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Atlantic's blues beginnings

June 26, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

One of the great stories in pop history is how Elvis Presley and record producer Sam Phillips pretty much found the formula for rock 'n' roll by accident during a break in a recording session. But there's an equally classic, if less famous, tale behind Ahmet Ertegun's launching of historic Atlantic Records.

After borrowing $10,000 from the family dentist, Ertegun started Atlantic in 1947 in New York with fellow jazz and blues fan Herb Abramson, but the indie label didn't have a major hit until a lucky phone conversation two years later virtually handed it to them.

That hit, Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," is the cornerstone of a delightful new boxed set that showcases Atlantic's early blues recordings.

Produced by the insightful Billy Vera, the four-disc collection, "Atlantic Blues (1949-1970)," allows us to feel the energy and imagination of the Atlantic founders as they tried to turn their love of the blues into a thriving record company. Ultimately, the future of Atlantic and its sister labels rested more in the R&B, soul and rock created by such artists as Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Cream and the Drifters. However, the foundation of all that history lies in these tracks.

Various Artists

"Atlantic Blues (1949-1970)"

(Atlantic/Rhino Handmade)

The back story: The story about the lucky phone call goes back to the day in 1949 that Ertegun was talking to Atlantic's New Orleans distributor, who, on a good day, might order five or 10 copies of one of the label's latest singles, and it was no different this time.

But the distributor happened to mention that he was having trouble getting copies of a record on another small indie label that was selling like crazy: McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine." The distributor said he'd buy 30,000 copies if Ertegun could find them.

Ertegun had never heard of the record but did some research and learned it was made by a Decca Records employee on the side and shipped around to various small labels and distributors for cash.

Recognizing an opportunity, Ertegun and Abramson decided to record their own version of the song and send it to the New Orleans distributor. They tracked down McGhee, the younger brother of blues guitarist Brownie McGhee, and asked if he had a contract with the "Drinkin' Wine" label. "No, man, I never signed anything," the singer replied. "They gave me $75 and a couple of hot dogs."

So Ertegun re-recorded the song with McGhee, and it sold 700,000 copies, reaching No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 26 on the pop chart. The new set opens with that McGhee single and contains more than 75 others, mostly early blues recordings. It's the first release in a three-part, 60th anniversary series that will also focus on Atlantic's early steps into soul music (due in September) and vocal groups (later in the year). The emphasis will be on interesting overlooked recordings rather than simply the widely available hits.

Atlantic's blues attack was wide-ranging, including jump blues and boogie as well as piano-dominated and guitar-driven blues. The roster featured such familiar names as T-Bone Walker, Joe Turner, Professor Longhair and Ray Charles.

While you can feel Ertegun's love of the blues in most of the tracks, it takes a while for him to capture the rawer, more youthful and commercial sound of rival labels. It's amusing, for instance, to hear Ertegun, hoping to build on the success of "Drinkin' Wine," take McGhee back into the studio and try to recycle the hit's sound in something called "Drank Up All the Wine Last Night." But it didn't click.

Best of all, however, are the moments when you can sense Ertegun's joy in getting close to the style he wanted. One gem is Laurie Tate's wailing, high-energy vocal on "Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere," a ballad by the Joe Morris Blues Cavalcade that went to No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1950.

Equally exciting is Joe Turner's robust vocals on "Chains of Love" and, especially, the dynamic "TV Mama," the latter featuring a marvelous guitar solo by Elmore James and the classic line "She's my TV mama, one with the big, wide screen." Both were R&B hits and featured a passion and zest that caught young ears even though Turner himself was in his 40s.

Ertegun recognized with Turner that he was nearing his goal of a more commercial style. Four months after "TV Mama," Atlantic struck back with another Turner recording that turned out to be one of the most influential of all '50s rock tunes: "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

The latter isn't included in "Atlantic Blues," but it is a sample of the dividends that were to come from the music celebrated in this engaging set.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues and other historical pop music items.

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