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CROSSCURRENTS, PART TWO

WHEN THE WORLD WAS SPINNING AT 45 RPM

During the pivotal 1950s, the musical outliers began infiltrating the mainstream, with the help of indie labels that were springing up around the country. At Sun Records in Memphis, founded in 1950 by the legendary Sam Phillips, country and R&B collided in the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, and rock ’n’ roll erupted with a Big Bang, the fallout spreading across the country and “contaminating” America’s youth with a form of music they could call their own—the fact that their parents despised it making rock ’n’ roll (“Turn that off—NOW”) that much more precious to them.

A bunch of the Elvis records Sun released were covers of songs previously cut by black artists, and although he performed them with conviction and his own brand of authenticity, it wasn’t long before he and Phillips were accused of exploitation—an allegation given further credence when Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, started demanding songwriting credit for his client. This troubling issue goes to the more ambiguous matter of the distinction between appropriation and inspiration, a fundamental tug of war in popular music through the ages. In the 1960s, of course, blues and R&B covers by The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Manfred Mann, the original lineup of The Moody Blues and countless other U.K. acts led curious fans to work their way back to the source material. (We’ll get back to that in a bit.) So it goes both ways.     

Chicago’s Chess Records, founded in 1950 by Polish-born Jewish brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, became a hotbed for electric blues through the transformative recordings of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and other musicians from Mississippi and Louisiana who’d moved north to the Windy City. Chess also moved the rock ’n’ roll needle, putting out the seminal 1951 single “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, which Sam Phillips had handed off to the Chess brothers, and four years later inking six-string trailblazers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley—whose records were released on the Checker imprint.

The other Chess subsidiary, Argo, which was launched in 1955, started as a jazz label, putting out records by musicians including Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Burrell, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, James Moody and Max Roach. The label’s first hit was Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s Ain’t Got No Home,” after which the focus shifted to R&B, as Argo issued the first recordings of Etta James and The Dells. In 1965, when the Chess brothers found out that there was an Argo label in Britain, they renamed theirs Cadet.

Among the seemingly countless indies active during the ’50s and in some cases beyond were Cincinnati’s King Records, founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, whose roster at one time or another included James Brown, Hank Ballard, Joe Tex, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Roy Brown, Valerie Carr, Ivory Joe Hunter, Billy Ward and the Dominoes; L.A.’s Modern (Bihari brothers, 1945; Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King); Hollywood’s Imperial (Lew Chudd, 1947; Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, Slim Whitman) and Specialty (Art Rupe, 1945; Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Percy Mayfield); Jackson, Mississippi’s Ace (Johnny Vincent, 1955; Huey “Piano” Smith, Jimmy Clanton, Earl King, Frankie Ford); and Nashville’s Dot (Randy Wood, 1950; Eddie Fisher, soulless black-music appropriator [in marked contrast to Elvis] Pat Boone). Admittedly, we’re barely scratching the surface here.

Some indie record-label owners treated their artists fairly, while others shamelessly—and infamously—took advantage of them, cooking the books or grabbing the rights to their music for the cost of a Cadillac. But amid this rampant injustice, careers were launched, and legends were born.

But the most enduring label to come out of the wild-and-wooly indie-label galaxy was New York’s Atlantic Records. Ahmet Ertegun, the Istanbul-born son of the Turkish Ambassador to the U.S., was crazy about African-American music, which led him to start Atlantic with Herb Abramson and Abramson’s wife Miriam Bienstock in 1947, funding the venture with a $10,000 loan from his dentist. While Miriam handled the fledgling label’s business, Ahmet functioned as its A&R man, tracking down talent as well as producing and writing songs for his charges. “We started Atlantic simply because we wanted to sign a few artists whose music we liked and make the kind of records that we would want to buy,” Ertegun later explained.

In 1952, not long after signing future “Genius of Soul” Ray Charles, Ertegun hired Jerry Wexler—who’d coined the term “Rhythm and Blues” to replace “Race” on the Billboard charts when he was working at the trade—to run the label’s day-to-day operations, the idea being that Wexler’s presence would free up Ertegun to focus on signing artists and making records. But it soon became apparent that Wex belonged in the studio—he had a great ear for picking songs, and he could talk the talk with the black artists he worked with, including LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown and Charles. The crucial role he was playing in Atlantic’s budding hitmaking machine led to Wexler being named a partner in the label when Abramson was drafted during the tail end of the Korean War in 1953.

According to music journalist Mike Sigman, who profiled Wexler in the first volume of History of the Music Biz, the legendary producer downplayed his role with Charles, saying that he functioned mainly to make sure the studio was ready when Ray was ready, that he simply let Ray be Ray. But in co-producing dozens of Charles classics between 1953 and ’59, Wex proved that he was an indispensable studio collaborator. Indeed, his contribution to these seminal sides served as the springboard to Wexler’s own extraordinary career.

The other key figure in Atlantic’s glory years was Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet’s jazz-specialist older brother, whose many productions and co-productions included landmark albums from John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and The Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as all of Charles’ instrumental albums.

Atlantic’s impact exponentially increased during the 1960s and early ’70s, as Ahmet and Wex made a deep dive into soul, working with the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, and expanded into rock, snapping up The Rascals, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band (through a deal with Macon, Ga.-based Capricorn Records), The J. Geils Band and The Rolling Stones, each of which was heavily inspired by black music.

But at the dawn of the 1960s, Atlantic was faced with a potent new rival in Detroit’s black-owned Motown empire.

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