic because they believed that their royalties would be paid. Atlantic's business practices allowed them to hire the best musicians in the business. When it was industry practice to pay royalties below 2 percent -- or in the case of many black artists, no royalties at all -- Atlantic was paying 3 to 5 percent.
The early Atlantic roster was eclectic, to say the least. It included Stan Kenton band members Art Pepper, Shelly Manne, and Pete Rugolo, guitarist Tiny Grimes, vocal groups such as the Delta Rhythm Boys, the Clovers, and the Cardinals, rhythm and blues singers Ruth Brown, Stick McGhee and Joe Turner, pianists Erroll Garner and Mal Waldron, progressive jazz artists Howard McGhee, James Moody and Dizzy Gillespie, jazz singers Jackie & Roy and Sarah Vaughan, blues singers Leadbelly and Sonny Terry, and café society singers Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms and Bobby Short. In spite of this impressive roster, Atlantic was getting most of its revenue from the rhythm and blues recordings by Joe Turner (e.g., "Chains of Love," "Honey Hush," "TV Mama") and Ruth Brown (e.g., "So Long," "Teardrops From My Eyes," "I'll Wait for You").
Atlantic was the first to record Professor Longhair, the legendary piano player from New Orleans. One of the songs "Fess" recorded at his first Atlantic session was "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" which has since become the theme song for the Mardi Gras. On February 17, 1949, Atlantic released "Drinkin' Wine Spo- Dee-O-Dee" by Stick McGhee, a blues novelty number that became a big hit. This was followed in October, 1950, by Laurie Tate and Joe Morris' # 1 R&B record of "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere". In 1951, Ahmet wrote "Don't You Know I Love You" for the Clovers and it also was a #1 R&B hit. Ruth Brown notched their third #1 R&B hit with "5-10-15 Hours" in 1952.
Atlantic entered the 33 1/3 rpm long play record business very early, issuing it's first album in March of 1949. Ahmet was well aware that a rhythm and blues album had little chance of success, since 78 rpm records dominated that genre. So even though Atlantic was successful with rhythm and blues recordings, their first foray into the album market was with a poetry album, Walter Benton's This Is My Beloved. John Dall provided the narration and Vernon Duke provided the background music. This 10-inch album carried the number 110 which stood for "one 10-inch disc." The matrix numbers on this disc were TLP 11213/11214. The same material was released simultaneously as three 12-inch 78 rpm discs with the catalog number 312-S. The 312 stood for "three 12 inch discs," and the "S" stood for standard speed which at that time was 78 rpm. The individual 78 rpm records were numbered 1201, 1202, and 1203. Atlantic rather quickly dropped this unwieldy numbering system and issued their second and third LPs in May, 1950, as ALS-108 by Joe Bushkin and ALS-109 by Erroll Garner. The first 12 inch LP issued by Atlantic (January, 1951) was ALS-401 which was a recording of scenes from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" performed by Eva LaGallienne and Richard Waring.
Prior to 1953, Atlantic was basically a three person operation. Herb Abramson was President, Ahmet Ertegun was a Vice President, and Herb's wife Miriam was a Vice President who kept the accounts, paid the bills, and managed the office. Herb Abramson was drafted into the Army in 1953, and although he was away from Atlantic, he stayed on full salary and kept his title as President of the company. With the pending loss of Herb, Atlantic required additional help. Herb and Ahmet brought Jerry Wexler into the company.
Jerry Wexler was born in New York City in 1917. Wexler became interested in black music and started frequenting the jazz nightclubs in Harlem. In 1941, he was drafted into the US Army. During his time in the Army, Wexler started taking correspondence courses from Kansas University, and after his discharge he went to the University full time to obtain a Journalism degree. While at Kansas University, he started writing for the school paper. After obtaining his degree, he and his wife went back to New York City where he got a job at Billboard magazine, a music trade publication. Writing for Billboard, Wexler introduced the term "Rhythm and Blues" as a replacement for the term "Race Music" in referring to black music. Through his work at Billboard, Wexler came in contact with Ahmet Ertegun, who asked him to come to work for Atlantic as a producer. Wexler was made a Vice President of Atlantic, and as part of the deal allowed to purchase 13 percent of the company for $2,063.25. The instruction Ahmet gave Wexler was to produce rhythm and blues music specifically for sale to the black population. Initially, Ahmet had no illusions about crossover hits.
