Last night, on one of my insomniac binges, I put on my latest Netflix movie, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built. Turned out to be one of those PBS American Masters series, so it had that standard sincere TV documentary structure that almost means that the music clips get cut right before they hit the high point. That said, the clips that are here–those moments–are exciting, at least in the first half of the show. If you know the story of those early Atlantic years–and most people do, a little at least, from the movie Ray– you know that these are the best years of mainstream R & B: Aretha, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Lieber & Stoller, doo-wop groups getting on platters, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, the early genius nutjob Phil Spector….Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler recorded black blues artists and sold them to a white audience & to a larger extent than Motown let them play and sing what they wanted. These guys loved, breathed, R & B and for awhile there they didn’t water it down. The hired terrific session players; there was a real excitement of people doing, for a time, exactly what it was they loved, and getting it out to the public because it was the right thing to do–they it did despite the fact that they weren’t making any money. Before this documentary I always had the sense that Ahmet Ertegun was the guiding force behind all of this, and in the beginning he was. Ahmet was the wealthy son of the Turkish embassador, lived in many different countries, absorbed the culture and music, and when he and his brother lived in the States as teenager he went crazy for jazz. Did whatever he could to go to the clubs, hung out. And he had the money and the time to be able to do something completely insane: start a record company. He had the cash to back up his obsession. He knew enough about music to embrace what mattered to him. And he was aware that black performers were doing the most creative American music & getting no (white) play. And thus the beginnings of Atlantic Records. I suppose there was a little part of me that was irritated by Ahmet’s wealth and contacts. It made it not quite as starry a story for me. Entirely unfair on my part. And surely the documentary doesn’t present it in any kind of negative light; this was a hero worship doc. He was able to recognize the people to sign, like Ray & Aretha; he even wrote R & B songs himself, and they’re pretty good, too. The documentary shows him as a talky old man, full of attitude and ego and brightness, and (in his eyes) quick to assess human behavior. The doc is structured around having famous people tell stories with him–people like Robert Plant, Aretha, Mick, Phil Collins, Ben E. King. Clearly, it’s one of those career retrospective, “better get this done before the old fart dies” tributes–which turns out to be the right idea, as Ahmet died shortly thereafter by falling at a Rolling Stones concert. For me, the structure got in the way. I hate Phil Collins. As for Mick, Atlantic signed the Stones after they’d done their best work. Don’t applaud those later years. I read another story, spun very positively in the documentary:When Atlantic began to struggle financially, Ahmet started signing white acts. The company also waited until there was a monumental lawsuit to begin paying proper royalties to its original black performers. In the 70’s, Atlantic went disco. I remember some of those cheesy records, which are loveable in their cheesiness, but look, they’re really not Aretha & Ray. And certainly this was a survival move, and it all happened when they sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers (which became Time Warner). And while Ahmet was still running things, it just wasn’t the same.Here’s the moment in the story that struck me: the turning point in the company came when Jerry Wexler went to Stax/Volt. Jerry Wexler’s in Ray, too; it was really Jerry Wexler who had the soul, especially as times passed; Stax/Volt with its Southern roots really had the balls; Ahmet became more of a businessman who frequented the New York discos and screwed around with beautiful women while married (made clear in the movie) while Jerry Wexler went to Memphis and hung out with the blues people. The documentary made it look like the move of Atlantic to Warners was Wexler’s fault. It seemed to me, more, that Wexler kept loving R & B and would rather work with the music than be successful. The movie spun the move to Warner’s as a savvy one, and continued to applaud Ehtegun’s discoveries, but for me: well, the documentary made me respect Ahmet Ehrtegun a little less. Not its intention. It also made me haul out by Atlantic Records box set and play that amazing music from the 1950’s and 60’s. The stuff that I taped off of my transistor radio as a kid, and the stuff that never made its way over the white Midwestern airwaves. Without Aretha, I would not be me. Without soul, I’d have understood and felt so much less. Less soul, less possibility for heaven. This little blog entry could applaud all of the lost records labels, the little ones that did the same thing as Atlantic and passed into oblivion with the monopolization of the industry. But there’s no time for that story right now. **a note: I wish that this DVD had included full clips of the original performances by the key Atlantic players. This is just the straight-up documentary, nothing else.
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- Rocky Mountain High
- on the mall at the Democratic National Convention: “come on out and buy some product!”IHa
- come on, I know white people have rhythm!: music at the Democratic National Convention
- from San Miguel to home
- wandering San Miguel
- the occasional random world song
- record love, part 1: hamburger lady
- I want to like bluegrass. I have failed.