Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ahmet & Jerry's Gold

1. A Classy Trio

For the first two decades of its existence--just about up to the time Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler sold out to Warners in 1968--Atlantic was the world's greatest record company. This was an exceptionally classy trio of art entrepreneurs: two ruling-class bohemians (as scions of the Turkish ambassador to the U.S., dark-skinned ruling-class bohemians) and one garden-variety lower-middle-class bohemian (a college dropout who grew up just north of Harlem in Washington Heights). Their personal dedication to the best black music made a virtue of the company's modest size, and together with such subsidiaries as Atco and Stax-Volt it put out more first-rate pop product during that period than such giants as Columbia and RCA and maybe even Capitol, which had the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Nat King Cole and Nelson Riddle's Sinatra and a healthy country division going for it. Of course, until the middle '60s indie labels like Atlantic had a corner on rock and roll anyway, which means Atlantic's real competition was King and Motown. But Motown was of the '60s and (except for--a big except for--James Brown) King was of the '50s, and though both dealt in albums as well as singles, neither developed Atlantic's quality controls.

Also in 1968, Atlantic released the first four volumes of its History of Rhythm & Blues--an impressive keepsake of its autonomy as it entered the conglomerate era. Fourteen-cut single discs in one of the less disastrous variations of reprocessed stereo (which was thought back then to bestow modern status on the benighted era that had ended all of five years before), they were programmed by a character named Jukebox Jonny Meadow. Meadow was a stocky little guy in his late '20s who'd been in the biz since his early teens and hadn't changed his haircut since--with sideburns and Jewish Afros sprouting all over the Brill Building, he wore his blonde hair short and slicked back, to go with his skinny tie. He once boasted to me that he'd selected solely on the basis of commercial success, and though I'll never know why Volume 3 didn't include the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee," which went to 6 pop and 2 r&b, that album was like 45 minutes of Alan Freed rampant all over again and the other three were almost as satisfying. The next four, supervised by Atlantic publicity chief Bob Rolontz, a former Billboard r&b columnist like Jerry Wexler before him, appeared in 1969 and brought the story up to 1967. Musically, they were almost as good, even if I never played them much. In 1971 came the greatest prize of all: the Their Greatest Recordings series. Compiled by former Hit Parader editor Jim Delehant, these were 14-cut original-mono best-ofs by Atlantic's r&b masters: Joe Turner, Chuck Willis, LaVern Baker, the Clovers, the Coasters, and the Clyde McPhatter/Johnny Moore Drifters.

But at the same time the label's commitments were shifting. After Stax cut loose, Atlantic stayed soulful by taking on Clarence Carter and (briefly) Tyrone Davis, and connecting Wilson Pickett with Gamble & Huff, but it left funk to indies like Westbound and De-Lite and Original Sound, signing Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack instead. Aretha Franklin moved toward black pop as well, with mixed results. Jerry Wexler stuck with music. He tried to repeat 1969's Dusty in Memphis with Cher and Lulu and Jackie DeShannon, talked a lot about something called "swamp music," grabbed Willie Nelson and couldn't keep him. Ahmet and Nesuhi, meanwhile, turned into proper captains of multi-national finance. Atlantic's big moneymakers were Yes and ELP and especially Led Zeppelin. When James Brown dismantled King in 1971, Polydor got him. Atlantic's prestige acquisition was the Rolling Stones in 1972.

2. A Discophile's Nightmare

By the end of the '70s, there were those who considered Atlantic the schlockiest of all the major labels, and though the field was too thick with contenders for me to make such delicate distinctions, what had happened to its catalogue--and hence its history--certainly contributed to that impression. Volumes 7 and 8 were all that remained of History of Rhythm & Blues, the Coasters and the Drifters all that remained of Their Greatest Recordings. Only a few Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin albums were available domestically; Pickett and Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke and Booker T. were down to best-ofs; Joe Tex and Clarence Carter were out of the catalogue altogether. Gradually, even this remnant got whittled down. The 1982 Atlantic Deluxe series made a show of compensating, but in fact it was a catchall--the Coasters' Young Blood was a definitive compilation, the Professor Longhair a 1978 live double that happens to stands as one of Fess's finest recordings, the five-disc Ray Charles box a frustrating hodgepodge of jazz and r&b that didn't clarify why Charles had gained control of his work only to put it in cold storage, the Albert King drawn not from Stax but from the defunct Tomato label, whose former president ran Atlantic Deluxe. Meanwhile, facsimiles of many original Atlantic albums were turning a profit in Japan, and Americans were laying down $12 and even $15 for them in oldies shops.

