Wed | Dec 19, 2018

The Music Diaries | Ocean of hits from Atlantic

Published:Sunday | February 5, 2017 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Betty Wright
Ray Charles
A picture of Atlantic Records' founder Ahmet Ertegun on the cover of a book about the famed music label.

With technological advances on the upsurge and hundreds of small independent record companies springing up in America after World War II, aspiring black artistes and singing groups found convenient outlets to express their musical talents. A number of the major labels were ignoring black singers and consumers, and these burgeoning companies were filling a very significant void. The most successful was New York-based Atlantic Records whose founder, Ahmet Ertegun, was the son of a Turkish ambassador.

At 10 years old, Ertegun's lifelong infatuation with black music began when his father was posted in England in the 1930s. He was exposed to the scat-jazz of the zoot-suited Cab Calloway at the London Palladium, and, accustomed to scratchy phonograph records, when he heard the purity and power of that orchestra live, he literally fell under the spell of black music.

The 16-year-old Ahmet was joined by older brother Nesuhi in 1939 when their father was ambassador to the United States. The brothers forged a partnership that saw them befriending jazz musicians and bringing the great Duke Ellington and others to the Turkish Embassy for meals and subsequent jazz sessions. With the death of their father in 1944, the brothers split. Ertegun launched the short-lived label Quality Records, and, by 1947, with the help of financial partners, launched Atlantic Records in New York. At the outset, he recorded jazz artistes like Tiny Grimes and Joe Morris, backed by classically trained session musicians.

By the late 1940s, Ertegun became fascinated with a new upbeat, danceable music called rhythm and blues (R&B). Atlantic scored its first national hit in 1949 with the R&B standard Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee by Stick McGhee. The label's first major R&B star was Ruth Brown. Atlantic thus nicknamed "the house that Ruth built". Among her hits was Oh What A Dream. She sang:

"Woke up this morning and I looked around

So disappointed, I laid back down

Oh what a dream, what a dream

I had last night

Dreamed I held you in my arms

But I'm still waiting for that day to come

Oh, what a dream, what a dream

I had last night"

Encouraged by that monster hit, the label signed the best R&B artistes they could. The earliest of the label's outstanding artistes included the women Lavern Baker, Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, and Dusty Springfield. Outstanding male stars included Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, and Joe Turner.

Groups also became an integral part of Ertegun's plan. He enlisted the services of The Clovers, The Coasters, The Chords and, most important, The Drifters, which was largely responsible for Atlantic Recording Company's success.

Operating mostly as a quartet, The Drifters epitomised extreme longevity unlike other groups of that period. It occupied two distinct phases, abounding with complexities, contention, continuous line-up changes, and even the firing of members.

Their story did not begin with the Ben E. King group that did hits such as Save The Last Dance For Me and This Magic Moment from 1959-1961. The group came together in 1953 when Clyde McPhatter, a high-pitched tenor singer, was asked by Ertegun to form a group as one of the conditions of McPhatter signing to the label.

McPhatter, who previously sang with the gospel groups Jerusalem Stars and Silvertone Singers, initially recruited members of these groups to form The Drifters. They had drifted in from other groups, which gave them their name. The group's first session in August of 1953 produced the hit Money Honey. The drifting continued the following year when, with two new members, they had the hits White Christmas and Such A Night. That same year, Honey Love, also led by McPhatter, became another R & B hit. In its ambiguous lyrics, McPhatter sings:

"I need it when the moon is bright

I need it when you hold me tight

I need it in the middle of the night

I need your honey love"




With McPhatter being drafted into the army, their run of hits continued in the 1950s with several line-up changes. However, constant bickering between manager George Treadwell and the group's members over low salaries and long working hours led to the firing of the members in 1958 and their place taken by The Crowns, who spent their first 10 months as The Drifters on the road, fulfilling the old group's contracts.

That group consisted of Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, Dock Green, and Elsbeary Hobbs. Beginning with There Goes My Baby in 1959, other hits like Dance With Me, I Count The Tears, True Love, Up On The Roof, On Broadway, Under The Boardwalk, Sand In My Shoes, and Saturday Night At The Movies came out of Atlantic Records. Amazingly, the recordings were led by four different singers - King, Rudy Lewis, Johnny Moore and Johnny Williams - which again underlined their trait of having members drifting into the group.