During that same year, Ahmet Ertegun went to the Birdland nightclub to see Billy Ward and the Dominoes, mostly to hear Ward's lead singer Clyde McPhatter. When the Dominoes performed, Clyde McPhatter was missing so Ahmet went backstage to find out where he was. Billy Ward informed him that he had fired McPhatter for breaking group rules. Ahmet left to find McPhatter, and an hour later he located McPhatter in a rented room in Harlem rehearsing a new group. Ertegun signed Clyde McPhatter and his new group, which Ahmet named the Drifters. The Drifters debut release was a song written by Jesse Stone called "Money Honey," and it was huge success in February, 1953. The Drifters -- with many personal changes -- had hits for the next thirteen years on Atlantic.
During the period between 1953 and 1955, a new musical trend developed that had a major impact on Atlantic Records. Pop singers began covering R&B records for the pop market. The pop singers tried to copy the R&B singers, but they sang the songs in a smoother, less soulful manner than the original singers. In fact, the first artist Jerry Wexler produced, LaVern Baker, had a #14 R&B hit with "Tweedle Dee," but the cover version by white singer Georgia Gibbs went to #2 on the pop charts. Another record produced by Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun did the same thing; "Sh-Boom" by the Chords was a big hit on the R&B charts, but it was copied by a Canadian group, the Crew-Cuts, on Mercury Records, and their version buried the Chords' original. The experience with these two records and several others led Ahmet and Jerry to reach the conclusion that it would be possible to expand their market from just the black population, appealing to the young white population who were increasingly buying rhythm and blues based records. This new style was eventually called Rock and Roll.
In May of 1954, Atlantic released the landmark "Shake, Rattle and Roll" by Big Joe Turner. The song was written by Charles Calhoun (a.k.a. Jesse Stone). "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was a big R&B hit and was covered by the then-country group Bill Haley and the Comets. The suggestive lyrics of the song were changed by Haley for the white market, although the most risqué line in the song, "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store" wasn't changed because Haley didn't know what the line meant. "Shake, Rattle and Roll" by Haley was the big pop hit that really kicked off the Rock and Roll era.
Ray Charles was signed to Atlantic Records in 1952, and his first record was titled "Roll With My Baby". He managed several minor R&B hits in the next two years, but his style was basically derivative of Charles Brown and Nat King Cole. The breakthrough for both Ray Charles and Atlantic occurred in November of 1954. Jerry Wexler went to Atlanta to hear a new band Charles had formed, and upon hearing them, Wexler immediately took the band to the Georgia Tech radio station to record "I Got a Woman." This was the start of the Ray Charles gospel style, and "I Got a Woman" became the first Ray Charles smash hit. Charles had applied R&B lyrics to sixteen-bar gospel chord progressions, which was a radical departure from the twelve-bar blues-based structure of the black music of the day. "I Got a Woman" is considered by some to be the birth of Soul Music.
When Sam Phillips at Sun Records decided to sell Elvis Presley's contract in 1955, Atlantic entered into the bidding for him. Atlantic bid $30,000, but was outbid by RCA Victor who paid $40,000. Wexler loved Presley's singing and bid aggressively, although he later admitted he didn't know how Atlantic could have raised the $30,000 if their offer had been accepted. It's interesting to speculate what would have happened to Presley's career if he had gone to Atlantic, with the great R&B musicians at the Atlantic studios and sympathetic production by Wexler. Perhaps Presley's performances would not have sunk to the mediocre level they did in the 1960s.
In 1955, Nesuhi Ertegun, who was still in California, mentioned in a phone call to Ahmet that he was going to work for the Los Angeles based Imperial Records. He was to head up a jazz record line and develop a catalog of LPs. Imperial was Atlantic's biggest competitor, and had an established talent roster. Hiring Nesuhi, who was well known as an expert in the jazz field, would make Imperial even stronger. The two brothers had not been close for many years, but when Nesuhi told him he was going to join Imperial, Ahmet became very upset. Ahmet and Wexler immediately went to California to talk Nesuhi out of joining Imperial, insisting that he join Atlantic. All of the existing partners kicked in stock, and Nesuhi Ertegun was made a partner and came to work for Atlantic.