Last October, things finally seemed to be changing. First Atlantic released six midline-priced soul best-ofs (all dated 1984, suggesting corporate foot-dragging, but what the hell). Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Booker T., and Joe Tex matched their '60s counterparts give or take one selection, while the Otis Redding was a newly conceived 12-cut compilation and the 12-cut Aretha Franklin included several tracks not on the 14-cut Aretha's Gold (1969)or the markedly inferior 14-cut Aretha's Greatest Hits (1974). A month later came Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974, a 14-record box also available on seven double-LPs, all but the last (and worst) 28-cut jobs that revised and expanded History of Rhythm & Blues. Great. About time. Except for a lot of big except fors.

The main service performed by the soul series is to call attention to the artists involved. Four of the corresponding late-'60s/early-'70s compilations are still in print, also at midline prices, and with some caveats each is preferred. The relentlessly magnificent Aretha's Gold tops this list. Her first Atlantic LP, I Never Loved a Man, is also readily available, its four duplications like a gift, while Aretha Now, Aretha Arrives, Spirit in the Dark, and many others have been missing for years. A '70s collections that included "Until You Come Back to Me," the one pop gem rescued by the new LP, might help make up for this national disgrace instead of compounding it. Worse still is 1985's The Best of Otis Redding; the in-print double-LP of precisely the same name, Atco SD 2-801 (compiled by Jerry Wexler's daughter Anita), delivers more of what its title advertises and unlike the 1985 disc doesn't overlap with Redding's gentle posthumous masterwork, the '80s-deleted Immortal Otis Redding (now available at Finyl Vinyl, like most of Redding's other fine albums, for $13 Japanese). The mono sound of The Best of Wilson Pickett is long overdue, but by including only one post-1967 cut it shortchanges the Wicked's range--although 1973's two-LP Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits still uses perceptibly inferior fake stereo on 10 early cuts, the ease of "She's Looking Good" and the tight wind of "Engine Number 9" and the definitive overstatement of "A Man and a Half" and the screaming intensity of the Duane Allman-supported "Hey Jude" compensate. Even more infuriating is The Best of Joe Tex, because the Texan's downhome do-unto-others (so much like his Navasota neighbor Mance Lipscomb's) is once again tonic and relevant in this era of moralistic bigotry. Unfortunately, the first time I heard the new record, the only available Atlantic Tex I know of, I wondered if it had been remastered through a pillow, and though subsequent listening taught me that boosting the volume improves its dull sound, it's my scratchy 1967 version I've been pulling out. The aural gap between the two Best of Sam & Dave albums now in better record stores is less dramatic, but I'd stick with the old one (Atlantic SD 8218) on the cover alone. And while Atlantic's new Booker T. is classic, it's not as adventurous as, if occasionally kitschier than, Greatest Hits on Stax, whose post-Atlantic catalogue is owned by Fantasy, a label that respects history.

After the Joe Tex debacle, I'm pleased to report that engineering is a plus on Atlantic Rhythm & Blues. The Drifters' "Money Honey," for instance, is rich and clear with no hint of added echo, preferable to any of the three other pressing I own, though even History's stereo sounds okay played mono. And except for Volume 7 (if I haven't joined the Flack & Hathaway cult by now, I never will), the music is fine--in 168 cuts there aren't more than a dozen clinkers, maybe fewer. Could even Motown put together a comparable showcase? Yet as I made my way through this remarkable corporate document I sensed something missing. This just wasn't how the music was meant to be heard.

3. Artists and Auteurs

Considering Atlantic's preeminence, it's striking that the three great black rock and roll stars of the '50s were all on other labels: the seminal originators Chuck Berry and Little Richard on Chess and Specialty, the ingratiating hitmaker Fats Domino on Imperial. Atlantic's two solo heroes of the decade, Joe Turner and Ray Charles, slot as rock and roll in the '50s sense only because they happened to be around at the time, and while the Drifters and the Coasters were bigger and probably better than the Moonglows or the Dominoes or the Five Royales, they were more brand names than groups--creatures of their label. Rock and roll's first studio perfectionists, Wexler and the Erteguns (and later Leiber & Stoller) exercised an artistic control unlike that of any other r&b producer--at least any who ended up with vital music. These were literate men whose songwriting stable prefigured Berry Gordy's, jazz fans who made sure their superb backing musicians stayed in tune and preferred to work with singers whose vocal equipment promised enduring careers--Wexler's disdain for street-corner groups is well-known. Also, nobody got cleaner, brighter, better balanced sound than Atlantic's master engineer Tom Dowd.

