And More Again...

A glance through Atlantic’s catalogue shows a company at the forefront of the musical styles that would merge into what we now know as rock & roll. It was a natural fit for Wexler who was, in his own words simmered in a slow-cooking gumbo of New Orleans jazz, small Harlem combos, big bands, Western swing, country, jukebox race music, pop schmaltz.

In many ways the partnership running the label was a study in contrasts. Ahmet Ertegun, the cultured and literate younger son of Turkey's Ambassador to the United States, the sophisticated side of the operation. Wexler did the day-to-day dirty work, working the phones to promote Atlantic's artists to disk jockeys and distributors, battling other labels for a share of a developing market.

That promotion, in line with the business practices of the day, was accompanied by payola (bribing disc jockeys to play a company’s records) which provoked considerable controversy at the time. Left to their own devices most radio stations would have been content to keep playing Perry Como and Doris Day rather than the latest Atlantic singles so, if payola hadn’t existed would we ever have heard those classic cuts by the Drifters, the Clovers, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Coasters and much of the output of songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller?

The contrasts continued as the partners headed in different musical directions. Ertegun increasingly moved towards pop and rock, signing the Young Rascals in New York, the Buffalo Springfield and Sonny and Cher in Los Angeles, and adding Cream and the Rolling Stones to the mix in the late sixties. 

Wexler’s focus shifted to the South, where gospel-trained singers and musicians with a background in country and rhythm-and-blues in Memphis and Muscle Shoals were creating the new blend of influences that came to be known as soul music. Part of the process was the distribution deal he set up for the Memphis-based Stax label which resulted in hits by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Booker T and the MGs, but resulted in Stax losing the rights to their own master recordings.

In the studio Wexler’s approach was simple - give the artists freedom to be themselves and follow their instincts in a sympathetic environment.


B© Ian Hughes 2012