Nesuhi Ertegun was put in charge of the development of the Atlantic jazz catalog and given responsibility for all long playing albums. By 1955, LP sales were starting to gain momentum. Customers wanted better quality recordings, and the major record companies were supplying the demand. The independent companies were having trouble entering the LP market because it required a large investment. Anyone who looks at an Atlantic album from the late fifties can see the results of Nesuhi's work. An Atlantic album's quality was even better than the majors, and a far cry from the cheap albums issued by the other independents. Atlantic album covers were constructed of heavy white cardboard, were coated with glossy plastic to resist stains and dirt, had well written liner notes with recording information. Most of the records had fourteen songs instead of the standard twelve, and were pressed on thick quality vinyl. The albums just projected "class". Nesuhi also brought to Atlantic many of the West Coast jazz artists he had seen in California, including Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Mann and Les McCann. Nesuhi's most important contribution was championing and producing the Modern Jazz Quartet; the MJQ recorded twenty albums for Atlantic and was the backbone of their jazz catalog.
Soon after Nesuhi took over the album catalog, he deleted the 100 and 400 series of 10-inch albums, because the 12-inch format was becoming the standard. He also deleted the early 12-inch albums in Atlantic's catalog. Nesuhi started the new Atlantic long play catalog with album 1212. This 1200 album series carried a $4.98 list price, and at first the series contained both jazz and R&B albums. In 1956, a new 8000 popular series was started with a list price of $3.98. The few rhythm and blues albums in the 1200 series were reissued in the 8000 series, and the 1200 series became exclusively a jazz series.
For the two years Herb Abramson was away in the Army, Atlantic had enjoyed unprecedented success. In 1955, when he was discharged from the Army, he found a lot of changes at the Atlantic office. Nesuhi was overseeing the jazz catalog. Jerry Wexler had taken Herb's production seat and his success meant he would be staying. Also straining relations in the office was the fact that Herb's marriage to Miriam was over. In order to maintain peace it was decided that a new subsidiary named Atco (ATlantic COmpany) would be established for Herb Abramson to run.
In November 1955, Atlantic acquired the Spark Record Company of Los Angeles. The owners of the Spark Record Company were Lester Sill, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller, two young white songwriter/record producers were also the principle assets of the company along with a black vocal group named the Robins. Nesuhi had become aware of Leiber and Stoller while living in California and brought them to the attention of Jerry and Ahmet. Although both were in their early twenties, Leiber and Stoller had written many R&B songs including "Kansas City" (as K.C.Lovin') for Little Willie Littlefield, "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton and a hit song for the Robins called "Smokey Joe's Café".
Two of the members of the Robins, Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn, left the group and came east with Leiber and Stoller to join Atlantic as the foundation of a new group called the Coasters (for West Coasters). The Coasters, with Leiber and Stoller writing and producing, had unprecedented success for Atco in the period from 1956 to 1961 with "Young Blood", "Searchin'", "Yakety Yak", "Charlie Brown", "Along Came Jones", "Poison Ivy," "Little Egypt," and others. Each of the Coasters hits were humorous mini-soap-operas.
By 1957, recording technology had reached the point that stereo tape had been available for years, and it was only a matter of months before stereo on vinyl was a reality. Atlantic was one of the first independents to record in stereo, using a portable stereo machine to record multitrack tapes at the same time the mono recordings were being made. Some of the early stereo hits were "Lover's Question" by Clyde McPhatter, "What Am I Living For" by Chuck Willis, "I Cried a Tear" by LaVern Baker, "Splish Splash" by Bobby Darin, "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters, "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, along with many others. The stereo versions of these hits, for the most part, remained unreleased until 1968, when a fabulous stereo album called History of Rhythm and Blues, Volume 4 [Atlantic SD-8164] unveiled them for the first time.
Leiber and Stoller operated as independent producers for Atlantic, so they were free to make made records for other labels in addition to Atlantic. But they probably had their greatest success on Atlantic. In addition to the Coasters, they wrote and produced songs for LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, and the Drifters. In 1958, Leiber and Stoller were the first to apply strings to an R&B record when they produced "There Goes My Baby" with the Drifters. Ahmet Ertegun didn't like it, and Jerry Wexler called it "dogmeat." There was little to like upon hearing it cold. The tempo was odd, the backup singers sounded off key, and it was recorded in mono in a less-than-wonderful studio. The Atlantic brass refused to release it for almost a year. But somehow, the song grew on you, and when they finally relented to Lieber and Stoller's pressure and released it in April, 1959, it shot to #1 and was one of the biggest hits in Atlantic history.
Herb Abramson signed Bobby Darin to the Atco label and produced several songs that had little success. He was on the verge of dropping him when Darin approached Ahmet Ertegun and asked to record a song he had written that Herb refused to use. Ahmet agreed, and Darin had an immediate smash hit with "Splish Splash." Bobby Darin was the first pop act for Atlantic Records. When Darin recorded the Sinatra-styled "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea" and both became big hits, Darin moved from his teen idol status to a mainstream pop singing star.
