Famous Record Labels: Atlantic Records

In the beginning: The Origins of Atlantic Records

In the bustling post-war America of 1947, a narrative began that would have a great impact on the landscape of music. I refer to the creation of Atlantic Records, an entity that would become a cornerstone in the recording industry. Founded by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in New York City, a rich melting pot of culture and innovation, Atlantic Records became synonymous with transforming the genre of rhythm and blues into a global force.

Remembering Ahmet Ertegun co-founder of Atlantic Records
Paul Hudson from United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Born in Istanbul in July 1923, Ahmet Ertegun was a Turkish diplomat’s son with a burning passion for jazz and R&B. Originally trained in dentistry, Herb Abramson, born in Brooklyn in 1916 was also a part-time music industry professional. He too, was a jazz enthusiast.

In 1947, they got together to form what would become a formidable partnership. They proceeded to navigate the complex dynamics of a burgeoning industry to develop Atlantic Records into one of the foremost record labels of the 1960s and 1970s.

At the outset, financial challenges and the intricacies of a competitive field tested the resilience of the new label. But they dug in, with Ertegun in charge of A&R, production, and promotion; whilst Abramson took the role of President, and his wife ran the nascent label’s publishing company Progressive Music and carried out all the office duties. It wasn’t until 1949 that they first took on an employee.

Initially, Atlantic concentrated on modern jazz although it released some country and western and spoken word recordings. The label’s first recordings were issued in 1948 and included the Tiny Grimes Quintet’s Profoundly Blue / That Old Black Magic and Joe Morris and His Orchestra with The Spider / Mad Moon, both 78s on 10-inch shellac.

It wasn’t long before Atlantic Records began to carve its own path, signing artists that would influence music for decades to come. What set Atlantic apart was not just the sound, but the vision to create a music production philosophy grounded in artistic integrity and creative freedom. This philosophy became the foundation of what we now know as the Atlantic Sound.

Atlantic’s formative years were reflective of broader societal shifts, as the label played a critical role in integrating music across racial lines, favouring talent and innovation over the colour barriers that were a real obstacle for the music industry. The ethos that drove Atlantic Records in those early days laid a powerful groundwork for a roster of artists who would go on to be titans in their genres.

The Golden Vinyl Era: Atlantic Records’ Iconic Artists

The success of a record label is often measured by the calibre of its artists. In the case of Atlantic Records, the list reads like a who’s who of music legends. At the forefront of vinyl’s golden era, Atlantic Records was the home to some of the most groundbreaking artists of the 20th century, whose records are still cherished by collectors and music aficionados to this day.

It’s only fair to say that Led Zeppelin redefined rock music under Atlantic’s banner. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1969, signalled a seismic shift in the rock landscape. With tracks like Good Times Bad Times and Dazed and Confused, the band’s raw power and virtuosity with a capability for melodic gems set the stage for a new era of rock complexity and depth.

Turning to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin’s collaboration with Atlantic Records was a marriage of true minds, synergizing her unparalleled voice with the label’s knack for soul and R&B. Her rendition of Respect became an anthem for civil rights and women’s empowerment, crowning her as a cultural icon as much as a musical one.

Ray Charles, another Atlantic titan, revolutionized music by melding gospel with rhythm and blues. His indelible classics like What’d I Say‘ and I Got a Woman pushed social boundaries and set his legacy in stone. Charles’ profound impact on music is a testament to Atlantic’s vision for transformative artists.

Undoubtedly, these artists represent Atlantic Records’ commitment to musical excellence. Their enduring works, pressed onto vinyl, showcase the timeless nature of their art and the foresight of a record label dedicated to capturing lightning in a bottle. The following section will pay tribute to some of the most iconic singles and albums that etched the Atlantic label into vinyl legacy.

Spinning the Hits: Atlantic Records’ Most Celebrated Vinyls

When you scan the shelves of any seasoned vinyl collector, the spines imprinted with the Atlantic Records logo stand out as testaments to musical greatness. These records are not just plastic discs; they’re historical artifacts that encapsulate the soundtracks of generations. The importance of these individual vinyl records in music history cannot be understated, with Atlantic Records being the birthplace of some of the most influential singles and albums of all time.

Let’s start with the singles that are part of the very fabric of pop music. Respect by Aretha Franklin, originally released in 1967, is one such track. It’s more than a song; it’s an anthem that transcended music to become a cultural signifier of the era’s thirst for change and empowerment.

What’d I Say by Ray Charles (1959)

This late fifties, epochal track closed the gap between R&B and rock & roll and in many ways, reflects the adventurous spirit fostered by Atlantic Records. The song’s call-and-response structure, electrifying piano riffs, along with Charles’ expressive vocals showcase his pioneering role in shaping soul music.

Ray Charles' star on Hollywood Boulevard
JGKlein, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield (1968)

Dusty Springfield’s soulful hit captures the allure of forbidden love. Her evocative yet restrained vocals and the groovy melody make it a timeless classic, blending pop and soul with sophistication. Knowing when to give and when to take, Dusty allows the lyrics and the instrumentation their moment in the sun as she shows us that less is more.

