Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Ahmet Learns How

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Thursday, May 9, 2013
50s
Ahmet Ertegun
Ruth Brown
Tiny Grimes
The McGhee Brothers
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Ahmet Learns How

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

As an industry, records had been "has-beens" years before this story begins (1947). Before '47, reaching back to the '30s then forward to half way through the '40s, selling records had gone flop. The flop was caused first by the growth of radio in the 1930s ("Why buy those heavy discs when you can hear music for free, on your radio?"). And then, during World War II, when the main ingredient of a heavy disc records – shellac -- got rationed for war use.

But, after the war went away in 1945, a sales rebound began. Big, 12" LPs, then quick 45 rpm singles both arrived, then sleeker vinyl, then a new music called "rock" (a word that no longer made you first think of Gibraltar), and the birth of dozens of little labels run by passionate men.

They created new labels like Apollo, DeLuxe, Exclusive, Jubilee, King, Miracle, National, Philo, Savoy, Specialty.

Stores that had survived, like Waxie Maxie's Quality Music Shop, sold pop in any form ("Waxie" referred to what early records and cylinders, pre-shellac, had once been made from -- wax).

Now, some record stores sold just black pop. Others mostly white pop. But still, you could walk right in, browse through browser boxes, test-play LPs in sound booths, and then, you could even buy them.

A Baby's Born: Atlantic

Wanting into that world of record making, at age 24, Ahmet Ertegun imagined his label, Atlantic Records. He didn't know HOW to start a label, but he learned.

Handling Atlantic's music flow (records) would be Ahmet himself, son of the one-time Ambassador from Turkey to the U.S. (His father had selected "Ertegun" as his family name, because, in Turkish, Ertegun means "living in a hopeful future.") Ahmet had been born in Istanbul, July 31, 1923.

To get record-making-selling going, Ahmet moved from Washington up to Manhattan. He quickly learned that successfully running his own label would take more than getting a microphone. Much more.

It'd take investors, for example. He invited them to his suite at New York’s Ritz hotel, a spot chosen by him as the city's ritziest. Nights, Ahmet hung out up in Harlem night clubs with their small stages. He hadn't yet fret about his fast-shrinking cash balance. He still dreamed about moving through life with well-shined shoes. He stood at the bar, nursing a glass of gin and one green olive, feeling hep there between those passionate men and enviable ladies.

The Abramsons Co-Found Atlantic

As cash went out, Ahmet moved in with Herb and Miriam Abramson, also wanna-be's in the industry. The three of them imagined intensely about a new label. Ahmet slept on their sofa, the night warm outside, window open, taxi horns bouncing between buildings.

Herb Abramson had already flirted with work at National Records, and cut a few hits ("Open the Door, Richard" by Dusty Fletcher). Ahmet figured, when they got a new label started, he'd leave the business details to Abramson. "Details" like how to record, how to press records, to distribute and get radio play, to sell them.

The Abramsons knew Ahmet was in love, with jazz. And jazz was mostly skipped over by major labels.

The three decided to partner up, both putting up $2500. To get his $2500, Ahmet returned to Washington to see his family's dentist, Vahdi Sabit, who mortgaged his house and for Atlantic opened a draw-out-whatever-you-need account of up to $10,000.

Thurs, Atlantic Records was born on October, 1947. Then nurtured through its first year in one bedroom suite at the Hotel Jefferson in Manhattan. Rent there was $85 a month. No Ritz at all.

$85 got a Atlantic two-room suite, the front room for an office; and back bedroom half-occupied (rented) by Ahmet's cousin, Sadi Koylan.

With money in place, Atlantic Records started making records.

Work was divided: Atlantic President became Herb Abramson; vice-president, Ahmet Ertegun.

Ahmet composed tunes in his head, then made demos of them, often in Times Square's 25¢ recording booths.

To get product to sell, he'd ask jazz musicians to just show up to record four tunes he'd found. Primitive A&R at best.

Miriam Abramson got all the dirty work; she, a cutie, became Atlantic's bad guy. She had to watch the pennies, and became famous for her phone-shouting skills. "But it was supposed to be here yesterday," she shout to a pressing plant.

For the first couple of years, Atlantic was most often a near-broke jazz label. Companies in that shape, they need a Miriam.

To make a record, they'd bring in the musician or singer to the living room, push back the furniture to make it into their studio.