Atco proved to be a profitable venture with the Coasters and Bobby Darin as artists, but even the establishment of the Atco label failed to solve the problems between Herb Abramson and Ahmet. The last straw came when the partners decided to replace Abramson as President of Atlantic with Ahmet Ertegun. This precipitated a walkout by Herb, and after protracted negotiations, his ownership share in Atlantic was bought out in December, 1958, for $300,000. Shortly thereafter, the stock owned by Miriam Bienstock (formerly Abramson) and the silent partner Dr. Sabit was purchased, leaving Atlantic with just three owners, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun.
After leaving Atlantic, Herb Abramson started a short lived label called Triumph with a subsidiary label Blaze that issued a few singles in 1958 and 1959. Abramson released the first Gene Pitney record in 1958 (using the name Billy Bryan) "Going Back to My Love/Cradle of My Arms" (Blaze 351). In 1960, he started the Festival label, which issued one album by comedians Butterbeans and Susie, distributed by King Records (See King Discography). During the 1960s and '70s Herb owned the A-1 Recording Studio, where he produced Titus Turner, Tommy Tucker, Otis Blackwell and Louisiana Red, releasing the recordings through other record labels. His biggest success came in 1963 with his production of "Hi- Heel Sneakers" by Tommy Tucker, which Abramson leased to Checker Records. It reached # 11 on the R&B list. By the 1980s, Abramson had relocated to California and was living in poverty, but he was still dabbling in the recording business, hoping for one more hit record. Herb Abramson died in Henderson, Nevada on November 9, 1999, at the age of 82.
During the late 1950s, with the success of the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, and the Coasters, Atlantic became a success in the crossover record market. The young white record buyers were no longer content to purchase the cover records of R&B hits, they wanted the real thing. And Atlantic provided it.
The future "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector worked for Atlantic in 1960 and 1961. Spector was producing records in California for Lester Sill and Lee Hazlewood on their Atlantic-distributed Trey label. When Spector became restless with the limitations of the West Coast recording scene, he asked Lester Sill for an introduction to his former associates at Spark Records, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In May, 1960, Spector moved to New York to work for Leiber and Stoller. Initially, they used Spector as a session guitarist on Atlantic singles by the Coasters, Ben E. King and the Drifters. Later, Spector's guitar solo was heard on the Drifters' "On Broadway". Leiber and Stoller then assigned Spector to produce Ray Peterson's "Corrine, Corrina" and Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angle Eyes" on the Dunes label, and both were big hits. Atlantic took note of Spector's work and signed him as a staff producer. He produced a group called the Top Notes with the original version of "Twist and Shout," although "Twist and Shout" was one of Spector's glaring failures. The record stiffed, and Bert Berns, the song's writer, was incensed when he heard it. Berns felt Spector had ruined his song, and went out to show Spector how the song should be done. Berns recorded the Isley Brothers doing it the way he thought it should sound, and it was a huge hit. Spector also produced Jean DuShon, Billy Storm, LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown during his short stay at Atlantic, to moderate success at best. Spector left Atlantic in 1961 to form Philles Records with ex-boss Lester Sill.
In 1960, a Memphis pressing plant operator named Buster Williams contacted Wexler and told him he was pressing enormous quantities of the record "Cause I Love You", a duet between Carla Thomas and her father Rufus Thomas, on a small local label called Satellite. Wexler contacted the owner of Satellite, Jim Stewart, and with a handshake deal leased the record and obtained an option for future Satellite product for $5000. "Cause I Love You" was not a big hit on Atlantic, but a year later Carla Thomas recorded a song she had written called "Gee Whiz". The record came out on Satellite, but Wexler immediately exercised his option and claimed it for Atlantic. "Gee Whiz" was released nationally on Atlantic and went to Billboard #5. Satellite soon changed it's name to Stax, and Atlantic had an eight year association with the label. Atlantic began manufacturing and distributing Stax product and Wexler sent the brilliant Atlantic studio engineer Tom Dowd to Stax to improve their recording equipment and facilities. Wexler was impressed with the easy un-pressured atmosphere in the Stax studios where singers worked with the house band (Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love) to write, arrange and produce the records. Wexler started taking Atlantic artists to Memphis to record in the Stax studios.