This helps explain why Atlantic's records sound so crisp and alive 30 years later, but make no mistake--like all studio perfectionists, Atlantic's producer-owners risked letting crisp squeeze out alive. The upside of the risk becomes vivid if you compare Chuck Willis 1951-56 on Okeh (compiled as My Story, which--to put Atlantic in context--Columbia killed less than two years after its 1980 release) with his 1956-58 work for Atlantic. The gospel-tinged blues ballads Willis wrote foreshadowed soul, but like many Atlantic artists he was a subtle singer. And if in the '50s the label's production style--which featured not only the sharp songwriting that was Willis's passion but also quickened tempos and just-right solos--were the difference between five hits in six years and eight hits in two, today they're the difference between music you appreciate and music you might play when your piece is done. Joe Turner made great music for lots of people, but unless you're one of those fuddy-duddies who's offended by the thought of a 46-year-old behemoth belting out something called "Teenage Letter" (though I'm glad it only happened once myself), you'll find him riding high on Atlantic's slightly hyped-up conventions: never before or since has his music jumped for joy like "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Flip, Flop and Fly," or "The Chicken and the Hawk." Such long-running Atlantic-only acts as the Clovers, Ruth Brown, and LaVern Baker also flourished under Ahmet and Jerry's customized attention.

The happy secret of Atlantic rhythm and blues was that the individuality of all its artists--in the case of the above five, all gifted vocalists but not (except for Turner) overflowing natural creators like Franklin or Redding or even Tex--was enhanced by their fond overseers. The sad secret of Atlantic Rhythm & Blues is that its careful semi-chronological programming--a typical side will go Turner-Chords-Ridgley-Baker-Baker-Charles-Charles, or Coasters-Bobbettes-Willis-Willis-Willis-Coasters-McPhatter--obscures this individuality. It renders these talented people generic, covers them with a tasteful layer of the very production style originally devised to make them shine. The raving geniuses of the soul period hold up better, but they've always had too much personality to fit comfortably into multiple-artist formats. And without Jonny Meadow's crass smashes-only philosophy to insure the never-ending up of the classic hits compilations, these records turn into more of a corporate document than producers Bob Porter and Aziz Goksel probably intended. So an astute rave like Davitt Sigerson's in Rolling Stone (published late enough to corroborate rather than inspire my own impressions) singles out Ahmet Ertegun as the music's auteur and wonders whether Joe Turner hasn't been a little overrated.

There's a simple solution. By my count, at least 124 of the 186 cuts on Atlantic Rhythm & Blues are by artists best encountered on their own compilations. In addition to the Coasters and the Soul Six, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and Ben E. King remain available domestically in this form, and after that, don't say Europe never done nothing for you. If the Clovers' Five Cool Cats (Edsel U.K.) isn't as consistently snazzy as Their Greatest Recordings, if it's impossible to understand why "Flip, Flop and Fly" was left off Joe Turner's rockin' Jumpin' With Joe (Charly U.K.), well, Chuck Willis's generous Keep a Drivin' (Charly U.K.) and LaVern Baker's unflaggingly novel Real Gone Gal (Charly U.K.) are superior to their long-lost U.S. equivalents, and Ruth Brown's Rockin' with Ruth (Charly U.K--skip Route 66's Sweet Baby of Mine) fills a perky blues niche that's been vacant for well over a decade. And though solo Clyde McPhatter and 1950 Professor Longhair are gone altogether, The Genius of Ray Charles is available as a French import if you're ready to go nine bucks a pop for a four-disc series; if not, settle for Charly's Tell the Truth.

I could quibble with these records, but that's really U.S. Atlantic's job--most of these artists could support respectable, seductive twofers. And if Atlantic's bottom liners riposte that oldies are no way to run a major record company, they'll have to tell me why so many of the wonderful jazz records Nesuhi Ertegun saw to in the '50s--crucial Coleman and Coltrane, total MJQ--have never disappeared, and why jazz-oriented efforts by Turner and Charles have shown up in the label's newly active jazz reissue program. I'm sure ease of distribution is a factor--the renascent jazz reissue market patronizes the same retailers who've always stocked Coleman and Coltrane and MJQ. By contrast, oldies marketing is a mess--shipping small quantities of product to catalogue stores like Tower and J&R and continually reservicing tiny shops requires the kind of specialized dedication that big corporations seem incapable of making cost-efficient. But I suspect that prestige also enters in--that however fond Atlantic's big men are of their r&b, they're actively proud of their jazz. Me, I love both, and wouldn't want to say which I think is more valuable. Supposedly, the function of art middlemen is to connect unique artists and needy audience, a function even more essential in the popular arts than in the status-conscious ones because the audience is bigger and less well-informed. If Atlantic is reluctant, there are certainly U.S. indies ready to cut the big label in on whatever change they can skim off the effort--Rhino, Solid Smoke, even Fantasy. It's a democratic job, but somebody has to do it.

Village Voice, Feb. 4, 1986