Another danger for Atlantic lurked close by in 1948. The Musicians' union boss James Petrillo had warned of an AFM strike coming January 1, 1948. Musicians would be banned, totally, from recording until they got fairer deals from labels. So in late 1947, Atlantic had to hustle to make and stockpile record, just to have some to sell in '48.

Session One: The Harlemaires singing "The Rose of the Rio Grande."

The Musicians Union strike went on and on. Any Atlantic records had to be recorded in Paris. Very few were, and 1948 was tough.

The strike lasted until August. The only Atlantic single that sold decently from that stockpile was Tiny Grimes' "That Old Black Magic."

Atlantic's First Hit

Ahmet Ertegun had grown to be 26 when Atlantic got a phone call from its New Orleans distributor. Could he help them get an big order of Stick McGhee’s jump blues "Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee." It had come out on Harlem Records, but that label was now closed, and "Wine" was a hit down in Louisiana.

The demand was there. The records were not.

Ahmet knew Stick’s younger brother, Brownie McGhee. Stick was now in New York, living with Brownie. Ahmet got the McGhee brothers to re-record “Drinking Wine,” fast.

(Lyrics on Atlantic’s re-recorded version got slightly cleaned up. The original, street-sung version, went "drinkin' wine, mutherfucker, drinkin' wine, goddam!")

Atlantic got its re-do out in February, and it sold 400,000 copies.

Drinking that mess, their delight
When they gets drunk, start fighting all night
Knocking down windows and tearin out doors
Drinkin' half a gallon and callin' for more

Drinkin' wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Wine spo-dee-O-dee, drinkin' wine (bop ba)
Pass that bottle to me

Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!
Wine, wine, wine (Elderberry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Or Sherry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Blackberry!)
Wine, wine, wine (Half 'n half!)

Wine, wine, wine (Oh Boy!)
Pass that bottle to me

For doing the re-recording session, each McGhee earned $10. Fair pay, back then.

That surge of 400,000 sales activated Atlantic’s recording schedule. In 1949, the label recorded 187 sides. Miriam learned to shout even louder, now bellowing to get distributors to get off their asses and pay us.

Stars Under Contract

1949, and Atlantic takes another step into adulthood.

Most of its recordings up 'til now had been songs-centered. Singers, performers, they were secondary, just around when needed, like saxophones.

Then, in 1949, Atlantic learned that artists signed to the label would be important. The label contracted with Ruth Brown. She would record honest "race music," for Atlantic, only and regularly.

Atlantic's two macho men had gone down to Washington to hear Ruth at the Crystal Caverns. They offered to pay her to come up to New York, to audition for them.

On her car ride up from Washington to Manhattan, she'd gotten into a collision. Mangled both legs. She ended up in a hospital for nine months. Atlantic stood by her, bringing her a book on how to sight read music, a pitch pipe, a tablet to write her lyrics in, and … oh, yes, this record contract.

The contract deal: Sign here and Atlantic will pay all her hospital costs not covered by insurance. “Absolutely ridiculous!” Miriam Abramson shouted, but Ahmet and Herb did it anyway.

When she read about the royalty rate, Ruth asked "only five percent?" Ahmet answered, "At Decca, only Bing Crosby gets five percent." (And that was true.)

She signed. She'd get $69 for each side she recorded, anyway. Royalties were hardly an issue at this time. At all labels, royalty deductions like 10% for damaged records…and many other deductions…were a bore to read anyway. (At Chess Records, employee Muddy Waters not only sang, he had to paint Leonard Chess' house.)

When Ruth emerged from the hospital, in her first session, with Herb Abramson in the booth producing, she recorded "So Long." It became Atlantic’s first fresh-born hit.

Ruth Brown's "So Long" made Atlantic feel like a big label. Felt good. Like a your first successful bike ride.

Ruth Brown went on the record over 80 songs for Atlantic. Atlantic got known in the trade as "The House That Ruth Built." Her hits got her new fame: she now sang upbeat. Her squeals had appeals. In 1950, "Teardrops from My Eyes" was #1 in R&B for eleven weeks. Atlantic not only had a contract star, it also had "Miss Rhythm."

She left the label in 1961.

Every time it rains, I think of you
And that's the time I feel so blue
When the rain starts to falling, my love comes tumbling down
And it's raining teardrops from my eyes

Well, if you see clouds here in my eyes
It's just because you said good-bye
Although the sun is shining, there's no summer skies
Still it's raining teardrops from my eyes

-- Stay Tuned