In the early '60s, Atlantic was hit with the loss of Ray Charles to ABC-Paramount and Bobby Darin to Capitol. Darin and Charles together accounted for a third of Atlantic's revenue. Luckily for Atlantic, in the fall of 1961, Solomon Burke showed up at Jerry Wexler's office unannounced. Wexler was a fan of Solomon Burke and had wanted to sign him earlier, but found he was under contract to Apollo Records. When Solomon showed up and told Wexler his Apollo contract was up, Jerry told him "You're home. I'm signing you today". The first song Wexler produced with Burke was the country and western song "Just Out of Reach" which became a big hit in September, 1961. Burke's foray into C&W predated Ray Charles by more than 6 months, who recorded "I Can't Stop Loving You" in 1962. Solomon was a consistent big seller and had many hits on Atlantic into 1968.
In 1964, Ahmet, Jerry and Nesuhi decided to sell Progressive Music, the Atlantic publishing company, to Hill and Range in order to reap some of the fruits of the long years of work building up the company. When they sold Progressive, they established a new publishing company called Cotillion. Cotillion was later used as the name of a subsidiary record label which issued southern rock, soul and gospel.
The alliance with Stax was really starting to show results about the same time. The Stax-produced material by Booker T. and the MG's, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and most of all Otis Redding, was selling well. Jerry Wexler signed Sam and Dave to an Atlantic contract but took them to Memphis to record at Stax. In an unusual arrangement, the Sam and Dave material was even released on the Stax label.
In 1964, Wexler signed Wilson Pickett. At first he had Bert Berns from Bang Records produce him, but the results were poor, so Wexler took Pickett to the Stax studios. According to Wexler, he put Wilson Pickett and Stax guitarist/producer Steve Cropper in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and told them to "write". The result was "In the Midnight Hour" which was recorded at the Stax studio and was a smash hit for Pickett. Wilson Pickett continued to make hits for Atlantic through 1972.
In 1965, Wexler informed Jim Stewart that there was a possibility that Atlantic would be sold and in order to protect Stax, their handshake deal for Atlantic distribution should be formalized with a written contract. Atlantic lawyers drew up the new contract, at the insistence of Stewart, it included a "Key Man" provision, that should Atlantic be sold or Jerry Wexler leave Atlantic, the contract would be re-negotiated. Stewart signed the contract without having had it reviewed by his lawyer because he trusted Jerry Wexler implicitly.
In time, Jim Stewart became tired of having his studio tied up making hits for Atlantic and the relationship between Stewart and Wexler cooled. Wexler still wanted to be able to make records the innovative way it was done at Stax, so he went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and hooked up with Rick Hall and his Fame studios. One of the first artists Wexler took to Fame was Aretha Franklin. In 1967, Aretha Franklin's contract at Columbia was up. She had had a lackluster career at Columbia, doing pop records and a little jazz, but Columbia never quite knew what to do with her. Jerry Wexler knew she was a tremendous talent and signed her to Atlantic. The first song Aretha recorded was "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." In what must have been a magical moment in recording history, everything came together, the song was a smash and Aretha followed that up with "Respect", "A Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools" and many others on her way to becoming the "Queen of Soul" and arguably the greatest female singer of the 20th Century.
While Wexler was making history with R&B music, Ahmet Ertegun was moving Atlantic into white rock. In 1965 he signed an unknown husband and wife singing duo who had once been called Caesar and Cleo. Under their new (and in fact, real) names, Sonny and Cher, they had a #1 hit that year with "I Got You Babe" which was followed by many more hits.
Ertegun also saw the significance of the British invasion and signed Cream, King Crimson, Yes and the Bee Gees. (Later, Ahmet signed the British band Led Zeppelin and had great success in the album market with them. He also developed an arrangement with the Rolling Stones, giving them their own label which was distributed by Atlantic.) In 1966, Nesuhi and Wexler went out to Long Island to see a performance by a new band called the Young Rascals. Both of them were impressed with the band, but by this time many labels were trying to sign them. Ahmet invited them out to his summer place in Southampton and told them "war stories" of the early days of R&B, charming them into signing a contract with Atlantic. The Young Rascals (later, just the Rascals) recorded the classic "Groovin'", "Good Lovin'", and many more hits for the label.
Atlantic also signed Buffalo Springfield in 1966, and they had several albums on Atco and a big hit with "For What It's Worth". The group, made up of Stephen Stills, Dewey Martin, Richie Furay, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, self-destructed in 1968, but Atlantic kept Stephen Stills as a solo artist.
