Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Black Or White

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013
50s
Ray Charles
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Black Or White

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.

Since its beginning moments, Atlantic’s heads had loved the sound of black artists. They signed them, and created their new Atlantic records label to make records just like the records they’d heard on black radio, bought in black record stores, loved more than chicks, and played to death.

Or to put it less reverently, “rhythm and blues” was Atlantic’s total cliché.

Ahmet had even grown adept at creating new songs in that mode. That proved useful to this new label being run by two white guys. (Being a small label, Atlantic hardly got first choice of new songs from the big publishers. Little Atlantic came in maybe next-to-last with publishers when it came to fresh tunes to record, and left-over songs rarely sold.)

So Ahmet (using the spelled-backwards writer name of “Nugetre”) started writing his own R&B tunes for Atlantic’s Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Ben E. King, Ray Charles. And his feel for R&B records made him, as they would say, “hip to the tip.”

Atlantic had moved to floors four and five of a building above Patsy’s Restaurant (234 W. 56th, Mid-town).

Up on Floor Five, Atlantic’s two heads, Ahmet and Herb, held the faith. Hits like hits they’d heard before. Black ones.

Cardinals, Clovers, Drifters...

Rhythm’n’Blues was the medium, and the name, for black vocal groups in the 1950s. Roughly: four or five black men, singing “catchy” tunes as they shuffled up on stage. “Jump music,” eventually with “doo wop” lyrics added. R&B like this peaked in the ‘50s, then faded away as new terms – soul music and, for whites, “Rock’n’Roll” – would take over and later become the business’ Meat’n’Potatoes.

But for now, Atlantic focused on Rhythm’n’Blues records, and made a decent living recording groups such as...

The Cardinals: “Shouldn’t I Know” (1951); “The Wheel of Fortune” (1952); “The Door Is Still Open” (1953);

The Clovers: “Don’t You Know I Love You” and “Fool, Fool, Fool” (1951); “One Mint Julep,” “Middle of the Night,” “Ting-a-Ling,” “Wonder Where My Baby’s Gone,” “Hey Miss Fannie,” “I Played the Fool” (1952); “Good Lovin’” (1953); “Lovey Dovey” (1954);

The Drifters with Clyde McPhatter: “Money Honey” (1953): “Such a Light,” “Lucille,” “Honey Love” (1954); “”Ruby Baby” and “Love Has Joined Us Together” (1955).

But Not Ray Charles

Having been scooped up by Atlantic from a wee label called Swingtime, Ray Charles was also now on Atlantic. To buy his contract had cost Atlantic $2500.

Unlike other Atlantic artists, however, Ray Charles was not obedient. He didn’t do just what Ahmet and Herb decided – the song, the tempo, and the style. No, Ray Charles outspoke.

Ahmet recalled, “I tried to make Ray Charles make records like we were making hits with the Clovers. It didn’t work with Ray Charles. He told us our way was not as good as what would happen if we didn’t fuck around with him and let him do what he wanted. Because he’d got his shit together when he got his own band.”

Ahmet and Herb knew not to throw a tantrum, although Charles’ style choices and his choosing them were not, in their mind, how you ran a business. But they let Ray go. Let him use R&B lyrics against 16-bar gospel chord progressions. Whatever.

Ray Charles enlarged the business tactics of Atlantic, whose bosses knew sometimes to just back off. Like...

1953: “Mess Around”
1955: “I Got a Woman” and “A Fool for You”
1956: “Mary Ann” and “Drown in My Own Tears”
1959: “What’d I Say” (a hit on both the R&B and pop charts)

Hey mama, don't you treat me wrong
Come and love your daddy all night long
All right now, hey hey, all right
See the girl with the diamond ring
She knows how to shake that thing
All right now now now, hey hey, hey hey
Tell your mama, tell your pa
I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas
Oh yes, ma'm, you don't do right, don't do right
Aw, play it boy

Oops! Herb Has to Go

At Atlantic, Floor Five, another interruption came in 1953. The Korean War ended in July, and almost immediately, the U.S. Army, for which years earlier Herb Abramson had been a member, working as a Dentist, now Herb was suddenly recalled to duty. Fast.

The army shipped him off to Germany, half a world away from Korea. Abramson had to go. No fooling with the Draft Board. Leaving his wife Miriam on Floor Four. He packed up and shipped off, leaving Atlantic vice president Ahmet on Floor Five, the sole male in charge of Atlantic Records. (Even while in Germany, Herb Abramson held on to his title at Atlantic: President. After all, this German dentistry thing wasn’t to go on forever. Was it?)