Got to Get You Off My Mind by Solomon Burke (1965)

Backed ever so eloquently by The Sweet Inspirations (which included Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney), Solomon Burke’s emotive performance in this soul classic conveys heartbreak and resilience. The song’s blend of gospel and R&B, coupled with Burke’s powerful voice, means that this emotional response to the death of his friend Sam Cooke just oozes class and is a staple of any soul playlist.

Moving to albums, let’s start with The Exciting Wilson Pickett by Wilson Pickett from 1966. This, Pickett’s third album, is just ‘Wow!’ He demonstrates his soul through some quite superb performances. Powerful vocals and tight arrangements make this album a soul and R&B classic.

Obviously, tracks like In the Midnight Hour and Land of 1,000 Dances take the headlines, but some of the so-called lesser tracks like the Bobby Womack penned She’s So Good to Me also celebrate Pickett’s passion for his music. The Exciting Wilson Pickett is a fine collection of soul music and solidified Pickett’s reputation as a soul and R&B icon.

Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin (1968)

This album, featuring hits like Chain of Fools and Ain’t No Way, solidified Aretha’s status as the Queen of Soul, showcasing her ability to seamlessly blend gospel, R&B, and soul. Throughout the album, her emotional depth is evidenced through her choice of songs. Having written some of them, she also had a head start in infusing her own passion and emotion into them, but even songs she had no hand in crafting sound as if she owned them.

The scale of her dynamic range gives light to the emotions within each and every single song. She transitions flawlessly from gentle, heartfelt moments to powerful and soul-stirring crescendos. Additionally, there is a nuance to her delivery which allows listeners to experience the depth of each emotion.

Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin (1971)

Befitting its origins, Atlantic Records is often associated with jazz and soul. However, Led Zeppelin IV is a rock classic that can’t be ignored. The album includes timeless tracks like Stairway to Heaven and Black Dog, showcasing the band’s musical prowess and influence on the rock genre. With its iconic, blues-infused rock, haunting harmonica, and thunderous drums When the Levee Breaks is a sumptuous flexing of their musical muscles.

Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)

This is an iconic album which epitomises the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A seemingly harmonious blend of folk and rock elements, each member contributes their unique style – although creative tensions were always bubbling away under the surface.

Any of the tracks on the album, but Songs like Teach Your Children and the title track Déjà Vu in particular, could be lazily labelled timeless classics, highlighting the group’s vocal and instrumental prowess along with their songwriting depth. The album is a go-to of the folk-rock genre and remains a landmark in the careers of its members.

Close to the Edge by Yes (1972)

Regarded by many as a progressive rock masterpiece, Close to the Edge is characterized by its intricate musical arrangements, complex time signatures, and philosophical lyrics. The title track, inspired by JRR Tolkien and Jean Sibelius, and spanning over 18 minutes, is a progressive epic that showcases the band’s instrumental virtuosity. The album is a significant contribution to the progressive rock genre and is praised for its ambitious and adventurous musical journey.

Yes in concert, Indianapolis, 1977
Rick Dikeman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These vinyl records carry with them the legacy of analogue recording’s golden age, a warmth and presence often chased but seldom replicated in the digital era. For collectors, owning these examples of Atlantic Records vinyl is more than just accumulating possessions; it’s about preserving pieces of a rich musical tapestry for future generations to discover and cherish.

Atlantic Records has always understood the cultural and emotional investment that comes with music. As the industry evolved, the label adapted, yet it remained steadfast in protecting the essence of the Atlantic Sound. In the next section, we’ll explore the label’s position today – how it honours its illustrious past while continuing to influence the future of music.

Atlantic Records: Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future

Atlantic Records isn’t just a label; it’s a monumental chapter in the story of music. From the grooves of cherished vinyl to the streams of contemporary melodies, the Atlantic legacy is unmistakable. This powerhouse has not merely witnessed history; it has penned volumes, crafting the soundtrack to countless lives.

In an industry that’s constantly evolving, Atlantic has remained true to its core philosophy of musical excellence and artist development. The label has adapted to digital trends and streaming services while never losing sight of the rich, analogue warmth that vinyl records represent.

Today, Atlantic is as vibrant as ever, committed to discovering and promoting fresh talent. By balancing the iconic with the innovative, it offers a home to artists across a spectrum of genres, proving that its vision for the future is as clear and ambitious as it was at the dawn of rock and roll. Current Atlantic artists include Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Coldplay, Burna Boy, Meek Mill, Twenty One Pilots, Charlie Puth, Lil Uzi Vert, and Cardi B.

Looking forward, it’s evident Atlantic will continue to be an influential force. By honouring its storied past and boldly investing in the next wave of music-makers, Atlantic Records pledges to keep the turntables spinning and the hits coming, for generations to cherish and enjoy.

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