In 1967, the three owners of Atlantic; Ahmet, Jerry and Nesuhi were approached by Warner Seven Arts Corporation about selling Atlantic. Warner Seven Arts offered $17,000,000 in Warner stock plus high paying jobs at the new company for each of the senior Atlantic executives. They agreed to the sale. Atlantic/Atco Records, along with Warner Brothers/Reprise Records, were to be operated as separate record companies under the ownership umbrella of the Warner-Seven Arts Corporation.
One of the most controversial situations in Atlantic history occurred in 1968 with the breakup of the relationship between Stax and Atlantic. Because of the sale of Atlantic, the provisions of the 1965 contract called for the re-negotiation of the agreement to manufacture and distribute Stax records. The owner of Stax, Jim Stewart, wanted to improve the contract. His leverage with Atlantic was that if a new agreement was reached, Atlantic could continue to distribute the very lucrative Stax back catalog. To his horror, Stewart was informed by Atlantic lawyers that the agreement he had signed in 1965 contained a clause giving Atlantic ownership of all of the Stax material that had been released while the distribution agreement was in place. In essence, Stewart learned that in the 1965 contract he had signed away the entire Stax catalog for one dollar. Jim Stewart was left with almost nothing with which to negotiate a new deal, and he eventually sold Stax to Gulf+Western. In his autobiography, Jerry Wexler says that he was unaware of this devastating clause in the Stax distribution contract as it had been inserted unbeknownst to him by Atlantic lawyer Paul Marshall. Wexler says that he felt lousy about what was happening and felt that Jim Stewart should have ownership of the records he had produced in his own studio. Wexler argued with the new Atlantic owners on Stewart's behalf but Wexler, now an employee and not an owner of the company, could not convince the corporate bosses to return valuable property to Stewart that was a key part of the overall Atlantic assets. As Wexler says in his autobiography, "There was no righting this wrong, Jim was screwed, and I feel bad about it to this day."
In 1969, Stephen Stills' manager David Geffen came to Jerry Wexler and asked for Stills' release from his Atlantic contract. Geffen wanted to take a new group Stills had joined to Columbia Records. Wexler lost his temper and threw Geffen out of his office. The next day Geffen called Ahmet Ertegun, and Ahmet suggested that instead of taking Stills to Columbia, let Atlantic sign the group. Ahmet's smooth charm had brought the megastar group Crosby, Stills and Nash to Atlantic. David Geffen became a protégé of Ahmet Ertegun, and eventually started the very successful Asylum Record Label under the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic umbrella, and even later Geffen Records.
Under Warner-Seven Arts, Atlantic and Warner-Reprise operated independently until Warner-Seven Arts itself was purchased by the Kinney Corporation in 1969. Kinney was a conglomerate made up of parking lots, office cleaning companies, rental cars, magazine distribution and funeral parlors that was seeking to branch out into the entertainment business. Under Kinney's ownership, Warner Brothers and Atlantic were brought together, Ahmet Ertegun was given considerable power in the new operation and he, along with both the President and Chairman of Warner Brothers Records, served on a committee to oversee the record business. In 1970, one of their first recommendations was that Kinney purchase the Elektra Record Company and that the resulting record division establish it's own distribution branches in each major region of the United States. By taking control of it's own distribution from the independents that had previously distributed their product, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) had established itself on a level with the majors like Columbia and RCA. One of the reasons that Kinney (which eventually became Warner Communications) was successful in running record companies where other conglomerates failed miserably (for example, Gulf+Western with Stax and Dot, Transamerica with Liberty and United Artists), was that they continued to rely on the seasoned record men in the company like Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, Jac Holtzman at Elektra, and Mo Ostin and Joe Smith at Warner Brothers to continue to run the companies. The three record divisions continued to compete with each other for artists and record sales, but Warner Communications provided distribution and capital.
Atlantic continues to operate today as part of Time-Warner, one of the few independent record companies from the 1940s and '50s to survive. The Warner labels today have a large share of the world recorded music market, even more than the two former market leaders, Columbia (owned by Sony) and RCA (owned by BMG). Ahmet Ertegun is still there, although his duties were reduced in 1996 when he became Co-President of the company. Ahmet Ertegun was instrumental in founding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A biography of him was written in 1990 by Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie, titled "Music Man: Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock 'n' Roll". Jerry Wexler is retired and living in Florida. He published his autobiography in 1993, appropriately titled "Rhythm and the Blues". Nesuhi Ertegun was head of the Warner Records International Division until he retired in 1987; he died in 1989 at the age of 71.
The rise of Atlantic Records demonstrates that it was possible for people with ethics, good taste and a love and understanding of music to build a very successful record company.