Miriam Abramson did not have to go across the ocean, and she didn’t. She kept Atlantic functioning, even though her job included walking down from Floor Four to the street, loading up her arms with heavy boxes of shellac singles just dropped off from the pressing plant, hauling them up the four floors, getting them sorted and repackaged, then back down to the street and over to the post office. Hauling anything was not a life that Ahmet understood at all. But then, as Miriam once put it politely, “Ahmet’s working habits were not severe,” With her husband off to Germany for a couple of years, Miriam concentrated on work. Herb, over there, concentrated on German girls, not for their dental needs.

Running the recording side of Atlantic was too much for one Ahmet. Atlantic reached out for help. He contacted a soul mate, another white cat who loved R&B. He wrote for the trade magazine Billboard.

These two had much in common. Even down to their facial hair styles.

Wexler Fits In

Jerry Wexler wore horn-rimmed glasses (like Ahmet did). He was verbal of mouth and of typewriter. Revered black music, including hot jazz, shouting blues, gospel. Unlike Ahmet, Jerry was non-elite. But a street guy, not of a polished background. He never ate crab cakes.

But Wex and Ahmet got along. The year before now, named 1952, Wexler had turned down an Atlantic job to run its music publishing. To do that, Wexler had wanted a percentage of ownership. No deal. Now, 1953, Ahmet offered more: Jerry could now produce records for Atlantic. Black ones. A soul job for Wexler.

And, Ahmet agreed that Wexler could buy in. For $2,063.25, he could own 13% of Atlantic. To pay that, Wexler transferred ownership of his pickup truck ($1000 on the books) and more to be paid “whenever.” Salary: $300 a week. Ahmet bought him a green Cadillac El Dorado, because Ahmet believed that’s what a respectable record man drove.

Ertegun and Wexler fused, like they were meant for one another. Their desks rubbed hips. If an act was being wooed, Ahmet and Jerry would negotiate with the act sitting beside them, the three of them, but mostly it’d be Ahmet offering maybe 5% and Jerry arguing “no, 3% tops,” back and forth while the act sat there, until Ahmet and Jerry shook hands of 4%.

Another Lesson to Learn: The White Market

Around 1954, Atlantic found itself being robbed. And the police couldn’t care. The robbers were “white labels” with white artists, both abetted by white radio stations stealing from black labels like Atlantic.

Black singles were now “crossing over.” Major radio DJs like Alan Freed started to whoop and holler on air, and play records from indy labels like Chess, King, Roulette, and Atlantic.

Quickly, white record acts caught on. They copied black singles. Bill Haley and the Comets re-recorded Big Joe Turner’s R&B chart hit “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” but not for Atlantic, where Big Joe lived. No. Haley copied it for white label Decca, sang it with cleaned up lyrics. For white broadcasters.

Wearin' those dresses, your hair done up so nice

Wearin' those dresses, your hair done up so nice

You look so warm, but your heart is cold as ice

I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin' in a sea-food store

I'm like a one-eyed cat, peepin' in a sea-food store

I can look at you, tell you don't love me no more

I said Shake, rattle and roll

I said Shake, rattle and roll

I said Shake, rattle and roll

I said Shake, rattle and roll

Well, you never do nothin' to save your doggone soul

Atlantic’s black artists and their R&B hits were getting left behind the white audience and its stations. Not R&B now, but R&R. Ahmet and Jerry stared frustrated, as Atlantic’s hit R&B singles got covered (“stolen”) by white labels. For Atlantic, the stolen list grew more and more expensive:

“Tweedle Dee” On Atlantic By LaVern Baker, Covered By Georgia Gibbs
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” On Atlantic By Big Joe Turner, Covered By Bill Haley
“Such a Night” On Atlantic By Clyde McPhatter, Covered By Johnnie Ray
“Mambo Baby” On Atlantic By Ruth Brown, Covered By Georgia Gibbs
“Oh, What a Dream” On Atlantic By Ruth Brown, Covered By Patti Page
“Sh-Boom” On Atlantic By The Chords, Covered By The Crew Cuts

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Atlantic’s output of pure, black R&B records, artists, marketing, and promotion would no longer be pure.

It was like that Ray Charles eruption. Another good lesson learned.

It would hardly be the last.

-- Stay Tuned